24 August 2020
In response to parliamentary questions, a German Defence Ministry official has admitted knowing that migrants and refugees have been pushed back to Turkey by the Greek authorities. Two incidents were observed by German naval vessels, but the fact that they did not intervene to halt the illegal deportations makes Germany equally culpable, says the MP who filed the questions. The admission comes after months of increased illegal deportations by Greece.
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Questions to the German government
At the end of July a German Left Party (Linke) MP, Andrej Hunko, asked the German government whether German naval crews deployed in the Aegean as part of the NATO operation 'Sea Guardian' had observed any illegal activity by Greek authorities or officials deployed on Frontex's Operation Poseidon.
Although the government previously declined to answer similar questions, citing concerns related to national security and international relations, this time a response was forthcoming.
Parliamentary State Secretary for the Defence Ministry Peter Tauber, of the Christian Democratic Union, informed Hunko that the German navy had witnessed two illegal deportations in recent months, and remarked that "the German government is in constant contact with the Greek government and draws attention to the applicable rules of international law."
Stepping up pushbacks during a pandemic
The German government's admission, which was published on 6 August, comes amidst reports that Greece has ramped up summary deportations in recent months, using the coronavirus pandemic as cover whilst intensifying a long-standing policy.
This has included taking people with the right to stay in Greece from their homes, forcing them onto boats, and then leaving them adrift at sea in life rafts with no engine or any other means of propulsion, as reported by Just Security and The New York Times.
According to The New York Times, Greece has left over 1000 people floating at sea in more than 30 separate expulsion operations in recent months.
Hunko: Greek government is violating human rights
Responding to Tauber, Hunko said in a statement that the EU needed to respond and the Frontex operation should be suspended. "The Aegean Sea is probably the best monitored section of the Mediterranean, Frontex alone uses a dozen ships there to ward off unwanted migration, while the Federal Police have two patrol boats and a helicopter," said the German MP.
He said that if the German authorities and Frontex claim not to have seen any pushbacks "then they have actively looked the other way," and called on the EU to "comment immediately on the incidents now documented by the German Government. The government in Athens is violating the European Convention on Human Rights. An interruption of the Frontex missions in Greece is unavoidable."
Frontex also admits knowing of a pushback
Separately, the Executive Director of Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, has admitted in written answers to questions from MEPs that it has recorded "a sighting of an incident by aerial surveillance where people were transferred on a rubber boat from a vessel and later on rescued by Turkish authorities," which would appear to be a way of saying that the agency recorded footage of the Greek authorities forcing people onto life rafts and leaving them adrift.
In the letter sent to MEPs on 24 July, Leggeri states that the pushback was recorded in a Frontex Serious Incident Report (SIR), but that after following it up with the Greek authorities, "it was ascertained that the Hellenic authorities had already launched an internal inquiry regarding this case," but "Frontex is not in a position to comment" on that inquiry.
European Commission: no powers to investigate
In response to questions from Statewatch on the German government's admission, a European Commission spokesperson said they were "not aware of any contact between the Commission and the Greek authorities specifically following the German statement."
Much as the German government said to Hunko, the spokesperson stated that the Commission is "in close contact with the Greek authorities," and referred to "the complex and difficult situation at the Greek-Turkish border, which concerns not only Greece but Europe as a whole."
The spokesperson continued: "The Commission has no powers to investigate alleged misconduct of Member States' law enforcement authorities. In this as in other cases, we expect national authorities to investigate with a view to establish the facts and appropriately follow up on any wrong-doing."
Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for Migration and Home Affairs, said in July that "it is time to consider if we also need to put in place a new mechanism to monitor and verify reports of pushbacks," although it is unclear if any such proposal will be included in the Commission's forthcoming 'Pact on Migration and Asylum', which is due to be published in September.
The UNHCR recently said it was "deeply concerned" by the growing number of reports of pushbacks from Greece, and called for "further preventive measures against such practices, for clear rules of process at the border and internal monitoring mechanisms, including through the reinforcement of the role of the Greek Ombudsman.
Note: this report was corrected on 27 August 2020. Peter Tauber is the Parliamentary State Secretary for the Defence Ministry, not the German Defence Minister, as originally reported.
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