• Rory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Kiriakos Mitsotakis: ‘credit’ for ‘reducing flows’ on the Aegean Sea

Updated: Jun 1



Summary


Late last week (20 May 2021), some 23 months into his tenure as Greece’s Prime Minister, Kiriakos Mitsotakis announced his pride that:


In the last two years, with the active support of Frontex, we have managed to reduce flows by almost 80% in 2020 and by an additional 72% from the beginning of the year until today.


He added:


I would like to warmly congratulate the Greek Armed Forces, the Greek Police, and especially the Greek Coast Guard and my colleagues in the government for the results they have achieved. I would also like to congratulate the Coast Guard and FRONTEX for the protection they provide against the risk of loss of human life at sea. The protection of our borders not only prevents irregular arrivals, but also protects human lives.


We have seen no analysis of this claim, or indeed of whether such a development could be considered desirable or even legal. As a result, we have compiled our own ‘review’.


In fact:


· Mitsotakis’ claim could only be considered accurate if one accepts a definition of the term ‘flow’ which equates to ‘the number of people the Greek government has registered as arrivals in Greece’. This definition is used by absolutely nobody, and would reduce the term to practical uselessness even if Greece and the wider EU were not breaking the law to prevent people being registered as ‘new arrivals’, which in fact they are


· Bearing in mind the first point, the figures ‘almost 80%’ and ‘72%’ must be dismissed as inaccurate: in fact, ‘flow’ has ‘reduced’ by 67.6% and 49.4%, respectively


· This reduction has been achieved by an enormous increase in illegal pushbacks carried out by the Greek government – and according to Mitsotakis’ statement, also Frontex – since 1 March 2020: this is the sole factor for which he and/or the wider EU can claim any responsibility


· Greece (and perhaps Frontex) illegally pushed back at least 14,324 people in 2020 – 94.9 per cent as many as the 15,087 men, women and children it registered as new arrivals that year. From 1 January to 19 May 2021, it registered 2,786 people as having arrived: from 1 January to 30 April 2021, it had illegally pushed back at least 3,286 men, women and children: 18 per cent more people (118 per cent) than it registered


· The Greek government has in fact reduced the number of people it has registered as ‘new arrivals’ – and thus allowed to enter the legal system and apply for asylum, as is their right – to just 25 per cent of people who have attempted to or managed to, reach Greece: it has denied a staggering 75 per cent of people this right from 1 January to 30 April this year


· Mitsotakis has misused the terms ‘irregular arrivals’ and ‘border protection’: neither have any legal relevance to the conversation he wishes to have, and both should therefore be dismissed and ignored


· Far from ‘safeguarding human lives’, as he claims, Mitsotakis and his government have overseen the single greatest proportion of deaths per safe arrival of people crossing the Aegean Sea in recorded history


· While Greece (and according to his statement, also Frontex) absolutely has reduced the number of people registered as new arrivals in Greece since 1 January 2020, by breaking international law and denying men, women and children their fundamental human rights, by far the greatest factor in the reduction on ‘flow’ appears to have been the onset of the global COVID pandemic


Contents

Introduction


Comparison criteria


‘Flow’ definition


The data

a) what is included

b) what is not included

> Turkish coastguard pushbacks

> deaths on the Aegean Sea

> Greek pushbacks


Registered arrivals

Deaths

‘Irregular arrivals’ and ‘border protection’

Change in ‘flow’ – Greece and the EU, or other factors?

> Things are ‘better in Turkey’

> Things are ‘better in Syria’ (and other states)

> Things are ‘better in Turkey’ (part two: they are ‘better’ than in the EU)

> COVID


Introduction


Late last week, at a meeting in Athens with the CEO of the EU’s border force Frontex Fabrice Leggeri, the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced that he was proud that:


In the last two years, with the active support of Frontex, we have managed to reduce flows by almost 80% in 2020 and by an additional 72% from the beginning of the year until today.


He added:


I would like to warmly congratulate the Greek Armed Forces, the Greek Police, and especially the Greek Coast Guard and my colleagues in the government for the results they have achieved. I would also like to congratulate the Coast Guard and FRONTEX for the protection they provide against the risk of loss of human life at sea. The protection of our borders not only prevents irregular arrivals, but also protects human lives.


These claims should in no way be accepted as fact, defying as they do the statistical realities of the situation, the actual definition of the term ‘flow’, the concept of ‘border defence’ and the idea that human lives have been ‘protected’.


Not one of these claims stands up to any analysis.


In his speech, Mitsotakis went on to make several comments about Turkey, which were roughly as accurate as they were helpful, but we do not need to address those here.


We do feel, however, that we must address the clear inaccuracies in the above statements, if for no other reason than to ensure that in at least one place there is a reliable, considered and correct response to the misleading claims of the Greek Prime Minister.


Comparison criteria


In order to be as fair as possible, we will begin by setting a date of 19 May 2021 for the ‘comparison’ moment (that is, we will compare with 19 May 2020). Though his statement was made after this date, we do not feel it’s likely he had figures from the day before, while it would have been impossible for him to have known what would happen by the close of the day on which he spoke.


‘Flow’ definition


We ought also, however, to make a note on what the definition of ‘flow’ is here, as without that we have no criteria against which to judge Mitsotakis’ claim.


In general humanitarian and political situations, the term ‘flow’ when applied to people moving holds the simplest possible meaning: ‘the total number of people travelling from one place to another’.


We would advise that under this definition, the ‘flow’ can be regarded as ‘people leaving a point of origin’ rather than ‘people reaching a destination’, as the latter can be significantly complicated by, for example, a government or governments at the travellers’ desired end-point preventing their entrance by breaking the law, or by people dying en route.


Mitsotakis is attempting to apply a different definition – the number of people successfully completing a journey from one place to another: to simplify in this instance, the number of people arriving in Greece from Turkey.


Even using this definition, however, there are significant faults in the Greek Prime Minister’s claim.


The data

a) what is included


we have managed to reduce flows by almost 80% in 2020


In 2019, 59,993 men, women and children entered Greece by sea, seeking a safe place to live. In 2020, that figure fell, to 9,105. (in all of the following examples, we are using the Greek government’s arrivals figures, even though UNHCR’s have been consistently higher for every year since 2015).


In actual fact, on the face of it, this is a drop, rather than ‘almost 80%’, of almost 84 per cent (84.82 per cent).


But we should include ‘land’ arrivals (those people who cross the Evros river to reach Greece) as well.


In 2019, 14,891 men, women and children came to Greece by land. In 2020, that number dropped to 5,982, a fall of around 60 per cent (59.83 per cent).


So, in total, in 2019, 74,884 men, women and children travelled to Greece seeking safe, decent shelter and a chance to live their lives in peace.

In 2020, that number dropped to 15,087. A fall of 79.85 per cent.


This does appear to match the ‘almost 80%’ reduction in ‘flows’ Mitsotakis claims.


and by an additional 72% from the beginning of the year until today.


We are assuming Mitsotakis means that the number of people who have arrived in Greece from 1 January-19 May 2021 has dropped by 72 per cent compared with the corresponding figure last year.


If so, those figures are that up to 19 May this year, 1,068 people had been registered as having arrived in Greece by sea. In 2020, 7,355 men, women and children had arrived. (for the sake of ‘completeness’, and because we will come back to this, we might note that from 1 January-19 May 2019, 8,453 people had arrived). This is a reduction of 85.47 per cent.


From 1 January-19 May this year, 1,718 people have arrived by ‘land’. In the same period of 2020, 2,111 had arrived in Greece. (In the equivalent period of 2019, 4,083 men, women and children arrived). So, there has been an 18.62 per cent decrease in people making the so-called ‘land crossings’.


In total, 2,786 men, women and children have arrived in Greece from 1 January-19 May 2021. In the same period of 2020, 9,466 people had reached Greece by the same routes. The drop between these two periods is 70.57 per cent. It is unclear why Mitsotakis should have claimed a one per cent greater drop than the reality, but it is a less wild claim than some others he has made on this topic, and not of particular statistical importance.


Mitsotakis’ claim: ‘we have managed to reduce flows by almost 80% in 2020


The fact: 2019 - 74,884 new arrivals. 2020 – 15,087 new arrivals. A 79.85 per cent drop in people registered as arriving in Greece.


Mitsotakis’ claim: ‘and by an additional 72% from the beginning of the year until today.


The fact: 1 January-19 May 2020 – 9,466 new arrivals. 1 January-19 May 2021 – 2,786 new arrivals. A 70.57 per cent drop in the number of people registered as arriving in Greece.


b) what is not included


So far, the statement seems to hold up. As long as we accept the Mitsotakis definition of ‘flows’, it appears that ‘flows’ have decreased by roughly the levels he claims.


The problem comes, however, if we attempt to use the more widely-accepted and applied definition: that of the number of people setting out on the journey, rather than those who have managed to arrive.


Because ‘arrivals’, as registered by the Greek government, do not in fact include all of the people who have arrived on the Greek islands, or who have managed to cross the Evros river. The government lists only those who have legally-registered as ‘arrivals’, but this is, as we shall see, far from the whole story.


> Turkish coastguard pushbacks


Under the EU/Turkey Statement, the Turkish coastguard is (illegally) demanded by the EU to intercept people attempting to cross the Aegean Sea and force them back to Turkey. This is in direct contravention of the right to travel to seek safety, as included in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (to which Turkey and all EU member states are signatories), and has effectively transformed the Turkish coastguard from a life-saving service into an illegal sea militia force.


(The EU has done exactly the same thing to the (far less-organised and worse-equipped) Libyan ‘coast-guard’ to prevent men, women and children crossing the sea from North African to Southern Europe: its insistence that it be regarded as a protector and promoter of international law should not be so easily punctured by its two major foreign policies of the last decade)


But despite repeated claims from successive Greek governments, to the contrary and despite many significant flaws and justified concerns about the Turkish government, the statistics clearly show that the Turkish coastguard has fulfilled its part of the ‘deal’.


In 2016, 182,500 men, women and children reached Greece. But 147,437 had arrived by 20 March, when the Statement came into operation. In the rest of the year, 35,063 people arrived. In the same period, the Turkish coastguard stopped and pushed back 17,190 people, 49 per cent as many as those who made the crossing. (all coastguard figures taken from the Turkish national coastguard service).


In 2017, 28,630 men, women and children reached Greece. The Turkish coastguard intercepted and returned a further 21,937, or 76.6 per cent as many.


The following year, 2018, saw 32,432 people reach Greece. The Turkish coastguard stopped and forced back 26,679, 82.3 per cent as many.

In 2019, the year in which Nea Dimokratia took power in July, 59,859 men, women and children reached Greece by sea. The Turkish coastguard intercepted and forcibly returned 60,366 people, preventing more people from crossing (100.8 per cent) than arrived.


In 2020, the year Mitsotakis lists as the first for comparison, and Nea Dimokratia’s first full year in power, 9,105 people managed to reach the Aegean islands from Turkey. The Turkish coastguard stopped 19,511 crossings, well over twice as many people (214.3 per cent).


2020 was also the year in which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told men, women and children seeking safety in Turkey that the Turkish border with the EU was ‘open’. Of course, it was not.


We wrote at length the reasons why Erdogan took this step when he did, but even had it been a simple piece of ‘manoeuvring’ as the Greek government and many EU politicians continue to claim, we should note that this, early March 2020, was the first time in almost exactly four years that Turkey and the EU had not been in direct breach of international law.


