The consolidation of Europe’s border regime in Greece

  • March 19, 2022

Borders & Beyond

Under Greece’s Nea Demokratia government, the situation for migrants and refugees in the country is rapidly deteriorating — with the EU’s callous support.

Protesters in Mytilene, Lesvos, to stop mass deportations of refugees to Turkey. March 26, 2016. Photo: Phil Mike Jones / Flickr

The disastrous fire of September 2020 at the Moria Refugee Camp on the island of Lesvos drew worldwide attention — not for the first time — to the catastrophic situation at Greece’s migration “hotspots.” Now, more than 18 months on, conditions in the country for refugees and migrants — as well as for solidarity work — continue to worsen. While the horrific conditions at the Polish-Belarusian border or the deaths in the English Channel in the winter brought the cynical day-to-day misery of the European border regime back into public consciousness, the media remains relatively quiet around Greece and the other countries along the main migration routes to Northwestern Europe. Yet there, too, the policy of isolation and neglect aimed at deterring refugees and migrants from entering or staying in Europe remains the daily reality.

The current situation in Greece shows how systematically this policy is pursued and how closely it is linked to broader European Union efforts to consolidate an increasingly tough border regime: a system of “hard” border protection measures, policing and militarized borders, bio-metric and technological surveillance, procedural hurdles in the asylum process, detention, lowered protection standards, increased deportations, pushbacks and outright state neglect.

For many refugees and migrants traveling to Europe, Greece is the first point of entry. The Dublin Regulation dictates that asylum seekers must submit their application in the first EU country they enter. This places the responsibility for handling asylum applications — and potentially granting refugee status — mainly on the peripheral Southern European countries. As such, Greece has played a central role, serving as a field of experimentation for Europe’s evolving restrictions.

The EU Commission’s so-called hotspot approach is an expression of the EU’s internal divisions when it comes to dealing with “the problem of migration.” The “hotspot” approach seriously erodes international protection standards and has had devastating effects on the lives of refugees and migrants in or trying to enter Europe. On the one hand, it has significantly increased the influence and power of inter-European agencies such as Frontex, Europol and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) to support countries with “higher migration pressures.” On the other hand, it has introduced a more complicated and restrictive asylum procedure, condemning people who have arrived on the Greek islands to long periods of internment in one of the many camps across the Aegean archipelago.

Years of austerity in Greece have led to a drastic increase of precarious work, poor living conditions, joblessness and homelessness. This is the socio-political and economic backdrop against which we need to understand both the tensions between Greek and Northwestern European policy makers in regards to “managing migration” and the deteriorating conditions that asylum seekers and refugees are facing. Since 2019, the Greek government under the right-wing conservative party Nea Demokratia has pursued a particularly tough line on migration, affecting a range of fields from asylum law to detention, camp regulations, food and cash provisions, health and education.

Erosion of the right to asylum

Since Neo Demokratia came to power in late 2019, it has been striving to consolidate its control over all aspects of migrants’ lives. Far-reaching legislative changes since 2019 have led to a drastic tightening of the right to asylum, the expansion of “administrative detention” for migrants, the narrowing of “vulnerability” criteria and increasingly restrictive conditions for non-governmental organizations.

The new administration also took advantage of the escalation at the Turkish-Greek border in March 2020, when Turkish President Erdoğan suspended a key element of the €6 billion EU-Turkey deal, according to which Turkey would take back particularly Syrian asylum seekers in return for financial compensation and certain political concessions by the EU. In response, the Greek government temporarily suspended the right to asylum altogether, intensified its crackdown on “illegal migration” and resorted to an aggressive strategy of illegally deporting asylum seekers.

According to UNHCR statistics, in recent years, the numbers of new asylum seekers arriving to Greece have steadily declined. The UNHCR spokesperson in Athens, Stella Nanou asserted that the humanitarian crisis in Greece ended in 2017 and that the country is no longer “in an emergency or humanitarian crisis.” As a result, the UNHCR started “reducing its operational footprint and transitioning the programs that we felt would be essential to the Greek authorities.” Gradually, UNHCR operations have been brought to an end or transitioned over to the Greek authorities, and the agency has drastically reduced its staff all over the country.

From the agency’s perspective, the crisis might be considered over, with the overall number of official arrivals having dropped significantly since 2015. However, those numbers are debatable when you consider the thousands of people who have been pushed back and denied the right to formally register as asylum seekers in Greece. Moreover, conditions for asylum seekers and recognized refugees remain dire and hostile throughout the country.

