On the border: Greece’s response to Afghan asylum seekers

Commentary

Just days after Taliban violently seized control of Afghanistan, the Greek Minister for Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarakis, has warned of a repeat of the situation in 2015 and announced that Greece will not be the “gateway to Europe for illegal Afghan migrants”.

Yunanistan Göç ve İltica Bakanı Notis Mitarakis
Teaser Image Caption
Notis Mitarakis, Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum.

It is hugely telling that, in spite of recent developments in Afghanistan, the very minister whose portfolio means he should know better is referring to illegal migrants rather than refugees whose lives are in danger. This choice of words is symptomatic of the way the Greek government views the situation in Afghanistan: with its defensive shield raised against potential refugees. It was also Minister Mitarakis, along with his opposite numbers from the four other Mediterranean EU countries, Italy, Spain, Malta and Cyprus, who called for the subject to be included on the agenda of last week’s EU Foreign Affairs Council.

The same story in Brussels

It was very much the same story in Brussels, with voices raised in warning of migration, including that of EU High Representative Borrell, although he did at least stress the need to protect human rights as well as the dangers of “uncontrolled illegal migration”.

While discussions on the right approach to take towards the displaced Afghans are of course necessary, it should first be considered whether these people will manage to flee to Europe in the first place. The odds are against it, not least because of the walls, fences and closed borders all along the Mediterranean and Balkans routes along which hundreds of thousands of mainly Syrian nationals fled in 2015. Catherine Woolard, Director of the “European Council on Refugees and Exiles” (ECRE), predicts that the vast majority of asylum seekers from Afghanistan will remain in the region. Apart from anything else, the Taliban have closed all the borders and are taking steps to prevent refugees from leaving the country.

No discussion in Greece

Meanwhile, Greece appears to have decided on its own response to the debate quite some time ago: discussions in recent days have focused not on whether, but how Greece will seal off its own external border with Turkey. Three days after Kabul fell, the KYSEA, the government committee for foreign and defence policy, met. Encouragingly, its agenda did include the evacuation of so-called local staff who worked for Greek troops. But unlike the situation in Germany, where an open debate has been held on the evacuation of thousands of these local staff, all has been comparatively silent on the same question in Greece. It is perhaps no wonder, as the country’s contribution to the NATO Mission in Afghanistan was just 11 soldiers. The war in the country and the situation in Afghanistan in general have therefore been less visible in Greece than in other parts of Europe.

The wall between Greece and Turkey

The government committee therefore concentrated its efforts mainly on bolstering the sea and land border with Turkey. The Greek Foreign Minister warned that the Turkish government was likely to try to exploit the situation to bring pressure to bear on the EU. Greece, therefore, is pulling out all the stops to be prepared for such a turn of events: for instance by posting an extra 1200 police officers on the border, equipped with the latest technical gear. Even the idea of asking FRONTEX to help has been mooted, although the country’s relationship with the European agency was seriously damaged by the pushback episodes. The Minister for National Defence, Nikos Panagiotopoulos, and his opposite number for Citizen Protection, Michalis Chrysochoidis, recently took a symbolic trip to the Evros border region together with the head of the armed forces, to personally confirm the “steadfastness” of the order installation. On the same day, the construction of a 40 km-long wall on the Turkish border was finalised, topped off with a state-of-the-art electronic surveillance system.

Suspending the right to asylum

On top of these fortification measures already in place, the government is also discussing the possibility of suspending the right to asylum, as it did in March 2020, when the situation on the border at Evros escalated. Back then, the huge crowds at the land border between Greece and Turkey prompted the Greek government to suspend right to asylum for one month – a breach of international and European law for which it was never held to account. Quite the reverse: Commission President Ursula von der Leyen actually made a special trip to the border to thank the EU Member State for turning itself into a European shield. So it’s hardly surprising that, having got away scot-free with suspending the law once, Greece is considering doing it again as a legitimate act.

Not a safe third country

Something that seems to have gone unheeded in the overall debate is the fact that back in July, the Greek government declared Turkey a safe third country for nationals of Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Greece thus became the second EU Member State, after Hungary in 2016, to identify Turkey as a safe third country for refugees. This means that the majority of Afghans have absolutely no chance of a fair asylum process respecting the rule of law and subsequently receiving the corresponding protection.

Quite apart from the fact that Turkey quite clearly does not meet the criteria for a safe third country for refugees from Afghanistan – it stipulated a geographical reservation in its signature of the Geneva refugee convention and does not offer Afghan nationals protection as refugees – it has also absolutely no interest in hosting any more Afghan refugees, as President Erdogan made clear, not least in his discussions with the Prime Minister Mitsotakis. The two heads of state are firmly united in their eagerness to avoid the arrival of further Afghan refugees.

Ducking responsibility

But if, as would seem to be the case, nobody is prepared to take in the men, women and children whose lives are in danger in their own country, if everyone is too busy ducking the responsibility for them, who will protect those who quite clearly need protection, given the disastrous situation in Afghanistan?

In Germany, flippant soundbites such as “2015 must never be allowed to happen again” – disregarding the fact that a repeat of the undeniable chaos of six years ago is not even realistic – are resonating worryingly on the EU’s external borders. This kind of rhetoric feeds into the downward spiral of shoring up the border fortifications and defences to keep people out. If even Germany is not prepared to help people on the ground, at the very least there should be clear expectations of others. The situation is a complex one and requires a swift response.

As for Greece, it will be on this country’s external borders – which, as Commission President Ursula von der Leyen quite rightly pointed out, are not just Greece’s external borders, but Europe’s as well – that we will discover whether the European Union will manage to respond to the suffering of the Afghan people with humanity, or not. Whether people who have lost everything will be dealt with by pushbacks and violence, or the rule of law and humanity. It is the responsibility of every Member State to make sure that the latter situation prevails. Numerous cities and communities throughout Europe, such as London, Barcelona and Bonn, have offered to take in Afghan asylum seekers in danger, women, minorities and activists.

That is the approach that the national governments of Europe must also adopt. Given the suffering of the Afghan people, it is the least they can do.

 

This article was first published in German on boell.de.