In 2020, 15,696 refugees and migrants arrived in Greece. This marks a decrease of 78.9% compared to 2019 (74,649), which can be attributed to the increase of pushbacks, the militarisation of the borders, and the restrictions stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic.
A total of 9,714 persons arrived in Greece by sea in 2020, compared to 59,726 in 2019. The majority originated from Afghanistan (35.2%), Syria (27.7%) and DRC (10.3%). More than half of the population were women (23.3%) and children (35.5%), while 41.2% were adult men.
Moreover, 5,982 persons arrived in Greece through the Greek-Turkish land border of Evros in 2020, compared to a total of 14,887 in 2019, according to UNHCR. According to police statistics, 4,666 arrests were carried out in 2020 for irregular entry on the Evros land border with Turkey, compared to 8,497 arrests in 2019. According to the Reception and Identification Service (RIS), 2,998 persons were registered by the First Reception Service in the RIC of Fylakio (Evros) in 2020.
However, the figure of entries through the Turkish land border in 2020 may under-represent the number of people actually attempting to enter Greece through Evros, given that cases of alleged pushbacks at the Greek-Turkish border have been systematically reported in 2020, as was the case in 2019.
The persisting practice of alleged pushbacks have been reported inter alia by UNHCR, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the UN Committee against Torture, the Greek National Commission on Human Rights and civil society organisations.
In 2020 the established practice of illegal refoulements continued being utilised as a “front-line” tool of the country’s migration policy, as a first option in order to halt the flows of refugees and deterring others from attempting to irregularly cross the borders. The practice is, according to the published reports, testimonies and media coverage of serious incidents, a permanent eventuality for the people attempting to cross the borders, while serious incidents of illegal refoulements have been monitored regarding the arbitrary removal of people residing in the mainland (mainly Thessaloniki) or are detained in Pre-removal detention centers.
During the period from the 28th February until 27th March 2020, when the troubles at the Greek-Turkish border took place, the border zones were characterised by the intensified presence of police, army and Frontex officials, especially in Evros River. Also, the presence of armed paramilitary groups or persons was observed, who participated in the patrols alongside the official authorities or independently to them. During this period, violent incidents were recorded as a result of the intensified border patrols, which, in some occasions have led to the loss of lives; according to research conducted on those incidents, at least in one serious case, the bullet that led to the migrant’s death is proven to have been shot from the Greek side of the border.
During this period many incidents of pushbacks were recorded at the Evros border. The shift of the flows to the Aegean islands was also met with heavy patrols from the Hellenic Coastguard and Frontex, which resulted in many serious incidents of pushbacks at sea. Also, the presence of citizens in the shores of East Aegean islands for the condemnation of the boats that managed to cross the borders was recorded. What is most alarming is the attacks of citizens to refugees and NGO employees in the island of Lesvos: the citizens organised patrols in order to deter NGO members to reach Moria, or attacked refugees and said people in the streets of the island. The police did nothing to stop those illegal activities.
The official state response to these unprecedented events was the suspension of the right to apply for asylum regarding all those who irregularly crossed the borders during March 2020, with the immediate effect of an Act of Legislative Content, which was subsequently ratified by Parliament, as the constitutional procedure states (art. 44 para. 1and 72 para. 1).
Refugees who managed to cross the sea and land borders were, in the majority of cases, prosecuted for illegal entry in the country, despite the legal provision that allows the Public Prosecutor not to prosecute, which is what used to happen in most past cases. The trials were characterised by the failure to comply with the principle of fair trial, and led to the imposition of high prison sentences, some of which were not suspended and led to the imprisonment of the defendants, who were directly led to prison without having the opportunity to appeal against their conviction. If they managed to appeal the decision this was possible mostly due to the assistance of NGOs. This practice of high sentences is contrary to the low penalties that were imposed on earlier occasions (i.e. 30 days- 3 months of prison sentence, suspended or converted to monetary penalty). The CPT considers that the trials were not in full respect of the fundamental rights of those subjected to them, both as defendants and as asylum seekers.
Covid-19 measures and pushbacks from the mainland
During the first measures imposed regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, various incidents of pushbacks were observed, some of them having been initiated in the mainland, especially in Thessaloniki. Irregular residents of Diavata camp were targeted, while the police also raided various other places (such as food distribution points) and led the informally arrested persons to the Evros border, where they were refouled to Turkey. During April-May 2020 the reported incidents concerned 194 people having been subjected to this illegal practice (although the practice was so widespread therefore impossible to know its full extent). In June 2020 at least 39 people were illegally refouled to Turkey as the outcome of one documented operation. Similar practices were also observed in Paranesti Pre-removal center, where detainees were officially released, only to be led to the Evros River and refouled to Turkey. The numbers could be as high as 400 people, as information dictates that detainees from other detention centers around Greece were transferred to Paranesti, only to be subsequently refouled.
The continuance and increase of pushbacks in the Aegean Sea is indicative of a well-founded practice with specific methodology, which is not only in violation of national, European and international law, but is also extremely dangerous for the lives of those subjected to it. The Legal Center Lesvos recorded 8 such operations between 5 March and 19 June 2020; also, the practice was observed throughout 2020, as “ongoing and systematic”, according to reports that cover the period until the end of the year.
