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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Mitarachis: falsehood, or lack of application?

This afternoon, speaking to the Delphi Economic Forum, Greece’s Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis made a statement on his country’s – and in fact his – treatment of men, women and children who travel to Greece in search of safe places to live, learn and work.

If we were to write every time K. Mitarachis said something less than 100 per cent intelligent, and less than 100 per cent true, we would seldom have time to do anything else.

But his statements today are so representative of his messaging to date, and so egregiously false and lacking in intellect that this seemed like an important, even a vital, moment to comment.

We need not go into too much detail regarding his claim that ‘the idea that Greece pushes people back from its borders is unfounded’: there are actual videos showing those pushbacks taking place.

Every news organisation of note has carried footage, photos and interviews with people who have been pushed back. The European Union has refused to pass the Frontex budget because of its part in pushbacks from Greece, and the United Nations has repeatedly called for Greece to stop pushing people back from its borders.

The idea that Greece pushing people back from its borders is ‘Turkish propaganda’, designed to discredit Greece requires us to believe that every NGO – including Greek NGOs – every reputable media outlet in Europe and the US, and the United Nations are for some reason united in a desire to attack Greece, a country of 11.4m people, tucked away in Europe’s farthest south-eastern corner.

Miratachis’ claim is transparently false. People should ask why he wishes to lie to them.

More importantly, however, Mitarachis – a man who is paid to know and enforce international law – claimed that:

Refugees and migrants crossing the border into Greece from Turkey are not covered by the Geneva Convention, because the treaty only dictates that refugees are allowed to directly move away from an area of conflict.

It is hard to imagine how any one person could be so wrong about any one law in any one sentence.

First of all, because the Geneva Convention – also known as the Refugee Convention – of 1951 absolutely does not in any way require a person to be ‘fleeing conflict’.

In fact, even if Mitarachis had for some reason – in direct dereliction of his duty as a politician with a responsibility for international law, its implications and the responsibilities it places upon his country – not bothered to read past Article 1 of the 1951 Convention, he would know that the definition of the term refugee, which is what Article 1 sets out, is:

‘any person who:

‘owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.’

That is – as Mitarachis absolutely must be aware, unless he has done not even the absolute bare minimum necessary to do his job – the word ‘conflict’ literally does not feature in the definition of ‘refugee’ in either the 1951 Convention or the 1967 Refugee Protocol which he must also (surely?) be aware updates it.

Of course, one can be a refugee if one is escaping conflict. But either Mitarachis knows that this is not a requirement for a person to be considered a refugee – in which case we must ask why he is lying to us all – or he does not, in which case we must ask why he has not even bothered to read the first article of the single most important document relating to his job.

Mitarachis’ use of the term ‘directly’ is – as we must hope he knows – a little more complex.

Because when the Refugee Convention was written, it was assumed that people who were refugees would be allowed to travel to seek safe places to live, learn and work.

But – in part because of Mitarachis and his policies, but also because of the EU, UK and many other political entities – the reality today is that most countries use their weight and power on the international stage to deny people their human rights: that is, they make it as hard as possible for people to travel without paperwork, even though the law absolutely does not require people seeking safety to have any paperwork whatsoever.

What this means is that the term ‘directly’ does not mean either of the things Mitarachis claims it does, ironically in part because of Mitarachis’ own policies and attitudes.

So first of all, the word ‘Directly’ in article 31 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, absolutely does not mean ‘without crossing any other (safe – as we have noted on numerous occasions, the term ‘safe (third) state simply does not appear in international refugee law) countries.’

English is not everyone’s first language, and so for the benefit of those for whom it is not, ‘directly’ means ‘by the fastest possible or available route’. Not, as Mitarachis implies ‘immediately’ or ‘to the nearest possible location’.

As we have noted, Mitarachis and many other European politicians have consistently gone out of their way to make routes to safety longer and more difficult. People entering Turkey and saving money to pay for places on irregular transports across the Aegean literally are now taking the most direct – in the actual meaning of the word – route available to them.

