Email reveals Greek attempt to push migrants back into Turkish waters

EU border force Frontex document suggests a Danish commander cancelled the move

A dinghy with 15 Afghan refugees, 5 children, 3 women and 7 men, approaches the Greek island of Lesbos on February 28, 2020 next to UK Border Force patrol boat HMC Valiant (background), a cutter patroling in Agean sea under European Union border force Frontex. - Turkey will no longer close its border gates to refugees who want to go to Europe, a senior official told AFP on February 28, shortly after the killing of 33 Turkish soldiers in an airstrike in northern Syria. (Photo by ARIS MESSINIS / AFP)
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New evidence points to Greek involvement in illegal efforts to remove migrant boats from its territorial waters.

A Greek coastguard official told the EU border force Frontex in March that he had the authority to transfer migrants in a rubber boat to part of the Aegean Sea controlled by Turkey, according to an email obtained by EUobserver, an online newspaper.

That could be a breach of the ban on the forcible return of migrants to countries where they could face persecution. The partially redacted email chain, dated March 6, said that a rubber boat with 33 migrants was first spotted and intercepted by a Danish ship near the island of Kos.

Turkey opened its borders in February after a series of disputes between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the 27-nation bloc.

The email chain shows that the Danish-operated EU vessel raised concerns about the plan and instead took the migrants to the harbour on the Greek island of Kos.

It says that the Greek coastguard official “informed a crew about an order from his authority to transfer the migrants back to the rubber boat and escort/transport them into [Turkish] territorial waters”.

“The vessel commander considered this action very risky,” it said.

Greece has consistently denied being involved in the practice of removing migrant boats from its waters despite reports and investigations by refugee charities and media organisations.

The practice of pushbacks is said to sometimes involve boats blocking dinghies until they run out of fuel and are then pushed or towed back into Turkish territorial waters.

The EU previously supported the Greek government over its stance in tackling migration and described the incident in March as a misunderstanding.

The incident came three days after senior EU officials travelled to Greece to declare their support to the government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis in the face of a surge in migrants from Turkey.

Thousands of migrants have tried to reach the EU’s remote borders by crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey.

The information was forwarded to the Greek coastguard, and the international co-ordination centre dealing with the migrant crisis, and the order was cancelled, according to the email obtained from Frontex after a freedom of information request.

Frontex, after an investigation by a media consortium, was itself accused in October of complicity in the pushback of a dinghy crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece.

A video dated June 8 showed a Frontex vessel blocking a small refugee boat north-east of the Greek island of Lesbos before it returned to Turkish waters where 47 people were picked up.

Frontex responded to that claim by saying that its mission was conducted in the “spirit of EU solidarity” while respecting “fundamental rights and international law”, but later said it would conduct an inquiry.

It also said that Greece was conducting an internal inquiry into incidents at sea in recent months. Greece previously denied any wrongdoing and blamed Turkish propaganda.

The Greek authorities said on Thursday that coastguard officers had acted with "perfect professionalism" and had helped save thousands of migrants.

"Their actions are carried out in full compliance with the country's international obligations," it said in a statement.

The move comes amid increasingly robust tactics by Greece to stop people travelling to the country where they are held in overcrowded camps and services are struggling to cope.

The National reported this week on the case of a father who is being prosecuted in Greece over the death of his son, after their boat capsized off the coast of Samos this month.