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Investigation into alleged Greek coastguard abuse of migrants

Probe follows letter from Europe's top human rights watchdog

Ministers tell Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, that investigations have been launched into claims that Greek coastguard officials ill-treated migrants last year

A Hellenic Coastguard vessel (File photo) A Hellenic Coastguard vessel (File photo) An internal investigation has been ordered into a number of cases of alleged ill-treatment of migrants by Greek coastguard officials last Autumn, the government has told Europe's top human rights watchdog.

"The Hellenic Coastguard commandant has ordered the investigation of three distinct cases of alleged ill-treatment of third-country nationals by staff of the Hellenic Coastguard for the period between August and December 2013," Shipping Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis informed Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, on January 10.

In November, a German-based human rights organisation produced a report that said refugees attempting to enter Greece through the Aegean were being systematically, illegally and, in cases, brutally pushed back by the Greek authorities, in contravention of international law and with the complicity of the European authorities. Amnesty International has also raised its concerns about the same issue.

Muižnieks, who raised the claims made in the reports last month in a letter (pdf) to Varvitsiotis and his public order colleague, Nikos Dendias, on Tuesday greeted the written replies from the ministers.

"I therefore welcome as a first positive step the Greek authorities’ ongoing investigations on push-backs and alleged ill-treatment of migrants, as well as their commitment to share with me the outcome of these investigations," he said in a statement.

The human rights commissioner had told the ministers that Greece must end the practise of collectively expelling migrants, including Syrians fleeing war and violence in their country, and must investigate a number of incidents of alleged human rights violations on its border.

"The large number of reported collective expulsions by Greece of migrants, including a large number of Syrians fleeing war violence, and allegations of ill-treatment of migrants by members of the coastguard and of the border police raise serious human rights concerns," he wrote in December.

He called on the two ministers "to carry out effective investigations into all recorded incidents and take all necessary measures in order to end and prevent recurrence of such practices".

'Professional ethics'

Nils Muižnieks, human rights commissioner at the Council of Europe Nils Muižnieks, human rights commissioner at the Council of Europe In his reply (pdf), Varvitsiotis also underlined the role that the coastguard play in providing "emergency humanitarian assistance" to migrants arriving by sea at eastern Aegean islands.

He said the practices and behaviours described in recent reports "run against the professional ethics and the internal orders of the Hellenic Coastguard and are in stark violation of national, union and international applicable legislation.

"Any report alleging misbehaviour or malpractice by or on behalf of a Hellenic Coastguard member against any citizen whatsoever is thoroughly and expeditiously investigated."

In his comparatively vague response to the commissioner, Dendias said that "every such case" of "allegations for unproceed [sic] returns to Turkey through the Evros river ('push backs')" and "ill-treatment of intercepted illegal migrants" is being investigated by the Hellenic Police", adding that if the investigations uncover any "substantial evidence", then "appropriate penal and disciplinary measures will be imposed".

He underlined that the "practices and procedures" recorded in the reports "are totally unacceptable and prohibited by the national legal framework, as well as the internal orders and the ethics of the Hellenic Police".

Obligations

Publishing his letter and the ministers' replies on Tuesday, Muižnieks said that while he noted the recent adoption of legislative measures aimed at protecting migrants’ - including minors’ - access to health and social care in initial reception centres, the "collective expulsions of foreign nationals violate international and European human rights law and raise very serious issues of compatibility with the fundamental principle of non-refoulement, enshrined in the UN refugee convention, by which Greece is bound".

"In addition to being incompatible with international human rights and refugee law, collective expulsions of migrants are also ineffective, given that people facing desperate situations cannot really be prevented from migrating," he added.

He said that if Greece is to uphold its human rights obligations, then it "has to radically change its migration policy and practice".

"This is all the more necessary now that Greece has taken on additional responsibilities by holding the presidency of the Council of the European Union. I therefore welcome as a first positive step the Greek authorities’ ongoing investigations on push-backs and alleged ill-treatment of migrants, as well as their commitment to share with me the outcome of these investigations."

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Council of Europe
Nikos Dendias
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Related files
Letter from Nils Muižnieks to ministers, 5 December 2013 - 427 KB
Reply from ministers to Nils Muižnieks - 242 KB
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