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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Failure to act, acting to fail, and the human cost of each

Updated: May 13, 2021

Late in March this year, we sent two letters to European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson to coincide with her visit to the Aegean islands, and following her joint press conference with Greece’s Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis.

Our letters One Year On, We Need Your Help, Commissioner and Madam Commissioner, We Are Here To Help– both of which we sent to Ms Johansson and her team – aimed to make sure the Commissioner was aware of the truth of the situation here in Greece, and to respond to some of the remarkable and concerning statements made by Mr Mitarachis during their conference.

We detailed the fact that the Greek government is using EU money to open what it states are ‘closed camps’ (effectively prisons) for refugees, and its continual, illegal and life-threatening practice of preventing men, women and children from reaching Greece and/or from claiming asylum.

We received a response from Nacira Boulehouat, the Head of the Migration management support unit at the EU’s Directorate General for Migration and Home Affairs.

We are sending a response to the Unit, which we shall also send to Ms Johansson and her team, and which we will post and link to when we have sent it.

In the meantime, we wanted to share with you a few lines from the (one page) letter, and our comments.

Addressing our concern regarding the Greek government’s plans to build and operate closed camps – prisons – for refugees on the five Aegean islands Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos, the Commission’s letter said:

In September 2020, the Commission established a dedicated Taskforce which, together with the Greek authorities, is working as a priority on a joint pilot to improve the situation on Lesvos by better managing migration and asylum processes and setting up new, fully up-to-standard reception facilities on the island in 2021. As regards the new Multi-Purpose Reception and Identification Centres (MPRICs) which will replace the existing centres on the islands, the Greek authorities have confirmed that the residents of the new MPRICs will be allowed to enter and exit at will, while the MPRICs will be constructed fully in line with the relevant EU acquis and standards.

While this is relatively reassuring – it means that at least the EU does not plan for the new ‘camps’ to be closed, it must be noted that every single release from the Greek government – including their ‘National Migration Strategy 2020-21’ shared with media and organisations including Algorithmwatch and Reporters United – describes the five ‘camps’ specifically as ‘closed’.

Indeed, the government’s 18-page document – seven pages of which do not mention the buildings at all – uses the phrase ‘closed’ to describe the ‘camps’ 18 times.

It may of course be that the government has since changed its mind, and that the camps will be open, but the proposals include:

Ø double military-grade walls

Ø restricted entrance and exit times (8am-8pm: itself a questionable suggestion: why should people be banned from going outside at any time of day or night? Under what possible justification?)

Ø a CCTV system and video monitors

Ø drone flights over the ‘camps’

Ø camera-monitored perimeter alarms

Ø control gates with metal detectors and x-ray devices

Ø a system to broadcast announcements from loudspeakers

Ø a control centre for the camps at the ministry’s HQ

And this will be paid for – a total bill of €33m – by the EU.

As this cash is on top of the €250m the EU has already promised to build these camps – described, we must stress, as ‘closed’ repeatedly in the Greek governments’ ‘deliverability document’ even though the EU, and specifically its Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson who confirmed the €250m payment on her visit to the Aegean islands in March this year, promised the EU would not fund closed camps - it is absolutely vital that the Union is not misled into handing over millions of Euros for a programme designed to break international law and strip men, women and children of their fundamental human rights and protections.

We must stress: these men, women and children have committed no crime. Even if they were suspected of having done so, they would be entitled to a trial before a jury before having their freedom taken away from them for – based on the current advised waiting period for asylum cases to be processed in Greece – up to five years.

This programme – at least as described by the Greek government – is an unacceptable breach of human rights and international law. The EU must not fund it.

Concerning allegations of inappropriate use of force by law enforcement officials at the border, these need to be followed up by the national authorities, including through credible investigations. The Commission is not competent to investigate individual allegations on pushbacks and has repeatedly requested the Greek authorities to carry out relevant investigations. The Commission has also stressed that while it is important to protect the external border, it is imperative that any measures taken must be proportionate, necessary and uphold fundamental rights and values, including the right to asylum.

The points made in this paragraph are particularly interesting, and in fact, the more one looks at it, the more its immediate sense of logic and reason seems to slide off the page.

We should first of all deal with perhaps the simplest: ‘it is important to protect the international border’.

This is a statement which has been used consistently by far-Right politicians in relation to refugees and people movement since 2016, and in the last two years increasingly by the EU itself and Greece’s far-Right Nea Dimokratia government.

It is important to mention it here because it is absolutely irrelevant to the situation currently taking place at Europe’s eastern and southern borders.

That is, it is absolutely legal – and indeed desirable – for a state to protect its border from invasion but that involves an armed force – generally one in service of a nation state – attacking a country or bloc with weapons.

It is not legal or desirable to prevent unarmed civilians from attempting to find safe places to live: there is absolutely no justification for even using the term ‘defending’ or ‘protecting’ ‘the border’ in this situation and it is time people stopped pretending there were.

What Greece is doing every single time it pushes people back – and as we shall see it has (at 12 May 2021) since 1 January 2020 pushed people back 432 times, forcing some 12,900 men, women and children from its borders – is breaking the law.

To address another of the paragraph’s points, we are not talking about simply the ‘inappropriate use of force’.

It is certainly the case that in the vast majority of these 432 incidents involving the illegal removal or prevention of arrival of 12,900 people, people have had their possessions – clothes, money, ID papers, mobile phones, stolen from them. It is certainly also the case that in almost every one of these 432 incidents women and children, as well as men, have been beaten by uniformed, armed, Greek officers.

But it is important to be clear: we are asking the EU to address not just this ‘inappropriate use of force’ but any and all incidents of pushbacks from Greece. This practice is in and of itself illegal, regardless of the abhorrent and unacceptable violence with which they are being carried out.

