As early as the years 2014 to 2016, when over one million people fleeing from countries plagued by armed conflict and political crises—such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq—began to arrive in Greece via Turkey, Greek authorities have been implicated in numerous illegal and violent pushbacks against migrants and asylum seekers. The past two years, however, have seen a sharp escalation in Greece’s continued violations of European and international law in terms of illegally assaulting and pushing back forced migrants, with the full acquiescence of the EU and even the complicity of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex.
At the end of September, the Turkish Coast Guard announced that it rescued 255 forced migrants who were on precarious boats in Turkish territorial waters after being pushed back by Greek authorities. In four different operations, 109 migrants off Bodrum and Datça districts, 45 off Balıkesir Province and 54 off the coast of its Ayvacık district, and 47 off Kuşadasi district were safely brought to dry land and accompanied to provincial migration offices, according to Turkish authorities.
Illegal pushbacks as an instrument to reduce arrivals in Greece and the involvement of Frontex
To reduce the number of arrivals in Greece, the EU entered into an agreement with Turkey in 2016 which to many represented a political declaration passed off as a press release by the European Council. The agreement stipulated that Turkey would commit to stopping arrivals to Greece and to accept back forced migrants. In turn, the EU pledged to donate six billion euros, resettle up to 72,000 Syrian refugees, and offer Turkey other benefits, such as visa liberalisation.
In February 2020, Turkey’s president said that funds transferred to Turkey from the EU to support refugees were arriving too slowly, and accused the EU of failing to meet its promises. The Turkish government announced that it would therefore no longer prevent asylum seekers and migrants from crossing westwards to Greece and the EU, prompting thousands to rush to the Greek borders.
Greece reacted by heavily militarising its border with soldiers and police officers, who resorted to the massive use of force against incoming migrants, including beating, tear gassing, physical mistreatment, and arrest. Although the situation calmed down in the following months, respect for EU asylum law continued to be lacking. Civil society testimonies reported the use of practices of pushing back refugees and asylum seekers by Greek authorities, forcing newly arrived migrants onto precariously floating boats and back towards Turkey. Media reports have also revealed that Greek forces even sabotaged the raft engines of boats to force back refugees and asylum seekers.
Illegal refoulement, one of the main instruments of Greece’s migration policy, appeared more than a decade ago. It has been in increasing use recently, representing what Greek political scientist Dimitris Koros has described as the “unofficial arrest and arbitrary removal of third-country nationals without assessing the legality of their entry or presence in the country and without offering them the possibility to apply for asylum or to object to their removal”. The pushbacks do not only affect migrants and asylum seekers who have just crossed the Greek border, but also those who have applied for asylum or received international protection status. Before being pushed back, individuals are robbed of their money, electronic devices, and clothes, as well as systematically subjected to torture and other types of mistreatment including the use of electric shock weapons, excessive force, and firearm violence—numerous violations of their human rights. The actors responsible for this cruel and illegal practice are those that people would least expect, namely the police, border guards, coastguards, and members of the army. Consequently, repeated acts of refoulement amount to racist state crimes, with the actors responsible for such racist practices belonging to the state.
Frontex established a presence in the Evros region in 2010, when Greece requested the launch of an operation. However, its integrity has been called into question in recent years, as the agency is active in the exact area where major rights violations occur. Although Frontex is supposed to respect human rights and refugee law unconditionally, migrants’ testimonies suggest that its involvement in violent and illegal pushbacks compromise it as a monitoring and accountability mechanism. In 2020 in the meeting of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs of the European Parliament, Frontex claimed to have found no human rights violations in eight out of 13 cases reviewed; the five remaining cases were said to need further examination, which raised suspicions about the agency’s role in pushback practices. It is likely that violations of several fundamental rights are taking place precisely due to Frontex’s excessively high degree of control and surveillance at the Greek-Turkish border, especially considering the mounting evidence of its awareness and involvement in the Evros pushbacks.
