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Greek ‘pushbacks’ brought to European court after child refugees ‘towed out to sea and abandoned in raft’

Two child asylum seekers were removed from a refugee camp in Greece, taken out to sea on a coastguard vessel and left alone to drift on a motor-less rubber dinghy, a legal complaint against Athens lodged in the European Court of Human Rights has alleged.

Turkish authorities found two Afghan teenagers, aged 15 and 16, paddling with their hands near Kusadasi on the Turkish coast on 9 September after the alleged “pushback” – the practice of forcibly turning those seeking asylum away from the border.

Their case marks the latest report of asylum seekers who have come ashore in search of sanctuary only to be allegedly placed back into boats and left adrift in the sea.

A complaint has since been lodged with the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of the younger of the pair, referred to as R to protect his identity, alleging the Greek state breached his human rights.

Greece has consistently denied it is involved in pushbacks, with Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi telling Greek media previous allegations were, “part of a broader fake news strategy promoted by Turkey, through certain non-government organisations and smuggler networks”.

However campaigners, NGOs and legal professionals have pointed to extensive evidence including photographic and video footage of refugees being returned to the sea in highly visible rescue equipment.

Lawyers say the pair arrived with 16 other Afghan asylum seekers on the Greek island of Samos on 18 September, having made their way from Turkey.

The group had arrived on a difficult-to-reach landing point and one asylum seeker, a pregnant woman, had been injured, leaving her unable to make the journey to the centre of the island – prompting the two boys to split off from those they had arrived with and find their way to a refugee camp 8km away in Vathi. Images seen by The Independent appear to show one of the boys standing above the town’s refugee processing centre as they approached from the surrounding countryside.

There they were offered food and a place to sleep by residents of the camp but were allegedly detained the following day after presenting themselves to officials, including a police officer, as they attempted to claim asylum.

Lawyers say the two boys were told they would be taken away to quarantine but instead were put into a car, taken to the port and boarded on to a coastguard vessel where they were handcuffed.

The children were then threatened and had their phones and personal belongings confiscated, before being driven out to sea and abandoned on a life raft with no means of propelling themselves, the case claims.

Niamh Keady-Tabbal, a researcher at the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) which has lodged the complaint on the teenager’s behalf, told The Independent. “This a systematic practice at this point. It began in March [2020] but it has just continued since then and it’s been very very extensively documented.”

She added: “Nobody knew where the applicant and the other unaccompanied minor were because people who had witnessed their arrival were told various other things, for example that they were in quarantine".

Lawyers argue the applicant had their right to life impinged, as well as the right of refugees not to be returned to places where they may be placed at risk. They also claim that their treatment, being abandoned at sea, amounts to torture.

“The applicant was subject to severe mental and physical suffering as a result of these deliberate actions”, Ms Keady-Tabbal added. “These pushbacks are used to send a message to future would-be asylum seekers that they shouldn’t attempt to exercise their rights to seek asylum in Greece”.

The question is when will enough be enough? How far are they willing to go? Because what I’m waiting for is to hear that 20 people have drowned from a life raft in the Aegean sea. That’s the worst case scenario.

Tommy Olsen, founder, Aegean Boat Report

The other 16 people who had landed on the island with them were also returned to the sea, according to NGO the Aegean Boat Report, which monitors and supports asylum seekers arriving in the area.

Tommy Olsen, who runs the group from Norway having spent several years volunteering on the Greek coast, was contacted by the group when they arrived as they attempted to get help. Messages between him and the asylum seekers seen by The Independent show them acknowledging a lifeboat from land before losing contact. They were found at sea the following day by the Turkish coastguard.

Mr Olsen said he believed the strategies deployed by the coastguard have worsened over time – with the approach of the government also worsening over the past year.

“In the beginning they only took the rubber boats at sea and stopped them,” he said. “But when people arrived on land they didn’t put them in something and drag them back.

“Now they are putting them in life rafts and dropping them off in the middle of the sea at night. They use rescue equipment to deport people. Usually we pick up people from life rafts, that’s what you do. You don’t put people in life rafts and leave them. It’s not normal behaviour.”

He added he believed the country was “pushing the boundaries” when it came to migrant deportations because of a lack of repercussions from the EU.

He said: “The question is when will enough be enough? How far are they willing to go? Because what I’m waiting for is to hear that 20 people have drowned from a life raft in the Aegean sea. That’s the worst-case scenario.”

Last month, representatives in Brussels urged European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson to address the issue after reports 13 asylum seekers – including three women and five children – were taken out of a camp in Lesbos by armed officers and returned to the sea.

The 8 MEPs to sign the letter told the commissioner: “Although both the European Commission and the respective member states have already been confronted with the accusations, we fail to notice any improvement. On the contrary: the accusations and reports of illegal pushbacks continue to increase.”

Reports across Europe including in Germany’s Der Spiegel have also claimed Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, may be involved in pushbacks. The EU’s anti-fraud watchdog OLAF launched a probe into the agency in mid-January over the allegations.

The Greek government has been approached for comment.

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