Pushbacks and Rights Violations at Europe’s Borders: the Case of Greece

According to the Greek Council for Refugees, in 2021, a total of 9,157 refugees and migrants arrived in Greece. This marks a decrease of 31.7% compared to 15,696 in 2020, mainly due to an increase in pushbacks, the militarization of borders and restrictions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. In this context, the Greek authorities deny pushback allegations and say pushbacks are fake news. 

Pushbacks: what are they, and why are they unlawful? 

Greece has played a key role in the implementation of the EU-Turkey migration deal, enacted in March 2016, aimed at returning new irregular arrivals to the Greek Aegean islands back to Turkey on the notion that this country is safe for them. Since 2019, Greece has developed a gradual degradation in migration policies, and one example of this degradation is represented by the practice of pushbacks. 

Although today there is no internationally agreed definition of the word pushbacks, Felipe González Morales, the current Special Rapporteur on Human Rights of Migrants, describes pushbacks as: “various measures taken by States which result in migrants, including asylum seekers, being summarily forced back to the country from where they attempted to cross or have crossed an international border without access to international protection or asylum procedures or denied of any individual assessment on their protection needs which may lead to a violation of the principle of non-refoulment.” 

The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights in Article 18 provides the right to seek asylum and the prohibition of refoulment in Article 19. In particular, Article 18 says: “The right to asylum shall be guaranteed with due respect for the rules of the Geneva Convention of 28 July 1951 and the Protocol of 31 January 1967 relating to the status of refugees and in accordance with the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (hereinafter referred to as ‘the Treaties’).”

Collective expulsions are always unlawful. They violate international, European Union and national human rights law and are prohibited by several conventions and treaties to which Greece is bound. According to The Human Rights Committee, no derogation from the prohibition on collective expulsions is permitted, even under a state of emergency.

Modus operandi of collective expulsions in the Aegean Sea 

On 27 February 2020, following the killing of 34 Turkish soldiers during the Spring Shield military operation in Idlib, Syria, as Turkey expected the arrival of more refugees from Syria, the Turkish President declared that Turkey would open its borders with the EU and not prevent refugees and migrants from crossing to Europe. In response, Greece closed Pazarkule-Kastanies and Ipsala-Kipi border gates and took strict measures to prevent border crossings. As a result, thousands of people ranging from 12.000 to 25.000 started gathering along the land border in Turkey. 

pakarzule border crossing

On 28 February 2020, Kyriakos Mītsotakīs, the Prime Minister of Greece, tweeted that no illegal entries into Greece would be tolerated and asked for further EU support for border protection. 

In addition, on 2 March 2020, the country introduced an emergency legislative decree suspending the right to seek asylum for one month for individuals who would have entered Greece and for their return without registration to their countries of origin or transit. This Decree ceased to produce legal effects at the end of March 2020. 

Since March 2020, while the number of testimonies and evidence about illegal pushbacks of migrants to Turkey has continuously grown, the official number of migrants’ arrival to Greece by sea has drastically dropped.  

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that just over 9,600 migrants reached Greece by sea in 2020, a decrease of 85% compared to 2019 and equivalent to the number of arrivals on the Greek islands in November 2019 alone.

Number of "official" arrivals to the Greek islands according to UNHCR data in 2019 (grey line) and 2020 (red line)
Number of “official” arrivals to the Greek islands according to UNHCR data in 2019 (grey line) and 2020 (red line)

According to the Legal Centre Lesvos, a non-profit organization which provides free and individual legal information and assistance to migrants who arrived by sea in Lesvos, key elements of the modus operandi in collective expulsions in the Aegean can be identified as follows:

-In all collective expulsions, Greek authorities denied migrants access to procedures by which they could claim asylum or reunite with their family members

-During most collective expulsions, Greek authorities subjected migrants to physical violence and other inhumane acts, in some cases amounting to torture

-In all collective expulsions where survivors had reached a Greek island, Greek authorities arbitrarily detained migrants in inadequate and inhumane conditions

-In collective expulsions where survivors had reached Greek territorial waters, Greek authorities followed consistent operational patterns

-In all instances, Greek authorities summarily expelled migrants from Greek territory through forcible transfer towards Turkish waters and ultimately abandoned them at sea, putting their lives in grave danger

The direct consequences of those crimes are also identical in all cases: migrants are removed from Greek territory without any opportunity to request international protection, and they are abandoned at sea without any assistance or guarantee of being rescued. 

