How Greece’s Brutal Anti-Migrant Policies Became a Model for Britain

From criminalizing aid workers to barbed-wire prisons and pushbacks at sea, Greece's right-wing government is waging a war on migrants — and providing a model that Britain's Tory government is keen to follow.

Migrants escaping civil war in Syria arrive in Lesbos, Greece. (Ayhan Mehmet / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

On November 25, news broke that twenty-seven desperate people had died trying to cross the English Channel to seek asylum. The event was rightly widely described as a tragedy, but it was also taken as an opportunity by pundits on the Right to reinforce calls for a further toughening of asylum rules and to talk up the UK’s “pull factors” while passing blame for the deaths onto “vile smugglers” and the French authorities.

With Channel-crossing migration topping the news agenda regularly once again, Tory strategists have been desperate for a silver bullet to put a permanent end to these journeys. Some have begun looking at those used by Greece’s center-right New Democracy government as a possible model.

It was during a mid-November visit to the UK by Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, in which he gave cheerful interviews to Good Morning Britain and the Telegraph, that the latter ran stories on the Home Office’s plans for “Greek-style crackdowns on migrants” and the UK and Greece’s shared visions on “how to deal with migrants.”

These articles emerged a day after an internationally scrutinized trial in Athens in which the Greek government was seen attempting to use trumped-up charges (dubbed “absurd” by Amnesty International) to prosecute two dozen refugee aid workers for lifesaving rescue efforts carried out a few years ago. They also came out not long after well-known Dutch journalist Ingeborg Beugel fled Greece following verbal and physical intimidation by right-wing trolls after she accused Mitsotakis of lying about Greece’s migrant pushback tactics.

The trial in Lesbos was adjourned on technical grounds to be heard at an unspecified date at a higher tribunal, effectively leaving the aid workers in limbo. If convicted, they could be jailed for over eight years for charges including espionage, forgery, and intercepting radio signals, as well as individual charges such as people smuggling.

The case has gained significant attention worldwide in part because of the international backgrounds of the defendants. These include Sean Binder, a twenty-seven-year-old Irish law student who is also a trained rescue diver, and Sarah Mardini, a competitive Syrian swimmer who became famous after saving the lives of nineteen people at sea. Both have already spent over one hundred days in pretrial detention.

Incidents of states trying to suppress or intimidate aid workers are hardly new or unique in Europe. The case against a French farmer who helped multiple destitute migrants in transit in 2017 — whose charges were last year eventually dropped — gained widespread attention. In fact, a report last year by asylum and research group ReSOMA found that across thirteen EU countries, some 171 people have faced criminalization for aiding migrants.

The fact that so many aid workers are being prosecuted for false charges does not concern the British government. It’s more interested in how Greece has been managing to cut down on its number of asylum seekers. After more than a million people traveled through the country during the so-called refugee crisis of 2015–16, the overall number of asylum seekers in Greece was around forty-two thousand in August 2021, 50 percent less than the eighty-two thousand noted by government figures the previous year. On its islands, the number dropped even further, by around 79 percent, to just five thousand people.

“It may seem like a model for other European countries,” says Vassilis Papastergiou, a legal expert at the Greek Council for Refugees. “But it’s one that’s in total breach of human rights law.” Prevention of arrivals, appalling living conditions at camps, and a stoppage on all financial aid to asylum seekers since October, he explains, are all key factors in the declining numbers.

The Greek government has made little effort to keep aspects of its prevention methods secret: it has proudly drawn attention to the new forty-kilometer wall along its border with Turkey and the five new EU-funded “closed-access” migrant camps it’s opening this year and next. It doesn’t deny using deafening sound cannons, either. But reports of ruthless, violent pushbacks of migrants across borders have raised more concern, and the government either denies them or reframes them as “interceptions,” despite graphic evidence and witness testimonies.

Following her harassment and arrest in June for sheltering a young Afghan asylum seeker, Beugel wrote a piece in De Groene Amsterdammer magazine outlining the abuse she sees at the heart of the country’s asylum system. It was headlined “Drifting to a Turkish beach” — a reference to reports of migrants being handcuffed and thrown off Greek boats, left to float back to Turkish beaches, or otherwise being set adrift.

In the text, Beugel details new legislation from September superficially aimed at preventing smuggling, but in reality designed to inhibit rescue workers from aiding migrants in distress — no longer allowed without an official permit — and to intimidate locals on Lesbos, now afraid to offer basic charity to migrants because of the risk of being charged with assisting smuggling.

Other details have been covered more widely, including investigative work from the New York TimesLighthouse Reports, and others, which have detailed the masked, militia-type men that assault migrants before pushing them back across land and sea borders. This is a trend Amnesty has revealed is happening elsewhere in Europe, too.

Beugel outlines the story of one migrant sentenced to over 140 years in jail for taking the helm of a boat and saving those on board. She also mentions an ongoing smear campaign against Norwegian NGO Aegean Boat Report, which monitors and keeps data on the movement of people across the Aegean — data which also shows that Greek authorities have pushed over ten thousand migrants into Turkish waters since March 2020 in direct breach of international law.

The Greek government has at times described such negative reporting as Turkish propaganda, insisting instead that it’s adopted “tough but fair” policies while legally defending its borders at the gateway to Europe. Part of this reputational triage has come in the form of new, “improved” detention centers.

After the horror stories that came out of the notorious and now closed giant Moria camp on Lesbos, the government is genuinely proud of its new detention camps, the first of which opened in Samos in September. Notably clean, their facilities include more humane elements like playgrounds and basketball courts.

But Papastergiou says that NGOs have also voiced concerns over their barbed-wire enclosures, prison-like organization, and isolation from local communities and support services. In mid-November, the Greek Council for Refugees and Oxfam jointly produced a report highlighting the extent to which holding people in administrative detention is being used on asylum seekers, with EU complicity.

Priti Patel visited the new camp in August, just prior to its opening. Soon afterward, it emerged that the Home Office is planning to build a number of detention centers around the UK to house eight thousand migrants. It was also announced that Border Force had learned new “safe” pushback techniques, which the Home Office intends to start employing. Calls for their use from the likes of the Daily Telegraph have followed.

In a better world, November’s tragedy would prompt a political rethink. But with the government on its current trajectory, fairer and wiser long-term plans — like creating safe and legal routes for asylum to end smuggling, or properly investing in a bigger, more efficient claims-processing system — will instead be pushed aside.