Mitarachis then claimed: ‘Refugees in Turkey are safe from conflict and are not covered by the provision. This differentiates them from the Ukrainian refugees fleeing their country into neighbouring European states.

The first important point is that as we have already said, refugees do not need to be fleeing conflict: they could have any number of reasons to need to flee Turkey and as Mitarachis knows very well (or should do) the fact that they are not fleeing conflict absolutely does not mean they are ‘not covered by the provision’.

Once again, we must ask why the Greek Migration Minister is lying to us.

However, the second point is that Mitarachis’ clear implication is that refugees, under the Convention, should therefore enter and remain in the first state they can reach where there is not a war.

Not only is this clearly not the case because the definition of a refugee mentions no requirement that they should be fleeing conflict, there is absolutely no suggestion anywhere that a refugee must stop in the first ‘safe state’. Indeed, there is no mention of ‘safe state’ as a concept anywhere in international law.

We have many times pointed out that one of the major reasons why this is the case – the pragmatic, rather than moral reason (which is that people should be allowed to choose which would be the best country for them to live and work in) – is simply because if the law was that people had to go to the closest (usually neighbouring) ‘safe state’, no nation would ever have signed up to the law.

This is a piece of international law, a statement by the world that the world will work to ensure every human has a safe place to live, not one which places all the responsibility on the country which happens to be nearest.

And as if there were any doubt about this (and Mitarachis must surely know there is not), UNHCR itself spelled it out less than a year ago.

In its Observations on the New Plan for Immigration policy statement of the Government of the United Kingdom, published in May 2021, the second paragraph on the third page (point 13) reads: ‘[the Bill’s] new inadmissibility proposals are built on the misunderstanding that “people should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach… Asylum should not be refused solely on the ground that it could be sought from another State.”

‘Requiring refugees to seek protection in the first safe country to which they flee would undermine the global humanitarian and cooperative principles on which the refugee system is founded, and which were recently reaffirmed by the General Assembly, including the UK, in the Global Compact on Refugees. It would impose an arbitrary and disproportionate burden on countries in the immediate region(s) of flight and threaten the capacity and willingness of those countries to provide protection and long-term solutions. In turn, this would - and does - threaten to make these first countries unsafe, and encourage onward movement.’

In short, UNHCR – the world’s specialist body on refugee law – states that there is no requirement for any person anywhere to stay in the ‘first safe state’ they reach.

And there is a second point.

Because in his comment, Mitarachis seeks to draw a line between Ukrainian and other refugees.

But Greece – through him – has quite correctly said it will welcome Ukrainian people fleeing the Russian invasion of their state.

The problem is that Syria is one country away from Greece. That is, Syrian people fleeing their country need only pass through one country, Turkey, to reach Greece.

But even if one goes out of one’s way, Ukraine is two countries away. A Ukrainian person would have to pass through at least Romania and Bulgaria before being able to cross into Greece.

If the Greek Migration Minister recognises that Ukrainian people entering Greece are entitled to do so under the provisions set out in the Refugee Convention, he must be aware that so are Syrian and many other people.

Finally, he told the Forum that: ‘Every boat leaving Turkey is a failure of the European Union to protect its borders. Greece will not allow illegal entry to our country.’

We will here be as simple as possible.

No country is entitled to ‘protect its borders’ from people seeking safe places to live, learn, and work. Either Mitarachis knows this, in which case we must again ask why he is so deliberately lying to us, or he does not, in which case how can he possibly be allowed to retain his job?

And it is absolutely not illegal to enter any country, with or without paperwork, regardless of the means of entry, if one applies for asylum as soon as possible after entering that country. Either Mitarachis knows this, in which case we must again ask why he is so deliberately lying to us, or he does not, in which case how can he possibly be allowed to retain his job?

One way or another, we must ask: why is Mitarachis lying to us, or why is he clinging to a job he cannot be bothered to learn enough to do?

Either way, why is such a man allowed to remain as Greece’s Migration Minister?


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