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Pushbacks In Greece: State Crime, Denial and the Struggle Against Impunity



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Guest post by Dimitris Koros. Dimitris completed his PhD thesis in Penitentiary Policy at the Department of Social Administration and Political Science (Democritus University of Thrace). He is the author of “Discipline and it’s limits in the Greek Prison System” (2021, Nisos) and the editor of M. Foucault’s “Prison/Governmentality. Two texts” (translation and postface, 2017, Akivernites Politeies), while he has published articles in Greek and foreign scientific journals. He is a Scientific Associate at the Law School of the Democritus University of Thrace, a Tutor Counselor at the Hellenic Open University and a post-doctoral researcher. Since 2013 he has been working as a lawyer for the Greek Council for Refugees, mainly providing free legal aid in the field of administrative detention and illegal border practices. He is currently conducting research in the field of border criminology funded by the Research Center for the Humanities. The post is partly based on the paper 'The Normalization of Pushbacks in Greece: Biopolitics and Racist State Crime', State Crime Journal”, Vol. 10, No. 2, p. 238-256.


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The phenomenon of pushbacks in Greece is not merely one of the many arbitrary means that the Greek government uses against refugees. Τhe survivors themselves, civil society organisations, national, peripheral and international organisations and bodies, all understand that pushbacks have long functioned as the primary tool for the management of the “migration problem” and the toughening of the border regime. Yet, despite the wide consensus and evidence of the extensive use of violent, illegal border practices, government officials and the authorities involved refute the allegations (see here, here, here, here, here and here). The denial of the existence of regularised phenomena involving fundamental rights abuses that could be recognised as state crime has been termed by Stanley Cohen as states of denial, the denial being either literal (“nothing happened”), interpretative (“what happened is something else”), or implicatory (“what happened is justified”).

Chambliss has pointed out that the state can either be the main perpetrator of actions that violate criminal law or act as the primary facilitator of such actions, by contributing to the creation of a state of affairs where crime thrives. Illegal refoulements are not criminal acts per se, but constitute a severe breach of fundamental human rights: the principle of non-refoulement, the right to life, the prohibition of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, the right to asylum, the right to liberty and security, the right to privacy and the right to family life, the right to an effective legal remedy, the prohibition of discrimination, the duty to rescue at sea, the protection against enforced disappearance. Furthermore, pushbacks involve practices that violate criminal law, as they entail the use of violence for the arbitrary and secret arrest and expulsion of persons beyond the country’s borders, following the forced removal of personal belongings, humiliating treatment, beatings, detention in deplorable conditions and exposure to the danger of death.

Following the work of Huggins regarding the apprehension of institutionalised torture in the U.S. in the “war on terror”, in a recent paper I argue that the normalised practice of pushbacks should be discussed in terms of state crimes.  Pushbacks are defended with the use of ideological schemes, as important/inextricable practices for the protection of society, and, thus, are “mislabeled”, as lawful practices (an ad hoc legality). They further require bureaucratic organisation, since they entail special planning, coordination and logistical preparation, while they involve hierarchical division of labour. Furthermore, pushback operations include multiple actors of both low and high rank staff from the Police, the Army, Border Guards, the Coast Guard, Frontex and also to a small extent citizens and, according to some testimonies, refugees that aid the authorities at Evros River. Pushback practices are routinised and demand insularity and secrecy and sometimes censorship. In this regard, Greece has been criticised for the lack of freedom of press. The incident with the Dutch journalist Ingeborg Breugel being attacked by the Greek Prime Minister and consequently disgraced by the Greek media, which did not see in that an opportunity to finally investigate pushbacks, but a call to protect the Prime Minister and the country’s reputation, is a prime example. The political leadership of the country responds to allegations of pushbacks, even when they are addressed by International Organisations as “fake news”, spread by smugglers. Thus, the practice enjoys impunity, since the legal tactics meet severe obstacles, mainly due to the fact that pushbacks involve to a large extent the removal and destruction of property and evidence of the illegal operations.

The level of normalisation of illegal refoulements in Greece and their role in the management of migrant mobility justifies the claim that they constitute a racist state crime. From a similar perspective, the phenomenon of illegal refoulements could be approached as state terrorism, defined as the use of violence against unarmed third country nationals, aiming to spread fear to an audience which is wider than the direct target of the actual violence exercised: illegal refoulements are useful not only for the immediate removal of the migrants as an end per se, but also for the augmentation of fear to those who want to irregularly enter Greece. More troublingly, the fact that even people legally residing in Greece can fall victims to these illegal practices increases terror among the migrant communities.

The N.D. and N.T. Grand Chamber decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), “vindicating” Spain for its illegal border practices, was a shock as well as a disappointing moment in the struggle against illegal border practices; this development  is indicative of the limits inherent in relying on the rule of law and the practice of depending on the dominant human rights discourse against structural violence, as the law is a strategic codification of power relations and thus is prone to either arbitrary interpretations or regressive amendments, resorted to when the liberal aspects of law pose barriers to authoritarian objectives.

The New Pact on Migration and Asylum of the European Commission probably signals a new approach to events dealt as “crises” situations, giving unprecedented powers to EU member states, allowing them to derogate from their obligations under EU law, in case of “emergencies” at the borders. Pushbacks per se, of course, are not legalised, but relevant provisions allowing for an infringement of the European asylum acquis and a de jure suspension of fundamental procedures and rules could legitimise illegal border practices.

Despite the depressing lack of media coverage of an issue affecting fundamental human rights and posing lives in danger, pushbacks are all the more interrogated and protested by activists and political groups, NGOs and some alternative media. The decision to appoint the examination of pushback allegations to the National Transparency Authority, which has no competency regarding relevant matters, was rightfully considered as a “way out” of the government’s obligations: the decision that was issued on 29 March 2022 found no evidence in support of the allegations, thus posing serious questions regarding the independence of the research conducted, which is contrary to all other thorough accounts of the matter. Recently, the ECHR issued interim measures regarding the abandonment of a group of 30 Syrians in an islet of Evros river (which led to the drowning of a 4 year old child), acknowledging the government’s illegal practices. The, promising at first, announcement that an independent monitoring/recording mechanism will finally be put to place, as well as the outcome of appeals in front of the ECtHR (most importantly, at the moment, the cases that were communicated to Greece by the Court on 20 December 2021), are the next major moments in the fight against pushbacks, at least from the institutional perspective. Critical thinking and action, though, ought to go beyond that route, towards struggles against the biopolitical border regime itself.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Koros, D. (2022) Pushbacks In Greece: State Crime, Denial and the Struggle Against Impunity Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2022/04/pushbacks-greece [date]

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