The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) Thursday ruled that Greece’s “pushback” operation that led to the sinking of a migrant boat, killing eleven (including children and infants), violated articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In Safi and others v. Greece, the court held that the behavior of Greek security officials violated the migrants’ right to life and the prohibition on inhuman or degrading treatment.
On January 20th, 2014, a boat of migrants from Afghanistan was traveling off of the coast of the Greek island of Karmakonisi. They were spotted by Greek security forces who attempted to tow the vessel because it was over capacity and not seaworthy. According to the Greek government, the migrants moved around, causing the vessel to capsize and sink.
According to an account from one of the migrants, however, the tow boat was too fast and the rope used was too short. According to the survivor, after the boat sank “[s]omeone showed them the baby asking for help but the coastguards swore at us instead of helping us… When the coastguard cut the rope and tried to move away we started sinking.” After the survivors were rescued the migrant was allegedly threatened by security forces not to report the incident.
The court found that the investigation into the incident violated the migrants right to life. One incident that was heavily discussed was the fact that one of the translators who took the survivors statements reportedly did not speak the language the survivors spoke. This led to discrepancies between the survivors’ official and unofficial statements.
The court also found that the behavior of the security forces during the rescue violated the migrants right to life. The migrants were not given life vests and the security forces did not call for a bigger boat to remove the migrants from the unsafe vessel. The court also found a significant delay between the reporting of the incident to authorities and the actual incident itself.
Finally, the court found that the behavior of officials after the survivors were taken to Karmakonisi violated the ban on degrading treatment. Survivors were forced to disrobe on a public basketball court in front of other survivors and a large amount of security officials. They were then cavity searched publicly, violating the migrants right to humane treatment.
Lefteris Papagiannakis, Director of the Greek Council for Refugees, a lawyers group for migrants, celebrated the decision, saying:
The Greek Council for Refugees had undertaken the technical preparation for the legal support of the claimants. We feel extremely proud of the work we have done. It is a collective success of all organizations. We consider it extremely important that the European Court of Human Rights recognized the responsibilities of Greece in this tragic event.
The court assigned remedies under Article 41, including 100,000 euros to one of the applicants, 80,000 to three of the applicants jointly, 40,000 to another applicant, and 10,000 to each of the remaining 11 applicants.