Illegal pushbacks and abandonment at sea: is EU facing a new migrant crisis?

Italy, Greece, Hungary and other nations accused of breaking law and purposefully endangering lives of asylum seekers

little girls dress on sandy beach
A child’s clothing was found on a Calabrian beach in February close to where a migrant boat sank
(Image credit: Alfonso Di Vincenzo/Kontrolab/Getty Images)

EU authorities have called on Greece to conduct an independent investigation into video footage that appears to show asylum seekers being abandoned at sea.

The New York Times last week published video footage captured on the Greek Island of Lesbos, which it said showed 12 African migrants, including a baby, being taken from the back of a van and put on to a speedboat, which took them to a Greek coastguard vessel – “paid mostly by European funds”, said the NYT. The migrants were then left by the coastguard in an emergency raft in the Aegean Sea.

The EU “relies on Greece and a handful of other coastal nations” to guard its borders, the paper said. The Greek authorities have so far declined to comment but the EU home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson, said her officials had written to Athens with a formal request “that this incident be fully and independently investigated”.

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Almost 25,000 people have died in the Mediterranean since 2014, said Human Rights Watch. “While the endless tragedy has many causes, the decision of European governments to prioritise border control over sea rescue is central.”

The UN’s migration agency, which recorded the highest number of deaths in the first three months of this year since 2017, “warned that delays in state-led rescues saw at least 127 people dying, while in another deadly incident there had been a complete lack of response”, according to BBC News.

What did the papers say?

There has been at least a 300% increase in migrant arrivals in the Central Mediterranean in the first three months of this year, according to figures from Frontex (the European Border and Coast Guard Agency) quoted by Politico.

“I became a bit allergic [to] the word crisis,” said Hans Leijtens, the new head of Frontex, in an interview with the news site. “I just see facts and figures. And those worry me.”

The “huge rise” in migration towards the EU since pandemic restrictions were lifted is due, among other things, to climate crises, conflicts in Sudan and Afghanistan, the effects of Russia’s invasion on developing nations and the determination of human smugglers.

Last year, the number of asylum applications made in the EU, Norway and Switzerland (not including Ukrainians, who apply under a bespoke scheme) was 960,000, said the Financial Times, close to the 1.2 million “that sparked the last real migrant crisis in 2015. Then, it took the body of a Syrian toddler, Alan Kurdi, to be washed up on the shore for countries to take action.”

But Brussels has “largely sat on its hands” in response to surging numbers, with a “particularly rancorous” recent EU summit making “no real progress”. The bloc has done little to improve legal migration processes – “one of the key ways to decrease illegal migration”.

More migrants are choosing the more dangerous route from Turkey to Italy, because the shorter crossing to Greece “has been met with the forced pushback of vessels”. In that light, the policy of the “hard-right” Italian government of restricting NGO rescue ships is “cynical”, the paper said.

In February, a boat carrying 200 people smashed into the rocks off the Calabria coast of southern Italy, leaving at least 67 dead, including 14 children. Italian ministers have called a six-month state of emergency in response to rising migration.

Last year, there were “over 200,000 illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers” at EU external borders, according to a study by Belgian NGO coalition, 11.11.11. The numbers are likely to be “only the tip of the iceberg”, Flor Didden, the coalition’s migration expert, told Euractiv. But they show “the systemic nature of pushbacks as part of the current EU’s border management”.

About three-quarters of these “pushbacks” occurred at Hungary’s borders, according to its publicly available government figures.

Maltese authorities “regularly abandon those in need of rescue”, concluded a report in March by the Civil Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre. “Non-assistance is now a routine part of a suite of deadly measures aimed at reducing arrivals.”

Last month, Lithuania’s parliament passed legislation to block asylum applications. The Baltic state “had already been engaging in so-called pushbacks since 2021”, said AFP, and last year completed a razor-wire fence along most of its border with Belarus.

The amendments, which still require approval by the president, would “green-light torture”, Amnesty International said.

What happens next?

“Pushbacks by Frontex officers are not legal. They are forbidden,” said Leijtens in January, The Independent reported.

His predecessor as director, Fabrice Leggeri, resigned last year after an EU anti-fraud probe, which found at least six pushbacks involving Greek coastguard ships had been co-financed by Frontex.

Frontex “will expand to up to 11,000 employees”, Leijtens told Politico. And “our budget has grown toward €1 billion”. But “the real game changer” is transparency. “There should be nothing secret about what we’re doing.”

Time has become “increasingly ‘weaponised’ in Mediterranean migration governance”, wrote Maurice Stierl, researcher at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies at Osnabrück University, for Al Jazeera.

Delays to official rescue responses is a “deliberate strategy” to deter refugees, while efforts by volunteers and NGOs “have been obstructed and slowed down at every turn”.

The Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, recently defended his migration policies as “tough but fair”, according to The New York Times. Greek voters “appear to be largely unmoved by the alleged violations”, the paper said, and Sunday’s elections put Mitsotakis’s centre-right party “on track for a decisive victory”.

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