Pushbacks from Greece to Turkey: Ombudsman's report highlights obstruction of investigations


As part of an ongoing investigation into pushbacks of migrants and refugees from Greece to Turkey, the Greek Ombudsman has issued an interim report summarising the cases examined so far and the response - or lack thereof - of the authorities.

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Between June 2017 and the end of 2020, 21 investigations into allegations of pushbacks were opened by the Ombudsman's office, in the framework of either the Ombudsman's general mandate or the National Mechanism for the Investigation of Arbitrary Incidents.

Replies from the police concerning the Ombudsman's own investigations generally included a standard set of information (emphasis added):

"...the local police directorates noted that no evidence or indications emerged to confirm the allegations or to provide at least the necessary basis for a formal internal investigation for human rights violations by acts or omissions of police officers [footnote: Only very few cases were formally investigated and the findings did not offer any different conclusion.] ...The police attributed the allegations for pushbacks to traffickers and unidentified individuals aiming to destabilise the operational capacities of the Greek authorities."

The interim report also looks at the response of the authorities to complaints and publications issued by human rights organisations and press outlets, and finds it to have been uniformly insufficient (emphasis added):

"...the competent police services, in most cases, responded to the complaints of third country nationals and of civil society organisations regarding illegal pushbacks, by way of sending them a formal and more or less standardised letter. In that letter, the general legal and institutional framework was outlined, making particular reference to the mandate of the police and the framework of cooperation in the border area with European agencies. A standard paragraph followed that there was no indication of wrongdoing on the part of the police officers on the ground and that the complaints about pushbacks are likely to come from traffickers aiming to compromise the operational capabilities of the police. The letter concluded that the police are performing their duties with full and unconditional respect to human rights."

Watch Greek Ombudsman Andreas Pottakis discuss the discuss the creation of the Nafplio Initiative, an independent mechanism for the external monitoring of forced returns by the EU, in this Statewatch webinar

The police story is, essentially, that they are victims of a nefarious, coordinated plot launched by a cabal of sinister individuals seeking to undermine the legitimate actions of the authorities.

As the Ombudsman's report sets out, the situation is in fact the reverse: people seeking international protection are victims of coordinated acts of violence seeking to undermine their legal right to seek asylum.

The police practice of sending standardised denials to those seeking further information on alleged illegal activity extends beyond responses to NGOs and institutions such as the Ombudsman. When Frontex director Fabrice Leggeri wrote to the Greek authorities to inquire about the possibility of involvement in pushbacks in the Aegean, he too received a more-or-less standardised response (the letters are available here).

As Leggeri later explained to MEPs, he chose not to inquire any further - and in any case he had already assured the Greek authorities that Frontex would "continue to provide Greece in the frontline of migration with my support while ensuring good cooperation to effectively protect the human rights of those at sea."

Nevertheless, while there is overwhelming evidence against the Greek authorities (and, as the report mentions, potentially officials of other EU member states):

"The Ombudsman has not been equipped by law with the necessary statutory tools and means to investigate effectively and comprehensively the factual basis of the complaints, in order to reach a definite conclusion regarding possible wrongdoings by officers or other state agents on the ground."

The report therefore concludes by demanding that the police do the job that is required of them and carry out thorough and effective investigations into the allegations of pushbacks, and the violence used to enact them:

"...the Ombudsman submits the following proposals:

• The Greek police to investigate formally those allegations of pushbacks not formally investigated, especially those involving third country nationals already registered in Greece or whose presence in the country was otherwise recorded; to publicise within a reasonable timeframe the findings of the said investigations with specific reference to each alleged incident.

• The Greek police to develop a specific and detailed operational plan to effectively address the possibility of private groups or militias engaged in illegal pushbacks of foreign nationals in the area of Evros river and to effectively protect foreign nationals who enter Greece by any means, to seek international protection; and to inform/train accordingly the police officers."

See the report: Alleged pushbacks to Turkey of foreign nationals who had arrived in Greece seeking international protection (pdf):

"This interim report on alleged pushbacks of third-country nationals to Turkey provides a brief, concise overview of the Ombudsman's own-initiative inquiry from the summer of 2017 through the end of 2020. It sets out the scope of the inquiry, presents key aspects of the reported incidents, records the handling of the allegations by the Administration and makes proposals, in the direction of shielding legality, enhancing transparency, ensuring full respect for the principles of the rule of law. The Ombudsman's investigation continues."

Find more of our coverage of the ongoing pushbacks scandals at Europe's borders in the Statewatch Database

Image: Peter Reed, CC BY-SA 2.0

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