Refugees and migrants land ashore the Greek island of Lesbos on 2 March 2020. (Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

2020: Refugees continue to suffer

Turkey blackmails Europe, Greece adopts a policy of deterrence, and the EU remains divided

This year marked a turning point in Aegean refugee flows. According to migration ministry figures, 14,430 asylum-seekers crossed from Turkey to Greece in the first eleven months of the year, compared with 65,337 for the same period last year.

That is a scale of arrivals not seen since before a 2015 peak, when almost a million asylum-seekers entered Greece, followed by 205,000 in 2016, and many tens of thousands a year since. Spain and Italy have thus become the main refugee entry points to Europe this year.

“The rules have changed,” migration minister Notis Mitarakis announced in January, as the conservative New Democracy government put a concert of defensive and deterrent policies into action. “We are not open to people who do not have a refugee profile.”

The International Protection Act that went into force on 1 January stiffened asylum criteria. It allowed the government to reject cases if applicants refuse to move to a camp, fail to divulge a change of address or miss a deadline. It introduced a 5-day window for appeals that are so complicated to file, applicants have little chance of success without a lawyer. Yet only a fifth of appellants have access to legal aid, charities here say. The government’s goal is to reduce processing times for applications from many months to 28 days, including appeals.

To achieve this, the government enlisted European help. On 28 January Greece and the European Asylum Support Office signed an agreement to double EASO personnel in the country to 1,000. EASO now conducts all asylum interviews in Greece, handing over transcripts and recommendations to the Greek Asylum Service, which renders decisions.

The policy was underpinned by the view that as many as 90% of asylum-seekers are economic migrants in disguise

At the same time, the government announced it would increase returns of rejected applicants to Turkey and convert reception centres on five east Aegean islands into closed camps. “We are taking measures that are reducing our country’s appeal as a migration destination,” Mitarakis told parliament on 5 May. “We are broadcasting the message that our country is no longer a destination for those who don’t deserve international protection and won’t get it.” This policy was underpinned by the view, often expressed by Mitarakis, that as many as 90 per cent of asylum-seekers from Asia and Africa are really economic migrants in disguise.

Despite the change in government refugee policy, the Greek Asylum Service, which is an independent authority, has continued to grant asylum at undiminished rates. First instance acceptances this year stood at 64 per cent – even higher than last year’s rate of 56 per cent.

Greece also strengthened border controls, ordering four new 30-metre-long coastal patrol vessels, 15-18 smaller coastal patrol boats, and 15 inflatable patrol boats capable of 50 knots. It hired 1,500 more people in the coast guard, 900 of whom were to be deployed in the east Aegean – effectively doubling the patrolling strength there.

Sea change

New Democracy’s deterrent policy went into high gear after 27 February, when Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan tore up the EU-Turkey statement of March 2016, which obliges Turkey to prevent unauthorised migration from its shores. The government in Ankara announced that Turkey was opening its borders to Europe for refugees. State bus and rail services were reported to have given refugees a free ride to the city of Edirne (Adrianople), next to the Greek border at the Evros river. Thousands attempted to storm the border fence – often with the aid of Turkish police.

“For months there were countless warnings and threats from Turkish officials that Turkey would open the floodgates to refugees. Why? Because that will show Europe what it’s in for,” deputy migration minister George Koumoutsakos tells The Critic.

On 9 May, Erdogan’s interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, said Turkey would release a million migrants into Europe. “Europe cannot endure this, cannot handle this,” he told CNN Turk, “the governments in Europe will change, their economies will deteriorate, their stock markets will collapse.” Koumoutsakos describes it as “an instrumentalization of desperate people as a battering ram to threaten Europe.”

“Our conclusion was that the border management policy needs to become even stricter and more effective, because we have a neighbour that doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of the refugee issue,” Koumoutsakos says.

Greece rushed reinforcements to the border. Controversially, its coastguard was filmed pushing back refugee-filled dinghies at sea. Greece seemed willing to admit this. Notis Mitarakis stated on 1 March that, “the Hellenic Navy and Hellenic Coast Guard have prevented many, many cases of migrant entry by sea.”

Greece also suspended new irregular migrants’ right to apply for asylum during March, but reversed this under EU pressure in early April.

In practical terms, the Turkish gambit failed. Within the first ten days, Greece reported it had prevented more than 42,000 illegal crossings at the Evros river and arrested 313 people for illegal entry. At sea, total arrivals numbered 1,851.

Koumoutsakos admits that the government treads a thin line between border protection and respect for human life

In political terms, it failed, too. Many European heads of government praised Greece’s strong border defence. European Commission president Ursula Von Der Leyen hailed Greece as “our European shield” during a visit to Evros. But Turkey can be said to have scored a psychological impact. Overnight, the refugee issue changed from a humanitarian issue to a national security and border security issue. Austria and Germany rushed special forces to Greece’s border with Turkey.

“There is a total change in policy since Evros. This is mainly pushbacks, increased use of administrative detention and an increase in returns,” says Vasilis Papadopoulos, who heads the Greek Council for Refugees, Greece’s most respected legal aid charity.

