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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Pushbacks, Mitarachis, and the ‘safety’ lie

Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis has repeatedly and implausibly claimed that beating, stealing from, and illegally pushing back people who arrive in Greece seeking safe places to live, learn and work, has made the Mediterranean ‘safer’ and reduced deaths.

Unlike Mitarachis, the figures don’t lie: he and his government have made the Aegean and wider Mediterranean more dangerous. They are killing people, even as they claim to be ‘increasing safety’.

Deaths among people travelling from Türkiye to Greece, 2014-2022

˅denotes downward trend, ^denotes upward trend ^denotes upward trend in deaths despite downward trend in arrivals/travelling people. Red numbers refer to the highest recorded in the nine-year period

*EU-Turkey Statement takes effect, 17 March 2016. **Greek government begins illegal pushbacks campaign, 1 March 2020.

In the course of the last 12 months, Greece’s Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis has repeatedly pretended to Greek and other media that he and his government’s illegal, brutal and barbaric pushbacks campaign (which he pretends is the same as ‘people not coming to Greece’) has made the Mediterranean ‘safer’ and saved lives.

We have continuously pointed out that this was entirely (and of course deliberately) misleading, and we must now, sadly, report that things are even worse than we thought.

UNHCR reports that from 1 January to 31 December 2022, 326 men, women and children died attempting to reach Greece from Türkiye.

This is the highest number since 2016, when 441 people died – most of them in the first three months of the year, before the (also illegal) EU-Turkey Statement came into effect.

It is also the fourth-highest number of people killed in the last nine year, from 2014-2022 inclusive.

For reference, UNHCR’s recorded numbers are:

2014: total arrivals (land plus Aegean crossings) 43,318, total deaths 405

2015: total arrivals (land plus Aegean crossings) 861,630, total deaths 799

2016: 177,234, 441

2017: 36,310, 59

2018: 50,508, 174

2019: 74,613, 71

2020: 15,696, 102

2021: 9,157, 115

2022: 18,780, 326

There are two very important conclusions we can draw from this data.

The first is that Mitarachis’ claim that his and his government’s barbarism at the Greek borders (pushbacks became the Greek government’s primary response to people arriving in Greece on 1 March 2020) has resulted in fewer deaths is demonstrably incorrect. More people died in both 2020 and 2021 (and the number of deaths rose from 2020 to 2021) than in 2019, when eight times (compared to 2021) and 4.75 times (compared to 2020) more people made the crossing.

In 2022, more people died than the combined total number in the three full years – 2017, 2018 and 2019 – between the start of the EU-Turkey Statement (17 March 2016) and the start of the government’s illegal campaign of violence (1 March 2020).

Even in terms of the sheer number of people dying while making what is, after all, a short and relatively simple crossing between Türkiye and Greece, it is very clear that Mitarachis and his colleagues have made things far worse, far more dangerous, and have killed far more people with their pushbacks ‘policy’ than had been being killed previously.

Secondly, if we consider the number of deaths per person who arrived safely, we see that the situation is in fact far, far worse than even those grim statistics indicate.

Because not only are more people dying than at any time since March 2016, the likelihood of death is also far higher.

That is, in 2014, 43,138 people arrived safely in Greece, and 405 people died. This means that one person died for every 106.96 people who arrived safely, or one person in every 107.95 who set out.

In 2015, at the absolute peak of the situation in which people were moving to the EU from Türkiye, those figures were one person dead for every 1,078.39 people who made it safely, or one person dead for every 1,079.39 people who attempted the journey.

In 2016, the figures were one person dead for every 401.89 people who arrived safely, one in every 402.89 who set out.

In 2017, one person died for every 615.4 who arrived safely, and one in every 616.4 who set out, was killed.

In 2018, one person died for every 290.28 who arrived safely, and one in every 291.28 who set out, was killed

In 2019, the figures were one death for every 1,050.89 safe arrivals, and one death in every 1051.89 who set out.

In 2020 – the first year in which pushbacks became the government’s main response to people arriving in Greece – one person died per every 153.88 safe arrivals, and one person in every 154.88 who set out died – a rate almost seven times higher than in 2019.

In 2021, one person died for every 79.63 who arrived safely, and one in every 80.62 who set out, died. This was far and away the highest death-rate to this point, and almost double the rate even in 2020: far from making things ‘safer’, the government in fact almost doubled the risk of death from the previous year, and made it 13 times greater than in 2019, the last full year before the ‘policy’ began.

And last year, the rate of deaths was one person for every 57.6 who reached arrived safely, and one in every 58.6 who set out.

Why would the number and rate of deaths have increased so drastically?

Fundamentally because the government’s entire policy on people movement has been to make it far harder for people to reach Greece, and if they do manage to, to make it impossible for them to remain long enough to make an application for asylum.

As we and many others continually stated, and as the Ministry of Migration’s political leaders and staff were either entirely aware of – in which case they should be arrested for deliberately killing vast numbers of people – or were not, in which case they should all be fired for absolute incompetence, this is absolutely illegal, not least because by necessity it risks people’s lives.

The government closed the most (comparatively) ‘safe’ routes from Türkiye to Greece, perhaps believing – even though we and many others specifically warned them it would not – that this would ‘stop’ people travelling (the alternative, that the government hoped that people dying would discourage others from travelling – i.e., killing people to stop others – is sadly all too easy to believe).

Instead, as of course was always likely to be the case, people who needed to travel kept travelling, and many, many more of them died as a result of the remaining routes being even more dangerous than those the government had worked to close. This includes people who have attempted to sail not the few miles from the Turkish coast to the Aegean islands, but from Türkiye to Italy, an incredibly dangerous journey undertaken solely because the Greek government is so relentlessly vicious and violent in its law-breaking against men, women and children seeking safe places to live, learn and work.

Second, some people have been killed while being pushed back, or while on life rafts sent back to Türkiye by the Greek government.

Third, the government’s increasingly brutal behaviour at Evros, which now at least matches (if not surpasses) that dealt out on the Aegean islands, means an increasing number of people in both locations are not only being killed in the course of the beatings and pushbacks carried out on the Greek government’s orders, but also people hiding rather than presenting themselves to the appropriate authorities, and as a result dying of hunger, thirst or exposure.

Whatever the reasons, the facts are these: whenever one hears Mitarachis or another member of the Greek government pretending their policies have made things ‘safer’ in the Aegean and Mediterranean around Greece, and whenever one sees a member of the EU Parliament or Commission praising the Greek government for ‘regularising’ the ‘migration situation’, the reality is this:

1. The Greek government’s policies have caused more deaths every year since they were introduced in March 2020, to the extent that more people were killed trying to enter Greece last year than in every year except 2014, when more than twice as many people made the attempt, 2015, when more than 45 times as many people tried, and 2016, when almost ten times as many people did

2. Last year, more people died in the attempt to reach safety than the total number who died in the three full years (2017-19 inclusive) between the start of the EU-Turkey Statement and the start of the illegal pushbacks ‘policy’

3. The number of people who have died since the pushbacks regime began in March 2020 has increased every year, more than tripling from 2020 to 2022

4. The proportion of people dying per people who either made it safely to Greece or who attempted the journey is at its highest ever rate, and is close to double the previous highest rate, recorded in 2015.

The Greek government’s law-breaking has absolutely not made the Aegean or Evros regions ‘safer’. It has increased the number and the proportion of people killed while exercising their right to try to find safe places to live, learn and work.

We must not forget or ignore this, because Mitarachis and his colleagues are depending on us doing so.


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