In June 2021, the Greek government unilaterally declared Turkey a “safe third country” for asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, Pakistan and Bangladesh, leaving many in fear that their very application for asylum would be declared “inadmissible” on the grounds that Turkey is safe for them. Regardless, since the standoff at the Greek-Turkish border in March 2020, Turkey is not accepting the return of refugees, condemning the majority of asylum seekers from the above-mentioned countries to a prolonged legal limbo situation and at risk of detention while their deportation is pending.

Everyday violence in the camps

A key campaign promise of Neo Demokratia was to end the excessive overcrowding of reception centers on the Aegean islands by “decongesting” the camps and ending the “lack of control” of previous years.

Indeed, since the beginning of 2021, thousands of migrants and refugees have arrived on the mainland from the islands of Samos, Lesvos, Kos, Leros and Chios. These are mainly people with recognized asylum status or those whose application was rejected and whose “geographical restriction” — a defining element of the “hotspot” approach — was temporarily lifted on the condition that they would leave the country within a short period of time.

The situation in Ritsona, the largest camp in the Attica region, about 70 kilometers north of Athens, reveals that while the “decongestion” of the islands has offered many a way out of the isolation there, no plan exists to create opportunities for people to build their own lives on the mainland. At the same time, there has been a growing strain on the capacity of Greece’s mainland camps. As of December 2020, most of the mainland camps were already at capacity or overcrowded. Ritsona has reached its official capacity of 2,950 people.

Without access to public transportation, Ritsona is located between factories and a crematorium, far from urban life. The camp, with its many trees, scattered stores and open entry gate was considered better compared to other, more strictly policed and controlled camps. Since early 2021, however, the government has been busy fortifying camps with walls and fences throughout the country, enforcing stricter and often arbitrary rules on entry and exit. In Ritsona and other camps like Diavata or Malakasa, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is administrating the fortification of these camps with EU funding. This is part of IOM’s “site management support” for the Greek government and the organization’s growing role in implementing the EU’s border regime.

During the first months of lockdown, the mayor of the nearest town to the Ritsona camp, Chalkida, had kept the camp’s children out of school under the pretext of COVID-19 protection measures — even after the measures were relaxed nationwide in the summer of 2020. After a successful lawsuit against this obviously racist discrimination, the administration came up with a new hurdle: no school bus can be found, because the city streets are too narrow for large buses and the conditions of the official tender for a minibus-company have been too poor to attract a contractor.

Pepi Papadimitriou, who is responsible for educational affairs in the camp, has been organizing alongside lawyers and activists since the first lockdown to ensure that youths receive their legally guaranteed access to public schools. Reflecting on the situation, she stated: “The government has no system for integrating refugees. It just wants them to leave. They want to make sure they leave and don’t stay here.”

The children and youths of Ritsona are not alone in this situation: more than 20,000 children throughout the country are denied access to education and less than 15 percent of children from the camps have been able to attend courses. This is just one of many examples of the Greek government’s lack of interest in creating opportunities for people seeking a new beginning in Europe – in keeping with the policy of deterrence and isolation against “irregular migration” practiced across the EU.

Parwana Amiri, author and self-ascribed “revolutionary refugee,” confirmed that she and her comrades were able to attend school for only one month over a period of more than a year-and-a-half: “It was the best part for us, not being in the camp. You can go to Chalkida, you can live like a normal student, you can learn something new.”

Parwana and her family from Herat in Afghanistan arrived first to Lesvos in 2019, where they stayed at the Moria camp. By the time Moria was destroyed by the fire in September 2020, they had just moved on to Ritsona. Parwana recounts the everyday violence she has experienced in both Moria and Ritsona. The conditions in the overcrowded camps, the general fear and insecurity and the lack of prospects led to violence and mistrust between residents:

Before, I thought that people were all united, but gradually I realized that this was not really the case. So, I started finding ways to bring people together, to give them reasons why they should be together. Slowly, very slowly, through education, through action, through sharing knowledge, through involvement in projects, we help each other work for a common goal.

Together with her comrades she is taking matters in her own hands. In a self-built common space, she organizes the mutual education of the girls from different parts of the world living in Ritsona. From painting to writing to learning languages, the space offers kids a way to express and educate themselves and to escape the widespread sense of stagnancy.

