Post Sangeetha Iengar, a Human Rights barrister practising at Goldsmith Chambers. Sangeetha volunteers in Greece with Refugee Legal Support Athens and Fenix Humanitarian Legal Aid offering legal support to asylum seekers. She tweets @sangeethaiengar
On March 3, 2020, the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leven, described Greece as an ‘aspida in these times’, a European ‘shield’ raised in the Political War between Ankara on one side and Athens and Brussels on the other. This political hyperbole belies the very real physical violence felt by asylum seekers who are being pushed back, tear-gassed, shot at, criminalized and killed along Europe’s borders.
Four days earlier, on 27th February 2020, the Turkish Government ‘opened the doors’ of the land border with Greece, announcing that it would no longer stop 3.7 million asylum seekers and refugees from crossing into the EU. Before this announcement, Turkey had kept the door to Europe bolted shut in compliance with the EU-Turkey deal of 2016; an agreement whereby the EU paid Turkey a total of 6 Billion EURO to stop asylum seekers from entering the ‘fortress of Europe’, effectively preventing ‘them’ (asylum seekers/refugees) from becoming a European problem.
This unexpected opening of the Eastern passage to Europe has been met with increased securitization, excessive and disproportionate force by border guards and inhumane and unlawful policy measures as Greece immediately bolstered security along its land border with increased presence from police, army and special forces and assistance from the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX). This physical barrier was further enforced by an unprecedented procedural blockade against those seeking asylum.
On 1st March 2020 Greece’s Governmental National Security Council temporarily suspended all applications for asylum for those who had crossed the border irregularly. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced:
‘As of now, we will not be accepting any new asylum applications for one month. We are invoking Article 78.3 of the TFEU to ensure full European support.’
The right to seek asylum in Greece is enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention; the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (specifically Article 14 which recognizes the right of persons to seek asylum from persecution in other countries; the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (Article 18 of which recognizes the right to asylum and binds all EU member States ) and The Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union (in which Articles 67(2) and 78 provide a legal basis for the EU’s creation of a harmonized legislative framework on asylum).
As an EU member State and as a signatory to the Refugee Convention Greece is bound under international law to accept and process applications for those eligible for international protection. There is no legal basis or justification for a State to arbitrarily cease to comply with its legal obligation towards asylum seekers. It is a manifest and profound breach of international law.
The invocation of EU protocols does not allow Greece to waive its international obligations. Article 78(3) reads:
’78(3) In the event of one or more Member States being confronted by an emergency situation characterised by a sudden inflow of nationals of third countries, the Council, on a proposal from the Commission, may adopt provisional measures for the benefit of the Member State(s) concerned. It shall act after consulting the European Parliament.’
This Article of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) refers only to provisional lawful measures of handling asylum to be adopted by the Council in ‘emergency situations.’ It does not provide for any waiver of Article 78(1) of the same Treaty, which clearly binds member states to comply with the 1951 Refugee Convention:
‘78(1) The Union shall develop a common policy on asylum, subsidiary protection and temporary protection with a view to offering appropriate status to any third-country national requiring international protection and ensuring compliance with the principle of non-refoulement. This policy must be in accordance with the Geneva Convention of 28 July 1951 and the Protocol of 31 January 1967 relating to the status of refugees, and other relevant treaties.’
UNHCR, in a statement issued on 2nd March 2020, confirmed that ‘neither the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees nor EU refugee law provides any legal basis for the suspension of the reception of asylum applications.’ The UN agency condemned the criminalisation of irregular entry in these circumstances ‘Persons entering irregularly on the territory of a State should also not be punished if they present themselves without delay to the authorities to seek asylum.’
Greece’s actions have rendered asylum seekers criminals trapped in the borderlands of Europe, a No Man’s land devoid of humanitarian support. Families, children and pregnant women, who have been urged by Erdoğan to leave are held at the EU border, where they are left without any status, without access to food, shelter or medical care in this new frontier of cruelty.
The language and actions of the EU and Greek government reflect its hard line, securitised stance in dealing with the humanitarian crisis. On 2nd March 2020, the UNHCR estimated that 13,000 people had fled towards the Greek-Turkish land border and a further 1,200 had arrived on the Aegean islands by Sea. On the same day, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened on national television that this number would soon reach millions. The real number of those trapped along the border without access to any form of support is unknown.
While the UNHCR and Erdoğan focused on numbers, FRONTEX announced it would launch a ‘rapid border intervention’ and deploy up to 1500 extra guards. ‘Our core mission’, Fabrice Leggeri, Director of Frontex, noted, ‘is to protect the common borders of the European Union,’ confirming the function of FRONTEX is of security not humanitarian assistance.
Ramping matters up still further, and in flagrant disregard of their legal duties, Greece announced that its armed forces would be conducting exercises with live ammunition near the Evros land border and into the Aegean Sea.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Al Jazeera and other outlets have reported clashes between Greek Police and asylum seekers along the land border in contravention of fundamental principles of international law. They report that police have used excessive force and indiscriminately fired tear gas into crowds to stop them from crossing into Greece. Children have been subject to tear gas attacks and have no access to medical assistance to recover from the attacks. NGO staff have reported that police are picking up unaccompanied asylum-seeking children once they’ve crossed into Greece, and without registering them, throwing them back across the Turkish border.
In an incident caught on camera and aired by the BBC, Greek coast guards are seen firing into the sea near a migrant dinghy in distress, pushing and shoving migrants seeking help away from the Coast Guard vessel with resolute force.
It is in this context, then, that we return to the words of Ursula von der Leven. Instead of decrying Greek legislators and border guards’ breaches of international law, the EU has offered full support to Greece, its ‘shield’, and announced 700 million EURO for Greece to immediately ‘upgrade its infrastructure at the border.’ This sum is in addition to FRONTEX deploying a rapid border intervention squad which includes military-grade thermal-detection vessels.
What of the asylum seekers at the border? What is the reality for the unaccompanied children, pregnant women, families and the elderly who have no access to basic humanitarian support, who are tear-gassed and subject to violence as they seek refuge? Within days, the human cost of this War has been grave.
Footage on social media shows a man from Aleppo, Syria, shot and killed by a rubber bullet fired by Greek border guards as he tried to cross into Greece along the land border. According to President Erdoğan, Greek forces had killed two migrants and wounded a third. Greece, however, denies these allegations, with the Prime Minister Mitsotákis retorting that Turkey is ‘the official trafficker of migrants to the European Union.
At present, one week into this political standoff, it seems there is a tripartite war at the edge of Europe: one of words, another on fundamental principles of International Law and a final war waged for political power.
Europe’s border has become a literal shooting range where asylum seekers are used as target practice by States in their games of political power play. Whilst the EU and its neighbours shamelessly weaponise the right to asylum, the international community has done little to protect the real victims - those who dare to see Europe, the birthplace of the Refugee Convention, as a place of refuge from persecution.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)
Iengar, S. (2020). Europe’s Borderlands: The New Shooting Range for Power Politics. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/03/europes [date])