And we must also be clear that this is not happening on some kind of small scale.

We have already noted that 12,900 people have been illegally prevented from entering Greece and applying for asylum since 1 January 2020. This is an enormous number of offences against international law. But what makes the situation even worse is that in the same period the Greek government has registered just 5,110 new arrivals.

That is, by its own arrival data, the Greek government has turned away more than twice as many people as it has allowed to land. It has blocked and pushed back 72 per cent of all men, women and children who have attempted to reach Greece, even though turning away just one without giving them the chance to apply for asylum is absolutely illegal.

The overwhelming majority of people trying to reach Greece since 1 January 2020 have been illegally prevented from doing so, by uniformed officers employed by and acting on behalf of the Greek government.

As a result, it seems a little counter-intuitive for the EU Commission to say it cannot ‘investigate individual allegations on pushbacks’. We are not talking about ‘individual allegations’ or ‘individual offences’.

This is a systemic practice, which has been going on – as the Greek government’s standard response to people attempting to reach safety in Greece and the wider EU – for more than 16 months, and in which 72 per cent of all people, 12,900 out of 18,010 trying to reach Greece to apply for asylum, have been illegally prevented from doing so.

Nor are these cases being monitored or logged by just one source. International media have repeatedly brought them to the attention of people across the world, including those working in and as part of the EU, while aid organisations, legal specialists and the United Nations have repeatedly spoken out about them and have filed cases to be heard at the Greek and international level.

No-one expects the European Commission to ‘try’ or investigate those cases itself. But it is reasonable to ask the Commission, as part of the wider EU, to at the very least recognise that an overwhelming amount of evidence shows that an EU member state is breaking international law, and as a result to suspend funding to that state while a full investigation is carried out rather than handing over €280m for five new prisons for people who have committed no crime.

Even if the Commission does not have the power (or perhaps the inclination) to actually prevent Greece breaking the law, it certainly has the power not to actively fund it while it does so.

The paragraph also states: ‘these {allegations} need to be followed up by the national authorities, including through credible investigations. The Commission… …has repeatedly requested the Greek authorities to carry out relevant investigations.’

The problem is that the issue is not being followed-up by the Greek authorities, which have so far simply stated that every single piece of evidence – including those presented by UNHCR – has been ‘Turkish propaganda’ and that ‘no court has ruled that pushbacks are taking place’, even though no court has yet been allowed to hear a case within Greece.

The Greek authorities, despite the ‘repeated requests’ of the European Commission, have carried out zero investigations into the documented law-breaking being carried out by uniformed officers employed by and acting on behalf of the Greek government.

Once again, we have to ask why the Commission is not only allowing this to happen, but is handing the same government hundreds of millions of Euros for projects related to the same situation?

The letter’s third paragraph carries the statement that: ‘Migration management is a European issue, which needs a European solution. Only by working together can the EU find balanced solutions, in full respect of fundamental rights and our values.

We agree. But it is hard to see how this fits with an EU which appears to be refusing any responsibility even for monitoring the flagrant undermining of those rights and its values by one of its own member states.

To go back to the previous paragraph’s final line, the Commission states that: ‘it is imperative that any measures taken must be proportionate, necessary and uphold fundamental rights and values, including the right to asylum.

We already noted that the concept of ‘protecting borders’ has no legal or logical meaning when applied to men, women and children seeking asylum. But it is worth noting here that in fact the measures taken by the Greek government are very far from proportionate, are entirely unnecessary and in fact are a deliberate, calculated and systematic attack on all of our fundamental rights and values, including the right to asylum.

Since 1 January 2020, the Greek government has prevented 12,900 out of 18,010 men, women and children either from reaching Greece at all, or from applying from asylum when they arrived. This is a mass transgression of the law.

It has illegally pushed back 72 per cent – almost three-quarters - of people who have attempted to enter the asylum system, in direct contradiction of the international laws to which it – and all EU member states – are signatories.

In the course of doing so, it has repeatedly lied to new arrivals, claiming it will take them for COVID testing and instead forcing them out of Greece, beaten and robbed many of these 12,900 people of the few possessions they had, has set thousands adrift on the open sea in engineless inflatable life-rafts and in at least one case, on 19 March 2021, has bound people’s hands resulting in the death of four men by drowning.

This brings shame on Greece. It brings shame on the EU, and it brings shame on humanity as a whole.

The Greek government, despite repeated requests and opportunities, has flatly refused to cease this unacceptable behaviour. It has instead dismissed all evidence as ‘Turkish propaganda’ and publicly attacked the organisations which have compiled and shared this vital data.

It is now imperative that the EU, which has the power and capacity to act, does so. It must investigate and try all documented pushback cases, and it must immediately suspend all payments to the Greek government related to the refugee response.

We may also, at this stage, ask ourselves a question: what is the European Union? What does it stand for? What does it do?

Because if, as this letter seems to state, it cannot and will not guide or demand its member states to behave in a manner befitting its self-proclaimed status as a responsible and honourable political unit, it is difficult to see what it is, or what its reason is for existing.

And such questions are not simple philosophising for the sake of it. Not only is this seeming inability or disinclination to act damaging thousands of men, women and children as we speak, it is also damaging the very basis of international law and the fundamental rights on which it is built.

Every time Greece is allowed without punishment to deny the rights of a Somali child, a Sudanese teen, an Afghan father or a Congolese grandmother, it is reserving the right for itself – and others like it – to deny them to us. To our sons and daughters, our sisters and brothers, our parents, our grandfathers and -mothers.

This cannot be allowed to continue.

The EU projects itself as a promoter and guardian of international law. We hope it is.

But to be what it says it is, it must act, and put an end to this shocking and unacceptable activity. (If you are concerned about pushbacks and want to help, please visit us at:


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