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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Distraction and Dishonesty: Greece’s Migration Ministry and its distant relationship with truth

In response to a report by the New York Times, the Ministry has attempted a series of distraction tactics, and outright and deliberate falsehoods, in a statement designed to mislead the public.


The truth is that despite what it says:


> the Ministry’s claims about EU policy do not apply to this situation, in which the people in question are men, women and children seeking asylum: it is an irrelevance, and it is impossible the Ministry does not know this


> the Ministry’s claim of ‘close work with’ EU agencies is both irrelevant to this issue, and in any case at best unevidenced, and at worst clearly the opposite of reality, except in the case of working ‘closely’ with Frontex, where the evidence uncovered and presented by the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog OLAF all clearly shows that the ‘work’ was to carry out and hide crimes committed by the Ministry and Frontex


> ‘all allegations’ of pushbacks simply are not and have never been investigated, despite the Ministry’s claims, and neither ‘the media’ nor ‘NGOs’ have at any point said Maria did not die on an islet in the Evros. The Ministry knows this, which means that not only is its claim irrelevant, it is also a lie


> claims or implications that more than one ‘investigation’ into pushbacks has ever been carried out by the Greek authorities are irrelevant to this situation, and in any case, a lie. As is the idea that ‘no wrongdoing’ was ‘identified’


And these tactics have been carried out solely to draw attention away from the facts, which are:


> the Greek government has illegally and barbarously pushed back (at least) tens of thousands of people from its borders since 1 March 2020


> the EU’s border agency’s Human Rights Officer has gathered sufficient credible evidence of this to recommend – twice – that the agency ceases work with the Greek government. Most recently, just a matter of days ago

The Greek Migration Ministry has, predictably and understandably, responded to last week’s New York Times report regarding Frontex Human Rights Officer recommended withdrawing from Greece due to its government's illegal and violent pushbacks of men, women and children from the Greek border.


What is less acceptable, though sadly no less predictable, is that it has done so with a mixture of distraction tactics and open, obvious, lies.


On Tuesday 14 February 2023, the Times revealed that the EU border agency’s Human Rights Officer Jonas Grimheden has twice in the course of a year called for the agency to withdraw from Greece because of the Greek government’s despicable behaviour towards those people arriving on its shores, including beating them, stripping them of their possessions, (including clothes) and pushing them away from the Greek border.


All of which, it should go without saying, is entirely illegal, including in the sense of being an open denial of those people’s fundamental human rights.


Grimheden, the report noted, based his recommendations (the second of which came just days ago) on ‘credible reports’.


The Times noted that the EU Commission, which has overall responsibility for Frontex, has ignored his recommendations, but did not mention that under the agency’s last executive director, Fabrice Leggeri, Grimheden was regularly referred to as ‘the enemy’, or that Frontex itself was found by the EU anti-corruption watchdog OLAF to have actively assisted the Greek government in pushing people back, as well as helping it cover up pushbacks it (Frontex) had seen but not taken part in.


Nor did it mention that when the OLAF revelations were made, Leggeri claimed to have been acting on orders from the Commission. His direct manager was EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson. The two people above her in the chain of command are the Nea Dimokratia member and EU Vice President for ‘preserving our European way of life’ Margaritis Schinas, and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.


In any case, the Greek Migration Ministry has written an angry response to the report which is of interest because it fails to address the single most important and indeed central point of the article: that the Frontex Human Rights Officer believes Frontex should cease operations in Greece because of the Greek government’s despicable and illegal behaviour towards men, women and children who have done nothing wrong, and because it so openly lied about the issues it chose to talk about instead.


The Ministry said:


The EU is working on concrete measures to safeguard Europe's security, reinforce the EU's external borders, while promoting legal pathways for eligible applicants. We work closely with the European Commission, EUAA, FRA and Frontex on all migration related issues. All allegations are being investigated by Greece and it is worth reminding about the fake allegations against Greece about a 'dead child' in Evros -- an incident reported but then retracted by the media and NGOs. Incidents investigated to-date identified no wrongdoing by Greek authorities.


We shall take this line-by-line.


First:


The EU is working on concrete measures to safeguard Europe's security, reinforce the EU's external borders, while promoting legal pathways for eligible applicants.


