Pushbacks, detention and torture: Contemporary border control in Greece
The last year in Greece has been marked by a sharp intensification of two intersecting trends: an increase in pushbacks of people-on-the-move (POM) and the normalisation of detention. Since the beginning of 2020, Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) has documented 90 pushbacks in Greece impacting approximately 4,896 people. These incidents occur at times hundreds of kilometres from the border in urban spaces, implicating multiple police units, departments and jurisdictions. BVMN has documented instances of pushbacks occurring from pre-removal detention centres (PRDCs) themselves. In the context of growing rates of rejection of asylum claims, increasing police checks on POM, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the adoption of the International Protection Act (IPA), the numbers of people in detention have increased, along with reports of substandard conditions. Protests on the part of those incarcerated over inhumane conditions have been met with heavy violence, state repression and systematic denial of wrongdoing. Inscribed within this climate of mounting state repression in Greece by the New Democracy government and rampant police brutality, these developments demonstrate again a lack of accountability and a certain level of impunity in committing acts of violence on the part of the authorities.
Pushbacks as an extension of border controls
Over the course of the last year, human rights watchdog organisations and media outlets have documented unprecedented levels of border violence against POM arriving into Greek territories, perpetrated by Greek authorities. Pushbacks from the Aegean Islands back to Turkey have become increasingly frequent, and alarmingly violent. Along the Evros river, pushbacks appear to be becoming increasingly systematised, reaching deep into the interior of the country.
However, while the pressure resulting from the mounting evidence of detected human-rights violations increased, the allegations have been met with denial. Instead, the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis speaks of a successful prevention of illegal border-crossing. Prevention has become a byword for pushbacks and hinges on the lack of accountability for perpetrating authorities, the political will to enforce a hard border, and the ambivalence of the Greek state when presented with evidence of rights violations.
In the Evros region, reports continue to surface about incidents in which large groups of POM are taken to the river’s edge, heavily beaten, and then forced to cross back into Turkey in small boats. On multiple occasions over the last year, transit groups have described being forced to jump or have been pushed out of the boats in the middle of the river or onto small islands. Beyond inhumane treatment – people are often stranded on these islands for days at a time – several reports indicate that people are placed at direct risk of drowning in the river, while calls from the people themselves and watchdog organisations to the authorities have been largely ignored. This phenomenon represents a weaponisation of geography, or as one commentator eloquently wrote, ʻa form of hybrid border violence that explicitly incorporates the river ecology itselfʼ.
Illegal expulsions of POM in Greece, however, are not limited to the border regions, as they have increasingly occurred from urban spaces deep in the interior of the country. Over the last year, BVMN has documented many instances in Thessaloniki in which people picked up by police in routine street checks and instances of racial profiling were later transferred to PRDCs and detention sites in the Evros region, only later to be pushed over the border. Other cases have emerged from Athens, Igoumenitsa and Patras, showing the precarious position of transit communities across the breadth of the Greek interior, where the threat of pushbacks is never dispelled.
Normalisation of detention and moves towards mass incarceration of POM
Practices of detention- and carceral-based logics have come to define the landscape of ‘migration management’ in Greece. POM are held in police stations in urban areas, at times for months, without access to legal support or a clear justification for why they are being held. There have been moves to turn existing camps into closed structures, while housing programmes outside of the camps have been closed down in the last 6 months and cash benefits for those living outside the camps have been cut. In 2020, the International Protection Act (IPA) entered into force, extending the use of detention and increasing its time frame to up to 18 months, which may reach 36 months if added to immigration detention in specific PRDCs. While initially PRDCs were for those ‘awaiting the execution of a pending deportation order’, laws passed in 2012 (Law 4075/2012), 2013, 2019 (Law 4636/2019) and 2020 have expanded the use of PRDCs to more categories of asylum seekers, who can also be detained ‘together with third-country nationals under removal procedures’. The IPA’s overall effect is that it legitimises the systematic use of detention in return procedures, a development that has been widely criticised by NGOs and described as ‘significantly deteriorating the rules around detention’. On this issue, the 2020 report by the Council of Europe affirmed that:
‘systematic detention [of POM] cannot be the immediate response... Moreover, Greece cannot be so ill-prepared to receive new migrants that it has to hold them in inhuman and degrading conditions.’ (Council of Europe, 2020)
The official response of the Greek state to these critiques was that sufficient evidence had not been presented regarding misconduct on the part of the Greek police, and no complaints to date had been lodged against the police departments/detention facilities mentioned.
