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ATHENS, Nov 20 2013 (IPS) - Human rights groups have circulated evidence in the last few days indicating that Greece, Italy and Egypt illegally detain and push back Syrian refugees.
The reports were issued by the German refugee aid organisation Pro Asyl, Medici per i Diritti Umani – MEDU (Doctors for Human Rights – Italy), the Italian human rights lawyers Association for Legal Studies on Migration (ASGI), and Human Rights Watch
The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, has also expressed worries about serious indications of violations of the non-refoulement principle in international law – which means that nobody should be sent to a country where he or she will be at risk of persecution – in Cyprus, Bulgaria and Greece.
On Nov.19, the European Commission publicly warned Greece and Bulgaria that turning Syrian refugees back at the border is illegal.
Pro Asyl circulated a detailed report on Nov. 7 based on interviews with 90 people who claimed to have been pushed back by the Greek security services since October 2012. The interviews were carried out between October 2012 and September 2013 in Germany, Greece and Turkey.
Most of the victims are refugees from Syria, but the interviewees also included people from Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea, who are likely to be persons in need of international protection.
The violations of international law and denial of refugee rights appear to be organised and systematic and to take place in undercover operations. Based on interviews with eyewitnesses, Pro Asyl estimates that up to 2,000 refugees might have been turned back in the space of a year without being given the opportunity to request international protection or to challenge their illegal removal.
In many cases, the victims described how members of the security forces – sometimes wearing masks – pushed them back at gunpoint, seizing their belongings and often mistreating them.
The organisation claims that in the case of nine Syrian males turned back from the island of Farmakonisi, the refugees were held incommunicado and were beaten to an extent that could amount to torture.
“Until now there has been no response from the Greek government to the accusations,” Karl Kopp, Pro Asyl’s director of European affairs, told IPS. “The EU, Frontex [the EU border agency], and the governments of Germany and other countries also don’t acknowledge their complicity in this human rights scandal.
“The EU demanded and financed measures to deter refugees in the Evros and Aegean regions [in Greece]. Frontex operates in basically all areas where push-backs take place,” Kopp said.
On Nov. 12, the UNHCR requested clarification from the Greek government regarding strong evidence suggesting it had organised a massive push-back of 150 Syrians that day, including many families with children.
UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said in Geneva that “UNHCR received information from villagers of the group being detained and transported in police vehicles to an unknown location, although they have not been transferred to a reception centre. Their current whereabouts is unknown to us.” The agency asked the Greek authorities to investigate their fate.
The refugees crossed into Greece across the northeast border of Evros in the early hours of the morning that day, before they were apprehended by police. A UNHCR team visited the site that evening.
On Nov. 13, MEDU and ASGI published their own report denouncing push-backs of Syrians to Greece from Italian ports. From April to September this year, interviews were carried out with 66 young people who were turned back after their attempt to reach Italy, and 102 illegal returns were registered this way by MEDU.
Loredana Leo, a lawyer who belongs to ASGI, told IPS that most of the people in question were asylum-seekers.
“When they arrived to the Italian harbours after a risky journey, most of them were unable to declare their age or request international protection due to the lack of translators; some of them suffered violence at the hands of the Italian authorities and most of them were not identified.”
In the next few days, ASGI is preparing to take Italy and Greece to the European Court of Human Rights, according to Leo, “for violations of the European Convention on Human Rights”.
Human Rights Watch also warned this month about the policy of detention and coercive returns of refugees that the Egyptian government appears to have put in place.
Up to 1,500 refugees from Syria, including at least 400 Palestinians and 250 children as young as two months old, have been locked up for weeks and sometimes months in Egypt. HRW said the refugees are held indefinitely until they are deported.
The U.S.-based rights watchdog also deplored that authorities advise refugees to leave the country, telling them that their only way to avoid detention is to return to Lebanon or Syria.
According to the organisation “more than 1,200 of the detained refugees, including about 200 Palestinians, have been coerced to depart, including dozens who have returned to Syria.”
The UNHCR is calling for a global moratorium on any return of Syrians to neighbouring countries.
Egyptian authorities estimate 300,000 Syrians are in Egypt, with 125,000 of them registered with the UNHCR. And there are an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria currently in Egypt, according to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA).
“Egypt is leaving hundreds of Palestinians from Syria with no protection from Syria’s killing fields except indefinite detention in miserable conditions,” said Joe Stork, HRW deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Egypt should immediately release those being held and allow UNHCR to give them the protection they are due under international law.”
The reports on the unlawful detention and deportation of Syrian refugees have appeared at a time of dramatically deteriorating conditions for displaced people in Syria and neighbouring countries.
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