Pushbacks and Human Rights Abuses:
A Critical Look at Strengthening EU Borders

The question of migration has been at the forefront of public discourse for many years. The migration of people from where they were born to other parts of the world has been a constant part of human history. However, the issue has taken on new urgency in the modern era, as a result of a variety of factors, including war, political instability, and climate change. The recent decision by the European Union to take measures to reduce the number of irregular migrants in Europe, in conjunction with the ongoing crisis in Syria, Afghanistan, the war in Ukraine, and now the earthquake in Turkey (Considering the persistence of political tyranny), highlights the complexity of the issue of migration for European Union.

“We will act to strengthen our external borders and prevent irregular migration,” said Ursula Von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission.

According to her, EU member states have expressed a desire to acknowledge each other’s deportation decisions as a means of increasing the number of expulsions. They have also agreed to a “principle” to prevent migrants from seeking asylum in a different EU country after being denied in an initial country.

During the summit, EU leaders reached a consensus on a series of measures, which included strengthening the EU’s external borders’ protective infrastructure. The leaders urged the Commission to immediately allocate substantial EU funds to reinforce the bloc’s external border with “protection capabilities and infrastructure, means of surveillance, including aerial surveillance, and equipment,” as outlined in the summit document.

The decision by the European Union to strengthen its external borders and prevent so called “irregular migration” is a response to a number of factors, including the recent increase in the number of migrants and refugees attempting to reach Europe. The EU’s decision to provide an integrated package of mobile and stationary infrastructure, from cars to cameras and from watchtowers to electronic surveillance, is intended to more effectively control the EU’s external borders. Additionally, the EU will launch pilot projects focusing on border procedures to showcase best practices – registration, fast and fair asylum procedures, and how to deal with returns. Frontex, the EU Asylum Agency, and Europol will support these pilot projects.

This happens while legal ways of accessing the EU territory are not provided for persons in need of international protection, nor does most of EU members issue visas for humanitarian reasons.

No humanitarian visas, but work

The Greek economy projected to require 200,000 additional workers in agriculture and fish farming, 150,000 in long-term care, and many more in tourism and construction, the need for workers is becoming increasingly pressing.

In response, the current Greek government has introduced a “National Entry Visa” for seasonal work that allows access to the labor market exclusively for a specific job and employer, upon whose invitation it was granted. This measure is intended to address the shortage of agricultural laborers. In situations where the visa is not long-term and it is not possible to make it permanent or it is very difficult.

“It is unacceptable to hire workers from third countries as modern-day slaves, who will work and then be forced to disappear, unable to walk our streets, enter our shops, or sit on our benches.” Yannis Stefos SYRIZA-PS, former MP, wrote on a critical article.

Human Rights Concerns and Criticisms

For years, Greece, one of Europe’s biggest gateways for migrants arriving through Turkey, has been criticized by human rights organizations constantly, have raised concerns about the increasing number of pushbacks of refugees and migrants by Greece, which has been documented by several sources, including the UNHCR and Amnesty International. The Greek authorities have been accused of carrying out pushbacks from the land borders and from urban areas, including reception and detention centers. Victims of pushbacks describe being apprehended on Greek territory, often detained arbitrarily, and then transferred back to Turkey.

In many cases, those carrying out pushback operations were identified as belonging to law enforcement. Victims were often held in detention centers for a couple of hours up to one day without access to phone calls, lawyers, and without registration procedures. Human rights organizations have documented instances of pushbacks of people with a registered protection status in Greece or who had been in the country for days or weeks. In addition, several sources have commented on the treatment of individuals while in detention, including physical violence.

After a year-long investigation into the thorny issue of how the Frontex dealt with illegal migrant pushbacks, the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) submitted its findings in February of last year. The report played a role in the downfall of former Frontex director and has since become the focus of a battle between the Commission and European lawmakers who are striving to have it released. For several years, the Greek coast guard has been accused of violating the Geneva Convention by turning back migrants, with the complicit knowledge of the European Union’s wealthiest agency.

The human rights chief of the European Union border agency said last year that it should stop operating in Greece because of serial abuses by Greek border guards, including violently pushing asylum seekers back to Turkey and separating migrant children from their parents, according to confidential documents reviewed by The New York Times.

Instead of following the recommendation, taking legal action against Greece or investigating the findings, the E.U. set up an obscure “working group.” In a follow-up finding submitted last month, the rights chief said that there had been “no change in the reported practice.”

A report on the forcible return of two Kurdish political activists who entered Greece, but were arrested, tortured, and subsequently pushbacked to Turkey. According to the lawyer representing the activists, they have been imprisoned in Edirne prison.

According to a research published in January 2023, at least 200,000 refugees, particularly Eritreans, were enslaved and trafficked in Libya between 2017 and 2021. The refugees face the risk of trafficking, enslavement, and widespread abuse, including sexual violence, often to extort ransom payments from their families. The traffickers exploit digital technology by using electronic tagging to transport refugees through areas with limited internet access, known as “digital voids.”

The researchers suggest that unequal access to digital technology and connectivity perpetuates the slave trade, and policies of the European Union, Libya, and other Horn of Africa nations have facilitated this exploitation. The authors arrived at these conclusions through clandestine communications with refugees who managed to send secret recordings or communicate through social media, as well as interviews with refugees who escaped to neighboring countries such as Niger, Sudan, Tunisia, and Europe.

Factors leading to migration

One of the factors driving migration is the ongoing crisis in Syria. The conflict, which began in 2011, has led to the displacement of millions of people, many of whom have fled to neighboring countries, including Turkey. The recent earthquake in Turkey, which has left thousands dead and injured, is likely to create a new wave of refugees. Dimitris Triantaphyllou, Professor of International Relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul notes that, so far, Turks trying to flee the country have mainly been political refugees. However, he suggests that the combination of the earthquake and ongoing political instability in Turkey may lead to an increase in the number of refugees seeking to enter Europe.

The situation in Turkey is particularly troubling, with reports of human rights abuses and the erosion of democratic institutions. The government’s crackdown on opposition voices and its treatment of Kurdish people are deeply concerning.

The war in Ukraine is another factor driving migration. The conflict, which began in 2014, has led to the displacement of more than 1.5 million people. The ongoing conflict has made it difficult for many people to access basic services, such as healthcare and education. In addition, the conflict has created a sense of insecurity and instability, leading many people to seek refuge in other countries.

Another factor driving migration is climate change. According to the Institute of Economic and Peace, an international think tank, an annual average of 21.5 million people have been forcibly displaced by climate change since 2008. The same organization has predicted that by 2050, 1.2 billion people could be displaced due to climate change and natural disasters. The displacement of people due to climate change is likely to have a significant impact on migration patterns in the coming years.

The issue of migration is complex and multifaceted, and there are no easy solutions. While the decision by the European Union to strengthen its external borders may be seen as a step towards controlling so called “irregular migration”, it is important to recognize that the root causes of migration are complex and cannot be addressed by simply closing borders.

The decision to strengthen the EU’s external borders is not new and continuously has been criticized as an attempt to close the door on migrants and refugees who are seeking safety and a better life in Europe. Critics argue that the measures will do little to address the root causes of migration, such as political instability and economic inequality. Moreover, these measures are likely to have a disproportionately negative impact on vulnerable groups, including women and children, who are at greater risk of exploitation and abuse when crossing borders.

An example of the situation of immigrants who are generally from war-torn countries such as Syria or Afghanistan.

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