Testimonies collected by the BVMN speak to inhumane conditions within detention, the suppression of protest by those incarcerated with the use of extreme violence, refusals of medical care, and pushbacks occurring from PRDCs. In testimonies collected from former inmates of the Paranesti PRDC, there are reports of prison guards and riot police beating inmates and of large groups being pushed back from the detention centre. In the Xanthi and Paranesti PRDCs, there have been reports of inmates being denied medical care for pre-existing conditions or after being beaten by prison guards, at times resulting in lasting injuries. One respondent recalled that he had been hospitalised five times, over a period of 45 days, after violent altercations with the officers in the facility. These testimonies point to broader infrastructures of police and detention that are complicit in the illegal returns of POM to Turkey: the different police units in the prisons and at the border, police stations across the country that will send people to PRDC, prisons and the PRDCs themselves. Demonstrating that wider infrastructures of policing and detention are actively involved in pushbacks precludes arguments that only a few ‘bad’ or ‘rogue’ police units of individual officers are involved in human rights violations and pushbacks. Instead, it reveals that there is a formalised, shadow infrastructure of migration management involving mass incarceration, violence in detention, and illegal pushbacks of POM. This nexus of violence between pushbacks and detention becomes evident in the data gathered by BVMN. Across all reports of pushbacks from Greece to Turkey in 2020, 89% of cases contained one or more forms of violence and abuse that amount to torture, or inhuman and degrading treatment. These acts punctuate the capture, detention, transport and eventual pushback of people from Greek territory. Notably, over half the groups impacted by these abuses contained minors.
Response from the authorities: Larger trends of police brutality, zero accountability
When looking at practices of mass incarceration, violence in detention, and border violence in the context of pushbacks, it is important to situate these events within the larger context of state repression and police brutality in Greece. Over the last year, the current New Democracy administration holding power in the Greek government has used the pandemic and lockdown as an excuse to significantly expand the power of the police, while violence and abuses of these new powers have largely gone unchecked. In early March, Greek Ombudsman Andreas Potakis said reports about police violence have risen by 75% during the past year. Much of this violence has disproportionately targeted migrants, asylum seekers, and people of colour, while proactively guarding white and wealthy parts of the population from exposure to such practices. Yet, even as the situation reached a boiling point in March 2021 with a number of heavily publicised incidents of police brutality, the official response was to blame the SYRIZA opposition party for ‘stirring up protests’ and to deny any responsibility, saying that ‘police brutality was a global issue and that Greece did not have a bad record’.
Carceral and expulsion-based logics have come to define the landscape of border control in Greece, creeping deep into the interior of the country and affecting transit groups, as well as other communities. The overlay of EU externalisation and domestic authoritarian policies have produced a climate in which police brutality and weaponised detention are go-to tools for handling human mobility. The myriad types of violence used are a feature of the sweeping remit granted to the Hellenic police, coastguard, and military, whereby the evident lack of accountability mechanisms has become the most pressing issue.
Chloe Powers is a queer feminist and border abolitionist researcher and activist living between Athens and Lesvos. She is a member of the Border Violence Monitoring Network which documents violence against people-on-the-move in the Balkans.
Border Violence Monitoring Network
Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) is an independent network of NGOs and associations mainly based in the Balkan regions and in Greece, who monitors human rights violations at the external borders of the European Union and advocates to stop the violence exerted against people on the move.