Aegean Sea a 'lawless space' for migrants as abuses soar: NGO

A rights group said that over 9,000 migrants in Greece's waters were "violently pushed back to Turkey" last year
A rights group said that over 9,000 migrants in Greece's waters were "violently pushed back to Turkey" last year LOUISA GOULIAMAKI AFP/File
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Athens (AFP)

There was an "unprecedented escalation" of human rights violations against migrants in the Aegean Sea last year, a campaign group said Friday, accusing Greece and the EU's border patrol agency Frontex of being behind a soaring number of illegal returns to Turkey.

Berlin-based Mare Liberum said it had documented 321 incidents from March to December 2020 in which over 9,000 people "were violently pushed back to Turkey and thus deprived of their right to asylum".

"Illegal pushbacks at Europe's external borders are not an unfamiliar phenomenon, but they have reached an entirely new dimension," the rights group said in a new report, describing the Aegean as a "lawless space" for migrants.

The report said that "besides the Greek Coast Guard as the main actor, the European border agency Frontex and ships under NATO command are also involved in these systematic and illegal expulsions".

The report was compiled in part by reconstructing pushbacks from the testimonies of witnesses who were themselves returned.

Frontex is taking on a greater frontline role in patrolling the EU's borders despite being under investigation by OLAF, the EU's independent corruption watchdog, over allegations of illegal pushbacks of migrants arriving in Greek waters from Turkey.

"These pushbacks are not isolated or extreme instances of European deterrence, but rather the current and everyday 'modus operandi' at the EU's external border," said Mare Liberum's Paul Hanewinkel, one of the authors of the report.

Mare Liberum called for "independent control instances, the clarification of all previous cases and the abolition of Frontex".

Since its election in 2019, Greece's conservative government has strongly prioritised "security" at its borders, adopting a strict migration policy.

Last month Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said Greece has reduced the flow of migrants last year by 80 percent "by applying effective policy".