• Rory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Misdirection and blame-shifting: Mitarachis misses another opportunity

Handed yet another opportunity to reflect, review and even improve, Mitarachis, his ministry and his government instead chose to mislead and attempt to shift blame. There really was nothing new to see or hear at the LIBE meeting.

Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis, at his own request, appeared before the LIBE committee of the European Parliament, (Tuesday 28 June 2022) following the latter’s request that the EU Commission respond to the Greek government’s open violation of European Court of Human Rights interim orders on at least two and probably more occasions.


Mitarachis responded with fury to that decision, launching a public attack on LIBE, which he said had been ‘misled’ by the Turkish government and NGOs.

Unsurprisingly, and probably (one would hope) under advisement from his staff and maybe even other government ministers, Mitarachis took a more conciliatory approach at the meeting itself.


Unfortunately, as has happened consistently on previous occasions, when given an opportunity to openly and honestly discuss concerns raised about his ministry and his government’s consistent violation of international and EU law on people seeking asylum, Mitarachis chose to attempt instead to shift blame and mislead the committee.


We will not address the Q&A session which followed his statement, because he did not make any new points, merely deflecting questions or answering them directly, with the same incorrect statements he had made within his statement.


He began by – as he has done very regularly – attempting to blame the Turkish government. Or, as he put it, ‘Turkey’.


The specific sentence within this attempt we will look at here was:


If Turkey had abided by its commitments [to prevent people leaving Turkey] in the EU-Turkey Statement we would not be having these discussions.


We have been over this several times, but as K. Mitarachis is continuing to pretend this is a meaningful and honest point, we must explain that it is neither.


First of all, Turkey has a land and sea border with Greece. While it may arguably be just about possible (though at exorbitant cost) to prevent anyone from leaving via a land border (one would need – at the least – a wall and officers patrolling it every single day), it would be absolutely impossible to do the same thing at the sea border.


If Mitarachis believes that the EU-Turkey Statement requires the Turkish government to prevent a single person from leaving Turkey (and in fact it does not: it requires Turkey to work to prevent people leaving), he must be aware that this is simply impossible.


Secondly, it is illegal to prevent people from leaving any country to travel to any other. It is a human right under the UN’s Declaration of Universal Human Rights and the Refugee Convention of 1951 is built directly upon that Declaration. What Mitarachis (and technically not the EU-Turkey Statement) is demanding of the Turkish government is absolutely illegal. As a Minister for Migration in a government, he must know this.


Thirdly, as we have noted on a number of occasions, the Turkish government has in fact prevented more people from arriving in Greece than have actually arrived since 2016.


Using the Turkish Coastguard as the example, as the numbers surrounding the Evros border are far less clear, in 2017, the Coastguard stopped 21,937 of the 51,645 people who tried to cross the Aegean Sea, 42.5 per cent. In 2018, it stopped 26,679 of the 59,173 who set out: 45 per cent.


In 2019, it 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.


This year, the Coastguard has stopped 17,139 people from crossing, compared to just 1,965 registered as new arrivals (from 1 January to 16 June 2022). The coastguard has stopped 89.7 percent of people who have attempted the journey, from reaching Greece.


Even including the (at least) 7,102 men, women and children the Greek government pushed back from the Aegean Islands – people the Greek government insists do not exist – the Coastguard would have prevented 65.4 per cent of the 26,206 people who attempted to reach the Islands from doing so.


In total, since 1 January 2017, the Turkish Coastguard has stopped 168,289 of the 299,454 people who have attempted to reach Greece since 1 January 2017. 56.2 per cent.


Mitarachis, in common with many members of his government, will attempt to blame the Turkish government for anything negative involving Greece. His claims here do not stand up from any perspective.