Centralized control, segregation and systematic neglect

An essential component of the Greek government’s policy of hostility is to make conditions as difficult as possible for migrants who have made it into the country. For example, having taken over the UNHCR’s so-called ESTIA programs for financial support of asylum seekers and housing of “vulnerable” individuals outside the camps, the government has restricted access to them. This has entailed the removal of post-traumatic stress disorder as a qualifier for “vulnerability.” In addition, people are now required to leave the ESTIA housing program within one month of receiving their asylum decision — whether positive or negative — which is also when they lose their right to financial assistance. On the islands, the housing program — the only alternative to life in the camps — was abolished altogether.

At the same time, the segregation between asylum seekers and wider society is deepened by the recent decision to make cash assistance dependent on staying in one of the increasingly controlled camps. Furthermore, while the UNHCR’s financial assistance program expired in September last year, as late as the end of December, the government had still not paid any replacement benefits. Food rations for people outside the asylum process were also stopped. The result is hunger. An open letter from 27 non-governmental organizations states:

It is roughly estimated that 60% of people living in camps do not receive food in the mainland. Access to livelihood is a fundamental human right. Food insecurity, let alone complete food deprivation, should not be experienced by anyone, especially not at the hand of the state.

Those who are granted asylum are left to fend for themselves. For those who are recognized as refugees, the hostile attitude of the authorities, the bureaucratic and material hurdles of support programs and the tense economic situation resulting from austerity and the COVID-19 pandemic offer little promise in case they decide to stay.

Those whose asylum application is denied — and that is the majority — lose access to all support services. Changes in the 2020 asylum law make appeals costly and lengthy. In such a situation, there is the threat of detention-pending-deportation, or living on the streets without a residence permit under constant fear of the police. Homelessness is an increasingly acute problem for migrants and Greek citizens alike. However, the authorities ignore this development: official figures on homelessness are not collected, only few shelters exist and those that do are not accessible to all those in need.

A particular aspect of Nea Demokratia’s deterrence policy is the excessive use of so-called administrative detention for people arriving to Greece to claim asylum. According to a recent Oxfam report, in July of 2020, 3,000 people, including children, were in detention without criminal conviction, nearly half of them for longer than six months. This also affects people who have already applied for asylum.

Hope Barker, member of the of the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) explains how Greece’s International Protection Act of 2019 laid the foundation for the excessive use of pre-removal detention centers, where people can be held for up to 18 months while their cases are being processed. If their cases are rejected, they can be legally held for another 18 months pending their deportation. Barker summarizes the situation, explaining that during the process of “asking for asylum, being rejected and waiting for removal, you can be detained for three years, legally. The Greek state has turned towards mass incarceration.”

The mix of deterrence and neglect is working, evident by the fact that the majority of migrants and refugees — whether they have their applications accepted or rejected — try to leave the country for Central and Northern Europe as quickly as possible. This is much to the chagrin of the governments there, who are prevented by local courts from deporting them back to Greece because of the bad conditions there. Financial support has been offered to Greece to address this problem, but the Greek migration minister Mitarakis — who recently stated that Ukrainians are the “real refugees” — refuses to accept the accusations of “sub-standard” living conditions for migrants and refugees in the country and chooses to focus on efforts to stop “primary flows” altogether:

Our principled position, as expressed on many occasions […], is that the focus needs to be placed on preventing primary flows. Should smugglers beat us at the external borders, inevitably they beat us at our internal borders too. We need to work more closely with FRONTEX and support the agency in its critical role to protect our external borders.

According to the Greek government, this is a success story. Compared to 2015, an 80 percent reduction was achieved by 2020, and by 2021 it was down to 73 percent. However, what the government takes pride in, essentially, is the steady increase of illegal expulsions by the coast guard and security forces, which has massively reduced the numbers of official arrivals.

The new “hotspots”: retraumatization in an open-air prison

On the Greek island of Samos, one can observe how the Greek government and European donors envision such better living conditions and how the authorities prevent “primary flows.”

Another so-called hotspot, Samos, like Lesvos, is located within sight of the Turkish coast. On September 18, volunteers, lawyers and journalists gathered in front of the new “Closed Controlled Access Center” that has replaced the old camp on the outskirts of the island’s capital, Vathy. Here in Zervou, a good two hours’ walk from Vathy, 150,000 square meters of white concrete, white containers, cameras, loudspeaker systems, barbed wire and revolving doors stretch out into the remote valley. This is intended to provide security for residents and staff as well as “reduce the impact of migration in local communities,” as Minister Mitarakis puts it. Of course, warnings by a EU human rights agency that “[a] facility intended for the first identification and registration of new arrivals should not resemble a prison, with barbed wire and prison-like fencing” because of the “risk of re-traumatizing people who have experienced violence and prosecution” were ignored.

