A vital part of international refugee law is the principle of non-refoulement: the idea that states should not push people seeking asylum back to unsafe countries. In a country like the UK, which does not sit next to a war zone, advocates of “tougher” policies to deter asylum seekers will claim that the principle does not apply, since people who reach Britain’s shores will have passed through several peaceful countries before they get there.
But if every country looks only to its own interests, and behaves as if asylum seekers are someone else’s problem, then you very quickly end up with a system that traps people in situations where their lives are at risk. That is the system bequeathed by Europe’s panicked response to the 2015 refugee crisis, and in recent months, partly under cover of the emergency conditions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, it has got worse.
The revelation by the New York Times that Greece has secretly expelled more than 1,000 asylum seekers, abandoning many of them on inflatable life rafts in the Aegean Sea, is the latest example of this disturbing trend. Since 2015, Greece has effectively been used by the rest of the EU as a buffer zone against unwanted migration, leaving thousands of refugees in unsanitary camps on islands in the Aegean and on the mainland. At the same time, a hastily arranged EU deal with Turkey saw the latter agree to act as border cop on Europe’s behalf, preventing refugees from crossing to Greece in return for financial aid and other diplomatic concessions.
This spring, amid rising geopolitical tensions, Turkey decided to send thousands of migrants towards the Greek border as a way of exerting pressure on Europe. It provoked a nationalist backlash, followed by several hardline and legally questionable border control measures from Greece’s conservative New Democracy government. Earlier this year, the New York Times also reported that Greece was operating a secret detention centre at its land border with Turkey, so that it could carry out summary deportations without giving people the right to claim asylum; the latest revelations about its actions in the Aegean fit the same pattern.
In the central Mediterranean, where people still attempt to cross to Europe via boats launched from north Africa, mainly by smugglers in Libya, the EU has for several years been trying to stop migration by closing down rescue operations. The consequence is that people are either more likely to die at sea, or they are returned to Libya, a war zone where torture, forced labour and abuse of migrants – some of which occurs at the hands of Libyan officials the EU treats as partners – is widely documented. This spring, Italy and Malta, the countries where most people rescued from the central Mediterranean disembark (and which like Greece have also been used by their European neighbours as buffer zones), closed their ports to rescue ships on the grounds that they were no longer safe havens due to the pandemic.
While Italy has since allowed some ships to dock, Malta apparently took the pandemic as an opportunity to form its own private flotilla of merchant vessels to intercept migrants at sea and hand them over to the Libyan coastguard. As the migration monitoring organisation Alarm Phone reported in April (and as I wrote about here), Malta’s reluctance to bring people into port led to a situation in which a boat carrying more than 60 people was allowed to drift at sea for several days, during which time some of the passengers died.
It would be easy to place the blame for these situations squarely on the shoulders of countries at the EU’s Mediterranean frontier. But they are acting in a way that most European governments see as beneficial. “I thank Greece for being our European aspida [shield] in these times,” declared Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, during the Greece-Turkey border crisis in March. This includes the UK, which makes use of those buffer zones regardless of Brexit: as coronavirus spread through Europe, the Home Office refused to resettle refugee children trapped in Greece – children who had relatives in the UK and the legal right to join them – only doing so belatedly under pressure from campaigners.
The hardline turn in migration policy over the last five years has taken place piecemeal, driven by several competing interests: rightwing populists who see non-European migration as a civilisational threat; centrist politicians trying to keep populists at bay by co-opting some of their demands; and a security and defence industry offering hi-tech solutions, such as the drone surveillance that has replaced naval patrols in the Mediterranean. But it is likely to be formalised next month when the European commission unveils its new pact on migration and asylum, which will shape the bloc’s overall policy in the years to come. The latest commission, appointed last year, infamously signalled its intent by creating the post of commissioner for “protecting the European way of life”.
A defence of this shift might be that the refugee crisis provoked an anti-immigration backlash in many parts of Europe, and politicians have a duty to balance competing interests – in this case the need to protect vulnerable migrants with the desire of some voters to limit immigration. But security measures of this sort can end up fundamentally changing the character of states that propose them. A report published this month by Statewatch, a civil liberties NGO that monitors the European Union, warns of an emerging EU “deportation machine”: the EU’s border agency Frontex plans to drastically increase its capacity to assist member states with deportations of migrants who have been refused permission to stay.
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This expansion, according to Statewatch, increases the risk that “expulsion flights funded and coordinated by Frontex may remove refugees to countries where they are at risk of torture or persecution”, since EU member states are inconsistent in the way they assess people’s asylum claims. The new enforcement measures will be backed up by large-scale collection of personal data: the EU is also building a vast new biometric database to hold the details of all third-country nationals who enter, a plan criticised by privacy experts and migrants’ rights groups.
Yet Europe’s governments seem to be in denial about where their policies might lead. Responding to the New York Times investigation, Greece’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, said that reports of illegal push-backs were “misinformation” and that his country’s policies were “tough but fair”. Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner for home affairs, expressed concern at the reports but said she lacked the power to investigate.
It would be easy to dismiss what happens at other countries’ borders as a matter for them alone, but the pattern is international, and the erosion of rights it represents should concern us all. When states opt for extreme measures to push refugees away from their territory, it threatens to undermine the entire system that exists to protect them.
• Daniel Trilling is the author of Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe