Following a review by other Schengen states, the Greek government is improving surveillance and control of its external borders, funded by EU funds. This could encourage pushbacks in violation of international law.
European Union member states are likely to oblige Greece to further upgrade its external borders. A draft decision by the EU Commission, published by the civil rights organisation Statewatch, states that surveillance at land and sea borders will be stepped up. Greek authorities would also have to improve controls at border crossings.
The demands are based on an evaluation of the application of the so-called Schengen acquis in Greece from the summer of 2021. Such reviews take place regularly in each member state and are intended to determine whether a government is complying with Schengen rules. The evaluation teams consist of volunteers from other EU countries. The “deficiencies” found are documented in a report.
New situation centres and dog squads
The required measures concern, among other things, land border crossing points and ports, which are to be equipped with fingerprint readers and other control technology across the board. So far, this is not the case everywhere. The crew of cruise ships should also be checked more closely. For this purpose, the port authorities would have to train “canine teams specialised in persons’ detection”.
Part of the demands of the implementing decision refers to maritime surveillance “including land-based technical surveillance means in areas that are in close proximity to the neighbouring country”. The wording is aimed at the Aegean Sea. There, the Greek border authorities are to increase the number of their situation centres and equip them with new technology. The EU border agency Frontex is also present in the maritime region with the “Poseidon” mission.
Immediate reports to Frontex
Reinforcements are also demanded for the Greek-Turkish land border on the Evros River. There, the government should “increase the level of technical surveillance with mobile and portable assets”. Thermal imaging vehicles and cameras, helicopters and drones are mentioned. Frontex already uses “tethered airships” on the Evros; these aerostats can stay in the air for up to 40 days and observe wide areas.
Via the EUROSUR system, all incidents at the Greek external EU borders have to be reported to Frontex in Warsaw, but according to the Commission paper, this has been suspended since the beginning of December. The Commission sees further deficits at the borders with Northern Macedonia and Albania. There, Greece should introduce a border surveillance system that covers “at least the most vulnerable sections of the border”. In addition, the border troops should significantly increase the number of their patrols and equip their vehicles with digital radio and a GPS tracking system.
Military drones for border surveillance
Greece has long since implemented some of the foreseen Council’s demands, for example, border patrols are said to have been tightened. By last summer, the government had extended an existing 12.5-kilometre fence on the land border with Turkey to 40 kilometres.
Along the border, a new surveillance system with optical sensors and radar devices was installed, which, according to media reports, can see up to 15 kilometres into Turkish territory. For this, Greece received almost 15 million euros from the EU Internal Security Fund. In addition, the military is procuring two more Israeli “Heron” drones, which are also used for border surveillance.
Police tanks, tear gas and stun grenades
Since autumn, the Greek border troops have had several police tanks stationed on the border with Turkey. The equipment also includes decibel-strong sound cannons. Supplies of tear gas and stun grenades are also said to have been increased.
Now the border fence is to be extended by another 35 kilometres, for which the government in Athens wants to apply for funds from the EU Commission. It is questionable whether it will be successful, because the EU finances equipment for the border police, but so far not border barriers. The money may therefore be used for new surveillance systems, which, according to the government, will be equipped with watch towers, cameras and other sensors. With motion detectors, behavioural recognition and drones, Greece is using similar technology in the new camps for refugees, with all the information gathered in a control centre of the Ministry of Migration and Asylum in Athens. These facilities are also funded by the EU.
Independent investigation into mistreatment called for
The Commission’s proposal to address the “deficiencies” of Greek border surveillance needs to be adopted by the Council. The demands also include to “carry out independent investigations into all serious allegations of ill-treatment by the Hellenic Police and the Hellenic Coast Guard at external borders”.
These incidents had been reported several times by numerous international media, according to which refugees are abandoned on life rafts or simply thrown into the sea. According to the proposed decision, investigations into this should be carried out “thorough, prompt, expeditious” so that those responsible are identified and punished.
“Increasing the efficiency of the pushback machinery”.
“The Greek government has so far not recognised a single case of pushback, despite detailed documentation, video recordings and other evidence”, says Natalie Gruber of Josoor, a human rights organisation based in Austria and active in the Turkish border region. Not a single case has been investigated. Gruber sees the fact that the demand for independent investigations is kept very vague in the Commission paper as a focus on deterrence instead of the rule of law at the borders.
The Greek government could feel encouraged by this to continue with its practice as a “European shield”. The expression comes from Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and was meant to praise the migration defence when Greek border troops, together with Frontex, had quasi-militarily repelled a major influx of refugees at the land border exactly two years ago. Gruber, too, fears “in all likelihood an increase in the efficiency of the pushback machinery and even more violence being used in the process”. With drones and dog patrols, it would become even more dangerous and impossible for refugees to claim their right to apply for asylum.
Image: The border fence from the Turkish side; the government in Athens plans to extend it further (Josoor, CC-BY-SA 4.0).