In 2021, a total of 9,157 refugees and migrants arrived in Greece. This marks a decrease of 31.7% compared to 15,696 in 2020, mainly due to an increase in pushbacks, the militarisation of borders, and restrictions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
4,331 persons arrived in Greece by sea in 2021 compared to 9,714 in 2020. The majority originated from Afghanistan (20.2%), Somalia (19.9%) and Palestine (15.3%). Nearly half of the population were women (18.8%) and children (28.5%), while 52.7% were adult men.
Moreover, according to UNHCR, 4,826 persons arrived in Greece through the Greek-Turkish land border of Evros in 2021, compared to a total of 5,982 in 2020. According to police statistics, 3,787 arrests were carried out in 2021 for irregular entry on the Evros land border with Turkey, compared to 4,666 arrests in 2020.
However, figures on the number of entries in 2021 may under-represent the number of people actually attempting to enter Greece, given that cases of alleged pushbacks have been systematically reported in 2021, as was the case in 2020. The persisting practice of alleged pushbacks have been reported inter alia by UNHCR, IOM, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, the Council of Europe Commissioner and civil society organisations (see sources below). The Greek Government remains opposed to the development of an independent border monitoring mechanism and no effective investigation has been conducted on repeated push backs allegations up to the moment of writing. An Informal Forced Returns Recording Mechanism started operating early in 2022, under the supervision of the National Commission for Human Rights. In the framework of this Mechanism, participating organizations, including GCR, collect victims’ testimonies.
In 2021, the practice of illegal refoulements continued being utilised as a “front-line” tool of the country’s migration policy in order to halt the flows of refugees and to deter others from attempting to irregularly cross the borders. The practice is a ‘permanent eventuality’ for people attempting to cross the borders according to testimonies, media coverage and reports. Serious incidents of alleged illegal refoulements have been monitored regarding the arbitrary removal of people residing on the mainland (mainly Thessaloniki) or detained in Pre-removal detention centres.
In December 2021, 32 applications regarding pushback incidents from Evros, Crete, Kos, Kalymnos, Lesvos, Samos or the sea before the victims had reached any island were communicated by the European Court of Human Rights to the Greek Government. The Court asked Greece to provide information regarding whether the lives of the applicants were endangered, whether they were subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment and whether there was an effective domestic remedy to deal with allegations of violation of Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Regarding some cases, the Court also asked whether the victims were lawfully detained, if they were informed in a language they understood of the reasons for their detention; and whether there was an effective remedy to appeal against detention.
The European Parliament delayed approval of Frontex’s accounts in 2021 and rebuked the agency for failing to respond to its previous recommendations. In a report motivating the latest delay, the European Parliament’s Budgetary Control Committee referred to problems in two EU member states. It found that in Greece, Frontex “did not evaluate its activities in Greece, even though reports by institutions of Member States, the Council of Europe, and the United Nations show that the Agency was carrying out operations in sections where simultaneously, fundamental rights violations were taking place”.
On May 2022, the European parliament refused to sign off the EU border agency’s accounts, saying it failed to investigate alleged human rights violations of asylum seekers in Greece. The vote on the Agency came after the resignation of its Director in April 2022, who left after an investigation by the EU anti-fraud body Olaf.
Pushback at land borders
In relation to pushbacks at the land border, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants has noted that, in addition to “increased militarisation of the Evros land border…which has effectively resulted in preventing entry and in the summary and collective expulsion of tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers”, there have been allegations that “pushbacks are also reportedly carried out from urban areas, including reception and detention centres”.
On 3 May 2021, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights wrote to Greek authorities noting that “summary returns from Greece to Turkey across the Evros River border have been reported and documented for several years” and expressed her concern about an “increase in reported instances in which migrants who have reached the Eastern Aegean islands from Turkey by boat, and have sometimes even been registered as asylum seekers, have been embarked on life-rafts by Greek officers and pushed back to Turkish waters”.
An interim report published by the Greek Ombudsman in April 2021 noted how the structure of pushbacks followed a “standard practice”, namely a pattern of arbitrary detention, refusal to register new arrivals or allow them to apply for asylum and ultimately forceful (and sometimes violent) return to Turkey. This “standard practice” has been corroborated by several different sources.
