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Greece Is Dropping Migrants into the Sea — And Europe Is Turning a Blind Eye

Reports this month showed how Greek authorities have pushed at least 1,072 migrants into the sea, forcing them to fend for their lives on rickety rafts and dinghies. The murderous policy is a gross violation of international law — yet faced with a harshened anti-migrant mood, other European governments have remained silent.

Asylum seekers recover after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesvos on a dinghy on March 5, 2020 in Mitilini, Greece. Milos Bicanski / Getty

On August 14, the New York Times published a report documenting the Greek government’s illegal measures to keep refugees and migrants away from its borders. Backed up by firsthand interviews with survivors, three independent watchdogs, two academic researchers, and the Turkish Coast Guard, the article claims that at least 1,072 asylum seekers have been pushed back into the water to fend for themselves. In at least thirty-one separate expulsions, migrants have been forced into the sea on sometimes leaky life rafts or left to drift in their boats, after Greek officials disabled the engines.

Such actions are illegal under international law. Even beyond the immediate danger they pose to human life, they contradict the principle of “non-refoulement,” which bans such pushbacks.  Before its election victory in July 2019, the right-wing New Democracy party had promised such a “tough” approach to migrants. But faced with press coverage of recent expulsions, the Greek government was keen to deny any accusation of illegality.

First was minister of migration and asylum Notis Mitarakis; he issued a statement declaring that “Greece implements a tough but fair migration policy and fully respects its obligations under international law.” Mitarakis cast doubt on the credibility of the Turkish Coast Guard as a source for such claims, adding that “interviews published by refugees currently residing in Turkey do not provide any evidence that those persons are at risk in Turkey and therefore can seek refugee status there.” In the same vein, speaking to CNN on August 22, prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis painted Greece as the victim of a misinformation campaign — part of Turkey’s efforts to “weaponise the migration issue.”

In reality, the allegations of Greek officials intercepting and expelling migrants are all too accurate — and they have been circulating for years. But since the incidents this March — when Turkey declared it would open its land border with Greece and thousands of people found themselves stranded between the two countries — such illegal practices have now become systematic across Greece’s land and sea borders. The fact that such moves are even possible, and indeed tolerated by other EU member states, is also a grave illustration of how hostility to migrants has been normalized, in Greece and around the continent.

Pushback

In international law, the principle of “non-refoulement” guarantees that no one should be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, and other irreparable harm. It is binding on those countries — including Greece — that are signatories to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, or the 1984 Convention Against Torture. Decisively, this principle applies to all migrants at all times, irrespective of their migration status.

The Greek government’s actions are trashing this principle — and drawing international condemnation. Already on March 10, the New York Times had warned about the toughening line adopted by Athens. It revealed that the Greek government detains migrants at a secret extrajudicial location before expelling them to Turkey, without following due process. Several migrants were interviewed: they each spoke of being captured, stripped of their belongings, beaten, and expelled from Greece, while their right to claim asylum or speak to a lawyer was completely bypassed.

On June 12, the UNHCR called on Greece to investigate pushbacks at sea and land borders with Turkey and the possibility of Greece returning migrants and asylum seekers to Turkey after they had reached Greek territory or territorial waters. The UNHCR repeated this call on August 21, underlining the increase in allegations from reliable sources reporting that men, women, and children are being expelled to Turkey without access to asylum-related processes after their arrival in Greece.

On June 16, an investigation by German liberal magazine Der Spiegel revealed that the Greek Coast Guard intercepts refugee boats, puts the migrants in life rafts, pulls them toward Turkey, and abandons them in the open sea. The investigation reports that masked men, almost certainly Greek border control officials, routinely attack refugee boats in the Eastern Aegean Sea, which are often pulled ashore by the Turkish Coast Guard. The most disturbing point made by Der Spiegel’s investigation, though, is not that Greek authorities are in clear breach of their international obligations regarding human rights, but that they are putting the lives of migrants at risk using equipment meant for lifesaving.

Deportation Targets

These are not just isolated incidents taking place at the borders. Rather, they are part and parcel of a wider strategy that capitalizes on the rampant xenophobic political climate in Greece. This atmosphere has culminated in violent attacks on refugees at the Greek islands and at the Greek-Turkish border at Evros this March. The erection, in early July, of a floating barrier — essentially an artificial border, almost 2,700 meters long and more than a meter high — northeast of the island of Lesbos falls within the same logic of deterrence. Little regard is shown for human suffering, or even for life itself.

This same logic was apparent during the COVID-19 crisis, as the Greek government declined to evacuate or even decongest the overpopulated refugee camps. Despite numerous calls from international organizations, human rights groups, medical experts, and activists, the European parliament’s civil liberties, justice, and home affairs committee, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the government refused to bend to pressure. Rather, the government boasted of the protests of asylum seekers whose applications had been rejected — taking their complaints as a success story. This sent a message to its electorate that “deportation targets” are being met and anti-immigration promises fulfilled.

