It’s 9 pm in Thessaloniki, Greece, and on the third floor of a beaten-up office block on the outskirts of town, a presentation is taking place. The lights are switched off, and the audience settles in across two sofas and a scattering of plastic stools.
“Yes, that’s good,” the presenter says. “Next slide please.”
The presenter is Elaine Harrold, an employee of the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) in Greece. She turns to the large dust sheet behind her. Propped up across two clothes rails, the sheet has a shaky projected image cast across its center.
“Here’s just one report of a pushback we collected in 2021,” Harrold says. “Pushbacks consist of forcing individuals across national borders without documentation or the provision of basic rights like access to translation. They are illegal, often violent, and stand against every piece of refugee protection legislation in Europe.”
Harrold turns, pointing to the pixelated satellite image behind her. “On September 12, 2021, the respondent we interviewed described being approached by a group of armed police in the center of Thessaloniki, where he was detained, loaded into a van and transported to a cell on the outskirts of the city.
“After two days spent in the cell, a time in which the respondent reports multiple accounts of physical and mental abuse, he was loaded into a police bus with around 30 others, and driven four hours east to Feres. Feres is a border town on the Evros river. The surrounding region is somewhat of a dark zone for media access, but reports speak of ‘warehouse style’ asylum-seeker holding facilities, where basic welfare standards and human rights protections are completely disregarded.
“Here the respondent was collected with around 90 others and driven to the border. At the edge of the river, the groups were forced onto dinghies and ordered to cross to Turkey. The authorities selected individuals from the detainee population themselves to drive the boats, promising the drivers reentry into Europe if they agreed.”
Harrold tracks her finger across the border to Turkey, “The river crossing here is very dangerous and the site of countless asylum-seeker disappearances. The crossing is highly weather dependent, and the detainees are sometimes forced onto the islands in-between the two nations and guarded from accessing either side of the riverbank.
“Sadly, events like this one are just a routine occurrence at the southern borders to the European Union, and since 2016, BVMN has collected 1,353 reports of illegal pushbacks across the Balkan entry points. But violent methods of immigration control are no surprise when put into the wider context here.
“In the hierarchy of political and geographical privilege, less powerful states like Greece and Turkey are offered massive incentives to limit asylum seekers entering the EU. The issue of harboring and managing the migrating populations is outsourced to these countries, and with the geographical distance and complexities of shared responsibility, the EU politicians who fuel the subsequent human rights abuses rarely have to answer for them directly.”
Detention as Default
The following afternoon in Thessaloniki, at the headquarters of the city’s largest refugee support organization, a mother in a giant puffer jacket shields her daughter from the wind. Beside her stand two young men, one of them leaning up against a wall with a crutch in his hand.
These individuals are part of the community of “People on the Move” (POTM) in Thessaloniki. “People on the Move” is the most recent descriptor for the complex population of migrants on European soil, encompassing both refugees and asylum seekers. Many of these individuals lack documentation, and, unable to gain access to the labor market or health care system, they often rely on volunteer organizations for help.
But today this small group will be turned away. It’s mid-afternoon and they’ve missed their chance to be treated. The volunteer organization space is dual-use, and in the afternoon the makeshift hospital becomes a distribution center, packed with donated clothes and vegetables. There is a great requirement for such services in the city. The community of POTM here are mostly homeless or living in temporary government housing. They exist in various states of engagement with the Greek asylum system, many of them deterred from interaction with the police by the threat of long-term detainment.
On November 16, 2021, Oxfam released “Detention as default,” a briefing on the asylum situation in Greece. Across this 31-page document, Oxfam paints a damning picture of the Greek asylum system, suggesting that Greece and the EU are colluding against asylum seekers, creating an inhumane and hostile environment, and using detainment centers to undermine any real attempt to form a productive asylum system.
Referencing figures from June 2021, Oxfam cites the 3,000 migrants in administrative detention, meaning detention without criminal charges, arguing that, although detention used to be considered a final resort for migrants in Greece, recent shifts in the law have moved it to the center of the asylum process.
The line of waiting POTM is long that afternoon, and during food distribution, an old saloon car pulls up with a plain clothes police officer in it. “They usually don’t bother us too much anymore,” says Bill O’Leary, a retired teacher from the United Kingdom, and the coordinator for that afternoon’s distribution, “They just come here to count the POTM, … trying to track the numbers in the city.”
It’s Friday evening in Thessaloniki, and the waterfront promenade is busy with shoppers, bar-hoppers and teenage couples walking hand in hand. Here is a city organized around the sea, and to the east of the promenade, a wooden pier, dotted with benches and groups of teenagers, stretches out into the Mediterranean.
“When I was in Turkey, we worked every day,” says Robin, one of the community volunteers. “I was a tailor, working in a T-shirt factory. It’s not very complex work you understand, very basic and hard.”