On 21 February 2022, UNHCR expressed its concerns regarding recurrent and consistent reports from Greece’s land and sea borders with Turkey, where at least three people are reported to have died in such incidents since September 2021 in the Aegean Sea, including one in January 2022. UNHCR recorded almost 540 reported incidents of informal returns by Greece since the beginning of 2020. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) was also alarmed by increasing migrant deaths and continuous reports of pushbacks at the border between Greece and Turkey.
In its annual review of Greece for 2021, Human Rights Watch describes the “heavy-handed and often abusive immigration controls” employed by Greece and the “mounting chorus of criticism” of its policy of pushbacks. Amnesty International documented 21 pushback incidents and other abuses that occurred in Greece between June and December 2020, identifying a number of key trends.
Regarding pushbacks at land, victims described to Amnesty International how they were apprehended on Greek territory, often detained arbitrarily and then transferred back to Turkey. Those carrying out pushback operations were consistently identified as appearing to belong to law enforcement. In 12 of the cases documented by Amnesty International, individuals stated that they were held in places of detention for a couple of hours up to one day without any access to phone calls, lawyers and without registration procedures. Amnesty International concluded that “every apprehension and detention reported occurred outside of identifiable legal procedures and meets the definition of arbitrary arrest and detention”. Amnesty International further reported that the individuals were not informed that they were under arrest and that information provided regarding reasons for arrest and detention were “either false or completely absent”. In addition pushbacks of individuals soon after their arrival in Greece, Amnesty International documented instances of pushback of people with a registered protection status in Greece or who had been in the country for days or weeks.
GCR also receives notifications from/about people in need of international protection who have just crossed the border close to Evros river and are afraid of being pushed back to Turkey. During 2021, 48 interventions were sent to the Greek authorities and GCR received at least 15 negative replies indicating that persons of concern were not found in the indicated area. Regarding several pushbacks that took place in spring 2019, five survivors authorised GCR’s Legal Unit to take legal action. Despite strong evidence provided by the victims, the judicial authorities did not properly investigate these crimes. As a result, in 2021 three applications were submitted to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) regarding five victims of different incidents which took place in 2019.
During the first months of 2022, GCR sent 28 interventions to the Greek authorities, that related to the cases of more than 350 refugees (among them, at least 65 were children) from Syria, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq, who entered Greece from the Evros region seeking international protection. In 12 of these interventions, Greek authorities responded positively on locating them and providing them access to the procedures provided by law. In the rest of the cases, the authorities either did not reply or replied that they had not been able to locate them. In at least 5 cases, which concerned persons fleeing from Turkey and Syria, GCR was informed that they were informally and forcibly returned to Turkey, without being given the opportunity to submit an asylum application.
According to Refugee Support Aegean (RSA), Greek authorities pushed back asylum seekers from the Evros region in violation of pending Rule 39 interim measures procedures before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in late 2021. In this case, RSA noted how they had contacted the Hellenic police to confirm the arrival of the Syrian national (and others) in Greece and their intention to apply for international protection. There was no response from Greek authorities and the group were unlawfully returned to Turkey. The Syrian national explained that “men in uniform confiscated their mobile phones” and “ignored their explicit requests for international protection” and how they were “held incommunicado without any registration in two detention sites”.
Finally, several sources commented on the treatment of individuals while in detention. In its report, Amnesty International confirmed that in 17 of the 21 incidents reported on, individuals either suffered or witnessed physical violence during the course of the pushback.
On 16 March 2022, the European Court of Human Rights granted interim measures under Rule 39 requested by Human Rights 360 and GCR for a group of 30 Syrian refugees who had been confined on an islet of Evros river for 6 days without water, food, medical care, or any means to keep warm. In April 2022, the Court granted interim measures requested by GCR for 5 similar cases of Syrian refugees including 44 children. The Court ordered the Greek government not to remove the refugees from the country’s territory and to provide them with food, water and proper medical care and requested to be informed about whether the Syrian refugees had submitted an asylum application and, if so, whether they had access to the asylum procedure and to legal assistance. Many of these refugees complain that they had been pushed back to Turkey during their attempts to seek international protection in Greece.
