Greek ministers are at one and the same time boasting over “dramatic” reduction of arrivals and urging assistance and solidarity from EU as member states of first reception cannot be left alone with “burden”. The fortification of the Evros region continues amid more reports of pushbacks. Syrian refugees facing an increasingly hostile environment and potential deportation in Turkiye – deemed safe third country by Greece.

The messaging from the Greek government on arrivals seems somewhat incoherent. According to Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarachi the number of migrants arriving has dropped “dramatically” over the past two years and the number of asylum seekers residing in the country has also fallen. “After the explosion in the period 2015-2019, in 2021 we had the lowest flows of the decade, 8,745, and steadily low in 2022 too”. “The result is that instead of 92,000 asylum seekers living in 121 facilities, we have today 14,000 in 33 facilities,” the minister said, noting that in 2015 arrivals in Greece accounted for 75 per cent of the total number of irregular arrivals in the European Union, while in 2022 that figure stood at just per cent. Nonetheless Greek Minister for Civil Protection, Takis Theodorikakos urged EU support to control the number of people arriving in Greece. Speaking before ambassadors from other EU member states and Switzerland and the UK, Theodorikakos stated: “The task (of protecting the border) needs the support … of European public opinion, the European Union itself and its constituent members individually”. The minister further pointed out: “It is our steadfast position that member states of first reception cannot be (the migrants’) only European destinations. There must be solidarity among member-states and a fair sharing of duties…close coordination is a must”.

Regardless of the different interpretations of the reality, the Greek response to the alleged threat at the Evros border with Türkiye is rather concrete and manifest. The steel wall on the Evros, currently extending more than 27 kilometers, is being expanded adding a 35-kilometer stretch with the aim to cover most of the 192-kilometer border with Türkiye. Greece recently announced the deployment of 400 Frontex officers in Evros in 2023 adding to the 1,800 border guards already serving in the region. “Without the presence of these modern European border guards -who operate effectively as a deterrent – millions of migrants waiting to enter Europe would have moved to the border,” said Theodorikakos. Most notably the minister confirmed that Greek authorities have “prevented” 260,000 “illegal” migrants from entering the country and that Greek border guards prevent 300-400 people from entering on a daily basis. The minister, representing a government widely denounced for denying and deflecting mounting reports of systematic pushbacks, did not offer any details on how this “prevention” was conducted.

However, despite the ongoing crackdown on NGOs and independent media and limitations on access to monitor violations, reports of pushbacks continue to emerge. According to Aegean Boat Report: “Only 18 per cent of people who started their trip towards the Greek Aegean islands in 2022 managed to arrive and were given the opportunity to apply for asylum”. The organisation notes: “This means 82 per cent ended up back in Turkey, due to pushbacks (41 per cent), engine problems, or being stopped by the Turkish coast guard (TCG) (41 per cent). Out of a total of 21,152 people who actually managed to arrive on the Greek islands: “9.656 (46 per cent) were forcibly removed by Greek authorities and left helplessly drifting in 575 life rafts in the Aegean Sea”. The fear of pushbacks for people arriving via the Aegean Sea is well-founded as a recent forensic reconstruction released by Legal Centre Lesvos, illustrates. The video documentation of an incident during a storm off Crete in October 2020 demonstrates how the Hellenic Coast Guard, instead of rescuing the approximately 200 people who were in distress at sea: “violently attacked, detained, and ultimately abandoned them at sea in a massive coordinated and illegal pushback operation”. According to the organisation that filed a case against Greece before ECtHR on behalf of 11 Syrian survivors “to date, the Greek authorities have denied that the pushback took place”.  The danger of the route was further illustrated when the body of an unknown person was recovered in late January on the coast of Kythira. The deceased is believed to be a victim of a shipwreck on 5 October last year leaving 11 people missing.

Based on information from the Greek government, data from UNHCR and updates from the Aegean Boat Report, Koraki estimates “that around 70,000 people arrived in Greece in 2022, yet just 16,683 were registered as new arrivals”. Koraki notes that because of the lack of reliable figures: “we cannot be clear how many people have actually entered Greece ‘by land’ (across the Evros river, in fact), only to be pushed back”. However, systematic pushbacks and non-response to distress alerts in the Evros region,despite interventions by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), continue, including recent examples documented by the NGO hotline Alarm Phone, journalists and media. On 24 January, the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR), which is the National Institution for Human Rights in Greece and the independent advisory body of the State on issues of promotion and protection of human rights presented the Mechanism for Recording Incidents of Informal Forced Returns and its first Interim Report. Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) welcomed the initiative, stating: “It is an important day regarding the systematic recording of illegal informal forced returns from Greece to third countries, at a time when the defenders of the rights of refugees are receiving repeated blows”. The organisation further called the at least 50 incidents of informal forced returns documented in the interim report “shocking”. According to researcher, Eva K: “24 out of 50 incidents concerned Evros. She noted: “Don’t know to what extent this can be seen as representative, but if so …most incidents happen at the border most difficult to monitor”.

As Greek authorities announced on 1 December 2020, Turkiye remains on the list of “safe” third countries for applicants of international protection from main countries of origin including Syria. However, the situation for Syrian refugees in Turkiye has dramatically worsened over the past months due to the risk of deportation, as well as arrest, detention and ill-treatment by authorities, and a raise in hate crimes. According to Al Monitor: “Turkey’s bid to reconcile with the Syrian government has left many Syrian refugees in the country on tenterhooks as Ankara faces pressure to cut a deal with Damascus on the return of the Syrians amid rising anti-refugee sentiment in a critical election year”. Media reports how the Turkish far-right sells bus tickets’ to deport Syrian refugees in a new campaign with the Victory Party promising “donations will be spent on deporting Syrians, asking for names of people its supporters want out of the country”. Carnegie Middle East Center describes a “refugee fatigue” in the country, stating: “Most political parties—in the governing coalition and opposition alike—want to send refugees back to Syria, where there is no internationally-approved agreement toward ending the civil war. Nor has there been normalization between Syria and Turkey. This represents a toxic political cocktail for the refugees”. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there were 3,535,898 registered Syrian refugees in Turkey as of December 31, 2022.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.