In total, 48 million euros have been invested by the EU in the “closed controlled” camp at Samos. It is the pilot project for four others with a total cost of 228 million euros. Two similar camps were opened on the islands of Leros and Kos on November 27, and two more are in planning on Chios and Lesvos. Like Zervou, they are all located far from urban centers: in Lesvos it will be a good 50 kilometers to the capital Mitilini, on the other side of the island. During the opening of the Zervou camp, the local camp administration, Minister Mitarakis and his European guests — including French Interior Minister Darmanin, co-signatory of the above-mentioned letter of complaint — raved about good living conditions in the new “closed controlled” camp of Samos.

Two days after the opening of Zervou camp, the migration minister tweeted pictures from the inauguration of a new control center in Athens, which was attended by 26 EU ambassadors. In real time, surveillance data from all 36 camps in Greece will converge here to monitor suspicious crowds and incidents with the help of AI-assisted movement analysis. The EU is funding this “technosolutionism” as part of the wider trend of upgrading Europe’s borders with high-tech security and with money from the Recovery Fund, which supports member states hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those who do not live in a world of wishful thinking or window dressing see the Zervou pilot project as a new generation of open-air prisons on the Greek island “hotspots.” Accordingly, the mood on the ground was extremely tense in the days leading up to the forced move to the “closed controlled” camp. Daniela Steuermann, medical coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières on Samos, reported a huge deterioration in the mental state of her patients, self-injuring behavior and a threatening hopelessness that is spreading among the camp’s residents.

Touré from Mali, who reached Samos two years ago, said: “I live in miserable conditions. I don’t even know how to explain it. Recently they told us that they will take us to the new camp. They want to assassinate us there. To me, these people are evil and criminals. I don’t want to accept this any longer. I don’t want to go to the new camp. This place is a prison. It is a crime against humanity.”

As the Samos Advocacy Collective and Europe Must Act point out in a report from December 2021: “[In] the three months since the [Zervou] camp became operational, it is clearer than ever that the assurances of the authorities do not match the reality.” Testimonies taken from the camps’ residents “show that far from representing an improvement, life in the camp is tantamount to life in a prison, and that the stark contrast between the old hotspot and the new closed camp is not a positive one.”

The night before the transport to Zervou, a fire broke out in the old camp. It appeared to be an act of protest and despair.

Pushbacks, abductions and abuses

In a depressing illustration of the situation at Europe’s external borders, over the course of just four days after the opening of the new flagship camp in Samos, several dozen people were subjected to illegal pushbacks by the Greek coastguard. Two dead bodies washed up at the Turkish coast shortly afterwards, apparently after being thrown overboard at open sea by the Greek coast guard, in a shocking event documented by Der Spiegel. As is so often the case, the exact circumstances and number of victims could not be conclusively determined.

According to Hope Barker, BVMN alone has registered thousands of people who have suffered pushbacks: “In 2020 there were 87 [pushbacks] from Greece to Turkey, [amounting] to 4,683 people. And since the beginning of 2021 we’ve taken 54 testimonies [of separate pushbacks, amounting to] an estimated 4,007 people — and this is just what we’ve taken.”

When the government talks about “preventing primary flows,” this is what it means: the systematic practice of forced returns of people seeking protection by land and by sea. Contrary to popular perception, pushbacks do not “just” mean the forced turnaround of boats by the Coast Guard and the violation of the non-refoulement principle. As the Legal Centre Lesvos and BVMN report, since March 2020, the Greek government has significantly expanded the practice of pushbacks in the Aegean Sea and the land border to Turkey. On the one hand, people are abducted nearly on a daily basis after arriving on Greek territory — sometimes in full view of everyone and as far away from the border as Thessaloniki — detained in secret locations or police stations, abused, stripped, robbed and finally abandoned at the border to Turkey. On the other hand, in the Mediterranean, people are abandoned on inflatable life rafts in Turkish waters. In the Evros region meanwhile — where the Evros river marks the Greece-Turkey land border — they are sent or taken across the river in flimsy inflatable boats or taken part of the way and abandoned on small islands. There are many deaths, with only a small number of the cases documented.

