European rights watchdog 'shocked and distressed' at migrant drownings

Nils Muižnieks says govt mush stick to promises to stop pushbacks

Operation off Farmakonisi islet appears to have been a 'failed collective expulsion' says the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner Nils Muižnieks

Monday's tragedy in which twelve migrants – among them children and woman – are known to have drowned or are missing during a coastguard operation was described as shocking and distressing on Wednesday by Europe's human rights watchdog, who added that it appeared to be a "failed collective expulsion".

A Hellenic Coastguard vessel (File photo) A Hellenic Coastguard vessel (File photo) "I am shocked and distressed by the new tragedy which occurred near Farmakonisi in which a number of migrants, including possible asylum seekers, have drowned or have gone missing in what appears to be a case of a failed collective expulsion," said the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, Nils Muižnieks, about the drownings near the islet of Farmakonisi in the eastern Aegean.

He said that the government must uphold their recent promise to halt the practice of pushing undocumented migrants into Turkish waters. 

"The Greek government has pledged last week to put an end to the illegal practice of collective expulsions and effectively investigate all such cases. I urge them to implement their promise," he said.

The boat capsized on Monday while being towed by the Greek coastguard, who spotted the vessel about 1.5 nautical miles off the coast of the small Dodecandese. The boat, which was carrying undocumented migrants, appeared to have stopped due to mechanical failure. While it was being towed by the coastguard, two people fell overboard in unclear circumstances, sparking panic on the vessel, which then capsized. 

Sixteen people were rescued. Two bodies were located by the Turkish authorities. 

On Wednesday, the coastguard denied it was pushing the vessel back into Turkish waters, insisting it was towing to the nearest island. It said winds of 5-6 Beaufort and waves of 1.2-2m high made it impossible to transfer the migrants to the coastguard boat, which experienced a fire in one of its engines. 

Muižnieks' comments come a day after the UN's refugee agency expressed its dismay at the incident.

"UNHCR is urging the authorities to investigate this incident and how lives were lost on a boat that was under tow," said Laurens Jolles, UNHCR's southern Europe regional representative. "Survivors need to be quickly moved to the mainland so that their needs can be better looked after," he added.

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