The EU, for which that sorry record has now continued into a sixth consecutive year, responded with police and armed forces firing at unarmed civilians on its borders and, later the same month, with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stating that ‘Greece is our shield.’


Quite why the richest political bloc ever to have existed should require a ‘shield’ to open fire on helpless and desperate men, women and children has never been adequately explained. In any event, despite this, March was not the month in which either most arrivals or coastguard ‘blocks’ were recorded. That month was January, in which 3,137 people arrived in Greece and 4,062 were prevented from reaching Greece by the Turkish coastguard.

So far this year, 1,086 men, women and children have arrived, while 5,066 have been stopped by the Turkish coastguard, by far the highest proportion yet recorded (473 per cent more prevented than arrived).


To compare 1 January-19 May of 2020 and 2021, 7,355 people arrived, while 9,768 were stopped by the Turkish coastguard from 1 January-19 May 2020, while this year, as noted, the figures are 1,086 arrivals and 5,066 people who were stopped by the Turkish force.


What is interesting about these figures is the way they alter our view of what Mitsotakis claims to have happened. Because if we accept that in fact 120,225 people either attempted or managed to enter Greece by sea in 2019 (the number of those who were blocked by the Turkish coastguard and those registered by the Greek government as new arrivals) and 28,616 in 2020, the difference, while still significant, drops to 76.2 per cent.


If we then add those 14,891 people who arrived in Greece in 2019 by crossing the Evros river, the total ‘flow’ is 135,116 men, women and children, of whom – because of the EU-Turkey Statement’s illegal demands on the Turkish coastguard - 74,884 (55.4 per cent) of whom were actually registered by the Greek authorities.


Following the same process for 2020, 34,598 men, women and children attempted to reach Greece – the ‘flow’ – of whom 15,087 (43.6 per cent) were registered as arrivals.


Using this data, the ‘drop’ in ‘flow’ between 2019 and 2020 was in fact 74.4 per cent. Once again, still large, but different enough from Mitsotakis’ claim of ‘almost 80 per cent’ to show that when he refers to ‘flow’, he means the number of people his government has registered as ‘new arrivals’, rather than the number of people undertaking the journey.


To take the same approach to the periods 1 January-19 May 2020 and 2021, a total of 19,234 people attempted to use their legal right to travel from 1 January-19 May 2020, of whom 9,466 men, women and children were ‘successful’.

In the equivalent period of 2021, 7,852 men, women and children have undertaken the crossing of the Aegean or the Evros. Of those, 2,786 were registered as arrivals.


This – far from an ‘additional drop’ of 72 per cent, as Mitsotakis claimed, or even of 70.57 per cent as the figures actually show – was in reality a fall in flow of 59.2 per cent.


Mitsotakis’ claim: ‘we have managed to reduce flows by almost 80% in 2020


The fact: 2019 - A ‘flow’ of 135,116 men, women and children, including those stopped under the illegal demands of the EU-Turkey Statement. 2020 – a ‘flow’ of 34,598 men, women and children, including those stopped under the illegal demands of the EU-Turkey Statement.

2019-2020, a drop in ‘flow’ of 74.4 per cent.


Mitsotakis’ claim: ‘and by an additional 72% from the beginning of the year until today.


The fact: 1 January-19 May 2020 - A ‘flow’ of 19,234 men, women and children, including those stopped under the illegal demands of the EU-Turkey Statement. 1 January-19 May 2021 - A ‘flow’ of 7,870 men, women and children, including those stopped under the illegal demands of the EU-Turkey Statement.


1 January-19 May 2020 – 1 January-19 May 2021, a drop in ‘flow’ of 59.1 per cent.


> deaths on the Aegean Sea


We should note here that if looking at flows of people, the number who die at sea while attempting the crossing – not included in any other analysis – should also be noted.


In brief, in the year 2016, in which 182,500 men, women and children arrived in Greece, 441 people died: one person dead for every 413.1 who made the crossing safely. Of those, 35,063 people arrived after the EU-Turkey Statement was signed. In that period, 68 of those men, women and children – one in 515.6 – died at sea.


In 2017, as well as 28,630 people the Greek government registered as arrivals by sea, 54 people – one for every 530 who were registered as arrivals – died.


In 2018, 32,432 people were registered by the Greek government as having arrived by sea. 174 – one person for every 186.4 who made it safely – died.

In 2019, 59,859 men, women and children were registered by the Greek government. 71 people – one for every 845 who was registered as an arrival – died.


In 2020, 9,105 people were registered as arrivals by sea by the Greek government. 104 people – one person for every 87.5 who made it across safely – died. This, during Nea Dimokratia’s first full year in power, is the highest proportion of deaths compared to safe arrivals on the Aegean Sea since records began.


In the period 1 January-19 May 2020, 72 men, women and children died in the Aegean Sea, compared to 7,355 people registered as arrivals. One death for every 102.2 arrivals.


In the same period of this year, five people have died, compared with 1,086 safe arrivals. One death for every 217.2 safe arrivals.


For the purpose of measuring Mitsotakis’ claim, we should note that this means that to the figure of 135,116 men, women and children who could be described as the ‘flow’ in 2019, we must add the 71 people who died making the journey. The figure we now record must be 135,187 men, women and children.


For 2020, we must add the 104 men, women and children who died to our earlier figure of 34,598. That figure is now 34,702 people.


And for 1 January-19 May 2020, we need to add 72 men, women and children who died trying to cross, to the ‘flow’ figure of 19,234 people. That number rises as a result to 19,306 people.


For the equivalent period of this year, we add to our earlier figure of 7,852, a further five people, raising our figure to 7,857 men, women and children.


