World Refugee Day 2023: accountability cannot be pushed over borders


World Refugee Day obliges us to take stock of the brutal reality at our EU's external borders. We cannot shirk our responsibility for humanity or outsource responsibility.

World Refugee Day 2023

Pylos - a Greek tragedy?

The pictures have travelled round the world: Fadi and Mohammad, two brothers from Syria, embracing and holding onto each other as best they could through the metal barricade separating them, both men clearly emotional and in pain. The younger brother, Mohammad, who had been detained by the Greek authorities in the port of Kalamata for a so-called initial screening process, is one of the 104 survivors of the shipwreck off the coast of Greece that has claimed more lives than any since the end of the Second World War.

It is estimated that as many as 750 refugees were on board the vessel that capsized off the Greek city of Pylos in the early hours of 14 June. The Greek interim government has declared three days of national mourning.

The older brother had travelled from the Netherlands to look for his little brother. He was one of the lucky ones. Too many others, who had made the journey from Germany and other countries, searched in vain for their loved ones. 78 bodies had already been recovered and chances of pulling anyone else out of the sea alive had all but vanished; even recovering the dead was difficult.

The death toll of this accident is unprecedented. It would, however, be incorrect to describe it as a disaster that nobody could have averted. We have to question how it was allowed to happen.

Systematic violence

There are many indications that the Greek coastguard is partly to blame: the investigative collective “We are Solomon” has documented that the organisation Alarmphone called for help several hours before the shipwreck. Frontex, the Greek coastguard service, UNHCR – they were all informed, as were even the Italian and Maltese authorities. The Hellenic coastguard claims that it did not act because the passengers on the vessel did not wish them to. Human rights activists and even former coastguard officers consider this tantamount to negligence, arguing that all actors aware of the situation had a duty to act.

Yet the accusations go far beyond simply failing to offer assistance. Survivors report that the Greek authorities made several attempts to tow the boat out of Greek waters. This constitutes an extremely serious allegation of illegal pushbacks (interview in German only), which needs to be independently investigated and the perpetrators held to account. An investigation by the Greek public prosecutor general is already underway.

“Pushing” asylum seekers on board unseaworthy vessels out of Greek waters and away from the Greek border, despite the extremely high risk of death for the victims, is a long-established practice.

This is why asylum seekers on boats are increasingly making for Italy instead of Greece. The boat in question, for instance, was on course for Calabria, even though that is a far longer and more dangerous route. The connection between the policy of removing access in order to protect borders rather than people – a policy that incidentally has at least some support from the European Commission and other EU Member States – and the number of people who die fleeing to Europe cannot be denied. Anybody taken by surprise by the Pylos shipwreck is at best naive and wilfully ignorant of the realities on the EU’s external borders.

Criminalisation and its fatal consequences

These fatal consequences stem not only from actively repelling people in flight and exercising violence against them, but also from the increasing tendency towards the criminalisation of migration itself and all those who show solidarity to asylum seekers. In the case of the Pylos shipwreck, the public prosecutor has charged nine men on counts of human trafficking, amongst other things. Immediately after the disaster, former Prime Minister Mitsotakis and EU Council President Charles Michel stressed the need to dismantle human trafficking networks, rather than to create safe, legal channels, for instance.

At the time of writing, there are thousands of people serving sentences of up to life in Greek prisons because they have been found guilty of human trafficking, in many cases following the most cursory of trials and inadequate legal assistance. It is widely documented that refugees are systematically forced by smugglers to captain the boats on which they flee and keep them above water, only to be accused of trafficking on arrival in Italy or Greece. 

Alongside the criminalisation of migrants, the criminalisation of civilian sea rescue services is also a factor in this latest tragedy. Voluntary sea rescue organisations prevent many deaths in the Mediterranean, but have been so criminalised in Greek waters that they have long had to cease their rescue activities. Even monitoring the Greek coastline is being made increasingly difficult for human rights activists, if not downright impossible.

This increasing criminalisation also involves restricting the freedom of the press and preventing journalists from probing into flight and migration. Those reporting from the Evros border region or the Greek islands, for instance, are systematically prevented from doing their work, vilified as traitors to their country and exposed to targeted attacks.

