The website for critical discussion about migration in Central and Eastern Europe.

„No Country for Refugees". Greek EU Presidency and the (Anti) Migration Policy

Twelve dead. Those are the dismal statistics of the first weeks of the Greek EU Presidency. Nine children and three women lost their lives in the North Aegean Sea while trying to reach what they thought would be “a promised land”, the European Union. Sadly, their vessel capsized near a Greek island Farmakonisi while being spotted and then (allegedly) towed by the Greek coastguard back towards the Turkish coast from where they originally came from.

According to the official statement of the Greek coastguard, the patrol was strictly following the standard procedures. When spotting the fishing boat packed with the refugees, they kindly offered them a ride to the nearest island. But all of a sudden, the passengers panicked, moved to the one side of the vessel, and eventually caused its sinking. However, survivors’ testimonies, as collected by Amnesty International and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), give us a rather different idea of what happened in the early hours of Monday, 20 January 2014. Those who survived the tragedy (but lost their beloved friends and relatives) did not mention the supportiveness, kindness, and professionalism of the coastguard members. They rather spoke about dreadful experiences and unbearable humiliation, about women holding their toddlers high so as to show there were families on board but being kicked down by the officers. And eventually, about the effort of the coastguard members to tow the boat into the Turkish waters at high speed which led to its overturn. If proven true, the Farmakonisi tragedy would not be the first “push-back” action committed by the Greek coastguard forces. As claimed by several organizations and NGOs, Greece is systematically pushing back refugees at the Greek-Turkish Border. Pro Asyl, member of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, released “Pushed Back Report” in which the organisation claims that during the 2013 over 2 000 persons were sent back “without being given the opportunity to request international protection or to challenge their illegal removal”.

In the light of these recent tragic events, it feels especially bittersweet when one goes through the programme and priorities of the Greek EU Presidency and its proclamation regarding migration policy. In the official document1, it states that the “Hellenic Presidency will concentrate its efforts at highlighting the positive aspects of a comprehensive migration management to the benefit of boosting growth and will spare no efforts in promoting all dimensions of migration and mobility policies”. Since Greece is being heavily criticized for the way it manages its own national migration and asylum politics, such vague declarations shed little light on how concretely the Hellenic presidency will contribute to the EU migration agenda. In this context, it might be useful to recall operation “Xenios Zeus” that took place earlier in 2012 in the streets of Athens. The police were conducting “random” stops of people who appear to be migrants followed by searches of their belongings, verbal insults, and in some cases abusive treatment. According to a report by Human Report Watch, “Unwelcomed Guests: Greek Police Abuses of Migrants in Athens”, between August 2012 and February 2013, the police took into lengthy custody almost 85 000 foreigners in order to verify their immigration status. Although being denied by the Greek officials, the experiences of those stopped suggest that police intentionally targeted people with specific physical appearance and visibly-recognisable ethnicity. And there is icing to this cake – in December 2013 the Greek Chief of Police (as reported by the Greek journal HOT DOC) allegedly instructed his subordinate officers that irregular migrants shall be detained for as long as possible to make their “lives unbearable”. Such practices are undoubtedly adding fuel to the xenophobic and racist tendencies that are on the upswing in the Greek society due to the deep economic and social crisis.

Nevertheless, Greece’s (so far unsatisfying) struggle to manage immigration is to a large extent an issue that concerns all EU members. On Thursday, 30 January 2014, Nikos Dendias, the Greek Minister of Public Order and Citizen Protection, criticized (in an interview for Skai Radio) the EU Dublin Regulation on asylum responsibility that states immigrants are allowed to claim refugee status only in the state through which they entered the EU. According to UNHCR statistics, around 40 000 immigrants arrived by boat to Italy, Malta, and Greece in 2013. Greece is calling – through its presidency – for the joint responsibility and burden sharing among EU members, but so far, other EU members (including Czech Republic) remain rather silent to this cry for help. Meanwhile, UNHCR is urging EU member states to work together on the creation of legal migration alternatives that could reduce the losses of life among people taking desperately dangerous journeys while trying to secure decent living for themselves and their families. Because at the end of the day, we should be all concerned about what lies at the bottom of the Aegean Sea.

1 – Available at: [http://www.gr2014.eu/eu-presidency/the-greek-presidency/programme-and-priorities]. Accessed on 20.2.2014


This article has been funded from the project "Integration of Labour Migrants in the Czech Republic: Reinforcing the role of the Czech towns", CZ.1.04/5.1.01/77.00030, supported by the European Social Fund in the Czech Republic via the OP LZZ program.

Vanda Černohorská
Vanda Černohorská has studied Philosophy and Film Studies at Palacky University in Olomouc, Gender Studies at Charles University in Prague and Sociology at Masaryk University in Brno, where she continues her studies in the PhD program. She currently works at the Integration Centre Prague (ICP) as a branch manager in Prague 13. Earlier she had worked for two years at the Department of Asylum and Migration Policy of the Ministry of Interior.
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