Based on this, the actual drop in ‘flow’ between 2019 and 2020 is very similar – 73.3 per cent.


The drop between 1 January and 19 March 2020 and the same dates in 2021 remains 59.2 per cent.


> Greek pushbacks


The Greek government’s position on pushbacks has been to tell the EU and international media that no pushbacks are taking place from Greece, and that any and all claims to the contrary are either the result of Turkish propaganda, or are being made because the people and/or organisations revealing the practice are part of a Turkish conspiracy against Greece.


The groups so far accused include every monitoring NGO working on the Aegean Sea, the United Nations, more than a dozen international media organisations, many MEPs and the Council of Europe.


Within Greece, while still making these extraordinary claims, the government also repeatedly makes statements that it is in any case its ‘right’ to prevent people entering Greece. It is not.


In any case, the data, including location data from mobile phones, videos shot by refugees being attacked by Greek uniformed officers and the statistics on the number of illegal pushbacks carried out by the Greek government do exist, and are easily accessed. Here, we are using figures compiled by Aegean Boat Report for sea pushbacks, which are also used in our End Pushbacks Now campaign.


The Greek government does push people back illegally from Greece. The practice is important to this analysis because the system is designed not even to prevent people entering Greece (though it certainly includes that), but to illegally deny them the right to apply for asylum, and force them out of the country instead.


This practice has been ongoing since the EU-Turkey Statement came into effect in March 2016, but in every case organisations working with refugees – particularly those doing so on and beside the Aegean Sea –report that the number of people pushed back has significantly increased since 1 March 2020.


It will be difficult for us to apply an accurate figure to the precise number of pushbacks on either the Evros border, or at the Aegean, prior to 2020, because too few of the figures have been published, not least because the land border pushbacks had been carried out under relative silence – albeit with extreme violence and theft carried out against innocent men, women and children.


But as a degree of guidance, from 1 April 2019-30 June 2019, 70 pushbacks were reported by organisations working at Evros. From 1 March-30 April 2020, 194 were reported – almost three times as many in two-thirds of the time.


Pushbacks are taking place in Greece at the borders, but also at camps across the Greek mainland, with reports arising of men, women and children being forced out of camps including Diavata, Lagadikia and other locations in the North of Greece, without being given the opportunity to register and enter the legal process for applying for asylum which is their right under international law.


These pushbacks were taking place in 2019, and before, but based on the reports available, in far smaller number.


As a result, we cannot seriously claim to be able to make a clear ‘comparison’ between 2019 and 2020 in terms of ‘flow’, but what we can do is make an estimate, based on a 15-fold increase in pushbacks from the Aegean region and a quadrupling of incidents at the Evros border.


Our concern is that we are in fact significantly underestimating the amount by which these illegal pushbacks have increased. And we can offer accurate figures for the Aegean Sea in 2020 and 2021 to date.


In 2020, 9,741 men, women and children were forced into engineless craft and set adrift on the Aegean Sea, pushed back by uniformed Greek officers. In the same year, the Greek government registered just 9,105 people as new arrivals by sea.


From 1 January-19 May 2020, 2,430 people were pushed back from the Greek coast, including people who had landed on the Aegean islands. From 1 January-30 April 2021, that figure had increased to 3,000 people.


Applying the 15* rule, the approximate number of people to have been pushed back in 2019 would have been roughly 694.


On the mainland, as no figures yet exist for the period 1 January-19 May 2021, we are forced to estimate based on last year’s numbers.


In 2020, the Border Violence Monitoring Network recorded 4,583 people as having been pushed back from Greece at the Evros river crossing. The true figure seems likely to be considerably higher.


Using the *4 rule, this would suggest roughly 1,145 people were pushed back in 2019.


Based on this data, we can estimate that around 286 people were pushed back in the period 1 January-19 May 2020. Without accurate data, we cannot seriously suggest a much higher number for 2021.


This would mean that factoring in the Greek government’s illegal pushbacks of innocent men, women and children from its borders, the actual flow data for 2019 compared to 2020 would be 137,026 people in 2019, and 44,443 for 2020.


The percentage difference would now be 67.6 per cent, down considerably from Mitsotakis’ claim of ‘almost 80%’.


For the period 1 January-19 May 2020, we must now record 22,022 people as having tried to reach Greece, of whom only 9,466 have been registered by the Greek government as arrivals.


For the equivalent period of this year, 11,143 people have tried to reach and claim asylum in Greece, of whom just 2,786 have been registered as arrivals – a smaller number even than those illegally pushed back at sea.


The overall drop in ‘flow’ – the term cited by Mitsotakis – was in fact 49.4 per cent, compared to the Greek Prime Minister’s claim of 72 per cent.


Registered arrivals


At this moment, it is worth noting briefly that the outstanding point about these figures is perhaps not so much the drop in number of people attempting to reach Greece – for which we can at least offer a number of possible explanations – but how extraordinarily-few of those who do make the attempt are actually allowed by Greece and the wider EU to enter the system as asylum seekers.


Given the simple fact that it is the absolute right of all men, women and children to travel, with or without paperwork, to find safe places to live, this is a shocking indictment of both Greece and the EU as a whole.


In short, the fact is that the EU-Turkey Statement was specifically designed to prevent people from reaching the EU, with a direct focus on preventing them from successfully travelling at all.


And certainly in the 14 and a half months since 1 March 2020, and to a lesser but still existent extent in the four years prior to that, the foundation of Greece’s response to people arriving has been to illegally force them out without allowing them even to register.


There is no chance whatsoever that Greece – a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the Refugee Convention and Refugee Protocols – could possibly believe this to be legal. Equally, there is no possibility that the EU, all of whose member-states are signatory to those three legal agreements, does not know that this is illegal or that it is happening.


