Behind the Bravado:
The Human Costs of Mitsotakis’ Falsehoods
Image: Refugees in a tightly controlled Malaksa refugee camp. June 2023. photo by myself.
At a recent migration conference in Athens, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis humorously proclaimed, “In 2023, we managed migration flows more effectively than many of our partners.” This bold claim, however, conveniently brushed aside a not-so-amusing reality. Left unmentioned were the not-so-polite breaches of international laws and human rights, the not-so-pleasant pushbacks of thousands refugees in the Aegean Sea, and, unfortunately, the hundreds who didn’t exactly have a smooth ride!
Mitsotakis has been consistently denying and refusing to acknowledge the role of the government under his leadership in the recent shipwreck. This incident, which allegedly involved maneuvering a single ship towards Italian waters in an attempt at pushback and resulted in the loss of over 650 lives, represents a grave tragedy. Despite the evidence of Greece’s responsibility, blame was immediately put on the victims themselves. The European Commission has not yet initiated an investigation, seemingly placing its trust in a secretive, “independent” inquiry conducted by those implicated.
The Greek authorities are like wizards operating in a magical land, receiving compliments and awards from top European figures. European Commission Vice President and EU Commissioner for Home Affairs seem to have discovered a new realm of “remarkable development” and “impressive journey” as they discuss Greece’s migration management with the Minister of Migration and Asylum of Greece. It’s like a surreal comedy show, with pushbacks, tragic shipwrecks, and mistreated refugees playing the supporting roles in this absurd theater of the absurd.
European Commission Vice President announced additional EU funding for “border protection,” a euphemism for fortifying practices that endanger vulnerable individuals at Europe’s frontiers. This allocation of taxpayer money, under the guise of protecting the European way of life, starkly undermines the very values it claims to uphold.
Mitsotakis continues to tout Greece’s “fair migration policy,” a claim that starkly contrasts with the ongoing humanitarian crisis. The reality of men, women, and children being left to drift helplessly at sea, or worse, losing their lives, belies any notion of fairness.
Apart from all that, the folks running the asylum aren’t doing a great job. They’re keeping displaced folks locked up in the five ‘hotspots’ on the eastern Aegean islands, and making them live in separate and lonely conditions in mainland camps. All these setups are influenced by different forces that push people away, ignore them, and keep them stuck. These forces come from the mix of protection and reception in a always changing legal system with ongoing updates. They also come from a complicated web of policies, practices, and activities, some of which just happen naturally, and different ways things are done in different areas.
An State that shows no concern
Just a few weeks ago in December, the head of the UNHCR in Greece expressed grave concern about the limited access to essential services and basic necessities for dozens of refugees in Rhodes. In early November, the Rhodes Bar Association penned a letter to the Minister of Migration and Asylum, urging the transfer of migrants and refugees from Rhodes to established facilities. Among other concerns, the association emphasized that the newcomers were “exposed and unprotected, devoid of organized care and hospitality.” The letter even highlighted instances of young children sleeping in cardboard boxes.
At the close of October, a group of homeless refugees made a daring attempt to board a passenger ship, seeking entry into organized facilities to file their asylum claims. Shockingly, reports indicate that these refugees were met with threats of violent expulsion by law enforcement, who callously pressured them to vacate a park where they had sought rest. This distressing incident follows an unsuccessful endeavor by authorities to relocate the refugees to tents in the commercial port of Acadia, behind the former slaughterhouses, ostensibly to clear the area for the 28th October parade. However, the prosecutor of the Rhodes Court intervened, blocking this move and emphasizing in a document that the proposed temporary solution not only lacks official approval, but also fails to meet essential health and safety standards.
Local organizations reported the violence against homeless refugees: On Monday 04/12, 50 refugees, including families with children, appeared in central Rhodes. They were met with the standard tactic of discouragement. The only information they received was that they would have to leave at some point. The Greek state violated the law, which clearly states their immediate transfer to a camp structure. Some refugees have wounds, one was severely ill, a pregnant woman was in bad condition, and there were babies exposed to the cold.