Greece very recently held parliamentary elections. The campaign was deafeningly silent on the subject of migration and flight. The right-wing Nea Dimokratia party currently in power made an excellent showing and is more than likely to achieve the majority required to form a government in the second round. It is hard to say whether it won so many votes because of or despite its anti-refugee policy, but Prime Minister Mitsotakis’ government appears to have given the impression that it has solved the migration “problem”. For instance, the government was claiming until very recently that arrivals were falling, even though official UN figures report a considerable hike in refugee numbers.

World Refugee Day: a global overview

This is in line with global trends. UNHCR recently published its annual statistics to coincide with World Refugee Day. For many years, there has been just one pattern: year on year, more people are forced to flee war, persecution and hunger. Most of them continue to do so within the borders of their own country and the vast majority of those crossing borders in search of safety continue to do so in the countries of the global South, not Europe. The Russian war on Ukraine has, however, led to a sharp uptick in the numbers of refugees in Europe. The theme of migration and flight has therefore climbed back to the top of the agenda of the European Union and its Member States. Whilst a reform of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) has been at deadlock for many years over insurmountable differences between the positions of the Member States, the Justice and Home Affairs Council was recently able to agree on a compromise under the Swedish Council Presidency that, if it comes into effect, will make life considerably harder for asylum seekers and mean systematic imprisonment on the external borders. The Greek government has hailed this agreement as a success. Civil society and asylum law experts have severely criticised the planned reforms.

“Safe third countries”: safe borders, unsafe people?

One aspect that has come under particular fire is the expansion of the concept of “safe third countries”. Greece is already further here than its fellow Member States. As long ago as 2016, the EU-Turkey Refugee Agreement categorised Turkey as a “safe third country” for asylum seekers in the so-called EU hotspots on the Aegean Islands. Two years ago, Turkey was also declared safe by ministerial decree for people in search of protection from Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Yet the 3.6 million Syrians and several thousand Afghans in Turkey are increasingly anything but safe. In the run-up to the Turkish parliamentary and presidential elections on 14 May 2023, almost all parties sought to appeal to the electorate by pledging to send people back to Syria and Afghanistan, or push them into Iran. Against the backdrop of rising inflation and economic crisis, the Turkish people are taking an increasingly hostile stance towards the refugees in their country. The devastating earthquake of February of this year only exacerbated this. Although the re-elected president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, will presumably find his promise to send back thousands of Syrians easier said than done, the situation for refugees in Turkey is increasingly precarious.

Turkey is not the only country on the borders of the EU with an important role to play in so-called “migration management”. A delegation consisting of the President of the European Commission flanked by the heads of state of the Netherlands and Italy recently offered the Mediterranean state of Tunisia generous financial support, including measures to counter traffickers and send back migrants. The same Tunisian government forced many of its approximately 20,000 migrants from the country earlier this year amid inflammatory language that sparked many racist attacks. Tunisia, a safe third country for refugees deported from the EU? Hardly. But it is not just the states of the Mediterranean coastline that are relevant in the context of the EU’s externalisation efforts.

Bosnia & Herzegovina has long been central to this policy, as shown by a report by the organisation Statewatch commissioned by the EU office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. The plan of the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) to create an internment wing at the Bosnian refugee camp of Lipa recently made headlines. According to press reports, the European Commission has earmarked €500,000 for this purpose. Civil society organisations, including our local partners, have expressed grave concerns at the plans. The very fact that the Lipa camp was built at all – using EU funding – has made it harder for lawyers and supporters to access the refugees, resulting in their increased isolation in the country.

It is vital to see all these measures and policies in context. World Refugee Day provides an opportune moment to take a broader look at the brutal reality on our external EU borders. We cannot opt out of our responsibility for humanity, nor outsource it, despite the insinuations in the debate on immigration and flight that it is possible to uphold the law whilst denying its application to certain individuals. “One simply cannot suspend fundamental rights for some and allow them to apply to others”, writes the political scientist Judith Kohlenberger in her book “The escape paradox” on our contradictory approach to asylum and migration (our translation; the original title “Das Fluchtparadox”, is only available in German). World Refugee Day is also a good time to reflect upon the origin of refugee protection and take the lessons learned from our own history seriously. We cannot undo the Pylos shipwreck, but we can and must draw the right conclusions from it to shape European asylum and migration policy worthy of the name.


This article was first published in German on