Lena Karamanidou is an independent activist researcher. Her research focuses on the European border regime, the EU agency Frontex, violence, pushbacks and infrastructures at the Greek-Turkish land border, and EU and Greek migration policy and discourse.
The interview was conducted in December 2021. Pushbacks are abbreviated as PB, and People on the Move as PoM.
Mare Liberum: The public coverage of pushbacks has been increasing in recent years, even by mainstream media. When did we start gaining more insights around the topic on PBs happening in the Aegean?
Lena Karamanidou: Systematic reporting and documentation of PBs date back to 2007/2008, with reports by NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Pro Asyl published then, and has continued since then. People who did their military service at the Greek-Turkish border have talked of systematic practices of pushbacks dating back to the late 1908s and the National Commission of Human Rights reported on such practices in the early 2000s. From the late 1980s to the early 2010s there were more reports of PBs at the land border than in the Aegean, as most people back then would try to enter Greece and the EU from Evros, rather than the islands. Since 2015, the attention shifted to the islands, and this is when we started hearing more about PBs happening in the Aegean. But it has always been common knowledge that pushbacks are happening, especially at the land border.
ML: Looking at the first PB incidents that were documented, and the situation now, could we compare incidents of PBs, but also other forms of border violence from the past with current developments? What similarities and differences can be observed?
LK: It is quite difficult to make an appropriate comparison since the data we have is simply not comparable. The information comes from very diverse sources. Some testimonies have been reported by NGOs, others from independent activists, while a lot of material can also be found in the media. As a point of comparison, I would say, that throughout the years, PBs did happen and they are a constant pattern, regardless of the numbers and severity in terms of violence. Pushbacks have always happened – they did not start in 2020. From what we know, PBs have intensified in the last couple of years, especially since March 2020, according to actors on the ground in Greece. But again, I would be cautious in terms of saying that a specific practice or pattern is completely new without researching what older reports say.
ML: Some reports suggest that PBs started appearing systematically since 2015. In contradiction to this, do you consider that there was already in place a distinct pattern of systematic PBs, rather than a significant number of single incidents happening?
LK: I think the ‘isolated events’ narrative is a very convenient one for governments. It allows governments to point them out as single incidents, instead of having to justify the existence of a whole system of border violence. For example, in Evros, where I grew up, it is local knowledge that PBs have been happening. There are testimonial reports from the 80s and 90s, especially by military conscripts, saying that PBs were constantly happening. All those reports, covering so many years, clearly point out to a standard practice in place, rather than isolated and unrelated events. As a result of this huge persistence over time, one can’t really claim they happened once or twice. This pattern has been present for a very long time and has been constantly denied by the Greek government. I believe, nowadays, the narrative has slightly changed and there is less governmental denial on the topic of PBs. In a way, they are admitting the practice, but present PBs as ‘legal interceptions’. Framing matters.
ML: No official statistics exists on PB, so we are dealing with a lot of different sources and types of documentation. How do you think the documentation practice has changed since the 90s?
LK: In some areas, there are now more actors on the ground than one or two decades ago. Taking the example of the Aegean, since 2015, there have been more NGOs and activists present, and there are also actors who are contributing to the overall documentation of PBs, like the Aegean Boat Report. In the case of Evros, Border Violence Monitoring Network has been actively collecting testimonies since 2019, in addition to Greek NGOs such as HumanRights360. So, we have far more reports, although there were organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Pro Asyl, the Greek Council for Refugees, collecting testimonies before that, but not on a regular basis.
The second important point, concerning the Aegean in particular, is that we have more visual documentation. Numerous videos taken with smart phones by PoM who are documenting their own PBs, are being shared with NGOs or monitoring organizations. Obviously, this kind of visual documentation, along with the use of social media, was not possible in the 80s or 90s.
ML: Documenting PBs can be quite challenging in terms of repression. How have the challenges associated with documentation changed?