At this point, Mitarachis chose to comment on what he claims as the bad behaviour of the Turkish government (again, he said ‘Turkey’) regarding the Aegean islands and their ‘sovereignty’. In all honesty, this was slightly embarrassing, as it is an irrelevance to the topic on which he was supposed to be speaking, and certainly not anything with which the LIBE committee should be dealing. We mention it here solely because it is yet another attempt by the Greek government to connect people travelling to seek safe places to live, learn and work, to ‘Turkish aggression’ as presented by Nea Dimokratia, in an effort to ‘justify’ violence against those people planned this summer.


The Minister then chose to claim his government had ‘improved conditions’ within Greece for new arrivals.


He claimed that the:


New camps on the islands have been constructed in line with EU and EUAA reception standards.


In fact, as we have noted several times, these camps, on Leros, Samos, Kos and still to open on Lesvos and Chios, are prison camps, with walls topped with barbed wire, surveillance cameras and drones, strict curfews and the ability to leave at all only with permission from camp staff. The people being placed in these camps have committed no crime and yet are being imprisoned.


Equally, they may meet ‘EUAA standards’ (in which case the EUAA needs to significantly raise its standards: the Samos ‘camp’ had no running water for 14 days in May this year) but the European Commission specifically promised, in September 2020, that it would not fund ‘closed camps’ specifically because they are jails, and yet is spending €280m on their construction.


He then claimed that there had been no loss of life from Covid on the Greek islands, which is correct and would be laudable had it not been for the fact that the camps all over Greece imposed far more restrictive curfews and regulations on people in camps than were placed on any people in the state, and these curfews lasted longer than any other restriction.


And he did not mention that the Greek Ombudsman ruled that Chios port had illegally used ‘Covid restrictions’ to deny access to Greece and to fine people who had arrived, during the pandemic.


At this point, Mitarachis makes one of the most extraordinary statements of his speech, and one which reveals some serious problems at the heart of his, and his government’s, approach to the entire refugee response.


He said:


People almost always fail to talk about people living in our countries: European citizens.


The first problem with this as a comment is that of course people seeking or who have been granted asylum are also ‘living in our countries’. The second is that Mitarachis is Greece’s Migration Minister, not its ‘EU citizens minister’. It is of course fine and admirable if he regards as his priority people who are EU citizens, but if he does see that as his priority then he is in the wrong job: his professional priority must be people arriving in Greece from outside because there is no-one else in his government tasked with holding those people as a professional responsibility.


He added:


Their fundamental rights have been gravely affected in many communities by mass arrivals over the years.


This is problematic in a number of ways. The first is because Mitarachis very deliberately does not mention a single right which has been ‘gravely affected’ in Greece by people arriving in the country because, in fact, no fundamental rights have been in the slightest bit affected by their arrival. Mitarachis is pretending a problem exists, when in fact of course it does not.


The second is because it is the government’s responsibility to care for both its ‘native population’ and anyone arriving seeking safe places to live, learn and work.


Governments must not play one group off against the other and claim one has somehow ‘affected’ the other’s rights (indeed, really one should not be dividing ‘refugees and asylum seekers’ from ‘the rest of the community’ at all: that is why it is the government’s responsibility to safeguard the rights of all people living in their country, regardless of their place of birth).


It is also not a ‘zero sum game’: one person does not get fewer rights because another gets some: all people are entitled to all rights, all the time, and there is no way one person having rights reduces the number another person has.


Once again, Mitarachis’ ‘belief’ (or perhaps ‘claim’) here underlines a very serious problem with his mindset: if he wishes to ‘safeguard’ the rights of ‘European citizens’ that is very noble, but if he believes this is his priority, or that the best way to do so is to prevent people from entering Greece than his outlook is simply not suited to the role of Migration Minister of a country many people enter hoping to seek safety, and he should resign.


He added:


We have a responsibility to ensure that those communities are not negatively affected by mass arrivals.


And again: they have not been. Greece has received more than €3.53bn in EU cash alone (other money has poured in from NGOs and the UN) to look after a refugee community of – at most – 135,000 people, and at most 200,000 arrivals (Mitarachis’ own figure, used in his LIBE address) in the last five years.


