The View from Greece: At Europe’s External Borders, Deterrence is the Norm Once Again

In Greece, deterrence is the new normal since the summer of 2019, long before the pandemic. Legislative changes, interdiction practices, and an overall harsher treatment of asylum seekers and recognised refugees are taking place. As the New Pact on Migration and Asylum is being negotiated, Greece appears to show the way forward as regards the priorities of the Member States and European Commission for the future of asylum in Europe.

Angeliki Dimitriadi, The Hellenic Foundation of European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP)

The UNHCR released its annual Global Trends report ahead of world refugee day. Each passing year presents an increasingly troubling picture of global forced displacement. In 2019, the number of forcibly displaced individuals reached 79.5 million. The asylum seekers count has now reached 4.2 million with the number of refugees also increasing to 29.6 million. Five countries account for two-thirds of displaced people across borders: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar.

Turkey is now the main refugee-hosting country globally, topping the list. The only EU Member State which makes an appearance on the top ten list is Germany at #5 with 1.1 million refugees.  Yet, it is in the EU where the biggest political battles over asylum are being fought. Europe is also the site of significant divergence in terms of how irregular migration is being treated.

COVID-19 has affected those most vulnerable, including asylum seekers. Global resettlement has paused and border closures have prevented many asylum seekers from reaching safety. This is coupled with a mixed response from Member States, some recognising the need to adopt a more flexible (and realistic) approach while others pursue a hardened stance. Temporary regularisation of migrants with a pending residence application has taken place in Portugal until 1 July 2020 to ensure undocumented migrants seek treatment without fear of apprehension, while Italy agreed to regularise thousands of migrant workers to address labour shortages in the agricultural sector.  On the other end of the spectrum,  Malta & Italy failed to respond to distress calls for Search and Rescue and eventually refused the disembarkation of those rescued by NGO vessels.  

Amidst the changes, Greece stands as a separate case study on deterrence. The policies initiated predated, and continue, irrespective of COVID-19.

Following the events in Evros, the government suspended asylum for a month, an unprecedented move for an EU Member State and signatory to the 1951 Convention on Refugees. As anti-immigrant discourse increasingly dominates the debate, NGOs have also come under attack. The country has been accused of land and sea push backs, with many documented cases. Greece recently undertook two legal reforms that further tighten the already impossible deadlines; the asylum procedure has been made more complicated and difficult, and detention is now the norm rather than the exception. The country has received minimal criticism from Brussels, and its position as Europe’s ‘shield’ has been exalted.

Migrants as an “Asymmetrical Threat”

On February 27th, Turkey announced it was opening its borders to asylum seekers headed for Europe. Thousands were transported towards the land border with Greece. It was a clear move of instrumentalisation by Turkey of those most vulnerable. Greece said it had prevented almost 10,000 migrant entries at its Evros border. Clashes ensued for days, with some migrants tossing stones and metal bars at Greek forces and attempting to cut the fence that has existed since 2012 on a 12km strip along the Greek border. Greek forces responded by using tear gas, reinforcing border patrols along the Evros border and turning to social media to inform migrants that entry to Greece would not be allowed.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced on Twitter that “The borders of Greece are the external borders of Europe. We will protect them,” and warned that those attempting entry would be turned away. The government quickly identified migrants as an “asymmetrical threat” in Greece’s sea and land borders  and announced it was suspending access to asylum for one month. Though there is no doubt that every country has the right to defend its borders, the suspension of asylum (which has since been restored ) has been heavily criticised as unlawful, with UNHCR warning that there is no suspensive provision of the 1951 Convention nor EU refugee law. The EU’s response was to show solidarity with Greece, via a formal visit of Presidents von der Leyen and Michel in Greece and the submission of a new Action Plan for Greece that increases FRONTEX and EASO presence. What has been less vocal, is condemnation of Greece for the suspension of the asylum procedure.

The narrative of a migration, rather than refugee ‘crisis’, has been reinforced since Evros with the implication being that those who enter the Greek borders are mostly economic migrants and thus, returnable. Deterrence is once more the norm and has been since July 2019 following national elections in Greece. Beyond reinforcing border controls and seeking to expand the return program, Greece has also turned to asylum as a deterrence measure.  

Deterrence Through Legislative Changes

The first indication that Greece was moving towards a harsher stance on asylum came in the summer of 2019, when the newly elected government announced it was suspending the issuance of social security to asylum applicants, which also guaranteed access to health care. For months, asylum applicants were left without access to medical treatment and relied on private funds and/or NGOs. Access to health care would only be reintroduced in November with various bureaucratic obstacles hampering the process.  By removing asylum applicants from the social security system, the government sent a clear signal that it neither the government sent a clear signal it did not  consider the majority eligible for stay and  perceived access to social provisions a pull factor.

The government sought to overhaul the asylum system by adopting the International Protection Bill (L 4636/2019) on 1 November 2019. In the explanatory memorandum to the law, the Ministry detailed that the bill aimed at speeding up asylum procedures and at “responding to practical challenges in the implementation of the law”.

L4636 introduced several provisions that expand detention for asylum seekers. It allows for their detention as a standard, rather than exceptional procedure as prescribed by European legislation. It prolongs the period of detention to 18 months and discounts previous periods of detention in pre-removal facilities.

