The EU-Turkey Deal and the Hotspot System in Greece

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) lauds "voluntary return" from Greece as a successful project. A look at actual practice, however, shows that returns under the conditions of the EU-Turkey deal are by no means voluntary. Often they hardly differ from deportations in terms of their implementation.

by Valeria Hänsel, who works for Deportation Monitoring Aegean, and is doing her PhD on the reconfiguration of the European border regime in the Aegean.

The Greek hotspot islands have been turned into open-air prisons under the EU-Turkey deal. Migrants coming from countries with low asylum recognition rates are detained in deportation prisons on the islands immediately after the perilous crossing of the Aegean Sea. But in terms of deportations, the EU-Turkey deal is not working as planned, as it has only been possible to carry these out sporadically. Against this background, the "Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration" programme of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) is flourishing. In view of the catastrophic living conditions in the camps created by the EU-Turkey deal, there can be no talk of return being voluntary, however.

Asylum procedures are lengthy and force people to live for years in slum camps like Moria. In addition, the accelerated border procedure in the Asylum Act significantly lowers recognition rates as a result of the deal. This means that even people who exactly fit the definition of refugee laid down in the Geneva Convention are threatened with deportation. Among the people who agree to “voluntary” return are also those who were detained immediately after their arrival and have seen nothing from Europe but a prison. As the following examples show, the IOM absolves itself of any responsibility for the well-being of these stakeholders: before, during and after so-called repatriation. This leads to human rights violations and protection-seekers being deported to unsafe situations.

The IOM perspective

In June 2016, IOM Greece launched the Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) programme. Its aim is to return migrants from Greece to their countries of origin. With soft piano music in the background, the IOM advertises this option in a video under the banner  "return home with safety and dignity". On its homepage it says: “The AVRR project is a core activity of the IOM and has provided vital assistance to tens of thousands of migrants returning to their countries of origin every year for the last four decades. The decision of returning home is 100% voluntary and based on migrants’ request. The AVRR project has been at the heart of the IOM’s commitments to protect migrants’ rights while ensuring that the voluntary nature of every return contains two elements: freedom of choice and an informed decision, which is taken upon the basis of timely, unbiased and reliable information.”

AVRR is highly supported by the European Union: 75% of the programme is funded by the European Union's Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF), while the rest is covered by the Greek Ministry of Interior. In 2021, funding was massively expanded as part of the "Greece Crisis Response Plan". Repatriations are also to continue under Covid 19 conditions. The IOM promotes “voluntary” returns to countries of origin or the “safe third country” Turkey, even for people who are in an ongoing asylum procedure. Those who are rejected in the asylum procedure or in the admissibility check and opt for an appeal procedure instead of “voluntary” return are subsequently no longer allowed to register for the AVRR programme. This is an attempt to reduce the number of appeal procedures and to circumvent legal standards.

According to the figures, the AVRR programme would appear to be running successfully. According to IOM Greece, 20,478 persons have been repatriated from Greece in the period of the EU-Turkey deal with a new edition of the programme being rolled out from June 2016 until the end of December 2020, while around a quarter (5,344 persons) received so-called reintegration support after repatriation. Overall, the number of people returning in this way exceeds the number of deportations many times over: according to sources from the UNHCR and Deportation Monitoring Aegean, a total of 2,138 people were deported over the course of the EU-Turkey deal (18 March 2016), and 600 more under the bilateral repatriation agreement between Greece and Turkey. Since March 2020, deportations have been completely suspended and are increasingly being replaced by ‘voluntary’ returns. Another means of discouraging migration is systematic and illegal pushbacks, which have become more frequent since deportations were stopped. At the same time, border police are violently obstructing the entry of refugees, forcing them to return directly to Turkey. Boats with refugees are also taken from Greek waters back to Turkish territory.

