Border Crimes: The Case of Lesvos



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6 Minutes

Guest post by Statos Georgoulas, Associate Professor, Director of the Laboratory EKNEXA, University of the Aegean, Greece. His working experience concerns amongst others several legislative committees and special advising (Greek Ombudsman, Ministry of Justice, etc). He has been Visiting Professor at FSU, University of Toronto, University of Damascus, Slovak Academy of Science and University of Amman. He has published several books, chapters in edited volumes and journal articles in Greek and English; he is the editor of the journal 'Youth, Crime and Society'. This is the third instalment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on 'Seeking Refuge in Europe' organised by Monish Bhatia.

In Lesvos, during the summer of 2015, we experienced a humanitarian crisis. It was a situation that could have led to an unprecedented tragedy if it wasn’t for the hundreds of volunteers, who offered their unconditional and continuous solidarity to those who came from war zones across the Middle East, Central and Southern Asia and North Africa, and were heading towards Europe.

Meanwhile, the painful events (closing borders) unfolding in the Balkan Peninsula and Central Europe, and the urgency of ‘handling’ the great refugee flows to northern Europe, seem to have led to a new EU strategy of refugee management. The main objective of this strategy is to decrease refugee/migrant flows dramatically, reinforcing what has been called ‘Fortress Europe’.

To achieve this goal, centrally planned European policies set out to: (a) make a clear distinction between ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’; (b) strengthen FRONTEX and the forces that deter sea travel, and to ‘militarize’ sea borders both in the Aegean and wider Mediterranean Sea; (c) create ‘hotspots’ on the Aegean islands and elsewhere, aiming at an administratively effective separation between refugees and migrants; and (d) to appoint Turkey as the regional ‘policeman’ to strengthen deterrence policies and discourage crossing the waterways in the Aegean Sea. Faced with a humanitarian crisis affecting hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants, the EU has chosen to stick to the hard logic of previous years. The aim is a hermetically ‘sealed’ fortress that allows a select number of persecuted people from Africa and Asia to come to Europe.

Furthermore, the distinction between refugees and ‘migrants’ has been proven completely groundless, since it is based on an outdated conception of geopolitical reality that ignores contemporary developments. How can one classify (and handle) as ‘economic migrants’ people who, under the burden of war and terrorist threats, experience the fear of persecution, starvation, extermination, or simply do not possess the necessary means to educate their children? Who decides who will live and who will die, either within their countries or in the ‘civilized West’? Who holds the power of life and death over the persecuted of this planet? Shouldn’t various cliché terms found in international law regarding the status of refugees, such as ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ make us reflect on and try to define what ‘fear’, ‘justified fear’ and ‘persecution’ mean for those who experience those extreme situations? Who gives the right to the EU to decide which countries, nationalities and ethnic groups may be excluded from the ‘refugee’ status, implying that the members of the respective population groups are not entitled to feel unbearable conditions of life in the countries of origin? How can whole populations be collectively identified as ‘economic migrants’ but not as ‘refugees’, even when the existing refugee law prescribes that the procedures for recognition of a ‘refugee’ status should take into account the special conditions of each individual (likelihood of persecution), and this recognition is, above all, a humanitarian act?

Such preconceptions may lead to state crimes (activity or failures to act that break the state's own criminal law or public international law) and violations of human rights. According to Amnesty International Report for Greece (2015-16), the dramatic increase in arrivals of asylum seekers and irregular migrants on the Aegean islands pushed an ineffective first reception system to breaking point. Allegations of torture and other ill-treatment, and excessive use of force by police have been documented.

In addition to these serious issues, more than 612 people, including many children, died or were unaccounted for while crossing the sea border from Turkey to Greece. Several refugees and asylum seekers reported violent push-backs at land and at sea. Eleven push-back incidents were reported to have occurred at the Greek–Turkish land and sea borders from November 2014 to the end of August 2015. The already ineffective first reception system proved incapable of responding adequately to the dramatic increase in refugees and migrants arriving on the Aegean islands. Reception conditions on islands such as Lesvos and Kos were ‘inhuman… insufficient tents, lack of food and poor hygiene conditions’. Unaccompanied children were often held with adults and remained in detention for several weeks. Conditions in immigration detention areas, including police stations, often amounted to inhuman or degrading treatment. Obstacles to accessing asylum procedures remained for both detained and non-detained asylum seekers. On several occasions between August and October 2015, riot police on Lesvos reportedly used tear gas, and beat refugees and migrants waiting to be admitted for screening at the Moria immigration detention centre, as well as those being registered in Mytilene port.

There have also been reports of state-NGO-corporate crimes. To understand what happened, we must first examine the relationship between NGOs and local authorities, which went through three phases.

The first one began in the middle of summer 2015, when dozens of (I) NGOs arrived on Lesvos to support refugees. Some NGOs contributed to refugees’ relief, while others used their presence on the island to make a profit.

It was in the next period, which began in late September 2015 that NGOs began to be recorded. The state was preparing for a cleanup. It wanted to remove volunteers, those who are not funded by the state or European Union funds, because they allegedly gave information to journalists about the mistreatment of refugees and revealed how government mechanisms were operating.

The third period started in mid-November 2015 and continues until today: the state forced small international NGOs to come under the umbrella of larger ones and, directly or indirectly, threatened them. If they disobeyed, they would be forced to leave the country.

In this context, it is misleading to say, as many do, that the Greek state was unprepared last summer and lost control of refugee flows. Officials knew very well what was happening but made a conscious choice not to use public services available, such as the General Secretariat of the Aegean and Island Policy- (former Ministry of the Aegean Sea). The state, for example, did not take on the responsibility to provide food, housing, clothing and health care to refugees. Refugee management was instead outsourced to NGOs. Funds were allocated to international NGOs in order for them to fill the gaps of the welfare state. NGOs, thus, employed staff and volunteers from abroad, and hired local unemployed people. In line with the majority of Greek workforce, whose labour rights have been trumped, NGO workers experienced at large unpaid work, poorly paid work, unpaid overtime, contracts that were renewable every month or three months and threats that if they revealed these labor relations, they would not be able to find work in another NGO. At the same time, NGOs acting in a culture of clientelism, which is not strange to Greece, hired parties’ voters.  

Τhat it has been conscious choice of the Greek government to replace the welfare state with a ‘benevolent’ civil society is illustrated by the recent formal legislation to deal with the refugee crisis with Law 4375/2016, Article 11, paragraph 9, which states that ‘If the effective operation of the Regional Services of Reception and Identification is hindered due to the lack of adequate or appropriate personnel, handling individual processes ... may be assigned …in agencies of civil society that meet appropriate quality and safety standards ... The cost of the award may be covered by the state or co-financed or other resources’.


Europe is confronted with a dilemma. On the one side we have witnessed a neoliberal alliance of political and economic oligarchy with racism and, sometimes, fascism. State crimes and state-corporate crimes are part of this agenda, as illustrated above. On the other side, we have solidarity to refugees: democratic citizens, ordinary people: the ‘underdogs’ of Europe. Those of us who belong to the solidarity side need to fight to prevent the militarization of borders (FRONTEX, NATO) and the setting-up of hotspots that will decide who will stay and who will be returned. At the same time, we ought to demand safe, legal migration channels to Europe. More ambitiously, there needs to be more focus on push factors, including war and disasters that cause migration movements in the first place. Uncovering and addressing state crimes and state-corporate crimes is part of this agenda.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Georgoulas, S. (2017) Border Crimes: The Case of Lesvos. Available at: (Accessed [date]).

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Border Politics
Asylum seekers


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