UN refugee agency urges Greece to probe alleged pushbacks

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BERLIN (AP) — The U.N. refugee agency called Friday for an investigation into reports that people seeking shelter in Greece were returned to Turkey in possible violation of international law.

The Geneva-based agency told The Associated Press that it was aware of “a number of credible reports of people being informally returned to Turkey after reaching Greek soil or territorial waters.”

Among them was an event earlier this month in which a German naval vessel operating in the Aegean Sea reported seeing an inflatable boat with people on board being transferred from the Greek coast guard to the Turkish coast guard.

According to the U.N., about 11,500 asylum-seekers have reached Greece so far this year, many crossing the sea from Turkey on small, overladen boats.

The incident was cited in a German government response to an opposition lawmaker’s request for information about alleged cases of refugee boats being blocked or pushed back into Turkish waters by Greek or EU border vessels patrolling the Mediterranean.

“On Aug. 15, 2020, the handover of an inflatable boat with persons on board from the Greek to the Turkish coast guard was documented by the German contribution to the NATO support mission in the Aegean, the supply ship Berlin,” Germany’s deputy foreign minister, Miguel Berger, wrote in response to a query from Left party lawmaker Andrej Hunko.

Hunko criticized the German navy for failing to stop the potentially illegal pushback of people wanting to claim asylum in Greece.

The German Defense Ministry confirmed that the incident occurred east of the Greek island of Lesbos, outside of international waters, adding that based on maritime law it was “neither necessary nor possible” for the Berlin to intervene.

The Greek coast guard didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a statement Friday, the U.N. refugee agency said it didn’t have the means to independently verify the reported incidents.

“But given the nature, content, frequency, and consistency of these accounts, a proper investigation should be launched without further delay,” it said. “Any state that is presented with an asylum request at its borders is required under international law to provide admission at least on a temporary basis to examine the claim.”

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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