Athens, Greece – Greece’s migration minister has welcomed the Turkish government’s willingness to reduce migration flows from Asia into Europe, during an interview with Al Jazeera.
“From the Greek point of view, it looks like a u-turn in a positive way, and we are here to fully take advantage of it and to help the u-turn,” Dimitris Kairidis said.
He was comparing the new Turkish attitude to Ankara’s policy in March 2020, when Turkey unilaterally departed from a four-year-old agreement with the European Union that obliged both sides to hold back undocumented refugees and migrants.
Thousands of them stormed the Greek border fence along the Evros river in Thrace, nearly overwhelming Greek police.
Kairidis, whose government took office in July, visited his Turkish counterpart, Ali Yerlikaya, on October 19.
“I was presented with a lot of data from the Turkish side,” Kairidis said.
Turkish authorities said they had arrested 140,000 undocumented people attempting to cross into Europe since the beginning of the year. Some 40,000 had been deported to their countries of origin. And Turkey said it had arrested 5,000 smugglers.
“These are all very positive, and we see especially on the land border with Greece and Bulgaria a very determined action on the part of Turkey’s security forces, army police and gendarmerie, to do away with smugglers and flows,” Kairidis said.
The two ministers agreed to regularly exchange and publish migration statistics.
Not only is all quiet on the Evros land border; Greek numbers published on November 1 showed flows have fallen by 42 percent by land and sea.
“Turkey does not want to be an international hub of illegal migration,” said Kairidis, because Turkey was already hosting an estimated 4.7 million refugees, and trafficking “stimulates increased flows into Turkey at a time of great fluidity”.
But Kairidis believed Turkey’s about-turn was also due to the fact that “the previous policy did not work”.
The Adriana and suspected Greek pushbacks
Arrivals on the Greek islands from the Turkish coast had shot up over the summer. Official Greek monthly bulletins showed increases of 52 percent in June, 69 percent in July, 106 percent in August and 170 percent in September.
Not everyone agreed that these increases were due to Turkish smugglers stepping up their business or Turkish authorities dropping their vigilance.
Aegean Boat Report (ABR), an independent monitor refugees can contact directly to report their whereabouts while travelling, has estimated that the Hellenic Coast Guard prevented almost 2,700 boats filled with potential asylum seekers from reaching Greek shores since March 2020.
Such obstruction is referred to as “pushbacks” and is illegal under the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which Greece is a signatory. The law obliges compliant states to ask whether undocumented refugees and migrants are in need of international protection.
On June 14, the Adriana, a fishing trawler carrying an estimated 700 asylum seekers, capsized before the eyes of the Hellenic Coast Guard. Only 104 people survived.
“For over two weeks no life rafts had been found drifting in the Aegean Sea, and we were hoping that Greek authorities, due to pressure from the international community, had stopped this inhumane illegal practice,” wrote Tommy Olsen, who runs ABR, on July 11.
“We had the same impression, as far as the limitation of pushbacks was concerned,” said Lefteris Papagiannakis, director of the Greek Council for Refugees, a highly respected legal aid NGO. “The sense we had from the field was that for a period of time, pushbacks were almost non-existent, and there was an increase [in rescues],” he told Al Jazeera.
Papagiannakis believed this “definitely affected” the number of people held in reception centres on the islands. These held more than 15,000 asylum seekers in September, almost four times the number they held in June.
Kairidis denied that the Hellenic Coast Guard has ever stopped rescuing people.
“I think [the Adriana] was instrumentalised by people on the left who have a very extreme position on migration,” he told Al Jazeera.
“They think that any kind of guarding of borders is illegal and runs against human rights, and Europe has to have an open-door policy welcoming everybody in distress from all over the world. This is obviously a position that is not espoused by the vast majority of European voters,” Kairidis said.
What about Palestinians?
The European Union has been concerned about the possibility of retaliatory attacks on its soil after it lent Israel unequivocal political support in striking back against Hamas for the organisation’s October 7 assault.
The European Council on October 26-27 called on member states “to enhance internal security, including by… protection of the external borders”.
Kairidis said Greece has not produced a single attacker.
“We have the oldest Muslim community in Europe,” he said, referring to a 1923 exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey, which left intact the Muslims of Thrace and the Greek Christians of Istanbul.
“Unlike other such communities in Bosnia, in Kosovo and in Western Europe, ours has not produced this kind of radicalism,” he said – references to the Albanian Muslims who went to fight with the Islamic State in Syria beginning in 2014 and the 2001 World Trade Center suicide bombers who were largely recruited in Hamburg.
But he does worry about the potential destabilising effects of a large Palestinian exodus from Gaza.
“The biggest worry is Egypt … which already hosts almost 9m refugees from the rest of Africa and has been a bedrock of stability for all of us in Europe,” he said. “Events in Gaza have the potential to destabilise Arab countries.”