“Integration policies” have also hardened, in a cruel effort to show potential asylum seekers that their life in Greece would be made impossible, even if their claims were recognized. The new Greek law on asylum reduced from six months to just one the length of time recognized refugees are allowed to stay in camps or UN-managed accommodation after securing state protection. Emergency benefits are also discontinued after a month, since refugees are nominally entitled to apply for Greek tax and social insurance numbers — allowing them, in theory at least, to find work. In reality, absurd bureaucratic demands and contradictory requirements on refugees are designed to make it practically impossible for them to secure accommodation or employment.

This punitive approach was further illustrated by the actions of the mayor of Athens — the prime minister’s nephew, also affiliated with the governing New Democracy party. He removed the benches in the city’s Victoria Square in a bid to stop refugees loitering there. This public square was a focal point of solidarity for refugees during the 2015–2016 crisis and was a place recognized refugees turned to once again to find temporary refuge once they were thrown out of the camps.

Far-Right Influence

This hostility against migrants and refugees is not just a matter of public discourse, but also apparent in the choice of personnel to run the refugee camps across Greece. It was recently revealed that the appointed director of the refugee camp at Pyrgos, in the Peloponnese, had been published by a Nazi-affiliated publishing house, which had also published books by prominent members of the fascist Golden Dawn party.

Similarly, an education coordinator at the refugee camp in Malakasa, responding to comments made by the famous Greek NBA basketball player Giannis Antetokounmpo on his experience of racism in Greece as a child and young adult, described him as a “monkey” and  an “asshole n . . .” in a tweet that was later deleted (in fact, the official in question was first appointed in 2017 under the Syriza government).

The vast public outcry — unanimous among anti-racist activist groups as well as centrist and left-wing parties — forced his removal. Nonetheless, the fact that individuals with such views have been put in charge of the vulnerable refugee population is yet another indication of the xenophobia driving the current approach toward migrants and refugees in Greece.

Weaponized

Yet even more than the harm caused to vulnerable and helpless people, the most devastating effect of such practices is the normalization of the far-right mentality that dehumanizes migrants and refugees. The narrative that sees refugees and migrants as a “weapon” used by Turkey against Greece has become hegemonic, not only within the right-wing government but also among the left-wing opposition. Faced with the border incidents of this March, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras stated that “the government was right in closing the borders” and that Greece is, indeed, “facing a geopolitical threat by Turkey.”

This narrative risks silencing as “unpatriotic” or “anti-Greek” any critical voices that place the emphasis on the drama of the new “wretched of the earth,” rather than the nationalist effervescence against the “Turkish threat.” For if Turkey is, indeed, instrumentalizing the migrant and refugee population for its own geopolitical plans in the region, Greece instrumentalizes them, too. On the domestic front, they have become a convenient scapegoat for Greece’s economic uncertainty and lack of clear prospects; on the external front, they are painted as Turkey’s human artillery against an assumed Greek cultural integrity.

Amid the ongoing Greek-Turkish dispute around economic sovereignty on the Aegean Sea over the past few months, with attention turned to handling the COVID-19 pandemic, the ideological dehumanization of refugees and migrants is escalating. For during the crisis, they are painted as “illegal” interlopers unworthy of assistance and protection. In this picture, they appear as a burden for the Greek economy, even if the cost of assistance to refugees is essentially covered by external donors and sources. But, more darkly, they are also portrayed as a threat to national security and the national existence of Greece itself.

European Response

Ylva Johansson, who oversees migration policy at the European Commission, condemned the Greek government, insisting that “We cannot protect our European border by violating European values and by breaching people’s rights” and that “Border control can and must go hand in hand with respect for fundamental rights.” Yet Greece is hardly alone in this game — and the EU is no mere bystander. This is particularly clear in the case of its border and coast guard agency, Frontex, which is aware of illegal practices such as pushbacks.

This was clear from Der Spiegel’s investigation on the suspicions about Greece abandoning refugees at sea, which concludes that Frontex may bear some of the responsibility, since they refrained from intervening. It adds that while the German Coast Guard also operates in the area and are aware of the situation, they seem to be tolerating such practices. Let’s not forget that following the events at the Greek-Turkish border at Evros this March, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen had no hesitation in congratulating Greece as “our European shield.” She offered it help to patrol those same borders — apparently at any cost.

What we are seeing in Greece is indicative of a more general sea change in attitudes toward refugees and migrants, evident in EU policies that put the emphasis on policing European borders rather than integrating migrants and refugees. This is the same logic that presents an alleged “European way of life” as under threat from outsiders — and thus in need of tough defenses. With the most destitute people dehumanized and represented as a threat, and far-right talking points normalized, any trace of European humanism is fast disappearing.