Pekka Haavisto: Greece’s Finnish false friend
Yesterday, (Wednesday 9 February 2022) Finland’s Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told media that Greece, Italy and other states ‘need more support’ from the rest of the EU on the issue of people arriving from outside the bloc (they do, he is correct) but also promulgated the bloc’s wildly misleading claims about the situation on the Belarus/Poland border, and praised Frontex, Poland and Greece for directly breaking international law.
Haavisto was in Turkey meeting his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu when he made the comments.
Cavusoglu had said: ‘Do not misunderstand us but if we had done 1/10 of what Greece is doing then we know what we would hear. But Greece has an excuse that states it is guarding Europe's borders, while the borders of Europe in the South and in the East start from Turkey.
‘Unfortunately, Frontex has supported the inhumane behaviour of Greece at the border and the repatriations. We also shared the videos and documents with the EU.
‘Greece and the wider EU has consistently treated refugees inhumanely and Greece has continued its pushback policy by openly violating human rights in violation of international law.
‘Many migrants lost their lives because of the pushbacks, because Greece pierced the boats. The European Union is as guilty as Greece, and should remember that Europe’s borders are not protected by Greece, but by Turkey.’
Now, there’s a lot in that statement.
The first thing to note is that Cavusoglu is one of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s most ‘loyal’ party members, and says nothing whatsoever that the President does not want said.
The second is that Erdogan and his AKP party’s public statements are very seldom ‘aimed at’ people outside of Turkey (though there is a large Turkish diaspora the party does regularly wish to reach) but are instead generally opportunities to talk ‘to Turkish people about Turkey’: in this case, it’s an effort to ‘help’ Turkish people remember that a) Turkey treats refugees better than the EU and b) Turkey is being ‘used’ by the EU to carry out its responsibilities.
We should also note that to our knowledge at least, there has been no evidence that the Greek government – or Frontex – has actually killed refugees by ‘piercing their boats’.
But with all of those codicils noted, we must be clear here: whatever Cavusoglu’s intentions, and whatever his audience, his statement – and many others like it made by Erdogan and his acolytes over the years – are correct.
The Greek government absolutely undeniably (despite its attempts to deny it) does have a policy of pushbacks.
It has illegally, brutally (it regularly beats, strips, robs refugees of their possessions and then risks their lives by forcing them into engineless life-rafts which it sets adrift on the open sea: in many cases it injures those people while doing so) and barbarically forced back 26,755 out of 34,560 of the people who arrived in Greece by sea alone (the same practice, minus the life-rafts, is in place at the Evros ‘land’ border with Turkey, but figures are far harder to come by) between 1 March 2020 and 31 January 2022: 77.4 per cent, more than three in every four people to have arrived in Greece by sea, have been treated in this inexcusable fashion (in fact, the real number is likely to be far higher).
And yes, Cavusolgu is correct (though he chose to say something incorrect about how it happens): this illegal violence is killing people. In less than 11 months – 19 March 2021 to 1 February this year – ten people have been killed directly by being pushed back at sea by the Greek government.
To this we can certainly add the 19 people who froze to death at the Greek border with Turkey on Tuesday 1/Wednesday 2 February 2022 (one of the most horrifying things about this multiple-murder was that those killed had so obviously been treated in the standard Greek government-ordered fashion. They had been stripped, removed of their possessions and forced back across the border. Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis insisted ‘they never made it to the border’ but this would require us to believe that these people deliberately left home not only without any documents but also without any money, without mobile phones and without clothing. This did not happen, and it is an insult to our collective intelligence for Mitarachis to pretend that it did).
And we should also note that the 61 people who drowned in Greek waters in the four days before Christmas 2021, while they were certainly not killed directly by Greek uniformed officers, almost certainly died because of the Greek pushbacks policy.
Cavusoglu’s ‘Europe’s borders begin at Turkey’ comment may seem a little harder to swallow, but even here, he has a point.
For all that we do and should talk about the UK government’s current disgusting efforts to ‘outsource’ its responsibilities under international law, this is precisely what the EU (of which of course the UK was still a member at the time the deal was written) has been doing with Turkey since the EU Sturkey Statement came into operation since March 2016.
The Statement demands that Turkey prevents people from travelling to the EU, and must take back anyone who does so, at the EU’s demand. It sets out plans to pay Turkey €6bn for this service, but not only is it not acceptable to pay others to break the law on your behalf (and this is against the law: not only is it every person’s right to leave whatever country they choose to leave, it is also the law that they may travel to and enter any country they wish to if – when reaching their destination – they apply for asylum) but this money was supposed to have been paid in full by 31 December 2018, and yet has still not all been handed over.
