The UK is ready to mirror Greek illegal pushbacks - here’s what you need to know
© Sarah Booker
Lessons from the Aegean
A pushback takes place when a state forces people out of its borders without considering their individual circumstances: when states push back refugees and asylum-seekers, they force them out of the country, often violently and without accountability, without allowing them to claim asylum, and without considering whether they will be subject to torture or degrading treatment. This is why it is illegal: people have a right to claim asylum under UK, EU and international law, and states are not allowed to send people back to a place where they might face torture.
In March 2020, Turkey reversed its position on the controversial EU-Turkey deal and started allowing asylum-seekers to cross the border into Greece. In response, the Greek government and FRONTEX, the EU-funded coastal border patrol, took an unprecedented hardline position on the border, and reports of illegal pushbacks became increasingly widespread.
The Greek government generally denies it carries out illegal pushbacks, and they are often executed in such a way as to ensure plausible deniability: many of the incidents reported involve masked men using the threat of force to push people back to the land border at Evros, or firing at boats of refugees to scare them away from Greek waters. NGOs and journalists at the border have documented endless incidents and the Border Violence Monitoring Network has collected a vast database of testimonials and reports which document threats or violence with firearms, forced undressing and inhuman treatment in police vehicles and detention facilities. On 25 October, the Greek Minister of the Interior admitted pushbacks are taking place.
In response, the UN, the IoM, the Council of Europe, Members of the European Parliament and the European Commissioner have all expressed their concerns about pushbacks. The EU Commission has said it “strongly opposes any pushback practices” and has “continuously made it clear to national authorities that any such practices are illegal”, yet the member states responsible and Frontex have never faced legal proceedings or sanctions.
Pushbacks are illegal and go hand in hand with arbitrary and degrading violence, for which public institutions are not being held accountable. Nevertheless, the Home Office has been studying the Greek example.
The future of the Channel
The Nationality and Borders Bill, laid in Parliament on 6 July 2021, would give border officers the power to stop a ship where it is suspected that the ship is being used in the connection with a criminal offence, and can require that this ship is taken 'elsewhere' and detained there, or can require that the ship 'leave United Kingdom waters'.As reported by The Guardian on 9 September 2021, a Home Office statement confirmed that staff are being trained to employ “turn-around” tactics at sea and less than a week later, as a clear demonstration of the UK's commitment to ramping up pushback activity, UK border force authorities were spotted carrying out 'pushback drills' in the channel on jetskis.
Priti Patel has openly expressed an ambition to return boats to French waters, causing the French Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin, to tweet that France 'will not accept any practice that goes against maritime law'. She has also stated that boats will be turned around in 'certain circumstances', but it is not yet clear what those circumstances are.
Finally, there is a possibility that by commencing pushbacks in Western Europe, you risk not only death in the waters of the Channel, but also a morally bankrupt series of 'chain pushbacks'. ''Chain pushbacks' is the terminology used to refer to forced expulsions across multiple borders, where migrants or refugees are – via an informal cooperation between different states – sent from one state (for instance Austria or Italy), through others (including Slovenia and Croatia) to a third country (e.g.Bosnia-and Herzegovina)'. According to the DRC submission to the Special Rapporteur on Pushback Practices in 2021, 'French police routinely stops and returns asylum seekers at the borders of Ventimiglia and Oulx (Italy), without giving them the opportunity to apply for asylum, even in the case of unaccompanied minors.' If the UK is considering pushing people back to France, there is a danger that these individuals could be pushed back even further, arguably even back to the borders of Europe. If every EU state took the same hardline approach as the UK, claiming asylum in Europe would become completely unworkable.
A political culture in which loss of life at sea is seen as a necessary by-product of enforcing immigration policy is one to be fought against at any cost. The Greek-Turkish border has become an increasingly dangerous place, where two states skirt their own responsibilities and seek to divert refugees away from their own territory. We cannot let the channel become, a sea in which the UK and France try to abandon as many people as possible to each other.
Multiple RLS clients have been pushed back at the Greek-Turkish land border – their stories involve having belongings stolen by authorities, sometimes being beaten, identity documents confiscated and thrown away. Unfortunately, there is not much we can do to address these horrific abuses when preparing people for the asylum interview: stories of pushbacks do not have a clear place in an asylum claim, especially when the applicant is seeking protection from the state which has violently pushed them back.
These violent and unaccountable policies cannot be left unchallenged. Despite being illegal and indefensible, the UK government is looking to pushbacks in the Mediterranean for inspiration. RLS invites any civil society organisations, journalists, grassroots groups and legal actors in the UK who are worried about these developments to reach out to us. This is a new threat to human rights in the UK, and civil society needs to organize, share information and advocate for the right to claim asylum.
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Below is a resource document, collecting key developments and legal resources on pushbacks: