• Rory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Factcheck: Mitarachis’ latest effort to sidestep the reality of Greece’s refugee policies

Notis Mitarachis had a genuine opportunity to meet the realities of his policies and practices head-on and address that situation. Instead, as on every previous occasion, he chose to blame others and attempt to mislead.

We were surprised by this statement and always seek to positively engage with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Greece protects the external borders of the European Union, in total compliance with international law and in full respect of the charter of fundamental rights. Our national independent authorities investigate all claims of alleged breaches, and we proactively call for evidence to be provided. It is deeply troubling that Turkish-driven propaganda and fake news about illegal migration is so often mistakenly taken as fact.Turkey is a not a country at war, and it has an obligation under the 2016 EU-Turkey joint statement to prevent illegal departures of migrants and accept return of those individuals that are deemed not to be entitled to international protection. In the absence of action by the Turkish authorities, the Hellenic Coastguard continues to save the lives of thousands of men, women and children at sea every year. Between 2015 and 2021 it came to the rescue of more than 230,000 third country nationals who were in danger at sea.In the last seven years alone, Greece has provided safe harbor for over one million people - to give that context, that is over ten per cent of our entire population. Greece is not against legal migration; we are against the traffickers and all those who exploit human suffering either for profit or for political purposes.Ultimately, Greece cannot solve the migration crisis alone, we still urgently need more tangible support and greater commitment at an EU level and from member states, particularly with relocations. We would welcome the opportunity to discuss the matters the High Commissioner has raised and to talk with him about the constructive role the international community can play in protecting the lives of refugees.


In what is becoming an increasingly-common event, Greek Foreign Minister Notis Mitarachis yesterday (Monday 21 February 2022) made a statement in which he attempted to both misrepresent, and divert attention from, Greece’s policy and action against men, women and children seeking safe places to live, learn and work.


Having given the context in which he felt motivated to make the statement, we will – as simply and briefly as possible – address the multiple claims the Minister made, and the problems inherent within them.


K. Mitarachis issued his statement at 5.34pm (Eastern European Time) yesterday. It openly and clearly references a statement made by the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi earlier that day.


We will quote that statement in full because, in part, it is a remarkable statement of frustration from an international agency (UNHCR) which is frequently and correctly criticised for failing to use its position to advocate for nation states fulfilling their responsibilities under international law, preferring instead to attempt to ‘convince’ them (very often without success) through less public means.


Mr. Grandi had said: ‘UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is deeply concerned by the increasing number of incidents of violence and serious human rights violations against refugees and migrants at various European borders, several of which have resulted in tragic loss of life.


Violence, ill-treatment and pushbacks continue to be regularly reported at multiple entry points at land and sea borders, within and beyond the European Union (EU), despite repeated calls by UN agencies, including UNHCR, intergovernmental organizations and NGOs to end such practices.


We are alarmed by recurrent and consistent reports coming from Greece’s land and sea borders with Turkey, where UNHCR has recorded almost 540 reported incidents of informal returns by Greece since the beginning of 2020. Disturbing incidents are also reported in Central and South-eastern Europe at the borders with EU Member States.


Although many incidents go unreported for various reasons, UNHCR has interviewed thousands of people across Europe who were pushed back and reported a disturbing pattern of threats, intimidation, violence and humiliation. At sea, people report being left adrift in life rafts or sometimes even forced directly into the water, showing a callous lack of regard for human life. At least three people are reported to have died in such incidents since September 2021 in the Aegean Sea, including one in January. Equally horrific practices are frequently reported at land borders, with consistent testimonies of people being stripped and brutally pushed back in harsh weather conditions.


With few exceptions, European States have failed to investigate such reports, despite mounting, credible evidence. Instead, walls and fences are being erected at various frontiers. In addition to denial of entry at borders, we have also received reports that some refugees may have been returned to their country of origin, despite the risks they faced there, which may be at variance with the international legal principle of non-refoulement.


The right to seek and enjoy asylum does not depend on the mode of arrival to a country. People who wish to apply for asylum should be allowed to do so and they should be made aware of their rights and provided legal assistance.


People fleeing war and persecution have few available options. Walls and fences are unlikely to serve as a meaningful deterrent. They will just contribute to greater suffering of individuals in need of international protection, particularly women and children, and prompt them to consider different, often more dangerous, routes, and likely result in further deaths.


What is happening at European borders is legally and morally unacceptable and must stop. Protecting human life, human rights and dignity must remain our shared priority. Progress on preventing human rights violations at borders as well as the establishment of truly independent national monitoring mechanisms to ensure reporting and independent investigation of incidents are urgently needed.


We fear these deplorable practices now risk becoming normalized, and policy based. They reinforce a harmful and unnecessary ‘fortress Europe’ narrative. The reality is that the majority of the world’s refugees are hosted by low- and middle-income countries with far fewer resources, often bordering countries of origin in crisis.


Under EU law, border surveillance activities must be implemented in full compliance with fundamental rights. It is possible to manage borders and address security concerns, while implementing fair, humane and efficient policies towards asylum-seekers that are in line with States’ obligations under international human rights and refugee law including the 1951 Convention as well as European law.


While essential as a demonstration of external support to main hosting states, resettlement and other legal pathways cannot substitute for obligations towards people seeking asylum at borders, including those who have arrived irregularly and spontaneously, including by boat.

States must uphold their commitments and respect fundamental human rights, including the right to life and right to asylum. How Europe chooses to protect asylum-seekers and refugees matters and is precedent-setting not only in the region but also globally.


This is, as we noted, a rare moment of clear and outspoken criticism of multiple EU states’ policies and actions against people exercising their right to seek safe places to live: policies and actions Mr. Grandi entirely correctly states are: ‘legally and morally unacceptable and must stop.’


For clarity, and to set the scene in which both Mr. Grandi’s and K. Mitarachis’ statements were made, in the period 1 March 2020 to 31 January 2022, the Greek government carried out at least 26,755 illegal pushbacks on the Aegean Sea. In the same period, the government has registered just 7,805 people as having arrived on the Aegean Islands.


That is, 77.4 per cent of all men, women and children who have actually reached Greek water or land – via the Aegean Sea alone – have been pushed back.


And those are just the documented cases, and just those we know of at sea and from the Aegean Islands. The Greek government’s own statistical claims make it almost certain that the actual number is far higher, while difficulties compiling statistics on arrivals and pushbacks at the Evros ‘land’ border with Turkey mean that while we know violent illegal pushbacks are taking place at that border – we have documented cases – we cannot make a sensible estimate of how many thousands have taken and continue to take place.


These are cases reported by those who have been pushed back. We have video – in many cases broadcast internationally by respected news corporations and companies – showing such pushbacks taking place.


It is no longer possible for anyone to claim or imagine that this is not taking place.


In any case, K. Mitarachis was and is, of course, entitled to respond to Mr. Grandi’s statement. He may even believe that this is his job, though we would question that.


But faced with any number of possible responses, he chose – as he has so often – a belligerent attack on the original comment, combined with what must, we have no choice but to conclude, be a deliberate effort to mislead not UNHCR itself, or indeed any operative at any level of the international legal and/or political system, but the general public: certainly in Greece, and likely elsewhere in the world as well.


He said:


We were surprised by this statement and always seek to positively engage with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.


This should be a relatively uncontroversial opening. That it is not is that – for those of us who have been working in and around Greece on the current response – the relationship between UNHCR and (successive) Greek governments has always been edgy and at times combative.


The expression of ‘surprise’ may, however, be genuine. Nea Dimokratia, the current Greek government, has for almost exactly two solid years (from 1 March 2020) been operating a policy of extreme and illegal intolerance of people arriving at its borders, and this is the first time UNHCR has openly addressed this in so direct a statement.


Greece protects the external borders of the European Union, in total compliance with international law and in full respect of the charter of fundamental rights.


There is a very simple response to this.


First of all, under no circumstance and no part of international law is any country allowed to ‘protect’ its own – or any other country’s – border from men, women and children seeking safety.


Of course, every nation is entitled to ‘protect its border’ from a hostile invading force, and as Greece is an EU member state it may be that its government believes it is its right or even responsibility to protect its border not solely for its own, but also the EU’s benefit.


But – as K. Mitarachis knows only too well, the concept of ‘protection’ is simply not applicable in a situation of people seeking asylum.


Even were we to ignore this distortion of ‘international law’, it is also simply incorrect for the Minister to claim that Greece’s activities are in ‘total compliance’ with international law or in full (or even partial) respect of the charter of fundamental rights.


Because included in the UN’s Declaration of Universal Human Rights is the right of all people to leave any country under any circumstance (Article 13. 2. ‘Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.’)


It contains many other rights, most of which are met by few countries, and which the current Greek government certainly fails to meet, but this – particularly because of what is to follow – is the most relevant.


But in addition to this, the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Refugee Protocols are clear that it is the right of any person to travel – with or without paperwork – to and enter any country of their choice, as long as they inform the authorities of their intention to apply for asylum as soon as possible after they arrive.


That is, the Greek government’s aggressive, barbaric pushbacks policy, even without the documented violence, abuse and theft that goes with it, and the deliberate extreme danger to which its operatives (uniformed officers paid and instructed by the Greek government) are, in direct contradiction of K. Mitarachis’ claim, in total contravention of, not total compliance with, both international law and the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights.


And we should note that in almost every one of the documented cases of pushbacks by Greek uniformed officers in record, those officers stripped, beat, robbed the possessions (including mobile phones, money and paperwork) of, and in some cases sexually abused and/or humiliated those they pushed back.


Of course, none of these activities is legal.


Our national independent authorities investigate all claims of alleged breaches, and we proactively call for evidence to be provided.


It is easy, at this point, to become embroiled in a ‘my word vs. yours’ conversation, which serves no-one. In order to avoid this in relation to this claim, we would need to look for evidence, and unfortunately all the evidence we have suggests that K. Mitarachis may not be being completely honest here.


First, because Filippo Grandi – the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees -’s statement specifically says that European nations (not ‘only Greece’, but including Greece, especially as Greece is a focus of the pushbacks which are being carried out on EU borders) have failed to investigate the ‘almost 540’ cases of pushbacks UNHCR alone has documented.


This is quite strong evidence that Greece’s ‘independent national authorities’ have not investigated ‘all claims of alleged breaches’, compared with zero evidence from K. Mitarachis that they have.


Equally, in April 2021 the Greek Ombudsman specifically stated that it had carried out an investigation into pushbacks at the Evros border up to 2020, and found that pushbacks were taking place on a regular basis, a finding upon which the Greek government has not acted, and which directly contradicts the implication in K. Mitarachis’ comment that because matters are investigated, the situation is legally and morally fine.


And, since then, the Ombudsman has repeatedly called for further investigations into hundreds of other pushbacks cases, each time with absolutely no response: the Greek government, the evidence once again suggests, is simply not ‘investigating all claims’. Or, in fact, the vast majority of them. Nor has it acted on confirmed cases directly highlighted to it by Greek authorities.


On 7 October 2021, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson also called for the Greek government to investigate, openly and honestly, the pushbacks taking place on the Greek borders, carried out by Greek uniformed officers. Once again, all the evidence suggests that the Greek government does not and has not ‘investigated’ ‘all claims of alleged breaches’. Quite the opposite.


Finally, on several occasions, most recently 9 November 2021 in his now infamous confrontation with Dutch journalist Ingeborg Beugel, Greek Prime Minister Kiriakos Mitsotakis stated that pushbacks – in this instance ‘intercepting’ boats on the Aegean Sea and waiting for the Turkish Coastguard to take them to Turkey – were being carried out ‘in accordance with EU regulations’.


We must note that this is an extraordinarily-sanitised version of what has in fact been happening on the Greek borders, but also that even if it were not, what K. Mitsotakis described in that instance was pushbacks. Which are absolutely illegal.


The point here is that it seems extraordinarily unlikely that ‘Our national independent authorities investigate all claims of alleged breaches, and we proactively call for evidence to be provided.’ If the Greek government – from the Prime Minister down – incorrectly believes that pushbacks are legal. Why would it investigate them, if so?


This does not definitively prove that pushbacks are not being investigated, but it does mean that all of the evidence suggests they are not, while no evidence has been provided to the contrary. And certainly, the evidence it does not paint a picture confirming K. Mitarachis’ implication – that Greece follows the law and prevents/reacts against breaches of it.


The second part of the statement is also a little concerning. First of all because it is the Greek government – though the uniformed officers it pays to follow its orders – which has been carrying out these pushbacks. For it to call for ‘evidence’ to be presented to it seems a little similar to someone burgling your house and then calling for you to present evidence to them that they had in fact done so, that they could then investigate.


There is no possibility that the Greek government ‘does not know’ that these pushbacks are taking place, because it ordered them.


But even if it had not, there have been so many examples of videoed and first-person reports of pushbacks not only complied by aid organisations but by national and international media, that it is impossible to pretend that the Greek government needs to ‘proactively ask for evidence’. It needs only pick up a newspaper, go online, or watch the television.


Instead of doing this, it dismisses every piece of evidence as ‘Turkish propaganda’.


Which leads us to…


It is deeply troubling that Turkish-driven propaganda and fake news about illegal migration is so often mistakenly taken as fact.’


It’s extremely difficult to counter a conspiracy theory of such transparent inaccuracy, especially as it appears to be applied by K. Mitarachis at every point of the debate: every time someone points to a piece of evidence that pushbacks are taking place, it ‘turns out’ that this is in fact simply ‘Turkish propaganda’.


We could write – at length – about how poisonous and dangerous Greece’s relationship with Turkey is to concepts even including truth, but we will not (for now).


Instead, we will simply note that to date, on the issue of pushbacks, the Greek government of Nea Dimokratia has alleged that the following have in some way taken part in a Turkish propaganda campaign ‘against Greece’:


The BBC

CNN

Der Spiegel

DW

The Guardian

The EU Commission

The EU Parliament

Every aid organisation working in Greece, including several Greek NGOs.

Several European and Greek legal firms


And now, finally, the United Nations itself.


All we can ask is, why? Why would all of these respected and authoritative organisations, individuals, corporations, broadcasters, companies and political actors – including the United Nations – be engaged in a multi-national conspiracy with Turkey and against Greece?


Turkey is a not a country at war,’


Very briefly, this is a deliberately disingenuous comment from the Minister who must – because it is a pre-requisite of his job – be aware that a person or people do not need to be fleeing from war to be considered refugees.


As he knows, and is hoping his audience does not, the 1951 Refugee Convention is clear that: ‘The term “refugee” shall apply to any person who: owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.’ (1951 Refugee Convention, Article 1: Definition of the term “refugee”, section A, paragraph 2).


Not only is there no requirement for a state to be ‘at war’ for people to claim asylum elsewhere, ‘war’ itself is not even mentioned.


K. Mitarachis absolutely knows this, which makes it astonishing that he has chosen to mention ‘war’ in his statement on pushbacks. We cannot imagine why he would do so, but it is an unfortunate coincidence that it plays so closely with the misunderstanding of refugee law shared by so many people within and outside Greece. Had he been attempting to further mislead them on this issue, it is hard to imagine how he could have done so more clearly.


and it has an obligation under the 2016 EU-Turkey joint statement to prevent illegal departures of migrants and accept return of those individuals that are deemed not to be entitled to international protection.’


To be as fair as possible here, we must accept that everything surrounding the EU-Turkey Statement of 2016 is mired in the murk and desperation in which it was developed and signed.


But. In brief, because the Statement demands that Turkey must prevent people leaving Turkey, it breaks international law on people’s right to travel, as above. It also, in demanding that the EU has the right to send people back to Turkey solely because they have travelled to the EU breaks international Refugee law not only on the (effective) removal of the right of entry, but also of the right to have one’s asylum application processed on its own individual merits rather than on some arbitrary consideration such as the origin of the person or the places they have been before reaching their destination state.


We should also note that although the Turkish government was an enthusiastic signatory of the Statement, it did not write it. The EU did, and within it, in exchange for its demands that it break international law and enable the EU to break it, it promised to hand Turkey €6bn by 31 December 2018, and to hand Turkish citizens visa-free travel throughout the Schengen Zone.