This is an interesting statement, because either it does not deal at all with the illegal pushback of tens of thousands of men, women and children who are seeking safe places to live, learn and work, in which case it is irrelevant, or it does deal with that illegal behaviour, in which case we must note:


1. Europe’s security is not ‘safeguarded’ by pushing people back from Greece without allowing them to apply for asylum


2. Not only that, ‘security concerns’, if they even exist, do not excuse such illegal pushbacks


3. Reinforcing Europe’s illegal borders is illegal if the purpose of doing so is to prevent people from entering who wish to apply for asylum, which in the context of the article must be taken to be the purpose being discussed by the Greek government


4. The EU absolutely is working to promote ‘legal pathways’ for some migrants, but not for people seeking safety, because the law already states that the latter must be allowed in. And the Greek government is breaking the law by refusing to allow those people to enter (and by beating them, stealing their possessions, and in some cases killing them). Along with every other part of this sentence ‘the EU is working to help people come to the EU to work’ is irrelevant to the allegations made against the Greek government


So effectively, this part of the statement makes it clear that either the Greek Ministry of Migration does not know what the law is, or it does and is attempting to mislead people that it does not,. Whichever it is, it is nothing more than a ‘distraction’ – an attempt to draw attention away from Greece’s illegal and uncivilised viciousness by throwing up an entirely different matter instead.


Second:


We work closely with the European Commission, EUAA, FRA and Frontex on all migration related issues.


This is sort of fine as far as it goes, but becomes less reassuring and coherent with every read.


First because it is far from clear that the Greek government does, in fact work closely with the FRA on pushbacks, while the ‘close work’ confirmed by OLAF between Frontex and the Greek government on pushbacks was the two working to help one another break the law by pushing people back.


There are genuine concerns that those at the highest levels of the EU Commission are aware of the government’s law-breaking and are willing to allow it to continue, but in fairness, Ylva Johansson did, in June last year, threaten to cut funding to Greece not if pushbacks ‘are discovered to have happened’ but if they continue (she said ‘illegal returns must stop now’.)


That nothing has come of this threat may reflect badly on Johansson, or indeed on her ‘managers’ Schinas and von der Leyen, but it is hardly an example of the Commission and Greek government ‘working closely’ on the issue of pushbacks.


And we must note that the whole point of the report was that the Frontex Human Rights Officer is so angered and distressed by the Greek government’s continued vicious and illegal treatment of men, women and children at its borders that he has recommended – twice – that Frontex must stop ‘working with’ the Greek government.


We work closely with Frontex’ does not address that fact, it attempts to side-step it.


The claim goes on:


All allegations are being investigated by Greece and it is worth reminding about the fake allegations against Greece about a 'dead child' in Evros -- an incident reported but then retracted by the media and NGOs.


In a way, it is good that we get the opportunity to address these completely false claims all together.


Because the first thing to note is that ‘all allegations’ are absolutely not ‘being investigated’ by Greece.


First because the Greek Ombudsman has raised more than 100 incidents to be investigated since March 2020, and none of them have been.

Second, it is true that there are two investigations being prepared regarding some pushbacks from the Greek border (being carried out by the Greek National Transparency Authority and the country’s Prosecutor of the Naval Court: there is good reason to ask questions about either’s suitability for this role).


But they have still not begun, and in the meantime, the Greek government has rushed through ludicrous and obviously false allegations (‘forming and joining a criminal organisation’; ‘facilitating the entry into the Greek territory of a third-country national by two or more persons for profit and on a professional basis, repeatedly’; and ‘facilitating the illegal residence of a third-country national, for profit, repeatedly’) against the main prosecution witness in them, Panayote Dimitris of the Greek Helsinki Monitor, and Tommy Olsen of Aegean Boat Report, who was also asked to contribute to the pushbacks case, as the major observer and reporter of the government’s pushback in the Aegean Sea, but declined, fearing it would be pointless and would draw more anger towards him from the Greek government.


The two face trial in Kos on Monday 20 March 2023.


That is, all allegations of pushbacks are not being investigated, and the few which are set to be may well not go ahead because the Greek government has abused the state’s legal system by filing transparently false charges against the main prosecution witness.


The second thing to note is that it is far from clear, in a context of Frontex’ Human Rights Officer recommending twice that Frontex pulls out of Greece because of the country’s government consistent law-breaking and violence against men, women and children at its border, that ‘it is worth reminding’ about the case of Maria, a five-year-old girl killed at the Greek border on Tuesday 9 August 2022.


First because it is hard to see how it could possibly be relevant, unless the Greek government genuinely wishes to claim that there is a global conspiracy against Greece, including the UN, international media and international aid organisations, and that somehow the Human Rights Officer of Frontex has joined the conspiracy.


Second, because even had Maria not died (and despite the claims of the Greek government, it is very much more likely that she did than that she did not) what is not disputed is the fact that she and those she travelled with were pushed back at least twice from Greece, which is illegal even if no-one dies, and that at least two (other) people did in fact die during those pushbacks.