Amelia Cooper of the Legal Centre Lesvos gives the example of an operation in which 200 people were pushed back from Crete and abandoned in Turkish waters by seven Greek Coast Guard vessels and paramilitary units, all without insignia. The scale of such an operation highlights the absurdity of claims from Frontex and NATO — both present in the Aegean and equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance technology — that they were oblivious of any such incident. “It is very important to emphasize that these are not one-off events, either as a policy or as an individual experience,” she added. “It is very common for people we were speaking to to be pushed back eight, nine, ten times — at the sea and at the land borders.”

In light of this systematic practice and the “willful blindness” of the relevant state actors in the Aegean, UNHCR statistics on arrivals have lost their meaning. Only organizations such as Aegean Boat Report, Josoor or Mare Liberum and networks such as BVMN provide a realistic assessment of the situation, thus making them targets for the authorities. In addition to investigations by the Greek authorities against Josoor and Mare Liberum, a September law amendment prohibits non-governmental organizations from engaging in rescue missions without official authorization from the coast guard — the same coast guard that carries out forced expulsions. International maritime laws concerning the unconditional obligation to rescue people in danger is trampled upon. Such legal changes help lay the foundation for the further criminalization of solidarity work and border monitoring activities by civic groups.

Despite overwhelming evidence, video recordings and innumerable testimonies, all of the state actors mentioned above stick to their official line that there is insufficient evidence to prove that there have been forcible returns and that these were in fact regular border guard actions. Any other interpretation of the events is based on “misunderstandings,” as FRONTEX chief Leggeri chooses to put it.

The Kafkaesque quality of the European border regime is on full display here: on the one hand, we find civil society organizations, lawyers and journalists who are defamed and criminalized for spreading “fake news” or “Turkish propaganda” about pushbacks. On the other hand, there are the Greek officials bluntly boasting of their rate of deterrence, such as in this 2020 statement from the Greek Minister for Maritime Affairs: “Since the beginning of the year, the entry of more than 10,000 people has been prevented.” In August 2020, alone, he says, “we managed to prevent 3,000 people from entering our country.”

Schrödinger’s pushbacks” — as Josoor founder Natalie Gruber aptly describes them — have long been out of the bag, and forced returns are now commonplace along the Greek-Turkish border. The EU Commission’s “deep concern” or calls for further, inconclusive investigations by the Greek authorities will not change this.

Rather, the Greek government is making an effort to normalize their aggressive strategy of border protection and migration control. One way in which they are trying to achieve this is by threatening critical reporting. A recent change in the criminal code foresees that so-called fake news that is “capable of causing concern or fear to the public or shattering public confidence in the national economy, the country’s defense capacity or public health shall be punished by imprisonment for at least three months, and a fine.” In the context of several attacks on media freedom and plurality in Greece, such vague regulations are threatening to further stifle freedom of speech and to discourage journalists and NGOs from reporting on illegal activities by the government. “In Greece, you now risk jail for speaking out on important issues of public interest, if the government claims it’s false,” said Eva Cossé from Human Rights Watch Greece.

The choice between barbarism and solidarity

Together with the application of confidentiality clauses for NGOs working inside the camps, the introduction of tougher and intrusive registration procedures for organizations working in the field of migration — as well as observation of journalists and NGOs by the secret services — the Greek authorities are going to unprecedented lengths in silencing opposition to its policy of deterrence.

Since migration towards Greece is not going to stop any time soon, it is the work of civil society organizations and activists that make the difference between a Europe of barbarism and a Europe of solidarity. While the European Commission is openly challenging certain other EU members’ attacks on civil society — as in Hungary — Greece’s recent policy changes have remained mostly unchallenged.

Advocating for EU-internal infringement proceedings against the violation of rule of law principles might be one way ahead to tackle some of the most controversial amendments in Greek law and create a little breathing space for the migrants and refugees stuck in the country, as well as for the civic organizations trying to support them. However, since the Greek government is clearly acting in the interest of the entire EU and its aspiration to limit “migration flows” to the continent, this appears unlikely. The focus then must remain on supporting the day-to-day work of the dozens of humanitarian and solidarity organizations active on the ground; meaning support for the people on the move and trying to move, who bear the brunt of the European Union’s extremely violent and deadly border regime.

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