Migration, Push-Backs and Europe: A Blind Eye to a Refugee Crisis
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Migration, Push-Backs and Europe: A Blind Eye to a Refugee Crisis

In October 2020, Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees termed Europe’s methods of “push-back” as “disappointing and shameful”. However, the understanding of the term “push-back” has radically changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic grasping Europe and the world. While examining this debate, it is pivotal to review “Greece” and its legal framework in relation to “immigration laws” and how they affect the lives of several refugees.

On August 14th, 2020, the New York Times published a report documenting the Greek government’s illegal measures to keep refugees and migrants away from its borders. Backed up by first-hand interviews with survivors, three independent watchdogs, two academic researchers, and the Turkish Coast Guard, the article claims that at least 1,072 asylum seekers have been pushed back into the water to fend for themselves. However, Europe turns a blind eye to these blatant violations despite recurring evidence that proves they happen.

The Evros region of Greece is often dubbed as the ‘Shield of Europe’ by the European Union as the region is the first spot for asylum seekers and refugees to enter Europe. Due to its geographical location, the region has gained importance in terms of its ‘geo-political’ nature and its effects on European politics.

The Evros River border between Turkey and Greece is one of the easternmost frontiers of the European Union with a fence up on all but 12 kilometers of the Evros, it was the easiest and safest path for asylum seekers from the Middle East and elsewhere to reach Europe. This region has derived significance on account of Turkey’s announcement in February 2020, that it would no longer stop refugees from crossing into Europe. Thus, manufacturing a crisis of asylum seekers at the border expecting the border securities to be strengthened by Greece and by extension, Europe.

Citing the reason for the COVID-19 pandemic and the internal security issues in April 2020, Greece deployed additional military forces to the Evros border and suspended the processing of asylum applications for one month. This suspension ran contrary to international law and did not have any justification under any legal instrument whatsoever.

The effect of this tension at the Evros border has affected asylum-seekers and refugees in Europe through an age-old practice termed as “push-backs”. Push-backs are a set of state measures by which refugees and migrants are forced back over a border, generally immediately after they crossed it, without consideration of their circumstances and any possibility to apply for asylum or to put forward arguments against the measures taken. Push-backs violate the prohibition of collective expulsions stipulated in the European Convention on Human Rights.

To worsen the situation at the border and limit the interference of non-governmental organizations while implementing these practices, Greece passed a new law in February 2020 to monitor and control the activities of non-governmental organizations (“NGOs”) in Greece which deal with the causes of asylum seekers and migration. Accessing control over these organizations increases the distance between legal accessibility and refugees. With the change in dynamics between Turkey and Greece, the nature of implementing the “push-backs” strategies have also evolved.

Prior to Turkey opening the borders, the refugees who would cross Turkey to enter Greece and make their way into other European countries were stopped upon entrance, the refugees would be seized of their possessions and sent back on a boat to Turkey. Upon arrival in Turkey, these refugees were taken to the refugee camps to ascertain their status. This has been documented by human rights watchdogs and The UN Refugee Agency. International and European refugee law requires Greece to fairly process their asylum claims and not to push [asylum seekers] back at the border or summarily deport them to Turkey. The return of an asylum seeker before their case has been examined through a fair asylum process amounts to “refoulement”. Under international human rights law, the prohibition of refoulement is explicitly included in the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED). This practice at the Greece-Turkey border is termed unlawful by the UN Refugee Agency.

After Turkey opened its border, Greek law enforcement improvised its “push-back” strategy. Law enforcement tracks down refugees from the interior parts of Greece which are far away from Evros, these refugees are tracked in groups, arrested, transported by vans to police stations in the Evros region. Their belongings are taken away including  International Protection Applicant’s Cards “white-cards” (Refugee legal status) and they are forced onto dinghies and expeled them from Greece. This pattern has been documented by the Human Rights Watch and termed as a new tactic for push-back or “Deep push-backs”. The Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), a collection of human rights watchdog groups in Green, has documented 194 cases of deep push-backs as of May 2020. The number of such instances is difficult to ascertain on account of the control on NGO activities, hence, these asylum-seekers and refugees are lost in the system.

The control over the NGOs along with the lawyers and advocates associated with these NGOs has made it difficult for the victims of push-backs to challenge the situation. Upon expulsion, it is difficult to connect with advocates, lawyers, and NGOs inside Greece to sign a power of attorney. People who are pushed back usually end up undocumented in Turkey, which has made it more difficult for refugees and asylum seekers to access humanitarian protections adding another layer of insecurity and complexity.

The situation in the Evros region is a hotbed of international and national violations including human-rights violations. While assessing the geopolitical nature of this region, the traumatic effect of such instances on the refugees must not be forgotten. The term “push-backed” does not only apply to the refugee being pushed at the borders but, it is also pushing back the lives of these refugees and forcing them to start where it all began for them.


Vishwajeet Deshmukh is a 4th Year Law Student at Government Law College, Mumbai, India.

Lubna Malhotra is an Economics Major at Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University, India.
Suggested citation: Vishwajeet Deshmukh and Lubna Malhotra, Migration, Push-Backs and Europe: A Blind Eye to a Refugee Crisis, JURIST – Student Commentary, November 24, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/11/vishwajeet-deshmukh-lubna-malhotra-refugees-europe-push-back/.

This article was prepared for publication by Khushali Mahajan, a JURIST staff editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at commentary@jurist.org

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