Europe rights body worried by claims Greece ejects migrants

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Europe’s top human rights body has expressed “deep concern” at persistent allegations that Greek authorities have on several occasions illegally forced back migrants trying to clandestinely enter from neighboring Turkey.

In a letter to government officials in Athens, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović also voiced dismay that Greece’s reaction has been so far to “simply dismiss (the) allegations” despite “the overwhelming body of evidence that has been presented in recent years.”

In the letter made public Wednesday, Mijatović urged the Greek government “to put an end to these practices and to ensure that independent and effective investigations are carried out.”

Citing testimony from migrants in Turkey, human rights groups have repeatedly accused Greece of engaging in so-called pushbacks — a term that covers the prevention of people from entering the country to seek asylum, as well as the clandestine return to Turkey of people who have made it into Greece.

Athens denies the claims, and in their answer to Mijatović’s letter, government officials on Tuesday said that the allegations have so far proved “largely unsubstantiated.”

An independent investigation in Greece found last month that authorities have failed to adequately respond to pushback allegations.

In her letter dated May 3, Mijatović also said there had been an increase in “reported instances in which migrants who have reached the Eastern Aegean islands from Turkey by boat, and have sometimes even been registered as asylum-seekers, have been embarked on life-rafts by Greek officers and pushed back to Turkish waters.”

Greece came to the forefront of Europe’s immigration crisis in 2015, when more than a million refugees and migrants entered — mostly on smugglers’ boats from Turkey — on their way to more prosperous Western European countries.

Flows have since dropped drastically, particularly following the pandemic. But last year tensions with neighboring Turkey rose after Turkish authorities flung open the land border to thousands of migrants who headed towards Greece. Athens closed down the northeastern land border with Turkey and tightened patrols at sea, with the help of the European Union’s Frontex border agency — which has also been criticized over alleged pushbacks.

Under a 2016 agreement with the EU, Turkey undertook to stop migrants leaving its shores for the Greek islands in return for EU funding. The Council of Europe is not an EU institution.

Mijatović also urged Greece to improve living conditions at reception centers for asylum-seekers on the eastern Aegean Sea islands, which see most of the arrivals from Turkey.

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