On 12 April 2020, the Legal Centre Lesvos (LCL) filed a new complaint before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) regarding “pushback” operations in the Aegean Region by the Hellenic Coast Guard. In the present case, LCL’ lawyer represents 11 Syrian nationals who were part of a group of 180-200 people violently expelled from Greece to Turkey on 20-21 October 2020.
The case was reported on social media at the time and includes extensive evidence corroborating survivors’ testimonies, such as GPS locations, media reports, photographs and video footage. The 11 who are bringing this litigation to the ECtHR were part of a group of between 180 to 200 migrants, including at least 40 children and one pregnant woman, who Greek authorities collectively expelled to Turkey in a violent and massive coordinated operation carried out for over more than 24 hours in the Mediterranean Sea, and involving multiple vessels of the Hellenic Coast Guard including one Search and Rescue vessel. The group was navigating on board a fishing boat, with the intention of seeking asylum in Italy when they fell into distress at sea on the morning of 20 October 2020, near the island of Crete, prompting them to request assistance from the Greek authorities and the UNHCR. Under instruction of the Hellenic Coast Guard, they entered Greek territorial waters, and with the promise of being rescued they waited there for over five hours. As shown in video footage, far from being rescued or provided with food, water or safety equipment, the group was instead violently attacked, by surprise, at night, by masked ‘Commandos’ in black uniform without insignia, operating from Hellenic Coast Guard vessels, who assaulted them, stole their belongings, and threatened them with further violence if they attempted to return to Greece. The group was then forcibly transferred to two different Hellenic Coast Guard vessels on which they were forced to spend the night outdoors, without food, water or any assistance, before being abandoned on 21 October on various motorless, unseaworthy, life rafts near the Turkish Coast.
LCL argued in the present case that Greek authorities who perpetrated the collective expulsion violated the 11 individuals’ right to life under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), their right to be free from torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under Article 3 ECHR, their right to liberty and security under Article 5 ECHR, and their right to effective remedy and non refoulement under Articles 3 and 13 ECHR.
This complaint is the fifth legal action filed by the LCL against Greece before the ECtHR concerning extensively evidenced incidents of collective expulsions in the Aegean region. In each case, migrants who had arrived to Greece with the intention to seek asylum, were instead met with violence, humiliation, and torture at the hands of Greek authorities, eventually being abandoned at sea without means to stay safe or to call for rescue.
Particularly striking in this case is the insidious and apparently premeditated nature of the collective expulsion. The Greek authorities repeatedly lied to the passengers of the fishing boat - who were in a vulnerable state of distress after surviving a storm and losing their supplies overboard - intentionally and repeatedly misleading them into believing they would be rescued, and instead attacked and collectively expelled them to Turkey.
The number of staff, vessels, equipment and coordination mobilised during this incident is also extraordinary in that at least 5 official vessels of the Hellenic Coast Guard, 4 to 5 speed boats and RHIBs and 7 life rafts were deployed near Crete and carried out the pushback operation, in which approximately 200 people were transported over 200 km from the coast of Crete back to Turkish territorial water in two separate operations.
As already highlighted by LCL and several other monitoring and human rights groups, the illegal acts committed by Greek authorities in this case are not isolated and instead form part of an ongoing systemic and widespread practice implemented by the Greek authorities over the last year (in particular since March 2020), which amounts to a crime against humanity. Despite extensive evidence, reports, investigations and denunciations at both national and international levels, the Greek authorities continue to deny that pushbacks are taking place.
Greece is one of the few European countries that has not explicitly prohibited collective expulsions, and Greece’s legal system does not provide adequate criminal remedy to redress the gravity of the international and human rights law violations entailed in collective expulsions, much less the political interest to seriously investigate these crimes. The ECtHR has thus become a court of last resort for a growing number of survivors. The ECtHR timelines mean that it could take years for such applications to even be considered, while the individualised character of human rights violations as adjudicated at the ECtHR normally fail to capture the systematic nature of collective expulsions. However, in the current context of absolute impunity for these atrocity crimes it is worth pursuing all remedies available for pushback survivors. This does not change the fact that meaningful justice for survivors of collective expulsions must include safe and legal routes to Europe, and a decisive end to fortress Europe’s border regime of deterrence at any human cost, which has as its logical endpoint the spectacular violence of pushbacks such as this one.
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