EU: Greece accused of undertaking illegal 'push-back' operations, Maltese Prime Minister says they are an option


According to a new report by Amnesty International, "people's lives are frequently put at risk by the actions of the Greek border guard and coastguard while carrying out push-back operations along the border with Turkey."

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Although push-backs are prohibited under international and domestic law, testimony collected by Amnesty from a sample of almost 80 migrants suggests that there is "roughly one such incident a week". [1]

Amnesty's report comes just days after Malta's Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, "reaffirmed his government's position not to exclude the controversial push-backs of migrants at sea." [2]

Muscat left open the possibility of the Maltese authorities engaging in push-backs despite acknowledging that the practice, which has in the past been employed by the Italian government, was found to be illegal by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Hirsi Jamaa and others v. Italy. [3]

He has not said when the policy will be put into practice, but that he is "being clear that we are not excluding push-backs" being used to prevent what he has called "illegal immigrants" from reaching Maltese territory. [4]

Muscat's statements led to fierce responses from NGOs and the UNHCR. A number of charities working in Malta issued a joint statement that referred to a judgement from the Maltese Court of Appeal in 2004:

"As the court makes clear, every single person, whether or not she enters the country legally, must be protected from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, for the simple reason that she is a human being and has fundamental rights that cannot be denied.

"The judgement illustrates that failure to offer this protection can have devastating consequences: of the six migrants returned to Libya in 2004 only two made it back to Malta. The rest died in the desert when they were deported to the Libyan border after months of imprisonment in terrible conditions." [5]

The UNHCR noted that push-backs "would constitute a breach of international law," [6] while one Maltese MEP, Roberta Metsola, accused Muscat of "fanning the flames of racism". Metsola suggested that were he still an MEP, Muscat "would find himself most comfortable within the far right fringes of the European Parliament." [7]

Amnesty's report contains a number of stories from migrants in which they make serious claims about the actions of the Greek authorities.

Small, unseaworthy and overcrowded vessels are frequently used to travel from Turkey to Greece, and one woman interviewed by Amnesty claimed that "their boat was rammed by the Greek coastguard near Agathonisi island, when the coastguard steered their boat towards theirs to scare them off to go back to Turkey. In the chaos, [her] four-year old daughter fell into the sea," and had to be rescued by a Greek policeman.

Other interviewees recounted how during push back operations, Greek officials left their hands tied up even after they were taken to Turkish territory and subsequently abandoned. Amnesty says that these and other allegations "demonstrate a blatant disregard for life, but also include ill-treatment, the confiscation of property, and the failure to screen and identify those with protection or other needs, such as unaccompanied children."

Further reading


[1] Amnesty International, Frontier Europe: Human rights abuses on Greece's border with Turkey, Amnesty International, July 2013
[2] Miram Dalli, Joseph Muscat rattles EU cage on pushbacks, Malta Today, 6 July 2013
[3] Judgment, Case of Hirsi Jamaa and others v. Italy, European Court of Human Rights, 23 February 2012
[4] Joseph Muscat phones EU president to demand solidarity on migrants, Times of Malta, 4 July 2013
[5] Returning migrants to Libya 'could threaten their lives' - NGOs, Times of Malta, 5 July 2013
[6] Migrants’ push-back not an option - UNHCR, Malta Independent, 4 July 2013
[7] Jacob Borg, MEP accuses PM of far right sentiments and fanning racism, Malta Independent

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