Robin is Afghani. He’s in his mid-20s with a boyish face and impeccable English. “You take one piece of fabric,” he says, mimicking the action with his hands. “You attach it to another. It is good to have work, but the conditions are very bad and the migrants have no security.”
Behind Robin’s head, the lights of a pirate-themed tourist ship sail peacefully across the bay. “You work all month, and at the end of the month, the boss decides to pay you or not. It is unfair, but the migrant has no power or protection.” The group around him nod solemnly.
Ever since the Syrian civil war in 2014, the context of migration in Turkey has been increasingly problematic. Following the breakdown of government in Syria, huge waves of displaced people crossed the border into Turkey, or fled onward toward Greece and Italy.
To react to the necessary demand for refugee registration, Turkey created “Temporary Protection” (TP), a new status of legal registration for migrants. In its original conception, the TP status would be a short-term crisis measure, offering speedy and basic protections while avoiding the complexities and international guarantees around the status of asylum seekers. But with the wider economic and political situation at play, this “short-term” plan for TP registration was to come under pressure.
With the signing of the EU Turkey agreement in March 2016, 6 billion euros in financial aid was promised to Turkey, to support and harbor refugees, and to limit the number coming to Europe. This was the groundwork for a huge refugee outsourcing economy, and with Turkey now operating as an active asylum-seeker barrier, the role of temporary protection status would be instrumental in managing the additional population.
One of the fundamental rights under the TP status was the migrants’ ability to access the labor market. Under TP, an individual could be granted a work permit, offering a minimum wage and basic standards of welfare. Importantly however, the responsibility to apply for these documents lay in the hands of the employer, and the incentive was often to bypass government formalities and pursue casual agreements instead.
“You have not worked hard enough,” Robin says dramatically, lifting the blade of his hand into the air. “You are not worth your full salary. I pay you only half.” He drops the act and smiles, “It is very bad treatment we know. But the migrant has no documents, so they cannot argue.”
Eight years after the Syrian migrant crisis began, the country now holds the largest population of refugees in the world, the majority of whom are registered under temporary protection. With the breakdown of democracy in Afghanistan, a new wave of refugees is now moving into Turkey. But along with this great increase of displaced people at the border, there are other, more insidious growth factors at play.
In June 2021, following consistent pressure from the EU, Greece designated Turkey as a “safe third country” for asylum seeker deportation. As a premise, the use of such “safe third countries” is simple. If a prospective asylum applicant has passed through, or has a sufficient connection with a previous country where they could have applied for asylum, then they can be returned to that country to pursue an asylum application there.
In theory, the move to make Turkey a “safe third country” cut Greece’s responsibility for asylum-seeker protection by two-thirds. But for many critics, this was an explicitly cynical play from Greece and the EU.
“The concept of a safe third country presupposes the provision of a level of protection in accordance with the Geneva Convention on Refugees by the third country,” stated Vasilios Papadopoulos, president of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles and member of the Greek Council for Refugees. It also suggests “the existence of an essential link between the asylum seeker and that country and the consent of the third country. In the case of Turkey, none of the above is the case.”
According to its critics, adding Turkey to the “safe-third-country” list had not only endangered the human rights of the asylum seekers but further extended the means for asylum-seeker outsourcing. With the “safe-third-country” principle in play, a dangerous legal framework had been extended, and the EU now had greater freedoms to use financial and political incentives to pressure Turkey into harboring asylum seekers.
A Crossroads for Europe’s Refugee Policy
As the spring months roll on through Thessaloniki, the Balkan migratory routes become more easily passable again, and the foot traffic increases. But where the mountains and borders of the European landscape remain unchanged, the advent of war in Ukraine has created a vastly different geopolitical climate.
Make no mistake, Russia’s aggressive invasion has catalyzed both an acute European refugee crisis and a very long tail of humanitarian support required across the region. To put the numbers into perspective, in 2015, at the peak of the Syrian migrant crisis, 1.3 million refugees crossed the borders into Europe. Flash forward to 2022, and the last three months have seen more than four times that number crossing the Ukrainian border, an estimated 7.2 million people in need of immediate refuge and long-term support.
So how will this new crisis affect the already-strained context for migrants on the continent? Stepping back to view our present moment in history, it seems the next five years could bring a final pinch point in the story of immigration policy in Europe.
With this huge growth in POTM on the continent and an already unstable economic climate, governments will now face unavoidable questions, and the dangerous practice of outsourcing refugee support to less-stable nations will be forced into the public conversation.
As to the results of those discussions, it is perhaps too early to tell. But in the face of increasing crisis and hardship, the morality of European citizens will be truly tested: Are they ready to open up to the realities of human displacement and war on their border, or are they prepared to close their eyes, close their borders, and use their financial, political and geographic privileges to remain insulated?