Lack of action has allowed Greece to build a dark system of pushbacks, surveillance and other fundamental rights violations.
In a small office in the University Hospital of Alexandroupolis, Pavlos Pavlidis, coroner for the Evros region, rifled through boxes of personal belongings found on individuals who perished while attempting to cross the Greek-Turkish land border. The air was heavy as we looked at the sealed plastic bags containing wedding rings, lighters, cigarettes and little pieces of paper with bled-out ink, which once belonged to those who desperately sought a better future.
Since 2000, Dr Pavlidis has single-handedly created a DNA-database of 550 refugees and migrants who lost their lives in the Evros river or the mountains of this border region. He expects there are far more who have never been located. His aim, he told us, is to identify the body and find the family members of the deceased. ‘It’s all about respect,’ he said. ‘Respect for the victims, for the families and for the sanctity of every human life.’
Respect for human dignity is hard to come by in this tense border region, rife with inflammatory rhetoric between the Greek and Turkish authorities and ever-mounting evidence of illegal pushbacks to Turkey. In mid-August, reports surfaced of a group of migrants left stranded for days on an islet in the Evros river, as neither of the two countries would assume responsibility for their rescue.
As Green members of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), we felt compelled to visit the region. This was not only due to the continued pushbacks and fundamental-rights violations at the border, but also the deployment of mass-surveillance technologies and the mounting pressures on civil-society organisations and journalists in Greece who try to bring these practices to light.
What we encountered during our mission was a country building, very deliberately and overtly, a system of deterrence and lies, while still receiving large sums of European Union funding for reception centres. Pushbacks—the most egregious violation of the right to asylum by removing persons from the territory—are happening systematically, in the Aegean Sea and the Evros region. Deportation has become the norm.
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The Greek government has faced little EU scrutiny for its flagrant defiance of fundamental rights. As a result, it is becoming increasingly confident in its unlawful model of asylum management, which is resonating with other member states that refuse to show solidarity and remain silent in the face of these rights violations. Journalists and civil-society activists in Greece cite intimidation and a climate of hostility when trying to investigate what is really going on.
We call on the European Commission to ensure basic human dignity and compliance with EU laws, including the right to asylum, in Greece. The commission has the tools to start infringement proceedings, based on the many reports of violations from credible organisations, yet inexcusably chooses not to do so. We urgently need EU migration and border-control funding to be rendered conditional on the upholding of fundamental rights. It is absurd that EU taxpayers’ money is used to fund practices that violate these rights. This is why, during our visit, we launched our campaign urging the EU to stop paying for pushbacks.
Pushback incidents implicate not only the Greek authorities but also raise serious concerns about the role of Frontex, the EU border-control agency. Frontex has been promising improvements in compliance with fundamental rights after reports, including from the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), confirming allegations of serious misconduct, mismanagement and complicity by the agency in rights violations. Yet we do not see this translated into practice in Greece.
Frontex officers in the Evros region operate under the command and control of the Greek authorities, which send them to specific areas based on operational needs. This chain-of-command structure is highly problematic, as fundamental rights do not factor into these deployment decisions.
The Greek government has been reported as saying that so far this year more than 150,000 arrivals have been ‘averted’. This begs the question as to whether Frontex officers are deployed in the right areas and whether their presence has any benefit when it comes to rights protection.
For over a year now, we as members of the LIBE committee have been calling on Frontex to apply due diligence and evaluate its activities in Greece in this light. If the agency cannot fulfil its mandate on fundamental rights, it should suspend its operations to avoid being complicit in violations.
The Greek asylum system is rife with practices that blatantly deny access to asylum procedures or cajole individuals more subtly to move on to other countries. Legal-aid workers share disconcerting stories of clients unable to gain access to the asylum-application platform—which is fully booked until September 2023.
A day after we visited the registration and identification centre of Fylakio, where minors and families were huddled behind prison-like barbed wire, we saw those same fences again. This time they were on a huge screen in the state-of-the-art surveillance control room of the Ministry of Migration and Asylum. We have asked the commission to provide clarity on the level of EU funding such technologies have received and how rights compliance—including protection of personal data—is being ensured.
We are left after our mission to Greece with the distinct impression that the fundamental rights of migrants and refugees are being violated, mass surveillance is growing—even after the recent Predator spyware scandal—and the rule of law is under serious threat. The tireless work of investigative journalists, civil-society actors and individuals such as the coroner Pavlidis offers a thin beacon of light in an increasingly dark arena.
As MEPs we shall continue to do all we can to support their fearless fight to uphold the fundamental values on which the EU was founded. But they should not be left to fight alone: this is a common task for the union. The continued lack of solidarity and fair responsibility-sharing among member states is fuelling the systematic violations we see along the EU’s external borders. This also prevents member states from credibly speaking out.
So long as member states cling to the untenable country-of-first-entry asylum principle of the Dublin regulation, this inhumane and unworkable system will continue its downward spiral. What we need now is firm commitment to equitable sharing of responsibility. Without this, all violations at the union’s borders will be our common legacy—and our collective shame.