But as we are here, the Greek government’s ‘defence’ in the case regarding Maria appears to be that Maria never existed and that her death is therefore a lie.


What is interesting about this is that the sole lie we can be absolutely certain was told in this case was by the Greek government: that the Evros river islet on which Maria died was ‘Turkish’ and that this meant Greek police could not rescue those trapped on it.


Even at the time, this seemed suspicious, because the Greek police and Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis did not begin by saying so, but by claiming that no-one was on the islet and that they ‘could not be found’ (which is strange if the Ministry then claimed to know which islet they were on, and who it belonged to).


This got worse when the islet was in fact confirmed not to be Turkish by the Greek Defence Ministry, and that in any case the law is very clear: a rescue can be carried out from another state’s territory if it is easier for your agents to carry it out, or if there is good reason to believe the other state will not carry it out, both of which applied here. That is, what the government has said in relation to this rescue was openly false.


We then know that once the 38 survivors were able to reach Greece, Mitarachis claimed to have been present at their interviews (recall that these are people who only four days previously he was claiming did not exist) with police, details of which he shared with the nation in television interviews – a clear abnegation of his responsibilities under the law.


He then claimed – taking a lead from Greek Prime Minister Kiriakos Mitsotakis – that Maria ‘had never existed’, which would have been astonishing under any circumstances, but was considerably worse when it emerged that his claim was based solely on the fact that ‘Syrian parents do not name their children after themselves’. Not only is this not true, it is also not sensible to base one’s wild position on such baseless speculation.

Within days, Evgenia Kouniakis, the groups’ lawyer and employee of HumanRights360, informed the media that she had been prevented from meeting with them.


Not only is this against the law, Ms. Kouniakis said it was likely the result of her highlighting another deliberate attempt to pervert the course of justice: the government pressuring the 38 to change their testimonies. She has confirmed this several times since then, most recently on Thursday 9 February 2023.


Mention of HumanRights360 leads us to the Ministry’s next sentence, which is another transparent lie told by the Greek government:


an incident reported but then retracted by the media and NGOs.


This is fundamentally and utterly untrue, as the Ministry knows only too well.


First of all, ‘the media’ has absolutely not ‘retracted’ its statements about Maria’s death. Only Der Spiegel, the newspaper which broke the story, is in a position to comment either way and it has not at all ‘retracted’ any such ‘claim’.


Instead, it has reported, on Friday 30 December 2022 that:


> The people were certainly on Greek territory and could have been rescued


> The survivors clearly fear that they will be denied papers and are thus under unusual pressure to do what the Greek government wants


> There are good reasons why and how Maria’s existence and death may be easy to deny – largely due to the fact that this was a family ‘on the move’ seeking safety, and which had little if any access to ‘regular’ authorities including registering births


It has also chosen not to report any more on the case until things become a little clearer.


And we must point out: this is a decision taken by a German national newspaper which fears that the wild litigation currently characteristic of the Greek government may be turned against it.


We must also note that the reason things are not ‘clear’ is because the Greek government has chosen to attack the people whose daughter was killed as a result of the government’s policies and actions.


It is very far from true, however, that Der Spiegel has ‘retracted’ reports on Maria’s death: it has not at any time said she did not die, or that she did not exist, even as it moved to cover itself against attack from the Greek government.


Nor, indeed, have ‘NGOs’ made any such ‘retraction’, once again as the Ministry knows only too well.


The Greek Migration Ministry moved very swiftly to attack the two main Greek NGOs – the Greek Refugee Council (GRC) and HumanRights360 – involved in this case, in what seemed like a punishment for them doing their jobs standing against what was, after all, not even ‘just’ the death of a five-year-old girl, but repeated illegal pushbacks in which at least three other people were also killed.


These attacks included setting the ‘Independent’ Authority for Money Laundering headed by Charalampos Vourliotis, to ‘investigate’ HumanRights360 and then revealing it had done so to friendly media, in a direct attempt not just to scare the NGO but also to smear it to the general public (as it has in every false claim it has made against NGOs).


In response, the leadership of HumanRights360, perhaps understandably, but undeniably catastrophically, collapsed.


It made an entirely unnecessary statement claiming that it had been wrong to say that the islet on which Maria had been killed was not Turkish (though it was later revealed that in fact, it was and is not) and that a journalist had broken rules by interviewing people at the Fylakia refugee detention centre, where Maria’s family and other survivors from the islet had been illegally detained (he had not).


