Guest post by Olivia Long, Programmes Officer at Help Refugees (BA French and Philosophy Sheffield/MSc Politics of Conflict SOAS), and Coline Schupfer, Legal Fellow at the Open Society Justice Initiative (LLB Law with French Sheffield/MSt International Human Rights Law Oxon). Olivia and Coline previously worked on the refugee response in Europe. Olivia continues to be engaged in grant-making and strategic intervention in the region and Coline currently works on legal empowerment and access to justice for Rohingya refugees in South and Southeast Asia.
Five years after the so-called “refugee crisis” erupted, the latest spike in arrivals to the shores of Greece has propelled the humanitarian crisis at Europe’s southern borders back into the headlines. Turkey’s decision to open its European borders – signifying the breakdown of its 2016 deal with the European Union (EU) – has seen thousands of people leave its territory in search of asylum. Following this decision, protection-seekers have once again found themselves stuck in limbo at the edges of Greek territory, unable to move forward.
From overcrowded camps to closed detention sites
The Greek government has long proposed the opening of new, supposedly temporary detention centres, which has thus far been resisted by local communities over fears they will become permanent. The first sites – described by the government as “emergency measures” - are set to open on the Turkey-facing islands of Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Kos, and Leros later this year. Operating as de facto removal sites, detainees in these centres will not be allowed to submit asylum claims and are to be confined until removal to their country of origin.
On 1 March 2020, in an attempt to discourage new arrivals, the Prime Minister of Greece announced it would suspend all new asylum applications for one month – a measure completely devoid of any legal basis or justification. This announcement followed and was accompanied by a brutal crackdown on arrivals, with the government closing the border and deploying the army, helicopters, and naval warships to prevent people reaching Greek territory. With hardline border policies and the recent crackdown turning increasingly deadly, this denial of the right to seek asylum is only one instance of Greek authorities violating obligations set by international law. Since the suspension was lifted in April, ongoing adjustments to Greek asylum and protection law – including the fastracking leading to insufficient assessment of claims from unaccompanied children, inter alia – are putting the refugee population’s most vulnerable individuals at risk. On 6 May, twenty civil society organisations operating in Greece published a joint letter to the Greek administration, decrying the latest changes and proposing alternatives. They have not yet received a response.
Violent pushbacks at Evros and along the Aegean sea crossing
Multiple videos have emerged documenting violent suppression of movement, with Hellenic coast guards attempting to sink refugee boats and firing ‘warning’ shots at inflatable dinghies, and border guards attacking boats with sticks in the Aegean Sea. At the Evros land crossing in early March, there were reports of live ammunition being fired at unarmed groups and of Greek police using excessive force against asylum seekers, including children, and deploying long range tear gas grenades. Footage widely shared on social media in early March shows the killing of a Syrian man with a rubber bullet by Greek border guards. A few days later, as photos of people being forced to strip down to their underwear before being pushed back to Turkey went viral, reports of the death of a second man emerged. Greek government officials continue to deny these reports and have refused to investigate the incidents.
Illegal, extraterritorial ‘pushbacks’ and ‘pullbacks’ are a growing practice of rights-denying methods of border enforcement that violate not only the prohibition of non-refoulement, but also the principle of non-penalisation enshrined under Article 31 of the 1951 Refugee Convention. This principle, whereby a refugee should not be penalised for breaking the law en route to seeking protection, is essential for the purposes of the Convention. The contrary practice - penalisation for seeking protection - would render the pillars of refugee law obsolete. These inhumane deterrence measures violate not only the right to seek asylum by precluding any assessment of refugee claims, but also the principle of non-refoulement under customary international law. In complete defiance of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, the brutality that refugees experience at Europe’s borders continues to put their lives at risk and is a flagrant violation of Greece’s human rights responsibilities.
Vigilante violence as attacks against migrants continue
Meanwhile, vigilante and extreme right-wing groups have been attacking people on the islands: journalists, aid workers, volunteers and refugees alike. On Lesvos, tensions have continued to escalate since March, when angry protesters were filmed screaming ‘No more!’ as they prevented dinghies from disembarking at the island’s port. As this happened, regional authorities also took the decision to shut down all schools near Moria camp for 48 hours. The area, home to Greece’s largest and most notorious refugee camp which now stands at six times capacity, has seen violent crackdowns by local authorities on refugee protests in recent months, and the setting up of road blockades by local residents to target humanitarian actors and deter new arrivals. In early March, a community centre and school run by a popular, long-established NGO was set on fire, and a few days later a neo-Nazi group from Germany arrived to lend its support to the violence.
On the neighbouring island of Chios a warehouse used regularly by grassroots organisations since 2015, for the storage, sorting and distribution of donations, has been burnt to the ground. The fire took with it tonnes of clothing intended for the island’s local hospital and nursing homes. Organised groups have reportedly also been throwing rocks and glass at cars suspected to be carrying volunteers or camp residents, and many grassroots groups have been forced to halt operations or send team members across to the mainland until attacks subside. The effect of this loss of grassroots support is now being compounded by the disruption to humanitarian services brought about by coronavirus restrictions.
More recently on the mainland, Greek police have been arresting residents found to have walked outside the confines of their accommodation centres and angry locals have been setting fire to hotels preparing to resettle refugees during this Covid-19 quarantine period, exemplifying a worrying rise in xenophobic attacks across Europe – and particularly across Greece – since the virus’ outbreak.
Violence of this kind against protection-seekers in Greece and those supporting them is not new, nor is it a surprise. This violence from the far-right follows a spate of intense crackdowns on refugee protests in late 2019 – when camp residents called for their voices to be heard and for their right to safe, secure accommodation to be respected and upheld – as well as the eviction of several squats housing refugee families on the mainland earlier in the year.
Local discontent and the failings of regional and international refugee response
Discontent has long been brewing in such places as the port town of Vathy in Samos, where the population of the camp is now greater than the population of the town itself. For the most part locals have not resented the people seeking safety in their town; rather, they have been angered by the failure of national and international authorities to provide adequate support to Vathy as the number of arrivals has steadily increased, and unhappy with the absence of long-term solutions for the people living in tents on their very doorstep.
The steadily increasing number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean is a direct result of state practices that neglect international law. The pushbacks across the Greek-Turkish border demonstrate not only the disconnect between migration governance and the legal obligation to identify and protect, but also highlight state complicity in and direct perpetration of gross violations of international law.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)
Long, O and Schupfer, C (2020). Fortress Europe and the Crackdown at the Greek-Turkish Border. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/05/fortress-europe [date]