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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

The situation on Greece’s borders is far worse than even critical reports suggest

Updated: Mar 10, 2023

Two newspapers have published a shocking and praise-worthy report, declaring that officers working for the Greek government have stolen €2.8m from people they have illegally pushed back from the Greek borders, as well as detailing sexual assaults, kidnaps, and other barbaric crimes committed against them by those government employees.

The sad fact is, the reality is in fact far worse than the report describes.

The newspapers Solomon (Greece) and El Pais (Spain) report that the Greek authorities have robbed at least €2.8m from men, women and children attempting to enter Greece since 2017.

Having read their report, we must be clear that the real amount is likely to be several times greater.

The two newspapers ran an interesting and encouraging (on the grounds that while Solomon is one of Greece’s (only) two news sources with some journalists who actually bother to do any real investigative reporting, it is always encouraging to see they are still doing so) investigation into a side of the Greek government’s (in a sense ‘governments’’, but we will note why this is slightly misleading in a moment) illegal pushbacks campaigns which is often mentioned but seldom in real detail (including by us).

They spent more than six months speaking to more than a dozen sources, including people pushed back, rights defending organisations, and people working in roles related to the Greek asylum system, as well as researching 374 incidents in which a total of more than 20,000 people were pushed back from Greece between 2017 and 2022.

So here we need to make a note.

First of all, this study does not contain any cases in which people were pushed back from the Eastern Aegean islands.

Secondly, it does not really get to grips with the fact that (though it does acknowledge that) in 2022, the Greek government itself boasts that it illegally pushed back 260,000 men, women and children. If they carried just ten euros each, or jewellery worth that much, this would be almost the total the newspapers extrapolate was stolen in the entire five-year period.

It is clear far more money has been stolen than even the newspapers’ research suggests. Maybe ten or more times as much.

Neither of these things in any way reduces the worth, seriousness or reliability of the newspapers’ efforts and findings here. In fact, they rather strengthen them.

What would be extremely interesting, however, would be to discover precisely how many people have in fact been pushed back at the Evros border since 2017. This data simply does not exist.

Even though the data collected by observers of Aegean islands activities is by its very nature always incomplete, relying as it does on testimonies and/or people reporting their position (it is also easier to gain data from the Greek and Turkish Coastguards, as they are required to some extent to make their activities known to the public, than from the Greek police, the main culprits of Evros pushbacks, who are not) it is far more detailed and has far deeper data than those at Evros.

To be fair, the newspapers do acknowledge all of these – genuinely largely unavoidable, unless and until the Greek police are forced to honestly share information on their activities at Evros – flaws, noting:

This amount could be much higher, since many of these deportations —and the consequent theft— are not registered by the NGOs that work in the area.

One other reason why the Evros data might be interesting is that it has been widely acknowledged that even as they allowed people (the majority of people) to enter Greece via the Aegean, the SYRIZA-ANEL coalition relied heavily on ‘military’ excuses to carry out pushbacks in Evros.

The current Greek government came to power in July 2019 and openly made pushbacks its sole response to all new arrivals into the country, but it would be extremely useful to see just how much difference this made at the Evros border.

The newspapers report that:

In 2017, in only 11 per cent of the incidents examined, those affected reported that their money had been taken from them. In the following years the proportion has grown: in 2022, the theft of money was reported in 92 per cent of pushbacks.

The data coincides with a report published in January by the National Human Rights Commission, an advisory body of the Greek State: in 88 per cent of cases, those illegally deported suffered violence and in 93 per cent of cases they were [stripped of] belongings and money.

The latter point may of course indicate a number of things.

Perhaps a simple increase in ‘confidence’ in the police and other uniformed officers breaking the law on behalf of successive Greek governments which comes with the time for which they have been doing it.

Possibly a ‘confidence boost’ coming from a government openly parading its pushbacks as ‘defending EU borders’ (in which case aided directly by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen saying in March 2020 that ‘Greece is our shield’ following the Greek government breaking the law by preventing people entering from Türkiye: the report notes, as we did at the time, that she also promised the Greek government €700m to ‘protect the border’ – it is illegal to ‘protect’ one’s border from people seeking asylum – which has resulted in far larger numbers of ‘border guards’ and far better equipment to be used by them, being turned against men, women and children attempting to find safe places to live, learn and work. While we are correct to blame and criticise the Greek government for its actions, we must not forget the ‘enabling’ role the EU has willingly played).

Or maybe an indication that the policy itself changed as the government did.

At this point, we can only speculate. None of the possibilities reflects particularly well on Greece, and Nea Dimokratia in particular.

The newspapers’ report also contains individuals’ experience. In one case which may be of interest to readers of these updates (as we noted it, but in less detail, not having had the chance to speak directly to the people attacked, robbed and pushed back) a Cuban man and woman, ‘pushed back’ from Greece to Türkiye by Greek officials last January when they presented themselves and requested to apply for asylum (their absolute legal right) despite never having even been to Türkiye, describe being robbed of €375 and in the case of Perez Alvarez, being sexually assaulted:

They touched my breasts and between my legs,’ she said.

One ‘institutional source’ (unnamed for understandable reasons) said:

We have seen a great deterioration, in terms of the use of violence and humiliating practices. We are at the lowest level of respect for human life.

It would be lovely to be able to claim this is not the case. But it is.

The report also notes cases of people who had in fact entered the asylum system, and in some cases, such as that of ‘Amir’, an Afghan refugee living in 2020 in foster care in Thessaloniki, being kidnapped (and this is the correct word) by officers dressed in civilian clothes, and forced to Evros, where they were pushed into Türkiye.

‘Amir’ notes that he was beaten every time he tried to speak to the officers to explain his legal status.

This is not only of course absolutely illegal, it is also pure racism and tantamount to ethnic cleansing.

One ‘municipal source’ in Orestiada, Evros, tells the newspapers that ‘the children of police officers turn up at school with new mobile phones, boasting that their fathers took them from illegal migrants’ (it is not illegal to enter a country to apply for asylum and as the people in Evros who are pushed back have either expressed their intention to do so directly, or have not been allowed to express that wish, it is unacceptable to continually refer to them as ‘illegal’)

We should make no mistake: this is an important report. But the story it tells is far smaller than the reality of the situation.

That in and of itself should be enough to horrify us, because it means we are – even if unknowingly – part of an enormous criminal organisation not just carrying out illegal, barbaric and immoral acts, but also lining its pockets as it does so.


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