While Greece turns to increased surveillance and more border patrols on its land and sea borders with Turkey to meet an anticipated new wave of refugees from Afghanistan, following the withdrawal of US troops and that country’s fall to the Taliban, human rights experts have criticized well documented reports of violent pushbacks.
“A more restrictive framework has been created in relation to reception conditions and asylum procedures in Greece,” Vassilis Kerasiotis, country director of the NGO HIAS Greece, told BIRN.
“The legislative framework excludes various nationalities from refugee status determination procedures, unilaterally claiming Turkey is a safe third country for them, while reception conditions for those arriving in Greek islands remain far below European standards,” he said.
“On the other hand, the announcement of closed reception centres is proof of the hostile environment for refugees and asylum seekers,” he added.
The Greek government has come under criticism at a European level also for what is seen as a step back in provision of human rights of people on the move in Greece.
On September 9, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatovic, condemned a new Greek bill that speeds up deportations and returns of migrants, as well as limits the actions of NGOs participating in search-and-rescue operations in the sea.
Greece has received 276 million euros from the European Commission for the construction of reception facilities on the five Aegean islands receiving asylum seekers from Turkish shores. The first centre, on Samos, opens this Saturday, September 18.
According to official figures, the number of migrants and refugees on the islands has dropped by 96 per cent, but human rights organizations have long claimed that this has come about at the expense of fundamental human rights.
“The Greek government has emerged with the notion of refugees and migrants as a ‘hybrid threat’, while testimonies of the inhuman practice of pushbacks against vulnerable people fleeing war and harsh circumstances have increased,” Epaminondas Farmakis, co-founder of the NGO Human Rights 360, told BIRN.
“It is certain that in the near future Greece will receive refugee flows from Afghanistan. The stand we take towards them is crucial and will define the identity of the Greek government on the aspect of human rights,” he added.
Several media reports relying on substantial evidence have highlighted Greece’s illegal use of “pushbacks” – forcibly turning back asylum seekers arriving either by land or by sea, before they can submit an asylum application, as provided by the Geneva Convention and international law.
During the past months, Greece has also built a 27-kilometer fence on its land border with Turkey on the River Evros, which, however, runs for 200 kilometers in total. Surveillance systems, as well as a sound cannon, have been installed, while Athens has requested an additional €15.8 million from the European Commission to cover coastguard patrols and sea border surveillance in the Aegean Sea.
For the funds to be allocated, the EU has asked for the introduction of a monitoring body on Greece’s sea and land borders, in response to reported incidents of pushbacks that Greece denies take place.
But political leaders are not backing down. Speaking at the annual Thessaloniki International Fair last Sunday, September 12, Greece’s centre-right Prime Minister, Kiriakos Mitsotakis, promised to “break and smash” the smuggling networks operating across the border with Turkey.
“Our aim is to stop any [refugee] wave, long before it reaches our borders. In that, our interests and Turkey’s are aligned,” he said. According to the latest Greek police figures, police arrested 1,633 and 1,653 persons for people smuggling in 2019 and 2018 respectively.
The government’s stance towards latest developments in Afghanistan was clarified on August 20, just five days after Kabul’s fall to the Taliban.
The Minister of National Security, Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos, and the Minister of Citizens’ Protection, Michalis Chrisochoidis, then visited the land border with Turkey in the Evros (Meric) region, supervised border guard centres, and declared: “Greece’s borders will remain safe and inviolable.”
“The Afghan crisis creates new … possibilities of new migrant flows. It is known that, as a European country, we participate in the institutional factors of the EU, where a series of decisions are taken. However, as a country we can’t passively wait for the possible consequences,” Chrisochoidis said.