An inflatable boat carrying refugees approaches the Greek island of Lesbos, on 2 March 2020, Photograph: Aris Messinis
An inflatable boat carrying refugees approaches the Greek island of Lesbos, on 2 March 2020, Photograph: Aris Messinis

Lighthouse reports investigations: Frontex’s involvement in pushbacks and Greek police using migrants to push back migrants 

Over the years, Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, has acquired an increasingly relevant role in supporting national authorities in managing the EU’s external borders. In Greece, the Agency is currently involved in almost every aspect of border management, as testified by the EU Action Plan to support Greece in managing its external borders with Turkey. 

Since March 2020, Lighthouse Reports, a non-profit organization based in the Netherlands, has investigated illegal pushbacks and human rights abuses at Europe’s external borders and accused Frontex of complicity in illegal pushbacks in the Aegean Sea. 

In particular, an investigation conducted with Der Spiegel, SRF Rundschau, Republik and Le Monde – highlighted Frontex’s involvement in illegal practices at EU borders and has shown how the Agency itself used the terminology “prevention of departures” to refer to refoulements. 

To pursue this investigation, Lighthouse Reports obtained the internal database of Frontex’s “Joint Operations Reporting Application” (JORA) through a freedom of information request. The data recorded in the same database were cross-referenced with other sources and revealed that Frontex was involved in at least 22 verifiable cases of pushbacks in Turkey between March 2020 and September 2021. 

According to JORA data, the 957 people involved were reportedly in dangerous and life-threatening situations after being spotted by Frontex resources in the Aegean Sea. In two cases, people reached Greek islands before being put on life rafts and left adrift in the open sea. 

In the same investigation, Lighthouse Report also explained that Frontex recorded its role in 222 incidents classified as “departure prevention” involving 8,355 people during the same time period.

A recent investigation by the same non-profit conducted with The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and ARD Report München revealed how Greek police force asylum seekers to participate in illegal deportations of migrants from Turkey. 

Migrants interviewed by Lighthouse Reports said that they worked alongside regular police units to strip, rob and assault refugees and migrants who crossed the River Evros in Greece. They then acted as boatmen to bring them back to the Turkish side of the river against their will. Between operations, enslaved people are held in at least three different police stations in the heavily militarised Evros region.

The Guardian interviewed some Syrian and Moroccan citizens who said they were forced to transport groups of refugees to the Turkish bank of the River Evros in exchange for a temporary residence permit, with the threat of being expelled if they refused. 

The Frontex Scrutiny Working Group (FSWG)

In 2020 Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) decided to investigate the allegations of Frontex’s possible involvement in pushbacks and violations of fundamental rights by Member State’s authorities at the EU’s external borders. In January 2021, LIBE stepped up its action and established the Frontex Scrutiny Working Group (FSWG) to monitor all aspects of the functioning of the Agency, including compliance with fundamental rights, transparency and accountability towards Parliament. 

The FSWG’s mandate was to permanently monitor all aspects of the functioning of Frontex, including its reinforced role and resources for integrated border management, the correct application of the EU acquis and its execution of Regulations (EU) 2019/1896 and 656/2014. The FSWG conducted a fact-finding investigation, collected evidence and presented its final report and annexe in July 2021. 

In this final report, the scrutiny group stated the absence of evidence on the direct execution of collective refoulements and/or expulsions by Frontex in the cases of serious incidents examined and pointed out serious shortcomings. 

First, the report acknowledged that serious allegations of fundamental rights violations had been “consistently reported” by “credible actors” both nationally and internationally. Second, it pointed to Frontex’s failure to take action to prevent or even reduce the risk of fundamental rights violations and highlighted the shortcomings of Frontex’s monitoring and reporting system for violations of the same rights. Third, it called the Agency to be more proactive to ensure the fulfilment of its “negative and positive fundamental rights obligation”, which is clearly stated in its founding regulation. 

In this context, Frontex has taken note of the FSWG report and stated that it would implement the report’s recommendations further to strengthen respect for fundamental rights in all its activities.

Migrants protest against pushbacks at the border with Turkey near the Greek Parliament in Athens on 22 February 2022, Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki  
Migrants protest against pushbacks at the border with Turkey near the Greek Parliament in Athens on 22 February 2022, Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki  

However, the Greek case confirms that an approach to migration and asylum with a continued focus on borders and externalization is not sustainable. The Greek government and the European Commission should conduct serious investigations into the existing evidence of illegal actions at the EU’s external borders and impose accountability measures for respecting human rights. 

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Post Author: Anna Bellisario

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I studied Local and Global Development and I'm strongly interested in the issues of sustainable development, human rights and gender inequality. I'm addicted to pizza, wine and black and white movies.

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