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Greek expulsions of Syrian and Palestinian asylum seekers must be investigated, says HRW

Greek authorities failed to take 'any precautions to prevent the risk of transmission of Covid-19', rights group says
HRW reviewed nine cases of migrants and ayslum seekers forcibly returned from Greece to Turkey.
HRW reviews nine cases of migrants and ayslum seekers forcibly returned from Greece to Turkey (AFP/File photo)

Greece forcibly returned asylum seekers and migrants who had arrived at land and sea borders with Turkey during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, and failed to take "any precautions to prevent the risk" of spreading the disease, Human Rights Watch reported.

The rights group said on Thursday that after it reviewed nine cases, interviewing 13 survivors and witnesses, it "found no evidence that [Greek] authorities took any precautions to prevent the risk of transmission of Covid-19".

"Greek authorities did not allow a nationwide lockdown to get in the way of a new wave of collective expulsions, including from deep inside Greek territory," said Eva Cosse, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"Instead of protecting the most vulnerable people in this time of global crisis, Greek authorities have targeted them in total breach of the right to seek asylum and in disregard for their health."

Six asylum seekers, from Syria, Palestine, and Iran, including a 15-year-old unaccompanied girl from Syria, described three incidents to the rights group in which the Greek coastguard, police and unidentified armed masked men coordinated and enforced returns to Turkey from three Greek islands: Rhodes, Samos, and Symi.

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Others interviewed by HRW described separate incidents in which police officers rounded up people in the Diavata camp for asylum seekers, located 400km from the land border with Turkey.

One individual - a 33-year-old Syrian using the pseudonym Marwan - said that on 8 March, the Greek coastguard engaged in life-threatening manoeuvres to force a small boat carrying him and 22 others back to Turkey.

"They started pushing back our boat, by creating waves in the water, making it hard for us to continue… It was like a battle - like living in Syria, we thought we were going to die," Marwan told HRW.

Additionally, Greek security forces stripped the migrants of their clothes, leaving them in either just their underwear or just a basic layer, and took their possessions, including personal identification documents, money, telephones, and bags, before pushing them back to Turkish waters.

The group of six told HRW they were picked up, placed on larger coastguard boats, and once they reached the maritime border, were forced onto small inflatable rescue rafts - with no motors - and left adrift.

According to HRW, Greece's actions violated multiple human rights laws, including the law against collective expulsion under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The findings add to a growing list of abuses collected by NGOs and media involving migrants being forcibly pushed back from Greece to Turkey, either by Greek law enforcement officers or unidentified masked men.

Last month, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reported that migrants were being arbitrarily arrested in Greece and pushed back to Turkey.