It incorporates provisions that reduce or altogether remove access to material care in cases where the applicant refuses to cooperate in the asylum process (though refusal extends to multiple issues such as failure to declare residence, or objections to transfer to a different accommodation site), if they fail to declare intent to submit for asylum upon arrival (with the time limit remaining unspecified) and if they cause disruption in the reception facility during their stay.

For those detained, L4636 requires a decision issued within 20 days, an impossible deadline considering the overwhelming number of cases before the asylum service. The accelerated procedure for asylum is now also applicable to vulnerable applicants, who were previously exempt from it. However, the new criteria for vulnerability exclude post-traumatic stress, which is the most common reason for vulnerability among arrivals.  For those whose application at first instance is deemed manifestly unfounded or inadmissible in the accelerated procedure, there is no automatic suspensive effect of appeals. Accessing appeal level is now harder, with asylum applicants having to provide various legal documents to learn the reason for their rejection at first instance and receive no legal assistance from the State to navigate the process.  Finally, those who receive international protection are allowed to stay for up to four months in the accommodation facility (usually a camp) before being asked to leave.

In March 2020, a new law on asylum was adopted in Greece, making it the second reform in the span of three months.  The latest legislative change merely compounds the problems created by the previous bill. L 4686/2020 further reduces the time limits at first instance for the submission of appeal and for a final decision. The law reinforces detention, which is now the norm rather than the exception. Since many of those detained will be processed through accelerated border procedure, it is doubtful if sufficient safeguards exist to guarantee fair processing. The bill refers to “controlled centers” as reception facilities, to avoid using the term detention. The latter can only be used in exceptional and specific circumstances in EU law and compliance is a requirement for access to funding for reception facilities. Using the asylum legislation as a deterrence measure is not new in Greece. It was, in fact, an official policy of the previous government of New Democracy in the period 2010-2014. The difference is that this time, the legislative changes appear to bring Greece closer in line with the EU’s need for tougher external border controls, reduction in arrivals and returns of those whose application is rejected.

NGOs have also come under attack. The government adopted a legislation that introduces an official registry for non-governmental organisations that deal with refugees. Though in itself a positive move, the law allows the Ministry of Migration and Asylum to deny registration, even if all requirements are met, for unknown reasons. The law also requires a minimum of two years of financial audits, which automatically excluded civil society organisations professionalised in recent years from applying. NGOs have been accused of corruption, without providing evidence, particularly in relation to the allegation of  mismanaging  of €1.3bn EU funds between 2015 and 2019. Although no evidence has been provided to substantiate the claims, the discourse has turned locals against NGOs, with increased violence reported particularly in the maritime and sea border areas.

Life is also becoming harder for recognised refugees. Evictions have begun from the accommodation facilities designated for asylum seekers. The Minister of Migration announced in March that Greece is ending provisions offered to refugees “because this was an attraction factor for them to come to our country and take advantage of all these benefits”. He stressed that “[a]nyone who received asylum is responsible for himself. There are some integration programs, there are some support programs but beyond that we can’t fund these things.” Aside from the fact that cash assistance and accommodation is funded by the European Commission and/or EU budget, Greece does not have a national integration plan in place and has never fully implemented one. The absence of language training, vocational skill acquisition, cultural integration courses, and assistance with renting accommodation make integration impossible. Removing basic assistance renders recognized refugees more vulnerable and likely serves as a message to future arrivals that Greece is not the hospitable and welcoming country imagined. In other words, even those that have received protection are being used to send a message of deterrence to those that have yet to cross the border.

Deterrence at the Border

Aside from the legal changes, deterrence takes place at land and sea during crossings. For months, media outlets and human rights groups have documented push back allegations and interdiction efforts. The latter, though technically albeit legal, often endanger life at sea.

Push back allegations are not new in Greece. Governments over the years have denied entry, often despite publicized reasons for doing so. In contrast, the current government acknowledges that it undertakes “active surveillance” at sea, with the purpose of interdiction. Various video footage that has surfaced, in fact, shows the Greek coastguard undertaking dangerous maneuvers to ‘push’ vessels back to international waters, or to delay Search and Rescue despite distress calls.  Similarly, on the land border accusations have surfaced of migrants being sent back to Turkey without the opportunity to apply for asylum. While the Greek government denies any involvement in what amounts to a violation of non-refoulement obligations, it has acknowledged a hardened stance in regard to border controls following the opening up of the Turkish border in February 2020 that resulted in thousands reaching the Greek land border, seeking to cross over.  


Greece is not alone in hardening its stance towards asylum seekers. A German proposal regarding the reform of Dublin suggests, among other things, removing access to social benefits for asylum seekers while their application is pending. In different ways and forms governments are increasingly moving to restrict access to territory and the asylum procedure. The global pandemic will continue to impact the lives of those already vulnerable. Remittances are expected to decline as migrants face unemployment in destination and transit countries. Loss of remittances affects families and communities that rely on them for access to healthcare and education but also basic income. At home also, production has been reduced or halted in the garment industry and agriculture, impacting the lives of thousands. The economic impact of the pandemic will likely force some to move. Conflicts, poverty, climate change are all issues that remain and likely will be exacerbated in the years to come. As the number of asylum seekers increases to 4.2 million based on the latest UNHCR report, and the root causes leading to forced movement remain, the biggest challenge for the future will be how to guarantee access to territory and the right to asylum.

Dr. Angeliki Dimitriadi is a Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Migration Program at The Hellenic Foundation of European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP). She can be contacted at

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