Under the Greek Asylum Code, people who come into Greece without following the usual rules have to be taken straight to a Reception and Identification Centre or a Closed Controlled Access Centre by the cops or coast guard. This is so they can go through the necessary procedures for asylum request and identification. The law makes sure that people in vulnerable situations, like family members of shipwreck victims, get quickly and properly moved to receive the special care and protection they need.
However, when survivors of shipwrecks end up in Greece, things don’t always go as law planned. Instead of following the rules, these survivors often get sent to detention centers. The conditions in these centers are not great, and the people there don’t always get the care and support they need, which goes against the rules. Even though the Greek Ombudsman has spoken up about these issues multiple times, not much has changed. They found that the staff in the centers aren’t really familiar with how to screen for vulnerabilities like they do in the entry centers. Plus, the medical care available there doesn’t cover all the possible health issues that new arrivals might have.
Greece’s HELIOS integration program
It’s claimed that HELIOS was set up to support refugees in Greece with housing, jobs, and language learning. Initially supported by EU funding and later by the Greek government, there are doubts about its sustainability beyond November 2023. Despite its noble goals of facilitating refugees’ integration into Greek society, accessing this support has proven to be a challenge for many. The stringent requirements of a minimum six-month housing contract and a positive asylum decision have posed significant barriers.
Moreover, recent changes in the program, such as reduced state support from six months to just one month after asylum, have only added to the difficulties faced by refugees as they strive to progress. It seems that only those with personal resources or prior enrollment in the old six-month program have access to any meaningful assistance.
Although the Greek government expresses a desire to secure funding for HELIOS through the European Social Fund Plus (ESF+), uncertainties linger regarding the program’s future financial stability. Historical precedent suggests that the conclusion of programs like HELIOS often left individuals without vital support, with no alternative initiatives taking their place.
During the migration conference, Mitsotakis expressed Greece’s openness to integration, stating, “We don’t fear the term integration; we are an open society that has proven its willingness to embrace those seeking to integrate into Greek society. Making their stay here permanent is a natural consequence.”
Last month, the government enacted a bill granting migrants a three-year residency and work permit, aiming to address labor shortages in sectors crucial for an economy still recovering from a debt crisis. Eligible migrants and asylum-seekers, residing in the country for at least three years, with no criminal record and a job offer, can apply for the new residency permit by December 2024. An estimated 30,000 individuals, primarily from Albania, Georgia, Pakistan and the Philippines, are expected to seek this new type of permit.
restrictions on activists
Let’s talk about the severe restrictions on activists and rescuers. Just some time ago, one of these institutions that helped refugees in danger at sea, was forced to stop its activities in Greece.
Mare Liberum is a non-profit organization that works to document and expose human rights violations and border violence against refugees and migrants on the move in the Aegean Sea. Their focus is on the dangerous escape routes between Turkey and Greece, where people often face violent pushbacks by authorities attempting to prevent them from reaching the EU. Through the publication of testimonies and the collection of data on the situation in the Aegean, Mare Liberum aims to bring attention to the voices and experiences of those affected by these violations, and to hold responsible authorities accountable for their actions.
The Hellenic Coast Guard repeatedly attempted to intimidate the group through reckless maneuvers, repeated controls, and questioning of their papers. The German Ministry of Transport also issued a detention order for their ship, and the Greek police raided it and launched an investigation on flimsy grounds.
In Greece, a new level of repression has been reached that leaves the group with no room for maneuvering. A repressive law by the Greek government requires all NGOs working in Greece in the fields of asylum, migration, and social inclusion to officially register and certify themselves. Without such registration and certification, civil society organizations are no longer allowed to work in Greece. On May 2023, Mare Liberum has announced its withdrawal from Lesvos island, the end of its operations, and the dissolution of the association. The decision came after five years of operation in the Aegean, during which the group faced multiple forms of sabotage, obstruction, and repression.
In Greece, aligning with the “party policy” is increasingly non-negotiable. Critics face criminalization, surveillance, and character assassination. This climate of repression raises serious questions about the so-called “remarkable development” and “impressive journey” that officials laud.