The publication of the “Black Book of Pushbacks” by the Border Violence Monitoring Network raises the issue of pushbacks as a severe human rights violation affecting many countries across the EU.
The role of Frontex
An important incident took place in early March 2020, where the Danish crew of FRONTEX refused to follow the order to push back rescued third country nationals, an order given by the Greek Coastguard.
Regarding FRONTEX’s involvement in pushback operations, despite its initial denial of any knowledge or participation, several incidents have been disclosed, leading, on the one hand to an internal inquiry by the Organisation, and, on the other hand, to the initiation of investigations at EU level, pointing either to a direct involvement or to a concealment of such practices when conducted by the Greek authorities.
On 10 June 2020 the International Organisation for Migration issued a statement expressing its deep concerns “about persistent reports of pushbacks and collective expulsions of migrants, in some cases violent, at the European Union (EU) border between Greece and Turkey”. The organisation states its opposition to a practice which is extremely dangerous for human lives that are already in danger and adviced the Greek authorities to “investigate these allegations and testimonies given by people forced to cross the Greece-Turkey border”.
On 12 June 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees invited Greece to investigate the numerous complaints for illegal refoulement operations at the land and sea borders of the country: “UNHCR has continuously addressed its concerns with the Greek government and has called for urgent inquiries into a series of alleged incidents reported in media, many of which corroborated by non-governmental organizations and direct testimonies. Such allegations have increased since March and reports indicate that several groups of people may have been summarily returned after reaching Greek territory”.
On 18 June 2020, the Third Sub-Commission of the Greek National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) held a hearing with the public authorities, representatives of international organisations, independent authorities and civil society organisations on the issue of pushbacks and police violence. The Greek authorities repeated their denial concerning the validity of the reports on illegal refoulements, which are considered to be lies and the product of pressure on Greece to weaken its border control policy. For the Commission it is evident that there is a progressive and steady consolidation of unofficial refoulements and a steady methodology. Thus, the state is invited to guarantee that the principle of non-refoulement will invariably be respected and that the authorities will promptly rescue people at sea; also an independent body should be put in place, which will record and follow up such complaints. Moreover, the culpable should be led to justice, the collection of objective evidence for the investigation of the complaints should be ensured and the meaningful collaboration of the judicial authorities should be guaranteed. In addition to that, measures should be adopted to treat the victims of those practices in the same manner as victims of trafficking and forced labor. Frontex is invited to guarantee that the operations at the external EU borders respect the principle of non-refoulement and the obligations to rescue those at danger.
On 6 July 2020, in the meeting of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs of the European Parliament (LIBE), the members of the Committee asked Greece to investigate the pushback incidents that have been brought to light. The Minister of Citizen Protection and the Alternate Minister on Asylum and Migration denied the existence of such incidents, labeling them as “fake news”. The majority demanded from Greece to ensure its compliance with EU law on asylum and to impose punishment in the cases that the latter is violated.
Information provided by the Directorate of the Hellenic Police, 11 February 2021.
 Information provided by Reception and Identification Service (RIS) as of 26 February 2021.
 Amnesty International (2020). Trapped in political games. Refugees in the Greek-Turkish borders pay the price for Europe’s failure. Available at: https://bit.ly/3mEeHZI (in Greek), and HumanRights360 (2020). During and After Crisis: Evros Border monitoring Report (November 2019- April 2020). Available at: https://bit.ly/3264iwl
 Papataxiarhis, Ε. (2020). The new geography of the refugee issue: Violence and multiplication of borders in the Aegean. Synhrona Themata, Vol. 157-148, p. 21-25 (in Greek).
 Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (2020). Report to the Greek Government on the visit to Greece carried out by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) from 13 to 17 March 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/31ZanL0
 Border Violence Monitoring Network, Wave- Thessaloniki, Mobile Info Team (2020). Press Release: Documented Pushbacks from Centers on the Greek Mainland. Available at: https://bit.ly/3a09Lca, and Human Rights Watch (2020). Greece: Investigate Pushbacks, Collective Expulsions. Available at: https://bit.ly/31ZRN5k
 Border Violence Monitoring Network, Wave- Thessaloniki, Mobile Info Team (2020), op. cit., and Border Violence Monitoring Network (2020a), op. cit.
 Border Violence Monitoring Network, Wave- Thessaloniki, Mobile Info Team (2020), op. cit.
Legal Center Lesvos (2020). Collective expulsions documented in the Aegean Sea: March-June 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3s8fKCf; See also the “anatomy” of a pushback operation: Deeb B. (2020) “Samos and the anatomy of a maritime push-back”. Belingcat. Available online at https://bit.ly/322VTK2
 European Council on Refugees and Exiles (2020). Frontex: Commission Calls for Urgent Meeting over Complicity in Pushbacks, Critique of 100 Million Euro Investment in Drone Surveillance. Available at: https://bit.ly/2PQBLs5 and European Commission (2020). Extraordinary meeting of Frontex Management Board on the alleged push backs on 10 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3wKExjm