walk through the autumn forest of dad and children. Refugees cross the border

Should we be considering ‘drift-backs’ as organised state crime?

October 24, 2022 —
by Richard A. Vogt

Since March 2020, following the Turkish government opening its border with Greece, mainstream media has suddenly discovered the existence of migrant pushbacks from the Hellenic Coast Guard (HCG) and various European border agencies. The information has been there in excess, however, were they to have the stomach to digest the ongoing hypocrisy of the European authorities at all levels. This interest in reporting on such illegal and ethically troubling behaviour was in large part thanks to the nagging persistence of citizen journalism, as well as reports from formal civic society groups and NGOS. These activist groups also contributed two years later to the emergence of the ‘newer’ phenomenon of drift-backs from European waters, specifically off the Greek islands.

Pushbacks as a simple descriptor for border guard activity speaks for itself, involving the physical repulsion of persons and vessels found in European waters across state borders. This is often accompanied with robbery, random beatings, and even arbitrary detention. Having these acts performed by European authorities without witness is key to their success as a tool of statecraft. The privacy of the deep-water border is crucial in maintaining the frayed myth of European civility toward those in need. These events do not photograph like the deaths of persons jumping fences in Melilla or persons dragged through barbed wire fencing by uniformed patrols across the Balkan land route.

Drift-backs involve the same underlying motive as pushbacks (and some agencies use the terms interchangeably) – denying persons access to the legal right to seek asylum, exercising collective expulsion – but rely on a form of plausible deniability that clearly positions states as protection rackets too large to challenge. Despite using direct physical violence, border guards employ the assistance of ocean currents in the expulsion of persons from European waters. But the evidence can be found. One activist group claim that over 900 inflatable vessels provided by the HCG were found in the waters between Greece and Türkiye in the period from March 2020-September 2022. Such claims of abandoning persons in danger at sea are easily disputed by governments, although the results of these actions sometimes end up in court. These have been referred to as pushbacks prior to 2022 and created a lack of clear distinction, but it is clear they encompass a form of standoff between Greek and Turkish border guards, as either refuse to assist vessels in distress caught between (this also occurs in the Mediterranean at the edge of Libyan waters). The existence of such behaviours have been known for years but was brought to the attention of many in July 2022 with the release of mapped data by the Forensic Architecture research portal. What is also of greater concern to those in Europe is the proximity of these acts to core Europe. Previously such pushbacks occurring over a decade ago were in the blank spots between Lampedusa and Libya.

Both these approaches to dealing with irregular arrivals to European waters (pushbacks, drift-backs) are considered illegal under International Human Rights Law (IHRL) as forms of refoulement (removing persons from state control when there is a reasonable belief that they may be returned to situations of harm). This is specific to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, which came into force in December 2009, almost 60 years after the European Convention on Human Rights (1950). Despite the decades that have passed, it is clear IHRL has not become the universal safeguard for dignity and life that it was promised to be at the end of World War II. Where it may interfere or complicate domestic law then those with power to perform the most violence will generally win out. And if the state has the monopoly on the means of violence, as we have been taught to believe, one wonders why it would go to such extremes to deny it is legally exercising this right.

So far, little of what I have written is news to those who follow issues of border violence at Europe’s periphery. Human Rights Watch was warning of deaths due to pushbacks by the HCG in January 2014, well before the ‘long summer’ of migration in 2015. But it is worth pausing now to appreciate some of what has been made known about these clumsy activities performed in the Aegean Sea through Forensic Architecture’s dataset which spans 28 February 2020-22 (Türkiye opened the border to Greece for up to 25,000 migrants on this first day, in response to the death of 33 Turkish soldiers in Idlib). During this period there were 1018 acts of drift-back in the Aegean, involving 27,464 persons. This information needs to be considered seriously, being the result of research and monitoring of at least ten groups compiling from various locations, not from the perspective of a sole source.

A cursory analysis of the interactive map shows that where Frontex and NATO were involved (a combined 125 cases) it was in concert with the HCG. Frontex were aware of 417 of these 1018 acts, entering them bureaucratically as “preventions of entry” or sometimes “prevention of departure.” It is to be remembered that Frontex is under investigation by OLAF (the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog) over acts preventing persons seeking asylum. A separate analysis declared that more than 2,000 had died because of the pushback of more than 40,000 persons during the covid-19 period.

The Forensic Architecture interactive map also provides evidence when groups in transit have been abducted by the HCG from camps on Greek Islands and forced onto boats left adrift at sea, especially off the shores of Lesvos (where 386 of the 1018 document cases occurred). Aside from throwing persons overboard without floatation devices (resulting in drowning), boats have been fired at or even speared directly with harpoons. From reading the documented cases, it becomes clear that though intended to be a deniable form of refoulement, drift-backs are hardly an arms-length operation.’

One of the first cases documented dates to the first week of March 2020, when an inflatable boat of forty-eight persons was damaged by the HCG. The sinking of this vessel resulted in the death of a five-year old, and the disappearance (presumed drowned) of a 20-day old baby. Greek authorities deny any responsibility, the official government line being that this group sabotaged their own vessel. Another government line that emerged from this time was that Turkish border authorities were pushing vessels into unsafe waters to expel them from Türkiye. It is a fine line between claiming your state has full control of its borders in an ongoing effort to appeal to voters whilst also signalling that you are a victim. The twentieth century fascination with the issue of the state having a legitimate monopoly on violence has eroded significantly to now mean any number of things at once.

It is clearly not my intention to offer vague and utopian solutions, and at this time in our late-modern capitalist era perhaps there are no solutions that will support universal human rights as well as the possessive border. But it is best (no matter how uncomfortable and frustrating) if this ongoing obfuscation and plausible deniability is to be held to account. If only to have left a record for the future researcher to dig beneath the nods and winks coming from Brussels. As I was writing this piece, Aegean Boat Report tweeted information on the death of six more persons drowned off Lesvos (25 September 2022, the 108th anniversary of Migrant and Refugee Sunday) after being pushed back by the HCG. A heavily blurred photograph shows the lifeless body of one of the four dead children. It should be stated that Greek media a couple of days later proclaimed the event to be a mystery and that the bodies of seven were found by passers-by. The references from the Greek government continue to be of defence as much as an escalated search and rescue force operating in the Aegean, with publicity surrounding an extra 13 air vessels joining the HCG in the weeks prior to these seven deaths that were not seen.

Bio: Richard A. Vogt is an independent academic whose PhD examined the violent borders of the European Union. He has published in various journals and online political sites. He is on twitter @richardvogt2021