Over the last six years, and even more regularly in the last year, aid organisations, international media, legal experts and the United Nations itself, have repeatedly and publicly shown that pushbacks are happening, in enormous number.


Parts of the EU itself, including many MEPs, but also at the Council of Europe, have also spoken out on the issue. Yet nothing, so far, has been done. It is convenient – and very likely true – for the EU Commission to argue that the Greek government says it is not pushing people back. We have seen the government say so repeatedly. But it is not acceptable for the EU to pretend that the Greek government denying it breaks the law is proof that it does not.


In any case, the facts are as follows:


After the enaction of the EU-Turkey statement in March 2016, 35,063 people were registered as arrivals in Greece. In the same period, the Turkish coastguard stopped and pushed back 17,190 people, 49 per cent as many as those who made the crossing. Sixty-eight people died.


Without factoring in pushbacks, for which we do not have the data at present, this means that of 52,321 people who attempted to reach Greece, just 32.9 per cent were actually registered as arrivals.


In 2017, 35,222 men, women and children were registered as new arrivals in Greece by land and sea. The Turkish coastguard intercepted and returned a further 21,937, and 54 people died. Of 57,213 men, women and children, 61.6 per cent were registered as arrivals.


In 2018, 50,446 people were registered as having arrived in Greece. 26,679 were prevented from reaching Greece by the Turkish coastguard. 174 men, women and children died. Of 77,299 people who tried to enter the asylum system, 65.3 per cent were allowed to do so.


In 2019, the first year Mitsotakis has invited us to consider, and the first year in which – from July – his party Nea Dimokratia – held power, 74,750 people were registered as arrivals. 60,366 were prevented from arriving by the Turkish coastguard, and 71 men, women and children died. Of 135,187 people who attempted to reach Greece, 55.3 per cent were registered by the Greek government.


The following year, 2020, was Nea Dimokratia’s first in power. The Greek government registered 15,087 men, women and children as ‘new arrivals’. 19,511 people were prevented from reaching Greece by the Turkish coastguard, 104 people drowned, and at least 14,324 were illegally pushed back by the Greek government and/or Frontex.


That is, in the first full year Nea Dimokratia held power, of 49,026 people who attempted to reach Greece and enter the asylum system, just 30.7 per cent – significantly less than a third, and fewer than even the first year of the EU-Turkey Statement – were registered by the Greek government.


To look at Mitsotakis’ other chosen periods for comparison, 1 January-19 May 2020 and 1 January-19 May 2021, in the first, the Greek government registered 9,466 new arrivals in Greece. 9,768 were prevented from reaching Greece by the Turkish coastguard. 72 people died, while the Greek government pushed back at least 2,716 people.


Of 22,022 people who attempted to reach Greece, just 42.9 per cent were registered by the Greek government as arrivals.


This is the third lowest proportion on record, and took place in a period in which at least the first two months were before the Greek government’s intensified pushbacks programme – a programme which slashed this proportion by a further 28 per cent.


In the equivalent period of this year, 2,786 people have been registered as arrivals in Greece. Five men, women and children died, 5,066 people were prevented from reaching Greece by the Turkish coastguard, and at least 3,286 people were pushed back up to 30 April.


Of 11,143 people who attempted to enter the EU asylum system, the Greek government registered just 25 per cent. The lowest number on record. At least three-quarters – 75 per cent – of all men, women and children who have tried to enter the Greek and EU asylum system from the East have been deliberately, calculatedly and illegally prevented from doing so.


This is the ‘triumph’ of the Greek government: reducing the number of people not who travel (for which, as we shall see, it can hardly claim responsibility) but the number of people it has registered as arriving – more accurately, the number it and the wider EU have illegally prevented from registering.


We must also note, once again, that the figures we are using for the people pushed back at the Evros river are almost certainly a significant underestimate, and we simply do not have figures for the number of people stopped from crossing by the Turkish police, or Greek and EU forces at the border itself.


Bearing this in mind, the scale of Greece, the EU, and Turkey’s law-breaking is likely to be even greater.


Deaths


I would also like to congratulate the Coast Guard and FRONTEX for the protection they provide against the risk of loss of human life at sea. The protection of our borders not only prevents irregular arrivals, but also protects human lives.


We are sorry to labour a point, but Mitsotakis’ claim that the Greek (or indeed Turkish) coast-guard, or Frontex, have ‘protected human lives’ is simply a disgrace, and very easily proven to be untrue.


In 2016, 182,500 men, women and children arrived in Greece. 441 people – one person for every 413.1 who made the crossing safely – died.


Of those, 35,063 people arrived after the EU-Turkey Statement was signed. In that period, 68 of those men, women and children – one in 515.6 – died at sea.


In 2017, the Greek government registered 28,630 people as arrivals by sea. 54 people – one for every 530 who safely reached Greece – died.


In 2018, 32,432 people were registered by the Greek government as having arrived by sea. 174 – one person for every 186.4 who made it safely – died.


In 2019, 59,859 men, women and children were registered by the Greek government. 71 people – one for every 845 who was registered – died.


In 2020, the first full year of Mitsotakis’ Nea Dimokratia’s period of government, 9,105 people were registered as arrivals by sea. 104 people – one person for every 87.5 who made it across safely – died.


This is the highest number of deaths per safe arrival on the Aegean Sea since records began.


From 1 January to 19 May this year five people have died, compared with 1,086 registered safe arrivals. One death for every 217.2 safe arrivals.


This is certainly an improvement, but we ought to note that three of those deaths (and in fact a fourth person is almost certainly dead but because his body has not been recovered, he is still officially listed as ‘missing’) were caused when the Greek coastguard set five men adrift in an engineless life-raft with their hands tied with plastic handcuffs.


