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Joanna Pamoukoglou: Tensions at EU/Greek Borders, Austria’s Efforts to Curb COVID-19 & More..!

Updated: Jan 27, 2022

Heightened Tensions at EU/Greek Borders Over Unlawful Pushback Accusations

Tensions have been consistently escalating in the Eastern EU borders as the Greek Coast Guard and border control is being accused of unprecedented illegal migrant pushbacks. The Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has repeatedly rejected these claims, stating that his government is putting emphasis on the protection of the country’s borders, while respecting fundamental human rights and the international rule of law (TRT World 2021). On the 16th of November, the Greek PM spoke on Good Morning Britain, emphasising that Greece has a tough but fair policy on migration (The National Herald 2021).

At the same time, journalists, humanitarian workers and NGO volunteers contend that the day-to-day reality at the Greek borders are at odds with the government’s version of events (Smith 2021a). Apart from testimonies of people working on the ground, evidence of unlawful pushbacks and brutal treatment of refugees have been uncovered by prestigious media outlets such as the Guardian, Germany's national broadcaster ARD, Der Spiegel news magazine, the independent Dutch investigative organization Lighthouse Reports, and the Swiss broadcaster SRF (Christides et al 2021; Fallon 2021; Ghaedi 2021; Lighthouse Reports 2021; Smith 2021a; Smith 2021b). Amnesty International has also raised the alarm about the situation in Greece, expressing concern over the degrading treatment of asylum seekers by local authorities (Amnesty International 2021).

On the 9th of November, during the press conference that followed Mitsotakis’ meeting with Dutch PM Mark Rutte in Athens, Dutch journalist Ingeborg Beugel called out the Greek PM, urging him to “finally stop lying” about the “illegal pushback policy” he is allegedly pursuing (Tsimitakis & Michalopoulos 2021). What followed was a heated exchange between Beugel and the Greek PM with Mitsotakis answering angrily: “I will not accept you insulting me or the Greek people with accusations and expressions that are not supported by facts when this country is facing a migrant crisis of unprecedented intensity. Instead of blaming Greece, you should blame those who have been instrumentalising migration by systematically pushing people in a desperate situation from a safe country” he added, referring to the Turkish government (Ibid.)

The conflict over the migrant crisis has further strained the relationship between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Greek counterpart, who continues to vacillate between diplomacy and belligerence. In an article published by French newspaper Figaro on the 14th of November, Mitsotakis wrote that “Europe is facing the consequences of a new hybrid threat: the use of migrants as a weapon of political pressure”. He has often dismissed pushback accusations as Turkish propaganda (Mitsotakis 2021). Notably, on the 10th of November, Greek authorities claimed that the Turkish Coast Guard had tried to push a boat of migrants into Greek waters, slamming the Turkish government for "acting like a pirate state."

In response to the statements of Greek officials, the Turkish president argued that “It is ungrateful for Greece to say that Turkey is the source of the problem while our country is hosting 5 million refugees. If we open our borders, I do not know what Greece will suffer, what Greece will do,” he said (National Herald 2021). Erdogan also claimed that Greece “sinks refugee boats in the Aegean and the Mediterranean and sentences them to death”.

Human rights groups that echo these allegations warn that it is particularly alarming that the Greek government is demonstrating increasing hostility towards NGOs involved in migrant solidarity work (Smith 2021c). Two dozen refugee aid workers were set to be put on trial on the 18th of November on espionage charges before their trial was postponed. The defendants’ lawyers argue that all of the charges are trumped up. “From the case file material and an investigation that lasted more than three years, essentially keeping the defendants hostage, not one piece of incriminating evidence has emerged”, said lawyer Clio Papantoleon (Kitsantonis 2021). The European Parliament had condemned the prosecution case as the biggest criminalisation of solidarity work underway on the continent (Ibid.).

Austria’s Efforts to Curb COVID-19 Infections Amidst Spike in Cases

Austria’s recent measures related to the covid-19 pandemic have stirred public debate and elicited a range of reactions. Since Monday, the 15th of November, millions of unvaccinated Austrian citizens are in lockdown and subject to movement restrictions (Murphy 2021). The Austrian government said the measure was introduced in an effort to deal with a surge in infections to record levels and the growing strain on intensive-care units.

Following the announcement last Sunday, anti-lockdown campaigners took to the streets of Vienna to protest against the rules, which they perceived as ‘dividing society in two’ and making fundamental human rights ‘conditional’ (Bunyan 2021). The government’s decision also triggered angry reactions among law enforcement officials, with the police and the army refusing to control the health passes in the name of “freedom and human dignity” (Lacombe 2021). In addressing concerns over freedom, the European Court of Justice has previously stated that lockdowns were a “restriction”, not a deprivation of liberty, with a legitimate purpose to protect public health and hence did not violate the European Convention’s right to liberty (Greene 2021).

On the 19th of November, Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg re-introduced a nationwide lockdown--also applicable for vaccinated citizens--starting Monday, for a maximum of 20 days (Hirsch & Kotkamp 2021). Notably, Schallenberg also announced that COVID-19 vaccination will be mandatory in Austria from February 2022. The planned vaccine mandate drew heavy criticism from the political opposition, particularly the far-right Freedom party. Herbert Kickl, who has advocated scientifically unproven treatments for the coronavirus, said: “from this day, Austria is a dictatorship” (Oltermann 2021).

Photo: International News 2021

The Commission Takes First Step Toward Enforcing EU Rule of Law in Poland and Hungary

The European Commission is set to trigger a never-before-used mechanism aimed to enforce the EU rule of law within Poland and Hungary. The newly emerged mechanism would allow EU institutions to cut funding to member states in cases when breaches of the rule of law affect the EU’s interests (Wanat & Bayer 2021). In the case of Poland, such breaches are reflected in judiciary reforms that European courts have ruled unlawful, while in the case of Hungary, they are reflected in the engagement of ruling party officials in corrupt practices, the misuse of EU funding and the systematic undermining of independent and civil society organisations (Ibid.).

Taking a first step to demonstrate that it is ready to put the law enforcement mechanism to use, the EC is set to send letters to the Polish and Hungarian governments asking questions regarding the independence of the judiciary and respect for EU law, public procurement, corruption and risk of conflict of interest (Ibid.). Nonetheless, whether the Commission would legally trigger the mechanism remains uncertain.

Photo: Politico 2021

Written by Joanna Pamoukoglou, Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons


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Migrants are De Facto Border Policy." June 23, 2021.

Bunyan, Rachel. 2021. "Austria Imposes Covid Apartheid: Anger Mounts as Cops Start to

Impose 'Unenforceable' Lockdown that 'Divides Society in Two' with Two Million

Unvaccinated Citizens Banned from Leaving their Homes." Daily Mail, November 15,

Christides, Giorgos, Sara Cincurova, Sara Creta, Katrin Elger, Steffen Lüdke, Ralf Neukirch

and Maximilian Popp. 2021. "Our Orders Are Clear. Nobody Gets Through." Spiegel

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Ghaedi, Monir. 2021. "Violent 'Pushbacks' at EU Border by Masked Agents." Info Migrants,

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Ship." The Guardian, November 5, 2021.

Smith, Helena. 2021b. "On Trial for Saving Lives: The Young Refugee Activist Facing a Greek

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Mitsotakis." November 12, 2021.

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Greek Record on Migration." November 16, 2021.

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Tsimitakis, Matthaios, and Sarantis Michalopoulos. 2021. "Greek PM Defends Migration

Policy in Heated Dialogue with Dutch Journalist." Euractiv, November 10, 2021.

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with Poland, Hungary." Politico, November 19, 2021.

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