LK: In Evros, access to the locations where PBs are usually taking place is impossible, as the area by the river has always been a military zone, so access is forbidden. There is a high risk of arrest for espionage. Therefore, visual documentation similar to what we have seen in the islands in recent years has always been extremely difficult if not impossible.
I am not quite sure if in the Aegean, back then, people on the ground could engage in this kind of documentation. While visual documentation, by PoMs, activists and organisations has increased, repression is also clearly intensifying. It is closely linked to the general criminalization of activists and solidarity across Europe, but specifically with the documentation of PBs in Greece, the government uses different strategies to challenge the evidence. They label them "Fake News", claiming that there is lack of reliable evidence, or that it is Turkish propaganda. These are some of the narratives the Greek government used to doubt the evidence. Criminalization might not lead to actual prosecution in juridical terms, but rather be an intimidation campaign, circulated through the media, using the threat of future prosecution to discourage organizations from monitoring and documenting border violence.
ML: PBs are quite well documented and evidence of human rights violations in the Aegean is overwhelming. However, legal consequences and political change remain absent. Looking at the situation as it is now, what significance does the documentation of PBs still have?
LK: Documentation of the situation at the borders is important, but at the same time, I would not be optimistic about change happening as a result of intensifying monitoring. On the Aegean islands there are groups of activists and lawyers that cooperate in attempts to prevent further PBs happening using documentation techniques. It’s better than nothing. But when it comes to stopping PBs as a systematic practice, I am not optimistic at all, as the political environment in Europe right now openly approves the practice of PBs. Furthermore, there are continuous attempts to legalize PBs. In a letter signed by 12 member states, the European Commission was asked to revise the legal framework of the Schengen agreement, which would enable the legal practice of PBs. Poland and Lithuania introduced legislation legalising pushbacks. There are strong efforts towards the normalisation of PBs, rather than abandoning them as a practice. At the same time, concerns on human rights violations and PBs are mostly articulated by EU comissioner Ylva Johansson. I think the formal condemnation of PBs obscures the fact that the Commission is rather unwilling to take any kind of serious action concerning the practice of PBs or border violence in general. I am afraid that I cannot be really optimistic here. We need to acknowledge the existence of a narrative in the European Union over the years, which has been, in fact, pushing for human rights compliant border practices. Now, however, member states and the Commission, are pushing the other way – to legalize and normalize border violence and PBs. Personally, I think a human rights compliant border is impossible because borders – external or internal – , are always going to be violent.
ML: Recently, a state-organised concert in support of the troops ‘protecting the borders’ took place in Poland. Would you say that Europe is trying to create a new image of the European identity and define what it means to ‘defend’ Europe? At the same time, the Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarachis, wrote on Twitter, on the day the Pope was visiting Lesvos, that ‘Greece is defending our Christian values’. How are those events connected to the whole system of repression that we are observing now?
LK: They are certainly connected, but I would not claim it is a new dynamic. The narrative around the ‘Christian Europe’ or protecting Europe from the enemies outside, whether its other countries or PoM, has always been there. It was more contained than now, but even at the time when Europe was constituted as an area of ‘freedom, security, and justice’, it already designated PoM as threats and enemies of Europe. I will not go as far as saying that Europe is an entirely gated community, or “Fortress Europe”, because we know that borders allow certain people in. Also, PoM always existed. It is impossible to have a totally closed off community. People will always cross borders and they will find ways to do so. Right now, it might be more dangerous and with more victims of violence, but it will keep happening. This ideological construct of Europe being threatened from outside, especially the narrative of “hybrid wars” and “hybrid threats” is a new retake on existing narratives. This kind of language existed before, even though it was not as popular as now. There is something quite interesting about this concert you mentioned, when you look at the uniforms, the choice of artists, and songs. It is very reminiscent of the Second World War when artists would go and sing to the troops. It appears to be the same mechanism: We have artists going ‘in the battlefield’ to boost the morale of the army. Just another way to show that Europe is now in a war against migrants.