Consequences of illegal pushbacks and gaps in accountability
The illegal and dangerous practice of pushbacks on the Greek-Turkish border leads to significant and serious violations of national and international human rights law. Among the various rights violated are the principle of non-refoulement, the prohibition of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, the right to asylum, and the right to life. The violation of the principle of non-refoulement—the heart of the international protection regime—implies that migrants and asylum seekers are sent back to a country of origin where they risk inhumane treatment and persecution. Illegal pushbacks can also result in “chain refoulement”, which means that forced migrants who are returned to another country may later be resettled in a place that threatens their lives. Furthermore, violation of the principle of non-refoulement constitutes non-compliance with the Geneva Convention and the Refugee Convention, as well as a breach of customary international law.
Analysing both European and EU law, the pushbacks at the Greek-Turkish border violate the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to life and the prohibition of torture. Moreover, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights requires Member States to respect the right to asylum and the prohibition of collective expulsions. Illegal refoulement also results in violation of the EU Asylum Procedures Directive, which stipulates that all applications for international protection provide access to an asylum procedure. Finally, Greece’s pushbacks are incompatible with EU legislation on borders and returns, since the latter stipulates that border entry rejections must be based on assessments of personal circumstances.
As stated in Article 18 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights itself, the right to seek and receive international protection must be granted to all people fleeing life-threatening situations in their country of origin. No agency, institution, or country has the right to deny people this fundamental right by illegally and arbitrarily pushing them back.
Given the violations committed, in March 2020, Greece invoked the emergency situation in which it found itself to attempt to derogate from its obligations under EU law. However, the UNHCR stated that derogation is only possible for the Council of the EU following a proposal by the Commission, and that it is impossible to derogate from fundamental rights such as the principle of non-refoulement. Even the Court of Justice of the EU has ruled that a derogation from EU law can only take place under strict conditions.
Responsibility for violations of European, EU, and international law falls first and foremost on Greece, but investigations by national authorities are not impartial and objective. Frontex is also responsible for such violations, as the agency must respect human rights and refugee law, report and investigate violations using the Serious Incident Reporting (SIR) system, and has the option to suspend operations if violations persist. In general, the low number of SIRs submitted by Frontex underlines its failure to monitor and denounce human rights violations. Notably, Frontex has never even resorted to suspending or cancelling operations to denounce Greece’s illegal pushbacks.
It is the EU’s responsibility to intervene on behalf of vulnerable individuals whose human rights are being violated at the Greek-Turkish border, yet instead of condemning the pushback practices committed by Greece, the Union remains silent. In May 2020, 102 MEPs asked the European Commission to investigate the murder of Muhammad Gulzar due to the use of firearms by Greek forces while he was crossing the border in Evros. However, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen responded by siding with Greece, without condemning human rights violations. In July 2020, members of the LIBE Committee of the European Parliament called for the Commission—citing its role as “guardian of the Treaties”—to condemn the pushbacks, and in September 2020, the Commission presented the New Pact on Migration and Asylum in order to confront human rights violations. Even though it requires Member States to set up an “Independent Mechanism for monitoring fundamental rights”, the proposed mechanism would have a limited scope, as it would operate only in the context of pre-entry procedures.
The illegal pushbacks committed by Greek authorities at the border, the EU’s lack of action in the face of violations of its own law and of European and international law, as well as the deep involvement of Frontex demonstrate that the EU is ready to do anything in order to reduce arrivals in Europe. This is evidenced by the New Pact on Migration and Asylum of the European Commission, which allows Member States to derogate from their obligations under EU law if they believe they are facing a serious political crisis. Greece, therefore, is legitimised to engage in violent pushbacks and break EU law without suffering repercussions given the continuous arrival of refugees and asylum seekers there.
As pointed out by the European Court of Human Rights, the unceasing illegal and violent pushbacks committed by Greece against asylum seekers and refugees are inadmissible and must absolutely be denounced and stopped. The creation by the European Commission of a new fundamental rights monitoring mechanism that is independent, fair, and anchored in EU and international law could help tackle illegal and violent acts of refoulement. Additionally, the presence of independent non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on the ground may contribute to the effective monitoring and accountability of authorities at the border. Finally, an increased consideration of human rights violations due to pushbacks on the Greek-Turkish border by the European Commission could put an end to these appalling illegal practices.