Pushbacks in the European Context
Pushbacks and the daily violence that happen in the Aegean cannot be understood as a Greek project alone. Greece can count on the support of Europe, which not only tolerates pushbacks and violence at the borders, but also actively supports them. This becomes clear when one looks at the extent to which the EU invests in the militarisation of the border. In recent years, around 422 million euros have flowed from Brussels to Athens for the "protection of the border”.1 The EU not only supports Greece financially in forcibly warding off fleeing refugees, but it is also present itself in such operations, namely through the European border protection agency Frontex. In autumn 2020, Frontex's active and passive involvement was revealed comprehensively for the first time in at least seven pushbacks in the Aegean.2 The Working Group, convened by Frontex itself in November 2020 to investigate a total of 13 incidents in the Aegean, could not prove any wrongdoing by the authorities.3 But Frontex's internal control and accountability mechanisms are a farce and have been questioned since the agency's inception. Instead of the control mechanisms helping to document violations and violence at the borders of the European Union, they contribute to the further cover-up of such incidents. First and foremost, the internal investigations serve to exonerate Frontex from any wrongdoing and to legitimise human rights crimes.4 For example, in April 2021, Frontex Director Leggeri once again stressed that neither Frontex nor the officials deployed by member states in Frontex operations had been involved in or covered up illegal pushbacks in the maritime domain.5 It is now clear that Leggeri deliberately covered up and publicly lied about human rights violations, although even Frontex's own human rights officer spoke of "solid evidence" of violent pushbacks.6
The Council of Europe, as well as EU Commissioner Ylva Johansson in particular, repeatedly criticised Frontex in 2021 and condemned pushbacks giving the appearance of not really wanting to do anything about border violence.7,8 A Frontex audit group of the European Parliament officially found that Frontex had ignored and covered up serious breaches of the law.9 The EU Parliament then decided to withhold at least €90 million, which is about 12% of Frontex's budget for 2022.10
Despite these isolated convictions, which usually remain without any consequences, there is no functioning, independent supervisory body that would comprehensively monitor Frontex's activities. Instead, the cooperation with national border control authorities is absolutely non-transparent. Lack of supervision and a loss of control over the agency's actions continue to be fertile ground for abuse of power.11 Frontex cannot be reformed because the agency already embodies in its basic structure the racist border policy of the EU, which is routinely upheld by force.12 There is simply no political will to strengthen Frontex's oversight. Meanwhile, both Greece and Frontex repeatedly applaud their good cooperation in "protecting" the European external borders. For example, in May 2021, at a meeting of Frontex Director Leggeri with Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis and Greek Migration Minister Mitarakis in Athens, all parties congratulated and celebrated each other for the decrease in new arrivals on the islands and the "successful saving of thousands of lives since 2015".13
Meanwhile, the tone in European migration and asylum policy seems to be getting worse. The shift to the right in many EU countries has left its mark. Even compliance with the lowest standards of asylum law now seems to go too far for many member states, as can be seen in the repeated failure of the EU migration pact, which is anything but ambitious anyway.14 A change in the way human rights violations are dealt with is nevertheless evident: while in previous years European authorities mostly denied the existence of pushbacks, it is now increasingly being blatantly admitted that pushbacks do happen. What can be observed is a mixture of public condemnation by European authorities, which remains inconsequential and hypocritical, alongside the increasing presentation of pushbacks as a legitimate and legal practice. But even the illegality of pushbacks could possibly be a thing of the past, at least if many member states have their way. In October 2021, the interior and migration ministers of Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Slovakia wrote a letter to the European Commission. In this letter, the ministers demand nothing less than a fundamental reform of the Schengen Borders Code in order to legalise pushbacks. The letter also states:
"Surveillance and control alone are not sufficient to prevent asylum seekers from crossing the border. Secondly, preventive measures are needed. It is no longer appropriate that the Schengen Borders Code does not provide for physical barriers. The possibility of fences and walls at the European external borders must be legally anchored".15
At the same time, Poland and Lithuania have passed laws at the national level to allow pushbacks at their land borders.16,17 These are steps towards legalising very violent methods that are already used on a daily basis. The EU is threatened from outside, from "illegal migration and other hybrid dangers", as the letter from the member states goes on to say.18 The rhetoric also makes it clear: The EU is in a war against migration. For refugees, this Europe means nothing less than having to continue to risk their lives on a daily basis.
Excerpt of a speech from the "Abolish Frontex" initiative
“[...] In another part of the Mediterranean, the Aegean, Frontex is constantly involved in pushbacks:
On October eighth, we were in contact with a group of 25 people travelling from Turkey to Greece in a small rubber dinghy. They were already in Greek waters when a white ship came and observed them from some distance. Finally the Greek coast guard, armed and masked, came and took the engine away from the people and towed the dinghy back to Turkish waters where the people had to wait until the Turkish coast guard rescued them. This white boat was an Italian boat of the Frontex mission, which constantly observe pushbacks without getting their own hands dirty.
But these attacks on travelers, in which violence is systematically used, are now no longer shocking either - they are simply part of the normality of the border regime, which does not function without violence. It's not that anyone would expect anything different from Frontex; it is, after all, the border protection agency, not the human protection agency. Frontex has been getting stronger and stronger financially for years, its budget has been inflated further and further. It is also practical, so tax money can be used for their own economy and as a subsidy for the arms industry, etc.. Frontex must be abolished. Immediately. [...]”