Security and dignity? On the contrary

In reality, the treatment of people participating in the AVRR programme is far from what is promised in the “safety and dignity” video cited above. This is illustrated by the story of Bilisumma*. He was presented with a return agreement by the IOM to sign before his return from Lesbos to Ethiopia. It stated: “In the event of personal injury or death during and/or after (...) participation in the IOM project, neither the IOM, nor any other participating agency or government can in any way be held liable or responsible.” Bilisumma signed the agreement in January 2017, after six months in Moria camp, during which his asylum claim had not even been registered. In the same month, several people died in the snow-covered tents of Moria. Bilisumma lost hope: “I’ve decided to go back to Ethiopia. I know I could be put in prison and be tortured, but I’m in a prison here and people are dying in this prison, too.” The IOM left implementation of his “voluntary” return in the hands of the Greek police. They arrested Bilisumma and took him by ferry to the Amygdaleza deportation prison on the Greek mainland. He describes the process as follows: “The police arrested me and another group of men. After a while they tied two of us together and put us on a ferry. We all were ‘voluntary returns’, but they treated us like robbers. During the journey, they refused to give us food. (...) We were not even allowed to sit alone on the toilet, if someone needed to go to the toilet, the other guy who was tied to him had to enter the toilet, too, and sit beside.”

Other stakeholders report that after signing the document they were first detained in the deportation prison inside the Moria camp before being taken to a deportation prison on the Greek mainland. Often, people under detention conditions also agree to their “voluntary” return. One refugee from Nigeria, who had been detained for three months after arriving on Lesvos due to the low asylum recognition rates in his country of origin, recalls: “There was an IOM officer. She came to the prison and was kind of convincing us to sign with IOM to go back to our country.” Bashir* from Pakistan also agreed to return to Pakistan. Like Bilisumma, he was transported from Lesvos to Amygdaleza on mainland Greece. The IOM had promised him that he would fly to Pakistan in three days. Instead, he sat in prison for many weeks without any information about what was to happen next. After six months, he was finally taken back to Lesvos, detained there for another week and then released. He was told that Pakistan had not accepted his repatriation. In other cases, people brought to Pakistan under the AVRR programme were detained there upon arrival. They had to use their “reintegration assistance” to “buy their way out”. There was nothing left for a new start in Pakistan.

Bilisumma was deported to Ethiopia after two weeks in Amygdaleza prison. As a political activist, he had campaigned for the rights of the Oromo minority and had already been arrested by the government several times. Upon his return, he was immediately arrested and tortured in a secret prison. After two weeks, he was released into house arrest. At the same time he was threatened with the death penalty. He wrote the following message from house arrest: “I arrived in Ethiopia 2 weeks ago, after I stayed about 6 hours with my family, those guys (...) detained me, I was (kept) under ground, (...), I was badly beaten, stayed a long time without enough water and food (...) yesterday morning they brought me back to my home... I understand that they will kill me after they will finish all their investigation (...) Am on the verge of death now, no one can help me now!!! I will give the phone number of someone who can tell you when I will be killed! Am counting down days to die! I can’t flee anymore! Am frustrated, I gave up! I understand that my journey of life is finished!!! “In the end, Bilisumma managed to escape from house arrest and go into hiding in a neighbouring country. He was only able to return after a change of government in Ethiopia.

Deportations and return merge

 “Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration” functions as de facto deportation under the conditions of the EU-Turkey deal. In terms of numbers, this form of deportation is more effective than regular deportations. Human rights are grossly violated without the organisations involved, especially the IOM, assuming any legal responsibility. In combination with externalisation measures such as the EU-Turkey deal and other repatriation agreements, it is also evident that the phenomenon of chain deportations is expanding into the field of return programmes: After their deportation from Greece to Turkey, stakeholders (with the exception of Syrians) are systematically detained in so-called removal centres. Here they are given the choice of staying in prison for twelve months or agreeing to a “voluntary” return. According to reports, Syrians are forcibly brought back to Syria by Turkey in buses across the border. According to the European Commission’s plans, the border management agency FRONTEX - which is already deeply involved in systematic pushbacks at the external borders without being held legally accountable for it – is also to be involved in the implementation of "voluntary" return in the future. FRONTEX is already carrying out deportations. This illustrates that there is hardly any difference between the two methods of deportation.

* All names have been changed by the editors.