And that is the point. It is the Greek government’s responsibility to ensure ‘those communities’ are not negatively affected by ‘mass arrivals. But it is also the Greek government – specifically Notis Mitarachis and his department –‘s responsibility to ensure the rights of people arriving to request asylum are not ‘negatively affected’.


The point is that ‘We have a responsibility to ensure that those communities are not negatively affected by mass arrivals.’ Does not mean the government has no other responsibilities to anyone it deems ‘not Greek enough’. It means the government must work to make the situation good for everyone.


The ‘problem’ Mitarachis claims does not, in fact, exist. But every failure to help refugees and to help local communities is its – including Mitarachis’ – failure, not the fault of one ‘community’ or another.


Another sinister and revealing comment from Mitarachis was his claim that:


Smuggling networks have devised a new method of circumventing border controls.


We must first ask whether this is in fact the case. Because here, Mitarachis appears to claim that people trying to enter Greece are moving quickly from one location to another, in order to avoid the Greek authorities.


But in no case has this in fact happened. At the Evros border, groups of people have been on one island before being pushed back by the Greek government (such as), while on the Eastern Aegean Islands, people have tried to make their own way to refugee camps, before being pushed back (for example).


But let’s say they did ‘devise’ such a ‘new method’. We must ask, why? The people arriving in Greece want to apply for asylum. They are seeking the ability – their human and legal right – to enter the asylum application process at the first available opportunity. The process for them to do so must, by law, be built into and part of Greece’s ‘border control’ mechanism.


So, why would they need to ‘devise a new method’ to ‘circumvent’ Greece’s border controls?


Is it perhaps because Greece has illegally pushed back at least 32,682 people in the Aegean Sea alone since 1 March 2020 – 78.1 percent of all people who arrived in Greece by sea? (and ‘at least’ is very necessary here: the real number is almost certainly far, far higher)


He then claims that people contact:


NGOs which specialise in border crossing facilitation.


There is no NGO which ‘specialises’ in ‘border crossing facilitation’, literally anywhere on Earth. And Mitarachis must know that no such NGO exists in Greece. But even if it did, it is people’s right – under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and because of that the 1951 Refugee Convention which is based entirely upon the Declaration – to leave any country and travel to any other. Crossing borders is a legal right of every man, woman and child.


And, in an effort to assure LIBE that the Greek government has not, in fact, violated international law, EU law, and specific directives of the European Court of Human Rights, Mitarachis said:


We act in all cases. Many times, these migrants have already moved forward or backward to another location.


This appears to be the minister claiming that people who have arrived in Greece to apply for asylum are voluntarily leaving the country, for Turkey, which they paid several thousand Euros to leave, without even attempting to apply for asylum.


It should go without saying that there is no evidence whatsoever that anyone has in fact done this, whereas there are hundreds of witness testimonies, dozens of videos and thousands of photos and location tracking data which show the Greek government is pushing people from Greece into Turkey, some of whom have never even been to Turkey before and others of whom have paperwork showing their citizenship in other EU member states. It would be utterly astonishing had this happened more than once. To claim it is a regular event, as Mitarachis appears to be doing here, is simply to insult our intelligence.


He added:


Greece has complied with these interim measures. [set by the European Court of Human Rights demanding that people in the Evros region must not be pushed back and must be provided with food, water, shelter and if necessary medicine]’


It simply has not. It has pushed back at least two groups – the two most recent groups of arrivals who reported their location on an islet in the Evros – in the last month alone. In direct violation of the ECHR interim measures.


He then claimed:


This year, we have already rescued more than 5,000 people at the sea and the land borders.


We won’t bother to say too much about this transparently false claim, except to note that as of Sunday 26 June 2022, the UN reports that 5,047 people had arrived in Greece this year by land and sea.


For Greece to have ‘rescued’ ‘more than 5,000 people’ this would mean an absolute maximum of 46 people crossed without needing urgent assistance. This also ignores the simple fact that this year, to 31 May, 7,102 people have been pushed back in the Aegean alone.


Mitarachis then turns to one of his favourite recent claims, based on the Polish government’s efforts to ‘justify’ its brutal and illegal pushbacks of men, women and children from the Belarus border: that people are being ‘instrumentalised/weaponised’ to ‘destabilise’ the EU and its member states.


He said:


Instrumentalisation is a challenge faced by Spain, Greece, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia. Aiming to abuse the high standards of human rights of the EU.


First of all, this is not company any self-respecting politician or nation would wish to keep.


The Polish government has systematically dismantled the rule of law within Poland itself and repeatedly broke international law while sending more than 20,000 armed officers – four for every person hoping to enter – to its border and banning NGOs and journalists from the area.


The Spanish government has just praised its border guards for their part in the massacre of at least 32 unarmed people at the Moroccan and Spanish border at Melilla, and the Lithuanian government has been revealed by Amnesty to have pushed back, beaten, tortured, abused and illegally detained men, women and children entering, also from Belarus.


But secondly, ‘abusing the EU’s human rights standards’ does not make any sense even as a concept.


The EU’s human rights standards cover the absolute bare minimum required by international law, so to argue anyone is ‘abusing’ them is to argue that to exercise one’s legal right as a human being is an ‘abuse’. Of course it isn’t. It’s people doing what they are legally allowed and entitled to do.


To argue this is an abuse is the same as claiming it would be ‘an abuse’ of EU standards of human rights to expect to be paid for the work one does. It is simply abiding by and expecting others to abide by the law.


Finally, of course, even were a government ‘instrumentalising’ people, that would not remove their rights as individuals, or mean they do not require assistance and safety. The concept not only loses more meaning the more one looks at it, it is also absolutely irrelevant to the topic at hand: Greece’s activities on its borders.


Mitarachis then, as he built up to his central claims – that Greece does not carry out pushbacks because it obeys the law, but it is legally entitled to push people back, another statement that loses coherence and meaning the more one looks at it, said:


International law does not provide for a right of entry.


In fact, it does. Because as we have noted, the 1951 Refugee Convention, which along with the 1967 Refugee Protocols are in fact the law on people seeking asylum, are based entirely on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which specifically states that it is the right of any person to leave any country and travel to any other. The law is clear that if one expresses one’s wish to apply for asylum at the earliest possible moment after arrival in one’s ‘destination state’ one does not even need paperwork to enter.


Mitarachis knows this. He knows that it is not the right of any nation state to deny people the right to apply for asylum, or to remove them from a country in order to prevent that application. There is no way he could not know this.


He did, having spread this falsehood, make one good point.


He said:


We cannot allow for double standards for refugees from Ukraine and refugees from other countries.


And argued that people granted asylum and recognised as refugees by the EU must have the right to travel anywhere within the EU, as Ukrainian refugees do now.


It’s a decent point, only slightly marred by the fact that of course what he meant, and in fact went on to say, was that his government should not be criticised for ‘allowing’ (in many cases forcing) people to leave Greece.


Unfortunately, however, it is clear from even the most cursory examination of his statements on this precise issue that he does not, in fact, believe this.


Because on Friday 26 February 2022 Mitarachis himself publicly stated that people from Ukraine were ‘real refugees’ because they are fleeing war and going to the first safe country they can reach (of course, one does not need to be fleeing war to be a refugee, and Ukrainian people are not stopping in the first ‘safe state’ they reach. Nor do they have any obligation to, in common with every other human being on Earth)


Just four days later he repeated and strengthened the statement, saying other arrivals from other countries were, therefore, not ‘genuine refugees.’


Once again, his point about Ukrainian refugees was in fact good. But it is too much to be lectured about ‘double standards’ relating to Ukrainian people by a man who not only openly holds such double standards, but when offered the chance to apologise and clarified, repeated and strengthened his statement.


The LIBE situation handed Notis Mitarachis yet another chance to reflect on the policies and actions of his government and pledge at least to review, if not immediately alter, them.


Instead, he demanded a meeting at which he said nothing new, and almost nothing true.

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