The number of people dying on the crossing is – on the whole – falling, though the number as well as the proportion who died in 2020 was higher than in the last nine months of 2016, all of 2017 and all of 2019, and was, we repeat, the highest proportion of deaths compared with safe crossings since records began.


The general fall is of course a positive sign.


But there is a point to be made here about the ways in which policing ‘routes’ to the islands can increase danger, even as it reduces numbers of arrivals and deaths (when it does). Because the ‘easiest’ – and generally the shortest – routes are those most often used, and so most heavily-policed.


This can, with the best will in the world (and we are far from certain that anyone involved in the EU-Turkey Statement, or Nea Dimokratia’s ‘response’ to people trying to reach Greece actually has the ‘best will in the world’) drive people to more dangerous routes – increasing the risk to those who try to cross even as it may reduce the number who try to.


And that is the problem at the heart of the EU’s response to date: it has placed far too great an emphasis on reducing numbers and/or preventing people arriving – even where in doing so it directly breaks the law – and far too little on safety.


If Greece or the wider EU (and the same goes for almost every country outside of the EU) were actually interested in people’s safety, they would instead of ‘policing’ waters to stop people and make arrests, be providing safe transportation for those who need it, and patrolling waters for the purpose of saving lives and delivering people to the place they want to go, rather than illegally forcing people back to the places they have fled.


Finally, and most importantly, we repeat: Mitsotakis’ government, hand-in-hand with the EU, has overseen the highest ever rate of deaths on the Aegean Sea. For him to sit in front of the world’s media and claim his activities and those of the people to whom he issues orders have ‘protected human lives’ is an open and deliberate falsehood. He must be held to account for his actions, in EU and international courts.


'Irregular arrivals’ and ‘border protection’


The protection of our borders not only prevents irregular arrivals…


We don’t need to say very much here, except to note that Mitsotakis has once again – and we must conclude deliberately as he is the Prime Minister of a developed nation-state, with expert advisors and assistance, rather than a man who was unable to attend school and has no awareness whatsoever of international law – misrepresented the meaning of the terms he has chosen to use.


First of all, ‘irregular arrivals’.


An ‘irregular arrival’ is a person who arrives within a state without paperwork (such as a passport or other recognised ID) and then attempts to live and work within that state without gaining the appropriate paperwork – visas, work permits, any other document peculiar to the state.


The point is that as all such phrases must be in an international legal structure in which travel is recognised as a fundamental human right, the travel itself is not and cannot be irregular, and neither can the person who travels.


The travel – and the person who travels – can only be considered ‘irregular’ after the person who has made the journey has arrived and made their next step.


This is of course not to say that international travel is never ‘irregular’. And indeed that ‘travel’ (or more accurately, what is done after that travel has ended) can result in some exceptionally difficult and negative outcomes for the ‘traveller’.


But – as Mitsotakis absolutely must know (unless he is unfit for his role) – an arrival is not ‘irregular if a ‘paperless’ person applies for asylum at the first available opportunity.


This does not mean that the state in which an application is made must grant asylum to the applicant, but it does mean that the person must be allowed the opportunity to apply and that if they do so, their ‘travel’ is by definition not ‘irregular’.


The use of the term ‘irregular’ here is therefore absolutely not applicable to the situation to which Mitsotakis has attempted to apply it: you may deal with people whose behaviour after they have arrived proves their arrival to have been ‘irregular’, but you simply cannot and must not pre-judge that, and prevent people having the opportunity to enter the asylum system in an orderly and legal fashion.


Mitsotakis, here, is misusing the phrase ‘irregular arrivals’, and seeking to claim one can ‘prevent’ ‘irregularity’ by preventing people from entering one’s country at all. You cannot, and should not. We can – and must – correct him, and are happy to do so here.


Secondly ‘protect our borders


Protecting one’s borders is of course allowed under international law.


Indeed, it is one of the major duties of a national government, though it would be perhaps more sensible and accurate to say that protecting the people who live in a state is the duty of a government, rather than ‘protecting the borders’ of the state: the second is a means of performing the first, rather than an aim complete in and of itself.


But once again, Mitsotakis here has misused the phrase and in doing so has conjured an image which is misleading and unreasonable.


Because one can ‘defend one’s borders’ from an invading force: from a group of armed people acting on the behalf of another nation state (an army) or themselves (a militia) entering another country in order to kill and/or seize power and/or possessions from the people within.


What one cannot do, within a system in which travel – particularly travel for the purposes of finding safety from death, unfair imprisonment, chaos, victimisation or other oppression – is not simply legal but a fundamental human right, is ‘defend one’s borders’ from unarmed people seeking asylum.


One may if one decides it is correct to do so, deny an applicant the asylum they seek. But one cannot – literally by definition – legally ‘defend one’s border’ from unarmed civilians seeking safety and the right to live their lives as normal.


The most often cited ‘counter-argument’ to this is ‘but these people are not refugees’. But the point is, you do not know: you cannot know, until and unless you allow them to apply for asylum and consider their application when it is made.


You can check for weapons to ensure they are unarmed. You can deny them asylum once their application has been considered. And you can remove them from the country if they fail to apply for asylum at the first available opportunity after they arrive in their ‘destination’ state.


But you simply cannot claim the legal right to prevent unarmed civilians entering your country. That right does not exist. It is not legal to ‘protect one’s borders’ in this way, and it is not correct to describe such activity as ‘protecting our borders’.


It is extremely difficult to believe that Mitsotakis – and for that matter the EU, whose Commission President Ursula von der Leyen described Greece as ‘our shield’ in the wake of Greek police and soldiers opening fire on civilian men, women and children on its borders in March 2020 – does not know this.


Change in ‘flow’ – Greece and the EU, or other factors?