Neither of these things were correct. But also, and this is perhaps the crucial point, neither were they a ‘retraction’ of the fact that Maria had died.


Which does lead us to wonder quite why the Greek government – in a response to Frontex’ Human Rights Officer saying the Greek government’s illegal and violent conduct against men, women and children seeking safety in Greece was so bad that Frontex should cease operations in Greece, twice – is so desperate to repeat lies about something arguably unconnected to his recommendation.


Is it an attempt to influence a court case before it has even begun? Is this behaviour appropriate for a national government? The answers to those questions can be left to each of us as individuals, but we might recommend that one’s conclusions should not be based on one’s support for that government.


And finally, the Ministry claims:


Incidents investigated to-date identified no wrongdoing by Greek authorities.’


‘They’ (in fact, there has been only one) was not in fact capable of ‘identifying no wrongdoing’.


The sole investigation carried out and completed to date was into pushbacks literally videoed taking place, and was carried out by Greece’s National Transparency Authority.


Not only is the Authority in no way capable of investigating pushbacks, being made up of people with zero experience, handpicked to serve in August 2019 by the government from amongst its loyal friends, its closeness to members of the government makes it extremely unlikely that it would be inclined to find its upper echelons guilty of tens of thousands (at least: the government’s Minister of Citizen’s Protection, Takis Theodorikakos told EU member states’ (plus the UK) ambassadors and gathered media on Saturday 20 January 2023 that Greece had pushed 260,000 people from its border in 2022) of crimes against humanity.


And so it has proven. In the only ‘investigation’ into pushbacks carried out by the Greek authorities, the Authority asked the advice of the police, which instructed the Authority to disregard all evidence presented to it, including videos of the pushbacks taking place.


Because the police were in fact defendants in this case, as they along with the Greek Coastguard have been ordered by the government to carry out pushbacks from Greece, asking their advice on what evidence to use is the same as asking a man videoed burgling a house whether he believes the video should be counted as evidence.


(we should extend this to all potential future investigations: how can we possibly allow the Greek government to oversee any investigation into situations in which it is alleged to have carried out criminal acts? In what other situation would we allow this, or expect justice to be done?)


Claiming this ‘finding’ means the same as that an investigation ‘identified no wrongdoing’ is a little like saying that a man who agreed to wear a blindfold found ‘no evidence’ that stars exist. The Ministry – whatever the intellect of its head – is perfectly well aware of this, which makes this, too, effectively a lie.


Not only is it untrue, it, too, is irrelevant.


Because even had the Authority been fit to undertake such an investigation (and it was and is not), and even had it not allowed one of the major suspects in the case to ban all the evidence (and it did), its one (and it is one, not ‘investigations’ as the Ministry implies) ‘finding’ would not mean either that the Human Rights Officer of Frontex had not gathered credible reports of pushbacks carried out by the Greek government, or that he had not recommended Frontex cease operating in Greece, twice.


He did. And he did.


The Ministry has attempted a series of distraction tactics, and outright and deliberate falsehoods, in a statement designed to mislead the public.


The truth is that despite what it says:


> the Ministry’s claims about EU policy do not apply to this situation, in which the people in question are men, women and children seeking asylum: it is an irrelevance, and it is impossible the Ministry does not know this


> the Ministry’s claim of ‘close work with’ EU agencies is both irrelevant to this issue, and in any case at best unevidenced, and at worst clearly the opposite of reality, except in the case of working ‘closely’ with Frontex, where the evidence uncovered and presented by the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog OLAF all clearly shows that the ‘work’ was to carry out and hide crimes committed by the Ministry and Frontex


> ‘all allegations’ of pushbacks simply are not and have never been investigated, despite the Ministry’s claims, and neither ‘the media’ nor ‘NGOs’ have at any point said Maria did not die on an islet in the Evros. The Ministry knows this, which means that not only is its claim irrelevant, it is also a lie


> claims or implications that more than one ‘investigation’ into pushbacks has ever been carried out by the Greek authorities are irrelevant to this situation, and in any case, a lie. As is the idea that ‘no wrongdoing’ was ‘identified’


And these tactics have been carried out solely to draw attention away from the facts, which are:


> the Greek government has illegally and barbarously pushed back (at least) tens of thousands of people from its borders since 1 March 2020

> the EU’s border agency’s Human Rights Officer has gathered sufficient credible evidence of this to recommend – twice – that the agency ceases work with the Greek government. Most recently, just a matter of days ago


And that’s it. So far, absolutely everything else – including every line of the Ministry of Migration’s statement – is irrelevant, or a lie, or both.

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