Reports of pushbacks and abuse continue to mount across Greece including the Aegean Sea, the Evros region and the Western part of the country. Syrian and Afghan refugees in fear amid harsh election debate as the future of the already “collapsing” EU-Turkey deal is highly uncertain.

Reports of pushbacks and abuse by authorities across Greece – including the Aegean, the Evros region and Western Greece – continue to mount. The Aegean Boat Report has registered 57 illegal pushbacks in the Aegean Sea, performed by the Hellenic coast guard in April 2023, involving 1,711 children, women and men. The organization, states: “Many of them had already arrived on the Greek Aegean islands, arrested by police, forced back to sea and left drifting in life rafts, illegally deported by the Hellenic Coast Guard (HCG), on orders from the Greek government, so far there has been no reaction from the EU on these illegal atrocities”. On 11 May, the organisation, for Refugees reported: “Twenty-one people are in urgent need of help. They’ve been on the island of Chios for reportedly five days and are so so cold. They are from Yemen and Somalia and the group includes desperately young children”. The organisation further stated: “These people have asked for their faces to be blurred. We respect their ask and continue to post and tag as many concerned agencies as possible to increase their chances of survival and not being pushed back to Turkey”.

Meanwhile, the crack-down on people on the move in Greece is ongoing. The trial of the Iraqi asylum seeker A.B. facing more than 60 years for alleged “boat driving” was scheduled to begin in Mytilene, Lesvos on 8 May. In a joint statement, Legal Centre Lesvos and borderline-europe, note that A.B. “is being tried under Greece’s harsh anti-smuggling law, under which migrant ‘boat drivers’ are prosecuted for smuggling and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences simply for having steered the boat across a border”. According to the organisations: “Migrants are targeted under this law even though many are forced to steer the boat after the actual smugglers abandon them at sea after the migrant boat departs Turkey, and even though those accused have not received any material benefit for ‘facilitating’ the crossing of a border. Since 2015, with the increased arrivals of boats coming from Turkey to Greece, thousands of people have faced these charges, and people accused or convicted of human smuggling now make up the second largest prison population in Greece”. The organisations further point out: “In his case, there is video evidence showing that he did not even steer the boat, yet three years after his arrival to Lesvos, he still faces these charges”. Amnesty International reported on 11 May: “Two important trials are taking place in Greece today. In April 2018 refugees protesting about their living conditions in Lesvos were attacked. Today, 7 people are on trial for racially aggravated offences”. The organisation further states: “All seven are charged with attempting serious bodily harm against refugees & five of them are also charged with insults & threats” and refers to its earlier documentation of “attacks against and harassment of refugees, NGOs and journalists on Lesvos and other islands”. Internal correspondence obtained by Al Jazeera through freedom of information requests, reveals that EU representatives overseeing operations at the closed controlled access centres on Samos, Leros and Kos islands “reported nearly daily struggles ranging from staff shortages delaying asylum procedures to allegations of sexual and other violence impacting children”.