Pushbacks at sea
In relation to pushbacks at sea, Aegean Boat Report’s Annual Report for 2021 outlined that 902 boats carrying a total of 26,202 people were apprehended by the Turkish Coast Guard and Police in 2021. Of these total figures, 5,220 people had already arrived on the Greek Aegean islands before being “arrested by police, forced back to sea and left drifting in life rafts”.
By way of illustration, the following pushback incidents at sea were reported in 2021 and early 2022:
- In October 2021 a Turkish-flagged ship carrying 382 asylum seekers faced technical issues near Crete and was hauled in the direction of Turkey by the Greek coastguard for three days. Further evidence of the practice was documented by Der Spiegel whose investigative report includes video documentation of Greek elite security forces on the Aegean.
- Aegean Boat Report documented an incident on 9 January 2022 where 25 new arrivals on Lesvos sent pictures, videos, voice messages and location data to Aegean Boat Report. At 11.20am the following day (10 January 2022), all contact was lost with them. No new arrivals were documented by the Greek authorities on that day and the Turkish coast guard then rescued them drifting in a life raft outside Seferihisar, Turkey.
- Aegean Boat Report documented another incident on 24 January 2022, describing how a group of 41 individuals arrived on the Greek island of Inousses but were rescued by Turkish coast guard later that day drifting outside Cesme, Turkey.
- Aegean Boat Report further documented (with photographic and audio evidence) an example of a pushback from Greece on 30 January 2022. The report demonstrates that, out of the group of 21 individuals that arrived on Chios on that day, 12 were subsequently arrested by the Greek police and later rescued by the Turkish coast guard in a life raft drifting outside Cesme, Turkey. The contact was lost with the remaining members of the group, but Aegean Boat Report states that authorities in Chios claimed that there had been no new arrivals that day.
- On February 2022, the ECtHR granted interim measures under Rule 39 requested by Aegean Boat Report in order to prevent the pushback of four asylum-seekers from the Greek Territory (Aegean islands). Initially, the Court issued a provisional decision, asking to the Greek Government information about the steps that had been taken on the allegation of pushback. The decision also imposed that first-aid assistance be provided to the asylum-seekers, who had been forced to live for three days without access to food, water, shelter, nor medical assistance. However, by the time the Court reached such a decision, three out of four asylum-seekers had been already subjected to a violent and life-threatening pushback, according to their allegations. After having received further information on the case by Aegean Boat Report and by the Greek Government, the European Court has concluded that the asylum-seeker who was still in Greek territory cannot be subjected to a removal.
Legal access to the territory
Legal ways of accessing the Greek territory are not provided for persons in need of international protection, nor does Greece issue visas for humanitarian reasons.
Exceptionally, in the last trimester of 2021, Greece accepted 819 Afghan nationals (among them 367 arrived at Athens in October 2021 for “temporary hospitality”, and 119 others arrived in Thessaloniki in November 2021) due to “the country’s commitment to provide humanitarian assistance to Afghan nationals in danger”. According to the MoMA’s announcement, “they reside temporarily in Greece until their relocation to third countries”.
 UNCHR, Operational Portal, Mediterranean Situation: Greece, available at: https://bit.ly/3qQJs0K.
 Information provided by the Directorate of the Hellenic Police, 8 March 2022.
 Information provided by the Directorate of the Hellenic Police, 11 February 2021.
 GCR, Greek Council for Refugees input for the forthcoming report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants with respect to human rights violations at international borders: trends, prevention and accountability, 28 February 2022, available at: https://bit.ly/3NQU0XF.
 Report on discharge in respect of the implementation of the budget of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency for the financial year 2020 (2021/2146(DEC)), Committee on Budgetary Control, A9-0110/2022, 6 April 2022, p.11, available at: https://bit.ly/3P2MFEU.
 Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Report on means to address the human rights impact of pushbacks of migrants on land and sea, 12 May 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3tWayFO, para. 55.
 The Greek Ombudsman Independent Authority, Alleged pushbacks to Turkey of foreign nationals who had arrived in Greece seeking international protection, Interim Report (Updated up to 31 December 2020), p.13, English translation available at: https://bit.ly/3DsULkJ.
 Ibid., 6
 Ibid., 14
 Ibid., 16