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Greece: People on the Move Caught in Deadly Greek-Turkish Stand-off, Government Attempts to Hide Lack of Access to Asylum Procedures, EU-Funded “Prison Structures” Face Local Opposition

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While Greece and Turkey continue their stand-off in the Evros region the death toll of people on the move in the region continues to mount, as does evidence of systematic violent pushbacks. The Greek government has misused statistics in an attempt to cover up the lack of access to asylum procedures for people arriving on the mainland. Massive protests have challenged the government narrative on "prison structures" in the Aegean hotspots that are funded with hundreds of millions of euro from the EU.

Reportedly, the frozen dead bodies of 11 people were recovered by Turkish authorities near the Greek border on 2 January. Another person was found with frostbites and later died in hospital. According to Turkish authorities the deceased belonged to a group of 22 people who were left "without shoes and stripped of their clothes" by Greek authorities before being pushed back. The Turkish interior minister, Süleyman Soylu, called the EU "remediless, weak and void of humane feelings" and referred to Greek border units as "thugs". Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarachi, rejected the Turkish reports as "false propaganda", stating: "These migrants never made it to the border. Any suggestion they did, or indeed were pushed back into Turkey is utter nonsense". European Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson however expressed shock over the reports, and while attending a meeting of EU interior ministers in France, stated: "We have the Greek minister here, I will raise it with him and ask for clarification on this. This needs to be investigated of course". Greece and Turkey have also been engaged in a stand-off over a group of 29 people -- 25 Syrians and four Turks -- at their common border in the Evros region. The group, which included five children, were stuck on a tiny islet between 19 and 23 January in freezing temperatures. Reportedly, Greek police initially left the group on the islet on 19 January after intercepting them at the Greek Evros bank. Reportedly, police then returned to the islet the next day and reported to UNHCR that no one was found. According to the group however, the police did in fact meet them and told them they were unwelcome in Greece and had to return to Turkey. According to an audio testimony from one of the group, on 22 January, Turkish border guards arrived on the islet and beat them violently when realizing there were Turks among them. According to the source, a 33-year old Syrian suffering from severe health problems died as a result. After the incident the group was taken to Turkey and detained. However, 28 members of the group were again left on an islet in the Evros river by Turkish authorities on 30 January, from where they were picked up by Greek authorities on 1 February and taken to Orestiada police headquarters.

Based on mounting evidence, Are You Syrious (AYS) summaries the violent pushback tactics of authorities in northern Greece, usually including: "beating (with batons/hands/other), kicking, insulting, forcing to undress, destruction of personal belongings, theft of personal belongings, reckless driving, being forced to jump into deep water. People also experience detention, theft of personal belongings, beating, denial of medical assistance, forced to undress". The Aegean Boat Report has documented the pushback of 40 people, including 15 children, in the Northern Aegean on January 24 by the Hellenic Coast Guard. The group was later rescued by the Turkish coast guard from two life rafts at drift off Turkey. On 2 February a complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee was filed on behalf of an Iranian woman over multiple violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). According to the European Center for Constitutional and human Rights (ECCHR) the woman was: "Severely beaten, secretly detained and forcibly returned from Greece six times" and "Her case exposes the systematic Greek practice of push-backs owing to digital evidence she was able to preserve from inside detention and at the border which was analyzed as part of a Forensic Architecture investigation".

Following the introduction of a new system in November 2021, all asylum applicants appearing on the mainland, Rhodes and Crete (and not passing through existing hotspots on the Aegean islands or the Evros outpost), are obliged to go to two facilities in northern and southern Greece to register their claim while in detention. This has effectively cut off access to procedures for many people who, according to AYS, are faced with few options: either they hand themselves in at a police station on the mainland and face pre-removal or prolonged detention, or they go to the Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) in Fylakio which only has capacity for 282 people. According to AYS: "Here they may turn you away or start a pushback procedure before you even arrive, or it may be a stop during a pushback after the police have picked you up". In response to an article by the Greek outlet Efsyn, the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum claims access is still available to the majority of people arriving on the mainland. However, this claim is based the misuse of statistics. Pointing to the lodging of 3,975 claims, the ministry fails to acknowledge that this total includes requests made on the Aegean islands and by other groups explicitly exempted from the new system. These include unaccompanied children, other vulnerable groups as well as people in administrative detention, and people in possession of an official note from the Greek police. Efsyn states: "This is not the first time that the political leadership of the Ministry of Migration and Asylum has treated data and statistics in a way that serves its purposes, obscuring reality and creating confusion". The Mobile Info Team that recently reported on the dire consequences of the new policy and deemed it a strategy of "control and containment". According to the organisation: "An increasing number of people have been entering Greece via the mainland over the past six years with 2021 being the first year that more people entered Greece via the mainland than the sea (53%). Our projected impact analysis forecasts that Greece would need to register between 30,160 and 44,000 people annually on the mainland alone".

According to Refugee Support Aegean (RSA), the establishment of closed controlled facilities in the hotspots on the Aegean islands of Leros, Lesvos, Kos, Chios and Samos is being seriously challenged at local level. Defining the facilities -- funded by more than 260 million euro from the EU -- as "prison structures", the organisation points to: "Legal disputes, dozens of decisions of political groups, bodies and mass peaceful demonstrations" that "unite people across different political positions once again against the government policy and the EU's dictates for "superstructures" on the Eastern Aegean islands". A resident from Lesvos participating in a protest told RSA: "The island cannot bear another camp. Islands are not prisons".

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