In the last two years, with the active support of Frontex, we have managed to reduce flows…


Of course, in the immediate aftermath of Mitsotakis’ statement, many organisations – Koraki included – noted that a major factor in the ‘reduction in flow’ cited by the Greek PM was Greece’s illegal and disgusting policy of pushing men, women and children away from its borders, denying them the opportunity to find safe places to live, and endangering their lives in the process.


This policy is being carried out with at best the deliberate ignorance of the European Commission, and at worst its active assistance. Once again, the European Union has been in breach of international law on travel and refugees for more than five consecutive years.


And there is absolutely no doubt, as already outlined, that even with the necessary underestimate of pushback numbers and regularity at the Evros river, the Greek government’s policy of enormously increasing pushbacks of people attempting to arrive – and those who actually have arrived – in Greece is a central factor in what Mitsotakis mislabels ‘reduction in flow’.


To be clear, in 2020, the Greek government registered 15,087 men, women and children as new arrivals, and illegally pushed back at least 14,324 people: 94.9 per cent as many as it registered. In 2021 it registered 2,786 people as having arrived, and – to 30 April – had illegally pushed back at least 3,286 men, women and children: it has pushed back 18 per cent more people (118 per cent) than it has registered.


In fact, it is vitally important to note and be aware of the fact that this is the only ‘factor’ which Greece and/or the EU can claim as ‘its own’, particularly given that he congratulates the Greek coastguard, Greek army, Greek police and Frontex for this achievement.


This means Mitsotakis was literally parading his own, his government’s and the EU’s systematic, cynical and immoral breaking of international law as something for which he and they should be congratulated.


But once we have factored that in, there has still, undeniably, been a wider ‘reduction in flow’, of 67.6 per cent, from 2019 to 2020, and 49.4 per cent from 1 January-19 May 2020 to the same period of this year.


There is no single definitive reason ‘why’ this should be so. Although there certainly is one which would appear to be more likely than any others.


It – and every single other possibility – is nothing to do with Greece, and can only be ‘claimed’ by the EU if the latter is prepared to admit breaking international law and placing barring people from entering whatever the cost ahead of that law, and human lives.


> Things are ‘better in Turkey’


The first reason might be that things have improved for Syrians in Turkey.

This would of course be nothing to do with Greece, or indeed the EU, whose last payment for the care of Syrians in Turkey was supposed to be made in December 2018 and was in fact finally paid several months later.


And the Greek government itself, when not speaking about Syrian or other (there are more than 3.6m Syrian people in Turkey, along with at least one million Afghan and Iraqi men, women and children) refugees, regularly dismisses this as a possibility, preferring instead to paint Turkey as an increasingly authoritarian and religiously-driven nation (quite a claim from a party whose own slogan is ‘family, church, state’).


In fact, in recent years (perhaps starting, but certainly increasing, in late 2019) Turkey has been systematically removing Syrian men, women and children and forcing them back to Syria against their wishes.


Simultaneously, the political atmosphere in Turkey has become increasingly ‘anti-Syrian’, with the victory for the ‘liberal’ CHP over Erdogan’s AKP in Istanbul in June 2019 celebrated by many with the phrase ‘send Syrians home’ – a phrase also used by the Iyi Party leader Meral Aksener in successive elections.


And for others, the situation is arguably worse. Turkey is not a signatory to the 1967 Refugee Protocol and as a result does not offer people refugee status. Instead, it confers ‘protected’ status on them. While technically, this is very similar, it does mean that many people live in fear of being removed when the state decides it wants to remove them, and hold fewer rights than refugees in other parts of the world.


But Syrian people in Turkey have at least been granted ‘protected status’. Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistani people and others, including Somalis, are denied it.


The idea that Turkey is a ‘safe state’ for refugees – and certainly that things ‘have improved’ for refugees in Turkey in recent years, can hardly be considered a sensible suggestion or reason why fewer people have attempted to reach Greece.


> Things are ‘better in Syria’ (and other states)


A second reason might be that things have ‘improved’ in Syria for Syrian people. This is certainly a claim supported by the state’s dictator Bashar Al Assad (although members of his own government have said they would rather rule a country of ten million ‘loyal’ Syrians, than welcome back ‘traitors’ who have left the country) and Denmark, along with fascist organisations across the EU including Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD).


(It is unclear whether the Danish government is privately embarrassed that its policy on Syrian refugees is identical to that of a German fascist organisation.)


The simple fact is, however, that they have not. The war continues in the north of Syria, where the sometime-Assad-collaborating SDF is in tense negotiations with Assad over the region’s future, and the Turkish government continues to attempt to wipe out the group which it claims is a terrorist organisation.


In Idlib, into which Assad and his Russian, Iranian and Hizbollah allies systematically herded millions of his opponents in the last five years, a two year-long stand-off continues between Russian and Assadist forces and the National Front for Liberation and fundamentalist Islamist militia organisation Hayat Tahrir ash-Sham. Life under the latter, particularly HTS, is often brutal, while the UN has repeatedly warned that it fears that if allowed to, Assad and his allies will carry out a ‘massacre’ of the region’s 3.2m people.


And elsewhere, Assad is back in control. He has, in the last ten years, been responsible for well over 95 per cent of all killings in Syria, and is the major reason most Syrian refugees fled their homes in the first place. He has also consistently jailed forced returnees from Turkey, many of whom have never been seen again.


Things are simply not ‘better’ in Syria – for the majority of Syrians – than they were in, for example, 2018. Nor have things significantly improved in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, DRC or a number of other countries. This, too, would seem not to be a ‘reason’ we should consider seriously for a ‘reduced flow’ of men, women and children to the EU from Turkey.


