Ukrainians are the “real refugees,” Greece's migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, declared on March 1 before the Hellenic Parliament. What he was trying to say was that the people fleeing devastating conflict and persecution in Afghanistan, Syria, and other countries who are coming to Greece are not.
The latter, the minister claims, are “irregular migrants” because they come via Turkey, and should seek asylum there, as it is the first country they reach. However, the concept of “first country of asylum” only applies if the first country of arrival is a “safe” country, that is willing and able to provide refugees and asylum seekers effective protection. Despite Greece’s claims, Turkey does not meet the EU criteria for a safe third country to which an asylum seeker can be returned. Since July 2019, Turkey has deported hundreds of Syrians to their war-torn country, including a reported 150 Syrians deported in February 2022 alone.
Greece uses the need to fight against “trafficking” and the semblance of safety in Turkey as excuses to justify its heavy-handed and often abusive immigration control methods, including violent and unlawful pushbacks at its external borders with Turkey. On February 21, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expressed concern at “recurrent and consistent reports” of pushbacks at Greece’s land and sea borders with Turkey, noting UNHCR has recorded almost 540 incidents since 2020.
Numerous reports by the media and nongovernmental groups, including by Human Rights Watch, expose how Greek law enforcement officers detain, assault, rob, and strip asylum seekers and migrants before forcing them back to Turkey. The Greek government routinely denies involvement in pushbacks, while cracking down on those who report them.
Greece is right to show solidarity with refugees fleeing Ukraine. But this moment should prompt a fundamental shift in Greece’s approach to dealing with people fleeing similar conflicts in other parts of the world and an end to Greece’s violent and abusive border polices that put refugees in harm’s way.