Large-Scale Pushbacks Of Asylum Seekers At The Greek-Turkish Border

The Greek government recently finalized plans for the construction of a wall along the northeast border shared with Turkey. The twenty-six kilometre wall will be added to the ten kilometres of the fence dividing the nations. The $74 million project is expected to be completed by the end of next April.

The five-meter wall is to be constructed using galvanized square steel tubes and concrete foundations. Currently, four million refugees and migrants, including approximately three million Syrians, are located in Turkey. The border wall is representative of an ongoing, concerted effort to disrupt migration.

In September, Associated Press journalists witnessed the rescue operations of Afghan migrants, forced onto life rafts, and abandoned at sea shortly after reaching the Greek island of Lesbos. Authorities have accused Greece of “large-scale pushbacks” between March and July, as migrants were deported without access to asylum procedures, in violation of international law.

Twenty-nine international organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, addressed an open letter to the Greek Parliament, advocating for an investigation into abuses at the border. The letter outlines allegations against Greek border forces, having “used violence against and in the unlawful return of displaced people, including in the form of collective expulsions and pushbacks.” Turkish authorities additionally accused the European Union of purposefully overlooking the abuse of migrants. The lives and rights of refugees and migrants have effectively been weaponized by Greek and Turkish politicians.

The migrant crisis is ongoing. Greece became the primary entry point to the EU, as a million people crossed through the nation in 2015 alone. Individuals fleeing war and poverty throughout the Middle East, Asia, and Africa arrive in Europe through the Greek islands via Turkey. Approximately one million reached Greece and Italy in 2015.

Thousands of migrants died attempting to reach the continent. The 2016 EU-Turkey Statement and Action Plan aimed to halt migration via Turkey to Europe. Under the agreement, all new asylum seekers from Turkey arriving on the Greek islands and those whose applications for asylum were deemed inadmissible would be returned to Turkey. However, following the Turkish government’s February 27th announcement that it would no longer prevent migrants from trying to reach Europe, tens of thousands of refugees attempted to enter Greece and the European Union by extension.

The large-scale attempt to cross the Greek border appeared to be backed by the Turkish government, an organized campaign. It is worth noting that Turkey’s shared border with Bulgaria, also an EU member, remained unaffected. The resulting standoff at the Greek-Turkish border was violent. Greek border guards reportedly utilized force, firing rubber bullets at migrants. A surveillance camera network is planned, spanning the entire 192 kilometre border.

A UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants claimed that those “who managed to cross the border were allegedly intercepted by Greek border guards, detained, stripped, confiscated of belongings and pushed back to Turkey. This alleged excessive use of force seems to have led to the deaths and injuries.”

However, the EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen demonstrated support for Greek actions, specifically the deterrence of migration. According to von der Leyen, the “border is not only a Greek border, but it is also a European border…I thank Greece for being our European aspida in these times.” The term aspida translates to “shield.” As noted by Amnesty International, Europe does not need to be shielded against vulnerable peoples. Video evidence of a Frontex ship, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, creating waves near a crowded dinghy full of people, effectively driving the vessel back.

Although conflicts between Greece and Turkey are longstanding, the recent announcement of a border wall was preceded by strife in the Aegean Sea. Hostility between the nations is ongoing specifically regarding control of the Mediterranean and the “Cyprus dispute.” Recently, offshore gas and oil exploration rights have been contested, as Turkish research and naval ships sailed into waters contested with Greece. Further, the Turkish decision to break with the 2016 agreement was seemingly an attempt to garner western support for the Turkish military campaign in the Syrian Idlib province.

According to Greek Shipping Minister Ioannis Plakiotakis, authorities have already stopped more than 10,000 people trying to enter the nation by sea, this year alone. Plakiotakis, whose ministry is in charge of the coast guard, declined to elaborate on how the boats were stopped from entering Greek waters.

However, the shipping minister readily denied the accusations of breaches to international law against the coast guard. In fact, the UN Refugee Agency is “deeply concerned by an increasing number of credible reports indicating that men, women, and children may have been informally returned to Turkey immediately after reaching Greek soil or territorial waters in recent months.” The Greek government was further criticized for suspending asylum applications for thirty days as of March 1st.

The 2016 EU-Turkey statement, which aimed to keep migrants from crossing into Greece, is clearly flawed and requires significant reform. The director of the Migration Policy Institute think tank, Hanne Beirens, claims that the agreement was once characterized by EU members as a temporary measure.

However, the persistence of the 2016 deal into 2020 is ultimately reflective of increasingly xenophobic attitudes across the European continent. In July of 2020, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Polish denial of access to asylum procedures violated multiple articles of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The UNHCR called on Poland, as a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, to grant refugees access to “territory and asylum.” Further, for over five years, the borders of Hungary have been sealed. Approximately 300 were stuck in “migrant transit zones,” several hundred square metres between the borders of Hungary and Serbia, until the European Court of Justice ruled the practice illegal in May of 2020.

The ECJ ruled in April, that both nations and the Czech Republic violated their obligations, effectively refusing to participate in the relocation of asylum seekers. The Eastern European nations failed to uphold an EU agreement to distribute 160,000 migrants housed in Greece and Italy in 2015. The relocation plan represented an attempt to mitigate the pressures of large scale migration placed on Mediterranean nations.

The European Commission, the executive branch of the EU, released a new Pact on Migration and Asylum in September of 2020. Although the policy is intended to be “mandatory, yet flexible,” it fails to truly address the member states unwilling to accept asylum-seekers, and the imbalance that is created in migration as a result. Nations that have refused to accept migrants will assume “the obligation to organize and carry out returns.” The EU failed to provide “clear incentives” to accept migrants.

International monetary support for migrants is necessary. Greece has been under a significant economic strain for years, exacerbated by the migrant crisis. Asylum seekers in Greece continue to be housed in overcrowded, poor conditions.

On September 8th, 2020, a fire broke out on the Greek island of Lesvos. Even more, fires were reported in the following days, destroying almost all of the Moria Reception and Identification Centre. The asylum centre housed 11,500. As of October 8th, approximately 7,800 of the refugees are living in an emergency site in Kara Tepe. Oncoming colder weather will make life even more difficult, as many people are sheltering in tents. The UNHCR is currently calling for donations to support the refugees impacted by the fires. However, life is difficult for migrants living in Turkey. According to Amnesty International, only 1.5% of Syrians of working-age have work permits in Turkey. Further, many Syrian peoples are unable to access basic services.

“Community Sponsorship” is a program in the UK, promoting resettlement. A refugee family is offered the opportunity to immigrate legally and safely, welcomed, and supported by a local community. Introduced in 2016, 450 families have benefitted from the program. Similar initiatives are also in place in Canada, Spain, Ireland, etc.

The program was recently promoted by the UNHCR. Amnesty International similarly encourages the relocation of asylum-seekers through humanitarian and family visas. However, in order to promote the settlement of displaced peoples, it is necessary to address harmful attitudes that underlie the reluctance to accept immigration. Politicians frequently utilize Islamaphobic and xenophobic rhetoric as well as fearmongering in order to effectively galvanize voters.

Calls to construct a border wall to prevent immigration in Greece are clearly prevalent internationally. As Amnesty International notes, however, “walls won’t stop people from moving; they just increase the human cost.” Further, negative conceptions surrounding migration, often promoted by the far-right, are quite damaging. Economists suggest that the common assumption that immigration negatively impacts the economy is a myth. In fact, immigration is characterized as a means of creating a more dynamic economy.


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