Adults and minors refugees and migrants stand behind razor wire at Kara Tepe camp on Lesbos island, Greece on September 19, 2020 | Photo: EPA/Vangelis Papantonis
Adults and minors refugees and migrants stand behind razor wire at Kara Tepe camp on Lesbos island, Greece on September 19, 2020 | Photo: EPA/Vangelis Papantonis

After a fire destroyed the Moria camp in September 2020, the reception procedure for migrants in Greece was supposed to improve. But, over the last year, the practice of "pushbacks" has become widespread and the conservative Greek government has passed several laws that significantly tighten the conditions for obtaining international protection in the country.

On the Greek island of Lesbos, the runway almost continues into the sea. If you stand in front of the airport, you can see the sea on the other side of the road and Turkey is clearly visible in the distance.

This is roughly where Jean* landed on August 19 with about 40 other people. Speaking with him near the new Kara Tepe camp (also called Mavrovouni), the young Cameroonian remembers how he and the other passengers in his boat almost never arrived.

"The coast guard threw a rope to try to block our engine. They wanted to prevent us from docking. Finally, we all managed to jump off the boat into the water and swim our way to shore," he says to InfoMigrants as he waits for the bus to Mytilene to arrive.

After several days wandering in the hills above the airport, Jean says he was intercepted by the police and quarantined for a week. The young Cameroonian now lives in the new camp of Kara Tepe and has applied for asylum.

Read more: 'After the fire in Moria, we were full of hope of getting out of Lesbos'

Almost systematic deportations

First person accounts of deportations or attempted deportations like Jean's are multiplying on the Aegean islands and at the Turkish border, near the river Evros, in northern Greece. The Legal Centre Lesvos, an NGO that provides legal aid to exiles on Lesbos, has documented 17 such cases. They took place between March and December 2020, either at sea or on land, following the arrival of a boat on Greek soil.

In its report "Crimes against humanity in the Aegean", published in February 2021, the NGO denounces a quasi-systematic practice of pushbacks of migrants in the Aegean Sea, pointing to the thousands of "missing arrivals" on Greek shores in 2020 and 2021, compared to 2019.

"The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that just over 9,600 migrants reached Greece by sea in all 2020, which is a decrease of 85% as compared to 2019 and equivalent to the number of arrivals on the Greek islands in the month of November 2019 alone," the report said.

For the NGO, thousands of people continued to leave the Turkish coast, as in previous years, but never arrived in Greece because many were turned back.

Marion Bouchetel, a lawyer with the Legal center Lesvos, believes that, since March 2020, these pushbacks constitute a "policy by default."

"This represents a total violation of human rights," says this French lawyer, interviewed by InfoMigrants.

The Legal Center Lesvos has presented five cases of groups of people who have been deported to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). They hope that Greece will be denounced as guilty of this violation. But Bouchetel admits that the chances of a satisfactory outcome are low. "We will get the judgements from the ECHR in two or three years [...] In the best case scenario, the applicants might get a little bit of money."

Read more: 'It's mental torture': daily life in the women's section of the Kara Tepe camp in Greece

Turkey, a safe third country

Migrant deportations to Turkey have been further facilitated by the Greek government's decision in June to recognize Turkey as a safe third country for asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Somalia.

Upon arrival in Greece, people from these countries -- the vast majority of all the asylum seekers who arrive there -- are therefore no longer asked about threats in their home countries but only about Turkey.

"The interview only lasts 15 minutes, but it is enough to show that the person has a link with Turkey for him or her to be sent back. But this link can be extremely weak, such as the fact that the person is Muslim when Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country, for example," says Bouchetel.

This is what Nidah and her husband had to face. This Syrian couple who arrived in Lesbos in 2019 have had their asylum applications rejected several times. "We were told that Turkey was a safe country for us and that we must go back," Nidah tells InfoMigrants, her face half hidden by a gray and purple veil. The couple, however, spent only three weeks in Turkey before arriving in Greece and have no personal or family ties to the country.

In theory, Turkey has been considered a safe third country for Syrians since 2016 with the signing of the agreement between the EU and Turkey. But exceptions were often made and vulnerable people were not forced to return. The new legislation no longer takes into account the vulnerability of people and any applicant with a semblance of a connection to Turkey can be sent back.

Nidah and her husband were lucky. Their asylum application was finally accepted last May.

Many migrant rights NGOs have denounced this measure, pointing out that Turkey has actually been sending Syrians and Afghans back to their countries of origin.

Read more: Greece tightens its border with Turkey amid 'tough but fair migration policy'

Speeding up asylum procedures

Since September 2020, the Greek parliament has also adopted measures to speed up asylum procedures and thus reject rejected persons as quickly as possible.

In Lesbos, for example, migrants are sent, upon arrival, to quarantine for a period of one or two weeks, and then must appear a few days later for their asylum interview, without having been able to talk to a lawyer. "Lawyers are only mandatory in the second instance, after the interview has had a negative outcome," points out Bouchetel points. "But the appointed lawyers are often in Athens, so the exiles do not meet them."

The results are depressing, thins the lawyer. "People are rejected in a chain."

The speeding up of procedures give rise to situations close to the absurd. In Lesbos, InfoMigrants met people who arrived in 2019 on the island and whose asylum applications have still not been successful, while people who arrived a few weeks ago have already had an answer.

For Bouchetel, all these new measures are "a message for people not to come." "It's a way to reduce the flow of people by dissuasion," she notes.

At the beginning of September, the Greek Minister of Immigration Notis Mitarakis confirmed her assessment without any ambiguity. "We will never again become the open gateway that we were in the past years, with the consequences that we, islanders, have experienced in the front line."

*The first name has been changed


More articles