UNHCR concerned by pushback reports, calls for protection of refugees and asylum-seekers

UNHCR

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, remains deeply concerned by an increasing number of credible reports indicating that men, women and children may have been informally returned to Turkey immediately after reaching Greek soil or territorial waters in recent months.

UNHCR firmly reiterates its call on Greece to refrain from such practices and to seriously investigate these reports, which include a series of credible and direct accounts that have been recorded by the UNHCR Office in Greece and have been brought to the attention of the responsible authorities. Given the nature, content, frequency, and consistency of these accounts, a proper investigation should be launched without further delay.

UNHCR fully respects the legitimate right of States to control their borders and recognizes the challenges posed by mixed migration movements at the external borders of the EU. However, States must guarantee and safeguard the rights of those seeking international protection in accordance with national, European and international law. Every individual has the right for their case to be heard and their protection needs assessed.

“Greece and its people have shown immense solidarity and compassion with thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers who have sought safety in the country since 2015,” said Philippe Leclerc, UNHCR Representative in Greece. “The numbers of refugee arrivals have significantly dropped since then but there are still people who continue to seek protection and asylum in Greece and in Europe,” he said.

“Safeguarding Greece’s borders and protecting refugees are not mutually exclusive. Both are and should be possible. This is not a dilemma but a balance that must be struck,” said Leclerc. “Otherwise, the consequences may be far-reaching and damaging: for the people whose lives and safety may be put at risk; for the upholding of fundamental principles of international and European law; for long-since recognized human rights norms and values, that may be irreparably undermined,” he added.

UNHCR is particularly concerned about the increasing reports, since March 2020, of alleged informal returns by sea of persons who, according to their own attestations or those of third persons, have disembarked on Greek shores and have thereafter been towed back to sea. Worryingly, UNHCR has also received reports and testimonies about people being left adrift at sea for a long time, often on unseaworthy and overcrowded dinghies, waiting to be rescued.

UNHCR has also called for further preventive measures against such practices, for clear rules of process at the border and internal monitoring mechanisms, including through the reinforcement of the role of the Greek Ombudsman.

Saving lives must be the first priority – both on land and at sea. UNHCR acknowledges the challenges faced by frontline states like Greece and calls on EU Member States to demonstrate their solidarity with Greece, particularly through the relocation of asylum-seekers.

Solutions can be achieved through combating smuggling, expanding legal options for migration, and ensuring that all those in need of protection have effective access to it. At the same time, the return of those who, after a formal assessment of their needs, are found not to be in need of international protection is also part of effective migration management and should be consistently addressed and supported.

The right to seek asylum is a fundamental human right. With concerted efforts and cooperation between all concerned states and the EU, managing borders can be achieved and protection concerns of refugees addressed.