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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Mitsotakis, the media and the pushback lie

In an interview this week, Greek Prime Minister Kiriakos Mitsotakis told precisely the same lie about pushbacks that he had done to a Greek newspaper 21 months previously.

We must state for the record: Mitsotakis’ government not only carries out pushbacks, they are its sole policy regarding people seeking safe places to live, learn and work. We must also state that in common with many politicians across the world, Mitsotakis’ policy is simply to lie to journalists, and wait for them to publish his lies verbatim.

It is an unfortunate truth that we must, as a result, regard everything he says as a lie unless and until we see clear evidence proving its truth.

Greek Prime Minister Kiriakos Mitsotakis has performed an interview with Der Bild (Germany) in which he has once again used an innovative mix of misdirection and outright lies to attempt to present his government’s record on refugees as something other than a criminal barbaric disgrace.

In fact, the most remarkable thing about the interview is really how little has changed in Mitsotakis’ outlook or words since an interview with Kathimerini (Greece) undertaken on 5 July 2021, when he claimed:

I reject the concept of pushback, as terminology I reject it. There is no such meaning, this word in my vocabulary. But when a boat comes... we will look to do everything in our power to send this boat back where it started.

Just very quickly, what this statement literally says is ‘I do not accept that Greece has pushed anyone back, but every time anyone arrives in Greece, we push them back.’

In any case, it’s perhaps simplest to talk about Mitsotakis’ Bild ‘responses’ line-by-line.

He said:

What we did from the start, when I took over the government, was to impose a tough but – I think – fair migration policy.

In actual fact, what his government did for the first seven months after being elected in July 2019, was nothing new whatsoever, except to remove the right to healthcare for refugees already in Greece (this was finally corrected in May 2020).

He continued:

Six months after taking over, his government had to fend off an organised invasion of illegal migrants into Greece, in other words into European territory.

This is the first of Mitsotakis’ open lies.

He is of course referring to the moment at the end of February 2020, when the Turkish government said it would no longer break international law on the EU’s behalf by preventing people leaving to seek asylum, and declared, for a total of three days, that its borders were ‘open’.

As a very small point, this took place almost eight months (seven months and three weeks) after Nea Dimokratia took power on 9 July 2019. It’s not especially important, but it’s strange that in the run-up to the next general election Mitsotakis and his ministers seem to be unable to quote dates or figures accurately.

Much more importantly, to call this an ‘organised invasion of illegal migrants’ is a despicable and deliberate misrepresentation of reality: in other words, a lie.

First, because it was in no way ‘organised’. The Turkish government said its borders were open, and around 4,000 of the roughly four million people seeking protection in Türkiye went to the Evros border to see if they could cross.

Second, because it was not an invasion. These were unarmed men, women and children, attempting to move to a place where they might be able to live, learn and work in relative comfort and safety. They were not even really attempting to find that place in Greece (though as we have noted several times, Greece urgently needs people to come to live and work within its borders, as without significant levels of immigration, there will be too few people of working age to provide for the country’s retirees by 2050: but had to pass through the country because the Greek government and the rest of the EU and its member states have so completely closed all ‘regular’ routes and means of transport into the bloc.

It is also disgusting to read of an imagined ‘invasion’ when there were unarmed men, women and children seeking safety and were met at the Greek border by heavily armed soldiers and police officers, as well as armoured vehicles and other military hardware. In the event, it is fortunate that only one person was killed. But one person was killed. That person was not Greek, but an unarmed Syrian man who was shot in the throat with a rubber bullet by a Greek uniformed officer.

And finally, of course, because these people were not ‘illegal migrants’. It is absolutely legal to enter a country in order to apply for asylum, and indeed almost all states – including Greece – state that no-one can apply if they are not already inside the country. These were people acting legally.

It is illegal to line your border with heavily-armed officers and military hardware in order to prevent people from applying for asylum. It is even illegal to refuse people the opportunity to express their desire to apply, and certainly to ignore that wish once expressed.