The Evros region separating Greece and Türkiye has been the scene of systematic pushbacks and reportedly more than 60 people on the move lost their lives on the Greek side of the Evros river last year. Alarm Phone reported on 9 May of another incident in Evros: “16 people stranded on a Greek islet near Didymoteicho. The people report sick children & they have no access to water or food. They have been stuck on the islet for 5 days. We informed local authorities & asked to immediately rescue the people”. Researcher, Lena K, stated: “Given the recent statements of the president of the Federation of Border Guards after the rescue from the same islet last week that groups stranded on islets shouldn’t be rescued but (somehow) go back to Turkey, this is one to watch”. The group was rescued on 10 May reportedly with the Greek Red Cross intervening. Further, a man is in critical condition in Alexandroupolis Hospital after a Greek police officer shot him in the head. The man – the driver of a car carrying seven people – was shot after stopping the car and while attempting to flee the police across a field. Koraki reports that “The Greek police claim he ‘disobeyed a stop sign’ and then ‘sped off, making dangerous manoeuvres’ in an area of Rodopi, close to Mesti, quite close to Greece’s border with Türkiye”. According to the outlet: “We cannot say for certain that this officer shot a man running away from him because he was a person entering Greece from the east…but we can say that his actions are entirely in keeping with these Nea Dimokratia narratives: ‘this person is dangerous, and it is my job to save Greece from danger using whatever means I may”. According to Are You Syrious: “Not one national Greek newspaper mentioned this: the shooting of an unarmed man in the head, who posed no threat, by a Greek policeman with live ammunition. How can such a state of affairs become possible, let alone frequent?” Meanwhile, No Name Kitchen reported on 9 May: “On April 27, 2023, a 41-year-old male individual from Afghanistan, reported being  beaten by a port security guard with an electrical shock baton in Patras (Greece). The organisation further states: “The beating caused the man to fall from a height of approximately 2.5 metres, resulting in severe physical injuries to his back, ribs, and lung” adding: “These forms of internal violence in the port of Patras have been common in recent years and No Name Kitchen’s field teams have repeatedly denounced them”.

As observers point to a “racist” discourse defining the Greek political debate in the run-up to the Parliamentary elections on 21 May, the situation in neighboring Türkiye, considered a safe third country for main refugee groups by Greece, leaves refugees in fear. Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) states: “With the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14th, immigration policy has become an inescapable issue. The economic crisis has created a narrative of blame targeted at migrants, framing them as competitors for scarce employment and a general burden on the state and society, as well as part of an agenda to undermine the cultural and ethnic makeup of the nation. Both the ruling party and the main opposition alliance continue to use migration and refugees as subjects to sway voters”. Both, the government in office and the opposition, have floated ideas of returning millions of Syrian refugees. “Deportation and returns have been a hot topic for a long time,” said Dr Sibel Karadag, an expert on migration and borders at Kadir Has University, noting: “Western countries are deporting migrants to their neighbouring countries and the neighbours sending them to the countries of origin”. The opposition bloc outlined a four-step solution to the “migrant crisis” in Turkey, including the plan to sit down with the Syrian government and has also threatened to deport Afghan refugees to Iran. Meanwhile, according to Haci-Halil Uslucan, head of the Center for Turkish Studies and Integration Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen, the outcome of the election on May 14 will have “a significant impact” on migration as: “It is anticipated that a reelection of Erdogan will mean an even more repressive system, and more people will leave Turkey”.

The uncertainty regarding the situation after the Turkish elections also has implications for the EU-Turkey deal. Türkiye “has been refusing, for three years now, access to its territory and the return of asylum seekers rejected by the Greek authorities” under the deal, and it was recently described as “collapsing” by ECRE member Pro Asyl and Refugee Support Aegean (RSA). A publication by Clingendael entitled “With or without Erdoğan, we need to talk about refugees again” points to a likely worsening of Turkish commitments: “Kılıçdaroğlu recently said: ‘We have to give back our streets and neighbourhoods to their owners.’ Furthermore, Erdoğan, too, has taken a tougher stance on the refugee issue, slowly but surely adapting a discourse that would see refugees return to Syria. According to Turkish diplomats, the current government wants neither more money nor moral appeals from the EU, but a joint mission in northern Syria to facilitate this. That means that despite different rhetorical styles, in essence, both share the same aim: fewer Syrians in Turkey”. However, an analysis, published by the Washington Institute speculates on a potential improvement with a change of government: “With Syria still unsafe for a return of refugees, the opposition’s campaigning can potentially be seen as an attempt to renegotiate with European partners to restart fraught immigration discussions while extracting additional concessions. Kilicdaroglu [opposition leader], for example, said this week he would make it possible for Turkish citizens to visit Europe visa-free once he assumes office”. Meanwhile, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said he will extend “a hand of friendship” to the winner of the upcoming Turkish election and try to build on the momentum of recently reduced tensions.  

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