> Things are ‘better in Turkey’ (part two: they are ‘better’ than in the EU)


This does not mean, however, that there are not people in Turkey who are happy there, or who are at least happy to ‘wait’ there until things do improve in Syria or another state.


Despite the images of seeming to portray large numbers of people at the Evros border, and people arriving by boat, after Erdogan announced the ‘border to Europe’ was open in early March 2020, the actual numbers of people who attempted the journey even then was tiny compared with the number who could have attempted to cross.


This could be a part of the reason for the ‘decrease’ in flow: that most of the Syrian people who want to, have already reached or are trying to reach the EU. Indeed, as early as 2017, the Turkish ‘Syrian Barometer’ survey found that more than 76 per cent of Syrian responders said their plan was to return to Syria ‘if war ends and a good regime emerged’; ‘if war ends even if a good regime did not emerge’; or ‘even if war did not end’.


That is, despite the claims of far-Right nationalists across Europe, including in Greece, the vast majority of Syrian people intend to and plan to return to Syria as soon as possible. And despite the embarrassment this might cause people within the EU, the vast majority prefer to wait in Turkey, rather than the EU, for this to happen.


It is of course difficult to put a precise figure on the exact impact of ‘people don’t want to come to the EU’, or indeed to be certain that this is a major factor in the reduction in ‘flow’.

But it does seem to be a factor, and if it is, this could hardly be claimed by Mitsotakis as a ‘victory’ for him, his party, or the EU, let alone the Greek police, Greek coastguard, Greek army, or Frontex, as he attempts.


> COVID


Of course, so far, we have ignored the elephant-sized global pandemic in the room: COVID-19.


Because there is a remarkable coincidence between Mitsotakis’ claim that we should compare ‘2019’, with 2020, and that there was not a global pandemic in 2019, and the greatest international health scare in a century began (for most of Europe and the ‘near East’) in March 2020.


Of course, we note with openness that this period happens to coincide also with the rise of Nea Dimokratia to power in Greece. We simply mention that it would be odd not to mention a global pandemic which was characterised by massively increased state restrictions on people moving in the context of a claim that the Greek government was ‘responsible’ for a reduction in the number of people moving.


It would be similarly remiss not to note that the specific moment at which the most significant drop in new arrivals into Greece took place, coincided almost exactly with Greece’s first lockdown which began on 23 March 2020.

The figures are clear. From 1 January to 23 March 2020, inclusive, 7,154 men, women and children were registered as arriving in Greece by sea, and 2,051 by land: a total of 9,205 people.


From 24 March-31 December 2020, just 1,951 more people were registered as having arrived by sea, and 3,822 by land – 5,773 in nine months.


The nature of the reduction in figures also suggests COVID was a major reason, as the sea journey – already extremely tightly policed – would have been even harder to make as people’s movement to setting-off points (and other locations) were themselves under observation to a far greater extent than previously, while the (relatively) harder to police ‘land route’ would have been slightly more easily made (at least on foot).


In any case, this – through to today – is the only period on record in which a greater number of people have been registered as entering Greece by land than by sea.


Equally, we should note that the number of people registered as new arrivals after the COVID lockdown in Greece was highest in October.


This is a relatively common occurrence, but the increase (from zero arrivals by land and 39 by sea in April) builds slowly from late May, when Greece’s first lockdown was lifted, reached a peak in October, before reducing by 2.5 times (October 1,171, December 463) by December. This is an unusually large decrease between these two months, and we should note that Greece’s second lockdown began in the first week of November. It lasted until 2 May.


We might also note that the connection between lockdown in Turkey and the number of sea journeys also seems to be borne out by the numbers of people registered as arrivals in Greece.


In October 2020, the number of people arriving in Greece by land was in fact four times higher than that in December: 1,089 people were registered as arriving by ‘land’ in October, compared with 272 in December. But entry by sea actually more than doubled: 82 people were registered as arriving by sea in October, and 191 in December.


(We must bear in mind that these numbers are exceptionally tiny compared to recent years: in October 2017, 3,972 people were registered as arriving by sea, in October 2018, 4,052, and in October 2019, 9,154, compared to 82 in October 2020: in December 2017, 2,347 people were registered, in December 2018, 3,054, and in December 2019, 6,416).


One factor which might explain this ‘bucking of the trend’ – and which might explain why sea arrivals slightly increased while ‘land’ arrivals significantly decreased – is that while Greece’s second lockdown began in early November, Turkish movement restrictions were re-introduced only late in November, and increased in December.


It seems overwhelmingly likely that the ‘reduction in flow’ – significantly lower than Mitsotakis claimed it was (he claimed ‘almost 80 per cent’ from 2019-2020 and ’72 per cent’ from 1 January-19 May 2020 to the equivalent period this year: the actual figures are 67.6 per cent and 49.4 per cent, respectively: the only way to come to Mitsotakis’ claim is if one redefines ‘flow’ to mean ‘the number of people the Greek government has registered as arrivals’, which is an entirely new and practically useless definition of the term) – but significant nonetheless, may be attributed to three possible (or likely) causes:


- illegal pushbacks by the Greek government and Frontex;


- the fact that most people who want to come to the EU from Turkey have already done so


- and – the largest in impact – COVID-19.


Mitsotakis already – by attributing credit to the Greek police, Greek army, Greek coastguard and Frontex – apparently accepts that his government and the EU is guilty of breaking international law and should be given credit for doing so.


The only questions remaining are whether he also believes he should be congratulated for making the EU so undesirable a destination that men, women and children fleeing a decade long, bitter and chaotic conflict in which well over a million people have been killed and well over half the population have been killed still don’t want to go there, and whether he is claiming credit for a global pandemic which has killed more than 3.5m people worldwide.


It remains unclear, to date, whether Kiriakos Mitsotakis is now claiming responsibility for COVID.


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