While Europe has shown a praiseworthy, compassionate, and solidaric embrace of Ukrainian refugees, additional cruel tactics to prevent “non-Western” migrants and asylum seekers from accessing the EU are being devised in multiple EU member states.
Fortifying borders with walls, fences, surveillance, and guards, as well as pushing back against migrant boats at sea, are virtually becoming a tolerated new norm. For the few that still make it into the EU zone, stripping, robbing, violently assaulting, and then forcing asylum seekers out of European borders before examining their claims is becoming increasingly common, notably at the Croatian-Bosnian, Polish-Belarussian, and Greek-Turkish borders.
Compounding this hostility is the recently reported exploitation by Greece’s Police of desperate asylum seekers to coerce them to push back fellow migrants to Turkey.
The practice allows Greek police to detain asylum seekers and migrants crossing the Evros river, beat them with batons, and drive them to a police station, where they strip them of their clothing and belongings and cram them into overcrowded cells. The police then identify some detainees and offer them a police note permitting them one month’s stay in Greece in return for transporting inflatable boats – that the police overcrowd with asylum seekers – across the fast-running river to Turkey.
The police offer no pay for ferrying other migrants – who would be left half-naked – back to Turkey. Instead, they offer them to choose items of the migrants’ belongings. Refusing the offer comes with varying threats, from beatings and being sent back to Turkey to being charged with human smuggling and going to prison.
At least six asylum seekers have come forward with first-hand accounts of being coerced into this “bargain.” They noted that the Greek police would lock them up between operations and only release them at night to push back other asylum seekers before locking them up again. They also faced beatings if anything went wrong during a pushback. Asylum seekers familiar with this practice call it “the stage of slavery” in their journey to a safe refuge.
This reverse human smuggling and coercion of asylum seekers to undertake illegal, dangerous, and unremunerated work under multiple threats contravene Greece’s obligations under international EU law.
The coercive use of desperate third-country nationals as proxies in illegal pushbacks is but one of a growing number of examples of how EU member states are going to incredible lengths to block people from exercising their right to seek asylum, partly because of their race, ethnicity, or religion.
The EU Commission criticized Greece’s violent pushbacks and deportations and even threatened it with losing funds. Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said that while Greece has an “obligation” to protect EU external borders from “illegal entry,” “violent and illegal deportations of migrants must stop, now.”
The problem, however, is that Greece’s violent pushbacks and illegal deportations are not a new occurrence. They have been an ongoing and systematic practice since at least March 2020. The EU has repeatedly voiced its criticism of pushbacks, but this has not resulted in any significant change in Greece’s controversial policies and practices against asylum seekers and migrants.
Furthermore, the absence of safe and legal asylum routes allows for conflating the task of protecting EU borders from “illegal entry” and the practice of violent pushbacks and illegal deportations. For instance, how would Greece prevent “illegal entry” without foiling asylum seekers from trying to reach its territory by land or sea when “illegal entry” is their only path to seek a safe refuge?
The way out of this cruel saga necessitates that the EU puts serious effort into creating safe and legal asylum routes to end the need for people on the move to undertake dangerous journeys in pursuit of safety. It also necessitates that the EU provides cooperation and assistance to improve the conditions of non-European countries, like Turkey and Lebanon, that are bearing a disproportionate share of hosting refugees and asylum seekers.
Finally, the EU should establish its long-pursued solidarity mechanism where EU member states share the responsibility of internally redistributing asylum seekers or providing financial assistance to member states whose asylum system is overburdened.