Further reading can be found by clicking the link below:
Greece: Decrease in Arrivals Amidst Ongoing Pushbacks and Ill-treatment of Refugees; Rights Organisations Denounce Lack of Credible Investigation into Pylos Tragedy Amid Ongoing Calls for Accountability; Türkiye Opens a “New Era” of Co-operation with Greece After Years of TensionThe European Council on Refugees and Exiles
More Borders, Less Human Rights
Borders within the Schengen Area, typically open under normal circumstances, have seen partial or complete closures, effectively resurrecting nation-state borders within Europe. This has led to conflicts among EU member states, as well as a humanitarian crisis along the many borderlines, fences, and walls that have been erected in response to the crisis.
Dimitris Choulis, a lawyer mentioned in an event, boldly stated, “In Greece of 2020, when we have the policy of systematic push-backs, you put one more obstacle for asylum seekers: even if you make it here, we will criminalize you. As an asylum seeker, what can he do? Travel here and leave his child alone in Turkey until the end of the procedure?”
He speaks of Hassan, a refugee from Afghanistan who arrived on Samos Island in November 2020, along with a group of fellow refugees. At 23 years old, Hasan found himself apprehended and accused of a serious offense. It was alleged that during their journey, he took control of the boat, resulting in grave consequences. Specifically, he was facing charges of “transportation of 24 third-country nationals into Greek territory without permission” (commonly referred to as smuggling). However, the situation was further complicated by the fact that 23 lives were endangered during this transportation, and tragically, the journey resulted in the death of a young child.
As a consequence of these charges, Hasan was confronted with an extraordinarily severe sentence. He faces the possibility of life imprisonment for the death of one individual, and an additional 10 years of imprisonment for each person he transported, potentially summing up to an astonishing 230 years in addition to life imprisonment. After 2 years of fights and pressure and mental challenges, Hasan has been acquitted of all charges and now he is free.
However, thousands are currently detained on charges of smuggling and awaiting court hearings. Homayoun Sabetara, 60-year-old from Iran, has received an 18-year prison sentence for aiding unauthorized entry into the EU from third countries. He was apprehended in Thessaloniki after driving a car from Turkey to Greece with six others seeking refuge. His daughter, Mahtab Sabetara, is advocating for his release, along with other refugees detained in Greece under similar charges. The nine Pylos survivors are also facing charges related to smuggling and the shipwreck that led to the deaths of hundreds of people. They have been portrayed as responsible for the massacre and are currently in detention.
The EU’s approach to managing these human mobilities has been criticized for focusing heavily on border security and control, often at the expense of the rights and welfare of migrants and refugees. Policies and practices such as detention, deportation, and the externalization of border controls to non-EU countries have been employed to manage the influx. These measures, while intended to regulate and reduce irregular migration, have raised concerns about their compliance with international human rights standards and the EU’s own principles of human rights, dignity, and asylum.
Almost 40,000 people arrived in Greece in 2023, which is a huge jump from previous years. More than 900 illegal pushbacks happened, totally violating the rights of 26,000 people. And get this: in just the first week of the year, there were 20 cases of illegal pushbacks, affecting 700 refugees. Even Greek life rafts floating in the Aegean Sea, carrying hundreds of people, including Afghan families and kids.
Greek security services systematically extort migrants, not just detain them, force them to participate in pushback operations. Greek detention centers are unsafe for unaccompanied children. Only 30.9% of unaccompanied children succeed on their first application to obtain asylum. The Greek government does not offer unsuccessful applicants a residence permit, leaving them unable to work, without access to education, and vulnerable to exploitation.
These numbers are not just statistics; they are the stark evidence of a deeply flawed and heartless system that disregards human lives. While the world looks on, EU/Greece’s migration policy reveals a disturbing lack of concern for human rights and dignity, shattering any illusion of efficiency or compassion.
My journey in creating this space was deeply inspired by James Baldwin’s powerful work, “The Fire Next Time”. Like Baldwin, who eloquently addressed themes of identity, race, and the human condition, this blog aims to be a beacon for open, honest, and sometimes uncomfortable discussions on similar issues.
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