The discrepancy between the number of irregular arrivals reported by the Ministry for Immigration and the rescues reported by the Ministry for Maritime Affairs leaves 25,000 people unaccounted, seemingly providing further evidence of systematic pushbacks. Billions in EU funding have done little to improve the Greek asylum system in which rights violations and mismanagement continues.

Statistics released by the Greek government and confirmed by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) set the total number of arrivals to Greece at 8,000 in 2021, of which roughly half arrived by sea. The Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarachi, praised the determination of the government in achieving the “lowest migration flows since the beginning of the [migrant] crisis”. However, the Ministry for Maritime Affairs reports more than 29,000 rescues by the Hellenic Coast Guard in the same period. Thus, 25,000 people remain unaccounted for, leading to media speculations that this is yet another illustration of systematic pushbacks by Greek authorities. Evidence of such tactics has been mounting for years. According to the NGO Aegean Boat Report, pushbacks increased 97.2 per cent in 2021 as of 3 December compared to the same period in 2020. The organisation recently recorded an incident in which 25 people – including 17 small children – were “arrested on Lesvos, beaten and abused before being set adrift on the open sea” in an operation “carried out by uniformed Greek operatives”. The group are reportedly now in Turkey detained in a quarantine facility. Turkey, a country that hosts around 4 million refugees, is often accused by Greek authorities of deliberately pushing migrants into Greek waters. However, there are also frequent reports of the Turkish coast guard rescuing people pushed back by Greece with an incident involving 25 people as recent as 18 January. Further, more than 300 people were intercepted while attempting to enter Greece by Turkish authorities on 15 January. Following the recent recovery of the body of a 35-year-old Iranian man, Greek authorities have found the body of a woman believed to be his wife. The couple, who were reportedly seeking to avoid police patrols, both drowned while crossing a stream during heavy rain in Northern Greece. A Turkish national charged with human smuggling was sentenced to 15 life sentences and a fine of 1,400,500 euros by the criminal court in Rhodes. The historic ruling that comes after a four-year trial relating to a tragedy in 2015 when two children went missing when their boat sank off Greece due to excessive speed and overcrowding.

Greece has received 3.38 billion euro in an EU support package between 2016-2020, including 2.26 billion euro from the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund, 450 million euro from the Internal Security Fund and 668.9 million euro from the Emergency Support Instrument. Of this, a total of 55.71 million euro has been allocated to supporting the Greek asylum service (including EASO support). Yet, little has been solved in the southern member state where violations and mismanagement continues.

A report from Fenix Legal Humanitarian Aid reveals how vulnerable applicants seeking protection on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and/or sex characteristics (SOGIESC) suffer procedural violations during asylum interviews on Lesvos. People said they had been left feeling “violated” and “forced to share intimate details”. The organisation notes that such practices breach EU law, stating: “The pervasive use of stereotypes and prohibited questions demonstrate first and foremost the need for comprehensive improvements in local Greek asylum procedures”. Furthermore, the report highlights that “inappropriate or illegal questioning” can be highly detrimental to the applicant’s wellbeing and mental health. Such violations: “infringe[…] on the rights and dignity of individual asylum seekers under the EU Charter, but also erode[…] the integrity of the Common European Asylum System”.

A new policing scheme to scan faces and fingerprints has been described by Human Rights Watch (HRW) as a “tech-driven tool to ramp up abuse” of racialised people in Greece. The rights group says the so-called “smart policing” programme – which is 75 per cent EU-funded – risks privacy violations and illegal racial profiling. The programme equips police with hand-held devices to gather biometric information from refugees, asylum seekers and migrants “on a vast scale” to be cross checked against police, immigration, and private sector databases for immigration purposes. HRW warns: “In recent years, Greek police have carried out abusive, and often discriminatory, stops and searches of migrants and other marginalized populations, including to enforce Covid-19 movement restrictions. This program would most likely facilitate and increase the unlawful practice of racial profiling”.

According to a November 2021 fact sheet by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 16,659 people resided in camps on the Greek mainland. Yet, the catering contracts from the Ministry of Migration and Asylum only cover 10,213 people. 40 per cent of the total camp population on the mainland, of which more than 6,000 are children, are thus left without food support. In November 2021, NGOs, including ECRE members the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) and Solidarity Now, warned that: “A halt to cash assistance for asylum seekers, and the denial of food support to recognised refugees and rejected asylum seekers is creating a hunger crisis in Greece”.

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Photo: ECRE

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