The EU has so far, three years and two months after the deadline, paid Turkey €4.8bn and provided zero Turkish citizens visa-free travel throughout the Schengen Zone.


There are reasons why the EU has failed to deliver, but we should note: these were promises the EU made in a document it wrote, and has failed to deliver.


Given that, it seems a little unreasonable for K. Mitarachis to complain that Turkey is somehow ‘the party’ at fault.


And we must also address the phrase ‘prevent illegal departures of migrants’. Because there are no ‘illegal departures’ of people under international law. People are allowed to leave their home state. For K. Mitarachis to imply the people travelling to Greece are doing so ‘illegally’ endangers severely misleading the Greek people – and others – about this issue.


In the absence of action by the Turkish authorities,


Once again, this is rather disingenuous.


In fact, the Turkish Coastguard, even though it is absolutely against international law to do so, has stopped an enormous number of people from leaving Turkey.


In 2017, it stopped 21,937 of the 51,645 people who tried to cross the Aegean Sea: some 42.5 per cent. In 2018, it stopped 26,679 of the 59,173 who set out: 45 per cent.


In 2019, the Turkish Coastguard stopped 60,366 of the 120,092 people who tried to reach Greece: 50.3 per cent. In 2020, it stopped 19,511 of the 23,616 people who set out: 68.2 per cent. And last year, it stopped 22,657 out of 25,824 people, or 87.7 per cent.


Even if we were to factor in the enormous number of pushbacks the Greek government carries out each year (9,741 in 2020; 15,803 in 2021) the Turkish coastguard would still have (illegally) prevented 51.9 per cent of people from crossing in 2020 and 54.4 per cent of those in 2021.


But let us take K. Mitarachis at his word, as we should of course be able to. If, as he claims, the Greek government does not carry out pushbacks, we must conclude that the Turkish Coastguard has stopped 151,150 of the 285,360 people who have attempted to reach Greece since 1 January 2017. That’s 52.9 per cent.


More than double the number of refugees would have reached Greece than actually did so (according to Greek government figures) in the last five years 2017-21 inclusive, had the ‘Turkish authorities’ not acted: 285,360, rather than the Greek government’s figure of 134,210 people.


the Hellenic Coastguard continues to save the lives of thousands of men, women and children at sea every year. Between 2015 and 2021 it came to the rescue of more than 230,000 third country nationals who were in danger at sea.


This is possibly true – and is the absolute sole duty of the Hellenic Coastguard, rather than, for example, beating, robbing and hurling people into the sea. But the claim is significantly confused by K. Mitarachis and his government’s continued insistence that Greece, in spite of all evidence including the statements of the country’s Prime Minister and head of that government, does not carry out illegal pushbacks.


Because the government reported in 2021 that ‘more than 29,000’ (a minimum of 29,001) ‘third country nationals’ had been rescued by the Greek Coastguard. But just 3,567 people were registered as ‘new arrivals’ on the Aegean Islands. This means that a minimum of 25,434 men, women and children were ‘rescued by the Greek Coastguard’ but never registered as new arrivals in Greece.


In fact, it is worse. Because there is absolutely no suggestion whatsoever that all 3,567 people registered as new arrivals on the Aegean Islands were in fact ‘rescued’ – the overwhelming majority (certainly more than 3,000, likely more than 3,250) arrived and landed with no contact whatsoever from the Coastguard.


This fact leads us to fear that in fact we may be talking about 28,000 people who have somehow ‘gone missing’ from the Greek islands and mainland on top of the 15,803 people we know were pushed back.


In 2020, the Greek Shipping Ministry reported to the EU Commission that the Greek Coastguard had rescued 27,334 men, women and children in the Aegean Sea in 2020. Once again, there is absolutely no chance whatsoever that all 9,105 people registered as new arrivals on the islands had been rescued by the Coastguard: they had not.


But even were we to pretend that they all had been, this would mean that once again, the monitoring agencies working to highlight the Greek government’s illegal and horrifying pushbacks had underestimated the number of people pushed back by 8,488: instead of the 9,741 people we know were pushed back in 2020, this would mean 18,229 people were in fact pushed back.