It should go without saying that it is illegal to shoot and kill from your border wall an unarmed person seeking asylum.

And yet here Mitsotakis is claiming other people broke the law. They did not. He did.

He went on:

Europe (needs) to have a comprehensive migration policy and protect its interior in order to preserve the Schengen Zone with the free movement of people.

This is an arguable point. One could certainly have free movement and preserve the Schengen Zone without a ‘comprehensive migration policy’, and the EU does already have a migration policy, just not one that anyone is particularly happy with.

But there is no reason for the EU not to have a ‘comprehensive migration policy. It’s just hardly in keeping with ‘free movement’ to break international law by banning people from entering the EU to apply for asylum, and it is hard to see how any migration policy worthy of the name could even remotely relate to the Greek government’s barbarism since March 2020.

He then claims that:

Because of the Evros border wall and the government’s migration policy, fewer irregular migrants are now entering Europe via Greece. The number of migrants entering Greece have dropped so they account for less than ten per cent of all illegal activities into Europe, down from 75 per cent in 2015.

We should perhaps begin by saying that the Greek government’s ‘migration policy’ is literally to beat people, strip them of their possessions – including their clothes and ID papers – sexually assault some of them, kill some of them, and push the rest back to Türkiye.

Not only is this absolutely illegal – obviously – calling it a ‘migration policy’ is tantamount to claiming that beating old ladies and stealing their purses is a ‘job’ because you get enough money from it to pay your rent and bills.

It is far from clear quite what impact Mitsotakis believes the Evros border wall has had in reducing the number of people who have entered Greece compared to 2015, as out of 861,630 people to have arrived in Greece in 2015, just 4,907 – just over half of one per cent – arrived across the Evros border. In 2022, 6,022 people entered Greece across the Evros, an increase of around 20 per cent.

Equally, it is of course illegal to use a border wall to prevent people entering your country to apply for asylum. Even if what Mitsotakis claimed were true – and it is not – he would be boasting more about committing crimes against vulnerable men, women and children.

It is also very interesting – and a little disappointing – that Mitsotakis insists on continually using 2015 as his comparison-point. Because there is no sense in which 2015 can be held as either a ‘usual year’ or indeed that Nea Dimokratia’s intervention made the largest difference between the number of people entering Greece between 2015 and the present day.

To put it simply:

In 2015, 861,630 people arrived in Greece. This is 20.9 times as many as arrived in 2014, 7.4 times more than arrived in 2016, 23.7 times more than arrived in 2017, 17 times more than arrived in 2018, and 11.6 times more than arrived in 2019, for half of which, Nea Dimokratia was in government.

Even without talking about the reasons (the final realisation by many Syrian people that the bitter, multi-sided war in their country would not end soon, and they would be unlikely to return home at any foreseeable point – since proven completely correct – is the major driver here) why so many people travelled in 2015, it is clear that it is a statistical outlier.

Whether that would have been the case without the EU’s awful and illegal EU-Turkey Statement is a fair point to raise, but Nea Dimokratia played absolutely zero part in that ‘agreement’.

To compare with the years in which Nea Dimokratia was in government (we have already noted the half-year in 2019), in 2020, when the COVID pandemic had arguably the greatest impact on people travelling, 54.9 times fewer people were registered as arrivals than had been in 2015. In 2021, as COVID made an ever-greater impact, a remarkable 94 times fewer people were registered. Last year, 45.9 times fewer people arrived.

These are significant differences, but COVID played a vast part in them – as a possible indication of just how great an effect, in the first three months of this year, 3,560 people were registered as new arrivals in Greece.

This compares to 931 at the same point in 2022, 804 in 2021, and to 3,582 in 2017.

Nor is COVID the only factor. The simple reality is that many Syrian people have either settled in Türkiye, or have been so disheartened by Greece and the wider EU’s despicable rhetoric, and in some cases acts, against them, that they have simply given up.

Nor, of course, is the impact of the realisation that most of them will never realistically be able to safely return home, quite so immediate and life-altering as it was in 2015 and early 2016. It is still important, it is just not new.

