Pushbacks in 2021

The year 2021 can be seen as another year in which the brutal war led by the EU against migration intensified. Violent pushbacks, which were systematically carried out at European land and sea borders throughout the past year, represent a fundamental part of Europe’s inhumane border regime. This report takes a look at the violence used against people on the move at the Greek-Turkish maritime border in the Aegean Sea in 2021. Pushbacks are not only illegal operations in which people fleeing are forcibly pushed back across a border, but deeply inhumane and violent acts. The report shows how violence, humiliation and torture are used as strategic method to repel people on the move as means of "border protection". By analysing available data and presenting testimonies of those who are exposed to violence at the EU’s external borders, this report contributes to documenting the ongoing injustice that has become the norm at Europe's borders. The instances of border violence documented in this report can only ever represent an excerpt of what happens every day at the EU's external borders.

While the EU continued to allow violent pushbacks to take place on a daily basis last year, EU Commissioner Ylva Johansson repeatedly expressed her dismay at the violence that takes place at European borders, as if nothing had been known about it all these years. The EU Commission's statements have only symbolic significance, if any. Real consequences usually do not follow from public condemnations of pushbacks — on the contrary. Instead of stopping pushbacks, in October 2021 twelve EU member states wrote to the Commission demanding the reform of the Schengen Borders Code to legalise pushbacks.1 These serious attempts to legalise violence against refugees are also an expression of a shift to the right that intensified in the wake of the 2015 "Summer of Migration" and the rise of nationalist forces in many EU member states.2

Pushbacks and the long History of European Border Violence

The fact that "pushback" was chosen as the Unword of the Year 2021 in Germany is an indication of the media attention that has undoubtedly grown immensely in recent years. "The term is used to whitewash a process that is hostile to humanity", is how the jury of the language-critical campaign justified their choice.3 In 2021, numerous reports and research findings were published on the illegal pushback practices of the Hellenic Coast Guard and the involvement of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex). However, the increased public attention should not obscure the fact that pushbacks are not a new phenomenon. As early as 2007, without using the term “pushback”, Pro Asyl reported that people on the move were forcibly pushed back into Turkish waters by the Hellenic Coast Guard and their boats deliberately damaged in the process.4 Based on interviews Pro Asyl conducted with refugees on Chios, Samos and Lesvos, it becomes clear that abandoning people on uninhabited islands and the use of brutal force were also already common practices of the Hellenic Coast Guard in the Aegean throughout the last decade. But even a reference to the 2000s seems too short-sighted. For example, migration researcher Lena Karamanidou describes in an interview with Mare Liberum, that pushbacks at the Greek-Turkish border have occurred regularly and in a systematic way since the 1980s and 1990s, as evidenced in particular by testimonies from Greek military conscripts in the region.

rom the beginning, Europe has been a project that seals itself off from the outside world, even though it has boasted of liberal values. While this report focuses on the developments of only the past year, one should not lose sight of the history of European border violence. We therefore want to look back, not only at the missions in 2021, but also at the year 2017 when the Mare Liberum 1, then still known as Sea Watch 1, was already monitoring in the Aegean.

The Two Faces of European Asylum Policy 

The fact that the European border regime welcomes certain people while excluding others has also been further illustrated by Europe’s reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began on 24 February 2022. Already in the first three weeks after the start of the war, around 2.3 million people fled Ukraine to neighbouring countries, according to the UN.5 This time, the EU responded quickly, adopting measures in a rush to grant refuge to fleeing people from Ukraine without bureaucratic hurdles. A protection mechanism was quickly activated to allow Ukrainian citizens to be admitted to the EU without applying for asylum. The legal basis for this policy of reception is the EU Directive 2001/55/EC,6 which had never been activated since its adoption in 2001. The directive, which was adopted by the member states of the European Union on 20 July 2001 in response to the Balkan war of the 1990s, enables refugees to be distributed among the member states without bureaucratic hurdles.7 In addition, the directive ensures that those seeking protection from a particular country can easily obtain residence permits, work permits and access to social benefits, with the possibility of circumventing the Dublin procedure’s restrictions on residence. Ukrainian citizens can now enter and stay in the EU without bureaucratic barriers. That this reaction is the right one is beyond question. Nevertheless, it highlights how selective the EU is in providing protection to people on the move. For example, the directive went unused during the summer of migration in 2015.

The humanitarianism that the EU now boasts about in the Ukrainian context contrasts sharply with Europe’s treatment of the thousands of refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria who were stranded at the Polish-Belarusian border last year,8 to name just one recent example. And even now, not all people fleeing Ukraine are met with the same acceptance by the EU: the directive explicitly does not extend its protection to third-country nationals living in Ukraine unless they already had long-term residence status there before the war.9 In addition, in the first few days after the war began, reports began to accumulate about the racially disparate treatment of people leaving Ukraine, with numerous accounts of people of colour who had been living in Ukraine being forcibly excluded from the evacuation trains and having to wait for days to cross the Ukranian borders, while white residents passed through without the same delay.10

Solidarity-based policies must apply equally to all people. We are committed to ensuring that all people are granted their rights to asylum and freedom of movement.

[2] Kasparek, Bernd (2021). Europa als Grenze: eine Ethnographie der Grenzschutz-Agentur Frontex. Bielefeld: transcript.

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