Greece accused of ‘biggest pushback in years’ of stricken refugee ship

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It was hailed arsenic the biggest search-and-rescue cognition successful the eastbound Mediterranean for a decade. But the bid to prevention hundreds of refugees connected a stricken vessel successful the Aegean Sea has led to allegations that the cognition bore each the hallmarks of an amerciable pushback earlier the Greek coastguard was forced to alteration tactics.

Only days aft 382 asylum seekers disembarked connected the land of Kos, disapproval has mounted implicit their “unnecessarily prolonged” ordeal astatine sea.

Dr Apostolos Veizis, who heads the humanitarian assistance organisation Intersos Hellas, said: “These were men, women and children seeking extortion and they should person been taken to a harmless larboard aft the vas sent retired a distress signal.

“The nearest larboard was conscionable a fewer miles away. Instead, they were kept connected the vas for 4 days, an unnecessarily prolonged play without entree to basal services.”

The Turkish-flagged Murat 729 had been heading for Italy erstwhile it ran into motor occupation disconnected Crete and issued a mayday telephone connected 28 October.

Onboard the vessel were Pakistanis, Afghans, Bangladeshis, Syrians, Iranians and Lebanese – the biggest azygous influx of asylum seekers successful years – taking a way that has go progressively fashionable for Europe-bound refugees. More than 100 vessels, ranging from yachts to decommissioned cargo ships specified arsenic the Murat, are thought to person traversed the oversea southbound of Crete this year.

By 8.30am that day, Tommy Olsen, who runs Aegean Boat Report, a Norwegian NGO that monitors radical question successful the area, had received the archetypal pictures and videos from passengers asking for help.

“You could spot the vessel drifting disconnected the land and a Hellenic coastguard patrol alongside it,” helium told the Guardian from his location successful Tromsø, northbound of the Arctic Circle. “It was packed with radical and the shores of Crete were intelligibly visible.”

What puzzled Olsen, who claims to beryllium contacted by radical successful distress – “the victims of pushbacks” helium says – up to 10 times a week, was the refusal of section authorities to judge they had located the vessel.

“Why Greek officials would importune they had not recovered the vessel and past statesman towing it distant from Crete seemed precise strange,” added Olsen, a seasoned of migrant solidarity enactment connected frontline Aegean islands. “It instantly made maine deliberation that what we were successful information seeing was not conscionable different pushback but the biggest pushback successful years.”

Hauled successful the absorption of Turkey, the stricken vessel spent the adjacent 3 days being dragged crossed the precocious seas by the Greek coastguard.

“Every hr I’d get the boat’s geo-locations and you could spot it going backmost and forth,” helium said. “From 2pm connected Thursday until the aboriginal hours of Sunday erstwhile the passengers were permitted to disembark it travelled 500km [300 miles]. All that clip radical were sending messages that they weren’t adjacent being fixed h2o and that immoderate were precise sick.”

Greek authorities archetypal acknowledged the Murat connected Friday 29 October,saying it was successful planetary waters disconnected Crete and that Athens had appealed to Turkey to instrumentality it back.

The freighter’s quality had travel against a backdrop of escalating tensions betwixt the 2 countries implicit irregular migrant flows.

Friction has risen arsenic boats carrying migrants and refugees person acceptable out, reportedly unhindered, from the Turkish seashore contempt Ankara agreeing to forestall amerciable flows nether a deal with the EU successful 2016.

Since March 2020, erstwhile Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, encouraged thousands of migrants to participate Greece – triggering a crisis that would spot the EU scramble to reenforce its onshore and oversea borders – the Aegean has allegedly go a theatre for pushbacks, with quality rights groups claiming that thousands person been forcibly moved into Turkish waters earlier getting the accidental to use for asylum.

“What is of peculiar interest successful this lawsuit is that the authorities was attempting to instrumentality radical who wanted to question asylum successful Greece earlier an asylum process had taken place,” said Minos Mouzourakis astatine Refugee Support Aegean, an NGO offering ineligible assistance to refugees and asylum seekers. “That is simply a breach of EU instrumentality and cardinal rights.”

Pushbacks were among the issues astatine the apical of the docket erstwhile the Greek migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, held talks successful Ankara this week.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s centre-right authorities successful Greece has vigorously rejected the claims astir pushbacks – attributing them successful ample portion to Turkish propaganda – but the person accepts his medication pursues “tough but fair” borderline absorption policies securing the EU’s outer frontier.

Explaining the magnitude of clip needed to bring the cargo vessel “to harmless anchorage”, migration ministry officials successful Athens laid the blasted squarely with Ankara’s refusal to respond to repeated requests for the vas to beryllium sent back.

But critics contend that the odyssey the refugees were subjected to, arsenic the standoff unfolded, is besides astatine likelihood with the Greek government’s mentation of events. Shortly aft the asylum seekers were brought ashore, Mitarachi praised the Hellenic coastguard, saying: “Greece stepped up, providing contiguous humanitarian enactment to radical successful request arsenic we ever do.”

Migrants and refugees are registered connected  the land  of Kos, Greece, connected  31 October 31, 2021.
People rescued from the Murat 729 are registered successful a campy connected Kos aft spending 4 days astatine oversea portion Greece tried to transportation Turkey to instrumentality them back. Photograph: AP

Aid groups, piecing unneurotic the series of events, judge it was logistically intolerable to propulsion the vessel backmost due to the fact that it was truthful large and would person required the Greek coastguard besides entering Turkish waters. Once it became wide a pushback was impossible, Athens resorted to appealing to Turkey, said Olsen, whose organisation is among a web of NGOs accused by Greek officials of aiding and abetting radical smugglers – allegations helium powerfully rejects.

“We present cognize determination were 136 children among the passengers and radical with peculiar needs,” said Veizis. “Instead of the Greek coastguard, which is simply a rescue service, bringing them to safety, the authorities chose to support them onboard and determination them astir arsenic it tried to travel to a woody with Turkey. Deals are for business, not humans seeking planetary protection.”

It was, helium insisted, the deficiency of harmless and ineligible transition to Europe that was forcing truthful galore to question specified unsafe routes.

Installed successful their barbed wire-encircled reception centre successful Kos, those onboard the Murat volition beryllium fixed the close to use for asylum. The process is not expected to beryllium easy: each indispensable acquisition 14 days of quarantine adjacent if none, truthful far, person tested affirmative for Covid-19. On Wednesday, coastguard officials began taking their details.

Already Mitarachi has made wide his intentions. Announcing a gathering with the ambassadors of Pakistan and Bangladesh adjacent week, the migration curate said helium would petition the instrumentality of each who were undeserving of asylum to their location countries. Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationals accounted for 252 of the ship’s passengers.