That is, if the Greek Coastguard is rescuing the number of people K. Mitarachis claims it is, the Greek government is pushing back even more people than we know about: the Minister’s claim directly contradicts his assertion that the Greek government does not push people back.


In the last seven years alone, Greece has provided safe harbor for over one million people - to give that context, that is over ten per cent of our entire population.


It is very difficult to understand exactly what K. Mitarachis means by this. Certainly, Greece does not have one million resident refugees. The entire ‘foreign’ (and this includes the children of people born outside of Greece) population of Greece is 7.1 per cent of its total and even at the absolute highest estimate, Greece is currently home to around 135,000 refugees (roughly the number to have arrived in the last five years).


The vast majority – well over a million – of the 1.1m people who arrived in Greece in 2015-16, are now in Germany and Sweden. Many more have left Greece since then.


If the Minister means that Greece has been a ‘stopping-point’ for people travelling elsewhere then this is in fact true, but that is actually less than Greece’s duty under international law, and indeed less than the number who would have been provided ‘safe harbour’ had the Greek government not embarked on its brutal pushback policy.


Greece is not against legal migration; we are against the traffickers and all those who exploit human suffering either for profit or for political purposes.


As already noted, one major problem with this as a position is that, as already noted, the Greek state is not actually experiencing anything other than legal migration, while the other is that ‘traffickers’ are those who trick or force by violence people to travel to places they do not wish to go to.


This is not what is happening here. Certainly not in the (overwhelming) majority of cases.


Equally, if it were what is happening here, then beating, robbing, stripping and pushing people back would still be an illegal response to people being ‘trafficked’ to Greece.


Once again, it appears that this point has been included in K. Mitarachis’ statement in spite of its lack of relevance to the topic, rather than because it is relevant. It reads as though – and we are sure this cannot be the case – it is there deliberately to confuse the issue and mislead people about the situation.


Ultimately, Greece cannot solve the migration crisis alone, we still urgently need more tangible support and greater commitment at an EU level and from member states, particularly with relocations.


There is very little to disagree with here. Greece cannot be expected to deal with the refugee response ‘alone’ – though of course, neither has it had to: the vast majority of men, women and children who ever reached Greece are no longer here, while Greece has received €3.2bn in EU funding alone to ‘deal with’ the maximum 135,000 people who are still here.


It has also received a great deal of assistance from international NGOs, who have brought money, jobs and expertise to assist the Greek response. Unfortunately, Nea Dimokratia has too often chosen to use those organisations as scapegoats, and in some cases attempted (and in all cases failed) to criminalise their activities and/or prosecute them for imagined wrongdoings.


And Nea Dimokratia is using the money it does receive not to assist people, helping them find decent places to live, and contribute to their new communities – which would benefit all of Greece – but instead spending it on jails on the Aegean Islands and on walls around mainland refugee camps.


Equally, while the wider EU certainly could and should do more to help Greece and its other border states, up to now Nea Dimokratia’s contribution to the EU’s response to people arriving seeking asylum has been to call for more measures to prevent them from doing so, and to pressure Turkey to break international law more consistently and often to that aim.


It is a little difficult to watch K. Mitarachis suddenly call for ‘assistance’ with humanitarian efforts given this background.


Equally, as with the ‘trafficking’ claim, it is a little difficult to understand why this comment is here. Even had the EU offered Greece no help (and we agree that it could and should have done and still be dong a great deal more) that would not make Greece’s brutal and barbaric pushbacks policy legal or morally just.


We would welcome the opportunity to discuss the matters the High Commissioner has raised and to talk with him about the constructive role the international community can play in protecting the lives of refugees.


If true – and we must hope and believe it is, not least because we must pay due respect to the Minister – this is a significant change in the Greek government’s attitude and approach: the international community – for so long demonised by the Greek government – could certainly assist Greece.


Perhaps together we may finally end the shame of the beatings, robbing, stripping and risking the lives of innocent men, women and children trying to find safe places to lie, learn and work, that are currently taking place on the Greek borders.


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