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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Greek government ‘loses’ more than 25,000 people

At the end of every year, we attempt to ‘round up’ the events of the previous 12 months, taking a look at the statistics we have compiled – all of which, we must be clear, have in fact been gathered by others.

For reasons of clarity, we should say here – as we will and do elsewhere – that the following are the sources for the statistics we discuss here, and which are the basis for much of our analytical work:

Sea arrivals – those men, women and children arriving on and being registered as having arrived on the Aegean Islands: Greek Ministry of Migration.

Land arrivals – those men, women and children arriving in Greece by ‘land’ (in fact, by crossing the Evros River which divides Greece from Turkey): UNHCR.

Pushbacks – the number of people illegally forced back from the Aegean Islands or Greek territorial waters (because ‘land’ pushbacks are not documented with anything like the same level of precision as those carried out ‘at sea’): Aegean Boat Report.

This short piece is not intended to serve as a ‘review of the year’ or anything like it, though all figures are complete for the period 1 January-31 December 2021.

In his New Year’s Eve message (31 December 2021), Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis claimed that 8,616 men, women and children arrived in Greece from the East.

In fact, what he actually said (along with a graph showing the numbers he wished to reference, as in the image above) was:

We say goodbye to 2021, the year with the lowest migration flows since the beginning of the crisis. With plan(ning), determination and hard work we regain control. And we continue!'

In actual fact, the figures he uses are themselves debatable.

According to the Greek Ministry of Migration, Mitarachis’ own Ministry, in the period 1 January-31 December 2021, there were 3,567 men, women and children registered as ‘new arrivals’ on the Aegean Islands, while UNHCR recorded 4,694 ‘land’ (Evros River) arrivals.

The total of these two figures is 8,261, 355 fewer people than he claimed.

However, this level of inaccuracy may be explained by a number of things, most likely that the Greek government – although it never releases such data – keeps its own statistics on ‘land’ arrivals to Greece and has counted 355 more arrivals than UNHCR. Which body may be ‘correct’ is another matter, but is not the subject of this piece.

More concerning – by far – is that only a couple of days previously, in the wake of the three catastrophes in four days of Christmas week in which 61 men, women and children died in shipwrecks off Folegandros, Antikythera and (on Christmas Eve) Paros, Greece’s Minister of Shipping, Giannis Plakiotakis, claimed that the Greek Coastguard has ‘rescued more than 29,000 ‘refugees and immigrants’ (he meant ‘people’ of course).

As ‘land’ arrivals cannot be counted as ‘rescues’ by the Coastguard, this means that some 25,434 men, women and children (29,001, the lowest possible value for ‘more than 29,000’, minus the 3,567 people registered as new arrivals on the Aegean Islands by the Greek government in 2021) have been ‘rescued’ but never entered the Greek immigration and/or asylum process.

And 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.

We must concede that there are some ‘extra’ factors we could consider here. It is possible, for example, that some of those ‘rescued’ were taken to mainland detention and registration centres on the Greek mainland.

But this cannot possibly account for the majority of those ‘rescued’.

And it could be that either Mr. Plakiotakis or Mr. Mitarachis was mistaken – though Mr. Mitarachis’ is the official Greek government figure for arrivals for the year – whether deliberately or otherwise. Neither is particularly encouraging when considering Mr. Mitarachis’ claim that ‘we regain control’.

Far more likely, however, is that – perhaps in combination with such an ‘error’ from Mr. Plakiotakis (perhaps made in his and his government’s desperation to deflect blame for the entirely avoidable Christmas week deaths, which were in fact caused by the government’s policy of illegally pushing back those who reach Greek land or territorial waters) – the ‘gap’ can be explained by the government’s consistent and illegal pushbacks.

Aegean Boat Report, and other monitoring organisations, report that the government has pushed back – illegally removed by force – 15,803 men, women and children from Greece in 2021. In many cases, these people were first beaten, then stripped of their possessions, and forced onto engineless life-rafts and pushed into Turkish waters.

Literally every single part of that process is absolutely illegal, as well as – and we do not apologise for using the term, because we are not robots and our behaviour and opinions must reflect that – unutterably immoral.

The problem is, even if we accept the absolute lowest possible number of ‘rescues’, and accept that a figure of 25,434 men, women and children is correct, rather than the 28,000+ that logic dictates is in fact the case, this would mean that monitoring organisations’ numbers are actually an underestimate by almost 38 per cent (37.87 per cent), and that 89.1 per cent – very nearly nine in every ten people, all but 3,567 of 32,568 people – of those who reached Greek land or waters in 2021 were illegally forced back.

It also indicates that – again, whether deliberately or not – Mr. Mitarachis’ New Year’s Eve statement was directly and entirely misleading.

Because in 2020, 9,105 men, women and children were registered as having arrived in Greece by sea. Aegean Boat Report recorded 9,741 people were illegally pushed back. This would mean a total of 18,846 people had in fact arrived in Greece.

But 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 (27,344, minus the 9,105 registered arrivals: 18,229, minus the 9,741 people we know were pushed back in 2020) or 46.6 per cent, and that in 2020, the Greek government in fact illegally pushed back 66.7 per cent – two in every three – people who arrived in Greece.

If we accept 27,344 as the ‘genuine’ number of people rescued, and pretend that these people included the 9,105 men, women and children registered as new arrivals at the Aegean island camps, then in fact the number of people – 32,568 – who arrived (based, again, on the Greek government’s figures) in 2021 or even the 29,001 people Mr. Plakiotakis claims were rescued by the Greek Coastguard (if we accept that they were the total number of people who arrived in Greece in 2021, which they were not) would in fact constitute a year on year increase in arrivals from 2020 to 2021.

And such an increase would in fact be a far more likely ‘progression’ in a year in which Covid restrictions were considerably reduced from the previous year.

Unfortunately, this leads us to only a few, all almost equally grim possibilities:

> The Greek government literally does not know how many people have arrived in Greece and/or were rescued at sea in both of the last two years, or it is incapable of communicating the correct information from one Ministry to the other

Either way, by using information it does not know to be correct, whether it realises that fact or not, its Ministers have between them significantly misled the Greek and indeed global public.

> The Greek government’s law-breaking is even greater than previously reported: the government has illegally pushed back far more people than even the largest previous recorded number and the ‘policy is not working. Far from ‘the lowest migration flows since the beginning of the crisis… plan(ning), determination and hard work we regain control’ as Mr. Mitarachis claimed, the number of people attempting to reach Greece is increasing

And it is arguably even worse. Because not only are the 'numbers' not falling, an increasing number of those who travel are taking far longer and more dangerous routes, to try to avoid the brutal, barbarian activities of the Greek government. The result, as in the catastrophes of Christmas week, will be increased, completely avoidable and unacceptable, death.

Mr. Mitarachis’ illegal activities, as well as being horrific, and direct breaches of human rights and international law, and killing men, women and children, are also failing, on the exact terms he has set: the number of people travelling to Greece – the ‘migration flows’ - is not ‘falling’: the Greek government is just breaking the law even more egregiously.


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