A series of media reports of pushbacks – illegal under the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees – has sparked a Commission inquiry into the European Border and Coast Guard, or Frontex. The European Parliament has called for the resignation of its director for failing to report instances in which the Hellenic Coast Guard allegedly towed refugee-filled dinghies away from Greek waters and back towards the Turkish coast.

Koumoutsakos admits that the government treads a thin line between border protection and respect for human life. “We don’t believe the authorities at sea have crossed this thin line, and they certainly don’t have instructions to cross it. Sometimes we work right up to the line, but we do not cross it,” he tells The Critic.

He concedes that, “there might be incidents, and the government has said that any such incidents that are accompanied by credible evidence will be investigated through the proper channels. But they have to be credible.”

Shooting the messenger?

The government has doubts about the credibility of the allegations against it. Some have come from the Turkish government itself. Since last summer, they have come from aid groups.

On 28 September, police on the island of Lesvos arrested 33 mostly European nationals on charges of espionage, forming a criminal organisation and divulging state secrets. All worked for NGOs active in search and rescue, including AlarmPhone and Mare Liberum, German-registered groups that have raised concerns about pushbacks in the Aegean.

Authorities are not just targeting foreign nationals. Last November, police on Kos arrested four Greeks for running a smuggling ring that ferried irregular migrants from Turkey, put them up in hotels, and furnished them with forged documents enabling them to travel to the mainland.

A permanent burden-sharing scheme has been opposed by immigration hardliners

The government believes the NGOs on Greek soil are tentacles of broader networks often supported by Turkish smugglers or, through deliberate negligence, the Turkish state. On 8 December, Mitarakis held a press conference in which he explained increased arrivals of Somalis in Lesvos as part of an NGO conspiracy. “According to witnesses and cross-referenced information, NGOs are paying [refugees’] visa and travel costs to Turkey, via flights to Istanbul. From there, they are taken to Turkish shores where smugglers, supported by NGOs, help them to illegally enter the EU,” Mitarakis said.

Koumoutsakos likens NGOs that accuse the government of pushbacks to “mosses and lichens” found in standing water. He calls the accusations a “predictable reaction from people who stand to lose tens of millions. If they can’t persuade clients that they can get them across, they lose money.”

The targeting of specific NGOs is part of a broader vetting. On 8 May, Mitarakis told parliament that the government is putting NGOs through a rigorous new certification process because camp management had essentially been “privatised”.

“During the period 2015-2019, the EU gave our country 1.5bn euros [for refugees],” he said. “The migration ministry absorbed 1.9 per cent of this; 82 per cent, or 1.3bn euros, went to international organisations and NGOs to manage migration for the Greek state.”

The vetting process, says Papadopoulos, comes at the expense of smaller groups. “The requirements of NGOs to register themselves and their members are asphyxiating and constrictive, especially for small groups. For example, they have to have ISO-type certifications, they have to audit their accounts, all of which is difficult for a small organisation. The way it’s set up deters volunteers.”

The European role

Both the New Democracy government and NGOs agree that Europe needs to do more. The European Commission in 2015 apportioned 1.6 per cent of Europe’s asylum burden to Greece on the basis of its population (2 per cent of the EU) and GDP (1 per cent of the EU). Yet last year Greece registered 12.6 per cent of the EU’s asylum applications. That is because under current rules, refugees must apply at the EU country of first arrival. A permanent burden-sharing scheme has been opposed by immigration hardliners led by Denmark, Austria, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

“It’s not possible for the five or six frontline states to take on the burden for the 27. It’s not politically tolerable or practically feasible,” says Koumoutsakos. “What we want from Europe is a balance between the enormous responsibility of frontline states and the rest.”

This year the European Commission unveiled a set of proposals to do just that, but it does not include a burden-sharing mechanism, only a mechanism to defray the costs of deportation.

“Europe insists on keeping refugees in the countries of first arrival. The rules that are being introduced are creating a process of applications at arrival points that will further burden the frontline states and the hotspots on the islands, in Greece’s case,” says Papadopoulos.

Greece is not in a position to be a ‘European shield’ to the extent that Brussels would like

It is perhaps unsurprising that Greece seems to have turned a blind eye to what refugees do once their asylum cases have been adjudicated. When communism in Europe fell in 1990, Greece’s economy handily absorbed over half a million Albanians, Bulgarians, Romanians and others, who were later allowed to file for legal residence in a series of amnesties. With unemployment at 17 per cent, however, the absorptive powers of the Greek economy are at a low ebb, and refugees themselves often say they cannot stay here. The International Organisation for Migration says more than 22,000 refugees have registered for its integration programme, Helios, but few of them have found work through it.

“The [asylum] process … has got worse, especially on the islands, where it ends up rejecting people and leaving them in a grey area, without deportation on the one hand, or any document that legalises their presence in the country, on the other,” says Papadopoulos. He worries that many are becoming homeless or smuggling themselves out.

The government’s own figures tell an intriguing story. Resident refugees fell from 93,037 at the beginning of this year to 69,647 at the end of November, despite more than 14,000 arrivals. Departures, voluntary and involuntary, are registered at 9,810. There is a gaping hole of more than 27,000 absences the government figures do not explain. It may be that for all its deterrent efforts, Greece is not in a position to be “our European shield” to the extent that Brussels would like.

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