Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Weaponising Geography on the Greek-Turkish Border



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Guest post by Josh Askew. Josh is a free-lance journalist based in Greece and the UK. Having recently completed at MPhil in International Relations and Politics at Cambridge University, he is currently reporting for the Border Violence Monitoring Network, an NGO that documents police violence and pushbacks against migrants across Europe. This post is based on his own fieldwork, reportage by the BVMN and Ifor Duncan and Stefanos Levidis’s ‘Weaponizing a River’.

That Greece is illegally expelling migrants is well-known. Since 2016, the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), along with other human rights watchdogs, has documented how migrants are being systematically detained by the Greek police, transferred to the Turkish border and forced out of the European Union (EU).
These expulsions are known as pushbacks. Distinct from deportation, pushbacks are when individuals are expelled to other countries without formal procedures or safeguards. Needless to say, they are illegal. Beyond flouting the principle of non-refoulement – which guarantees that no one should be returned to a country where they face persecution – pushbacks preclude asylum.
Pushbacks involve a concerning degree of violence. Driven by the perverse logic of a flawed deterrence strategy, Greek authorities have beaten, tortured, sexually assaulted  and killed migrants. Yet, since the end of 2020, the BVMN has observed a new, hybrid form of violence emerging on the Greek-Turkish border; one which incorporates geography itself.
The land border between Greece and Turkey is in the Evros region. Much of this 125km long frontier is defined by the Evros/Meriç river. 180m at its widest, the Evros river is fast, with a flow rate of 200 cubic metres per second during the winter (four times that of the London Thames). As a result of this strong current, which deposits tons of sediment, the river is littered with small islands of barren, boggy land.


The Evros Region



Typically, when a pushback occurs, up to a hundred migrants are bussed to clandestine detention centres in the Evros region, where they are often beaten and their personal belongings, mobile phones and documents seized – never to be returned. Under the cover of darkness, they are then brought in small groups to the river, loaded into inflatable dinghies and transported to Turkish soil.

In the winter of 2020, Greek forces changed tactics. Rather than ferrying them directly to Turkey – where they risk skirmishes with Turkish troops – migrants are taken halfway across the river, forced to jump into the water and wade to islands. In five incidents recorded by the BVMN, over 500 migrants, including young children and pregnant women, have been subjected to this inhumane practice.


An island in the Evros river (41.576086, 26.590638)


One testimony collected in November 2020 offers a compelling example. After being ordered off a dinghy into “chest height” water, eight migrants reached an island. While traversing the next stretch of water, one was swept away, only managing to survive by grabbing onto a fallen tree. Witnessing this scene, the others feared to cross as they could not swim. With soaking wet clothes, they were stranded on the island for three days in sub-zero temperatures, until they were eventually retrieved by the Greek police.

This case demonstrates how meteorological conditions amplify harm. While not deadly per se, the cold, wind, rain and fog on the island was made dangerous by forcing the group to cross the river in such a treacherous manner. As one of those involved said, “it was freezing. We were sticking to each other close. I felt like I will just die.”

After drowning, hypothermia is the second highest cause of migrant deaths in the Evros region.

Interestingly, Syrians, Afghanis and Pakistanis frequently pilot the dinghies that ferry migrants across the Evros river. This is not to implicate these third-country nationals in smuggling – in fact, numerous migrants attest that they are offered documentation by the Greek authorities in exchange for their services – but rather demonstrate how Greece is outsourcing both the legal and physical risks. Indeed, with drivers making multiple trips back and forth across the river, the threat of drowning due to boats capsizing or hostility from Turkish troops is grave.


A capsized dingy in the Evros river



More disconcertingly, many migrants have died while trying to swim off the islands to safety. In November 2020, a 16-year old Pakistani male is presumed to have drowned after he was abandoned by Greek police on an island in the Evros.

Ironically, Greece has cited flooding as a reason not to mount rescue operations or recover the bodies of those who have drowned, while using the river’s water level and challenging geomorphology to refute the possibility of pushbacks. In essence, the Greek state has co-opted geography to excuse its behaviour and help construct their broader denial that pushbacks are happening.  

Still, Turkey is no innocent bystander. The BVMN has repeatedly documented Turkish troops forcing migrants back onto islands, at times firing warning shots and striking them with the butts of their rifles. However horrific this may seem; the fact that these islands lie in a murky area of international jurisprudence allows both Turkey and Greece to not only perpetrate this violence with relative impunity, but also obscure their agency. In one mass stranding involving over 200 migrants, for instance, Turkish authorities stated that the area was under international mandate, and that both sides were not allowed to help.

The islands, in short, are a space of moral purgatory.

And such is not lost on international actors. When the BVMN alerted the European Border and Coast Guard Agency Frontex to this incident, Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri invoked geography to deflect responsibility when he wrote that “Frontex is deployed 32 kilometres away” and therefore could not intervene to rescue the group.

Since the specific locations of Frontex deployment are not publicly available, this cannot be verified. Nevertheless, Frontex operates on the Greek-Turkish border and is equipped with vehicles. Indeed, in March 2020, Frontex launched its ‘rapid intervention’ in the region to enhance border controls, surveillance and situational awareness. As such, despite Frontex’s mandate to ensure fundamental rights, Leggeri’s response appears to be one of semantics.

Of course, human intervention has ‘sharpened’ these natural landmarks. Around parts of the Evros river, Greece has erected a 4-metre-tall fence, which directs migrants to deadly routes across the river, and even deadlier maritime crossings in the Aegean Sea.


Migrant children play on the banks of the Evros (Marko Djurica/REUTERS)



Yet, what the above suggests is that far from ‘natural’, the environment is a highly malleable instrument of force for manufacturing suffering and death at the border. In fact, it is this benign, seemingly innocuous, character of geography that has led us to discount its role in Europe’s war on migration.

Building upon Levidis and Duncan’s argument, inspecting how geography is weaponised at the Greek-Turkish border is crucial to understand the ongoing – and intensifying – violence inflicted upon migrants. With Greece and Turkey attempting to blur their responsibility in the shifting sands of the Evros river, we must be constantly vigilant to new forms of violence as and when they are constructed.

Water, mud, wind and rain are powerful tools of border control, as much as guns and steel.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Askew, J. (2021). Weaponising Geography on the Greek-Turkish Border. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/03/weaponising [date]

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