It is impossible for Mitsotakis to claim ‘credit’ for a global pandemic, for the EU’s wider anti-refugee policy (though Nea Dimokratia has been an extremely enthusiastic part of that, the idea that anyone should take ‘credit’ for such despicable behaviour is itself deeply perverse) or for the changed reality of the lives of men, women and children fleeing Syria.

What it could possibly claim ‘credit’ for, is pushbacks. Which Mitsotakis claims his government has not carried out.

Because COVID aside (and the increased numbers of arrivals so far this year appears to indicate that COVID was the difference between, say 2020-21 and this year), the major change in Greek policy related to refugees is pushbacks.

We know for certain that since 1 March 2020, the government has pushed back at least 56,135 men women and children by sea alone, in the same period as it has registered just 23,133 people as having arrived. That number is just those we know of. It is likely that far more people have in fact been pushed back (indeed, data cited by the Greek government in 2021 suggested that monitoring organisations’ estimates of the number of people pushed back at sea were at least 38 per cent lower than the real number)

And this does not factor in the Evros border, where Mitsotakis, Civil Protection Minister Takis Theodorikakos and the Greek police claim to have pushed back almost 260,000 men, women and children in 2022 alone.

The reality is that the one thing the Greek government has done, under Mitsotakis, to bring the number of registered arrivals to Greece down, is to break the law. And to have broken it viciously and despicably.

If he wants credit for this, it is his. But he should be prepared to face trial for crimes against humanity.

In his final comment (that we will address) Mitsotakis offers yet another lie, this time about pushbacks.

He said:

We do not engage in pushbacks, but we do prevent illegal entry by sea.

The fewer people there are at sea, the smaller the chances of people being drowned.

So, once again: it is not illegal to arrive in a country to apply for asylum. It is, however, illegal to refuse to allow them to do so.

Mitsotakis is the person breaking the law here, rather than the hundreds of thousands of people he seeks to smear as criminals.

Therefore, there is no ‘illegal entry by sea’.

There are tens of thousands of testimonies from people who had arrived on Greek territory only to be forced back by sea, as well as the records of people who died while being pushed back.

But even if we did not, what Mitsotakis’ statement seeks to do here is to pretend that while it is illegal to push people out of your territory (it is) it is somehow not illegal to deny people the right to apply for asylum (it is).

He appears to be pretending that if one attacks someone and breaks the law in one’s own country, he would regard that as unacceptable, but if one does so in someone else’s country it is perfectly acceptable.

It is not. It is illegal. He knows it and so should everyone else. He is lying when he says Greece does not carry out pushbacks, and he is seeking to deceive people with his attempted ‘justification’ of that sentence.

More than that, there are no ‘neutral’ waters between the Eastern Aegean islands and Türkiye’s coast, any more than there is in the middle of the Evros river: if Mitsotakis has sent people to ‘prevent people entering’ Greece they have operated in Türkiye. Of course, they have not. Mitsotakis is describing pushbacks, his government pushing people out of Greek territory and territorial waters, while pretending Greece does not carry out pushbacks, just as he did in July 2021.

This is in full violation of international law, as he knows.

Mitsotakis is lying.

Nor can he seriously claim that preventing people landing on Greek territory is the same as preventing them from travelling. His ‘policy’ has not ‘reduced the number of people at sea’. It is a lie for him to claim that it has.

The problem with modern journalism is that politicians have now worked out that reporters are seldom specialists in any given subject, and haven’t the time – or indeed the space – to carry out the research and write rebuttals like this one. So, to put it simply, they lie to them, and wait for them to uncritically publish their lies.

That is not a criticism of journalism in general (though some journalists should of course be criticised) but Bild should simply have stated that not one part of Mitsotakis’ claim was in fact true.

As readers, we sadly must assume that what Nea Dimokratia’s politicians say is lies, unless we can find clear evidence of its truth.

This should not be our responsibility, but unless we take it up, and take it seriously, we risk losing the human rights we have, let alone any chance to improve and build upon them.


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