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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Greek government carries out highest ever number of illegal pushbacks

In September, the Greek government carried out its lowest-ever proportion of illegal pushbacks compared to people registered as new arrivals on the Eastern Aegean islands. Even so, the number of people illegally pushed back was the highest of any month on record.

The Greek government illegally pushed back 3,396 men, women and children who had reached Greek waters or the Eastern Aegean islands last month – the largest number of people ever pushed back in a single month.


The previous highest number of illegal pushbacks carried out by the Greek government was 3,302, in September 2022.


The practice of pushing men, women and children who are seeking safe places to live, learn and work, out of a country without allowing them to apply for asylum is a direct violation of international law.


It is also extremely dangerous, not least because it more than doubles the length of time people are forced to spend at sea, increasing enormously the chances of shipwrecks or other accidents.


But with blatant disregard for the risks to human life, and in direct and deliberate violation of the law, the Greek government has since 1 March 2020, made pushbacks its primary response to people arriving into Greek waters and/or the Eastern Aegean islands[1].


Nor is it simply that pushbacks are illegal and dangerous. In almost every documented case those pushed back have been beaten and robbed by uniformed officers (in March this year, Solomon (Greece) and El Pais (Spain) reported that Greek officers have stolen a total of €2.8m in cash and possessions from people pushed back from Greece since 2017: there is extremely good reason to believe the true figure is far higher), and in an enormous number, they have been tortured and sexually assaulted.


In the period since 1 March 2020, the government has illegally pushed back 67,892 men, women and children, compared to just 44,119 it has registered as new arrivals on the islands, a pushback rate of 60.6 per cent, more than three in every five people who have attempted to reach safe places to live, learn and work.


In fact, from 1 March to 31 December 2020, the government pushed back a staggering 71 per cent of people who arrived (9,741 of 13,741 men, women and children: just 3,973 were registered as arrivals), and in 2021 that rose to 81.6 per cent (15,803 people pushed back, just 3,567 registered) and in 2022 the proportion was again 71 per cent: 26,134 pushed back, compared to 10,661 people registered as new arrivals.


In the first nine months of this year, 16,232 men, women and children have been forcibly and illegally pushed back from the Eastern Aegean islands, while 24,332 people have been registered as new arrivals on them.


This is a considerably smaller proportion of people pushed back compared with those registered – 40 per cent of arrivals pushed back – but as September's figures show, even as the proportion of people pushed back compared to arrivals has dropped (September's figure, 24.3 per cent is the lowest on record), the numbers have not.


The Greek government is pushing back at least as many people as it ever has – and last month the highest ever number – even as the proportion drops.


This, in part, is because the government devised its refugee 'response' on the basis of the number of people arriving during the Covid-19 pandemic: as soon as that catastrophe lifted, the number of people arriving rose far more sharply than the government could increase the number of pushbacks it illegally carried out.


Rory O'Keeffe a humanitarian expert on people-movement and related international law, and the head of the End Pushbacks Now campaign, commented:


'Despite the fall in the proportion of men, women and children being pushed back, the actual number of illegal pushbacks rose last month to its highest ever level.


'After 43 solid months, not only does the Greek government show no signs of tiring of its relentless violence and persecution of some of the world's most vulnerable people, it is actually increasing its attacks against them.


'Its behaviour is a violation of Greek, EU and international law, seemingly backed by the EU.


'More than that, it directly places human lives in even graver danger, and the Greek government also subjects these men, women and children, whose legal right it is to travel to seek safe places to live, learn and work, to beatings, torture, robbery and sexual abuse.


'It is an attack on and a joke against the very idea of civilised and acceptable human behaviour, the concept of humanity.


'Where once the Greek people prided themselves on being guardians against supposed 'barbarians' without civilisation, today the Greek government, cheered on by parts of the EU, are those barbarians, carrying out vicious, illegal and deeply immoral attacks against tired, hungry, men, women and children.


'The EU is supposed to be a guardian of human rights, and the Greek government, when it suits it, is swift to evoke nationalist images of Greece as a founder of civilisation. At present, both groups bring shame upon the names of Europe and the wider human race.


'All our rights are under direct threat from the Greek government's actions, because rights cease to be rights when they can be granted or stripped from us at the whim of a government. As individuals, we cannot protect those rights. We must stand together to protect them, and one another.'


Notes

1. End Pushbacks Now is a campaign to engage and involve the European public in protecting their own rights, and ending pushbacks from Greece, by petitioning members of the European Parliament. It can be visited at: https://www.koraki.org/end-pushbacks.

2. All pushbacks figures are courtesy of Aegean Boat Report. All arrivals and registration figures are from the Greek Ministry of Migration.

[1] Pushbacks are certainly also being illegally carried out against people arriving into Greece via the Evros River, but the numbers are less certain. They are certainly extremely high, however, with the Greek government having boasted in January 2023 that it had 'prevented 260,000 migrants' from entering Greece via this route in 2022 alone.

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