ATHENS — Greek authorities have charged an Afghan man in the death of his 6-year-old son as the pair tried to reach the country by sea, a move that rights groups say sets a worrying precedent in criminalizing migrants and is part of a strategy to dissuade them from attempting to travel to the country.
The man, Ayoubi Nadir, a 25-year-old Afghan asylum seeker, has been charged with endangering the life of a child, and is accused of abandoning his son after the boat bringing them and 22 other people to Greece capsized this month.
Accounts from the Greek authorities and the man’s lawyer said the boat capsized near the island of Samos just after midnight on Nov. 8. The boy’s body was found washed up on the shore that day.
The man’s lawyer, Dimitris Choulis, said the case against his client was unfounded. He said the man was being punished for trying to seek a better life for his family.
“They could charge all refugees with the same thing,” he said, adding that it was the first such case he had heard of in Greece.
Mr. Choulis said the Greek authorities should instead be focusing efforts on investigating why there was a delay in response to calls for help from Aegean Boat Report, a nongovernmental organization that tracks migrant boats, which alerted the Greek Coast Guard to a vessel in distress.
A distress call was received by the Coast Guard in Samos shortly after midnight on Nov. 8, according to Mr. Choulis and a Coast Guard document, and coordinates were given for the boat’s location off the northeastern coast of the island.
The document said the Coast Guard reacted “at once” and sent two boats to the location where a search was carried out. Hours later, the body of the boy, and a pregnant woman who was unconscious but still alive, were found in an “extremely inaccessible” rocky area.
But Mr. Choulis and Aegean Boat Report disputed the assertions of a swift rescue, and said that the authorities did not do enough to reach the child quickly.
Tactics used by Greek authorities have been called into question by rights groups before. Earlier this year, The New York Times detailed the illegal pushback of boats filled with hundreds of people from Greek territory. A recent report by the EU Observer newspaper detailed how the Greek Coast Guard received orders to push a rubber boat of migrants back into Turkish territorial waters.
Adriana Tidona, a European migration researcher for Amnesty International, said the organization has observed a deterioration of Greece’s approach to migrants and asylum seekers in the past year, from a human rights perspective.
Policy changes in the past year that included amendments to Greece’s migration law in May have reduced safeguards for asylum seekers significantly, she said, and increased the possibility for asylum seekers to be detained.
Allegations of widespread pushbacks, violence at the border, the criminalization of aid groups and now these new charges, create “just one more way to discourage the journey” of asylum seekers fleeing violence in their own countries, Ms. Tidona said.
“I think what we are concerned about is that this is a tactic to discourage people from seeking asylum in Greece,” she said, “and potentially sending the signal that if you come with your family, this is a possibility you will encounter.”
The head of the Coast Guard in Samos, Dimitris Tsinias, has denied the reports of a delayed response, saying that two vessels were sent to the spot where the boat capsized within 50 minutes of the distress call, arriving at 12:50 a.m., although the coordinates given were not at sea, he said, but on a rocky section of the island’s northeastern coast.
A search was carried out both at sea and on land, he said, adding that the pregnant woman was found alive at 3 a.m. and the body of the boy was found at 6 a.m., wedged among the rocks. The boy’s father was subsequently found in a mountainous part of the island with several other migrants, Mr. Tsinias said, rather than near his son.
“We didn’t find the man crying next to his child,” he said, his account contrasting with the lawyer’s and local volunteers’ description of a distressed and bereaved father. “He had abandoned him.”
“If it was my child, I would have been there,” he said.
Mr. Tsinias also rebuffed the allegations from rights groups of a shift toward tougher deterrent tactics by Greek authorities.
“I have not received any such orders,” he said. “We made our judgment based on this isolated incident and deemed that a prosecutor should be informed.”
As for the allegations from the Aegean Boat Report, Mr. Tsinias said the group had provided the Greek Coast Guard with “fake information” in the past, and that it had often “aligned with” the Turkish Coast Guard.
Vassilis Kerasiotis, a lawyer and the director of HIAS Greece, an organization that provides free legal services to asylum seekers in Greece, said the case was unprecedented and a troubling development, and that it was part of a broader shift toward criminalizing refugees and migrants by Greece.
Charging a father who is fleeing conflict of endangering his child by attempting the boat crossing to Greece “signifies an escalation of this approach,” he said.
“These people they don’t have any — zero — possibility of safe legal entry into Greek territory,” he said, noting that criminalizing the journey could be counter to Geneva convention norms that protect refugees.
Niki Kitsantonis reported from Athens, and Megan Specia from London.