Equally, one of the things the EU not only accepted Turkey should do, but actively encouraged it to do, was build a wall along its border with Syria, specifically to prevent Syrian people entering Turkey to escape war, terror, chaos and death. The EU paid Turkey not just to break international law by preventing people from leaving Turkey and going to the EU, but also by trapping people in a place where they feared death and in an enormous number of cases, actually died.
There is simply no denying that Turkey is the EU’s Southern- and Eastern-most border. The EU is paying Turkey to be that, albeit that it has still not paid it in full for the service, more than three years after the money was due.
Finally (on Cavusoglu’s comments) we know that the Greek Coastguard, Greek police and Frontex having been pushing people back. The videos Cavusoglu talks about are just one part of the enormous pile of proofs we have of this, including videos (the vast majority of the videos anyone has seen) the Turkish government has been nowhere near, hundreds and hundreds of photos, location data compiled painstakingly by those travelling to find safety, and by organisations including Aegean Boat Report and direct testimonies from those who have been pushed back, many of them multiple times.
We know this is happening, and while it is too seldom reported, the Greek government currently faces charges of pushbacks in 32 separate cases at the European Court of Human Rights.
In any case, Haavisto chose to respond.
He said: ‘I have to defend Europe and Frontex and the whole system of border protection. Recently in the autumn we saw what happened on the border between Belarus and Poland, Latvia. There was a fictitious wave of refugees as refugees were pushed by Belarusian soldiers to the borders of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. There we tried to resolve the issue in cooperation with these countries and Frontex. But we must clarify that Greece and Italy are under great pressure, we must jointly lift the weight of this refugee wave. These countries are at the forefront and we must support them in the face of the influx of refugees from the Mediterranean.’
The problem here is that while his final statement is certainly correct, this is a deliberately misleading representation of what happened at the Belarussian border, claiming that the refugees there were in some way ‘fictitious’ because ‘Belarussian soldiers pushed them over the border’.
This excuse has been repeated so many times now that it appears to have been simply accepted as fact. But it is almost entirely unevidenced – at least from the perspective of the idea that Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko ‘facilitated the entry’ of the refugees into Belarus.
But even if he had done, that would not excuse what Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and the wider EU did in response, and it would not make the refugees ‘fictitious’.
Because it is the right of people to travel to the destination of their choice and apply for asylum on their arrival. It makes no difference how they got there. This is such a vital point because – in part because of statements like Haavisto’s – it seems to be completely unknown to most people.
It literally does not matter whether the people trying to enter the EU got there by walking thousands of miles, or being driven by limousine: it is their right to travel and to apply for asylum. That’s not only the law, it is the only way any refugee law could possibly work, and it is the only decent human way to behave.
And if we look again at Haavisto’s comment, ‘There was a fictitious wave of refugees as refugees were pushed by Belarusian soldiers to the borders.’
If people are literally being forced by armed, uniformed representatives of a state, out of that state, how can one possibly claim that they are ‘not refugees’ – at the very least from that state?
Haavisto also deployed the EU – and far-Right’s – favourite phrase ‘border protection’. As we, and certainly also Haavisto, are well aware there is no justification anywhere in the law for ‘protecting’ one’s border from asylum seekers. In fact, those people are specifically exceptions to border law.
The trouble really is not just that people like Haavisto are so prepared to say things they either know are untrue, or they are unqualified to be in their roles because they believe they are correct, but that in doing so Haavisto is not being a ‘friend’ to Greece or even the EU.
Haavisto did not even mention Greece in his response, except to use its name in a vague call for the EU to be more helpful, and yet Greek media sources have fallen over themselves to report his comments as ‘supporting Greece’.
But the absolute last thing Greece – or indeed the EU (and certainly Frontex, which even if it were not pushing people back itself would be and is still abusing its position by allowing pushbacks to take place on the EU border) – needs is to be ‘supported’ in breaking the law.
It does not ’help Greece’ to back it in pushing people back, beating them, injuring them, robbing them and in some cases killing them. First because those people could be of massive benefit to Greece and the wider EU. Second because in fact it simply allows the government of Greece – and those ruling the EU – to enact increasingly repressive tactics in direct contravention of the law in the knowledge that not only will no-one stop them, but people given public platforms will applaud and defend them for doing so.
And third because international law is there for everyone: for a Somali grandmother, and an Afghan baby certainly, but also for a Greek father, a French mother of two, for everyone you know and for you.
What friends do is tell their friends when they are wrong. When they have made a mistake or are acting badly. Politely and calmly, but also firmly and clearly.
Haavisto’s comments – even as they did not in fact address Greek pushbacks – do not make him a ‘friend of Greece’, or Poland, Latvia or Lithuania. They make him an enemy of refugees, and of the international legal system in which all of our rights as individuals are contained.
It made him an attacker of Greek men, women and children, as well as of Finnish people, French people, English people, Somali people, Afghan people. Of all people. Of you.
It is past time we started to counter this violence against us. Because the alternative is horrifying.