“Democrats have a duty, whenever there is a dictatorial turn in any neighboring country, to give shelter and asylum to fellow democrats escaping the dictators, the authoritarians. The Greeks have a duty to give shelter to Turkish democrats fleeing Erdoğan or fleeing any regime, for that matter,” former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, who currently serves as a member of the Greek parliament, said as he spoke with Turkish Minute about illegal pushbacks perpetrated by Greek authorities.
An economist and an academic lecturer by trade, Varoufakis served as the Greek minister of finance from January to July 2015 under former prime minister Alexis Tsipras. He is currently secretary-general of MeRA25, a left-wing political party he founded in 2018, and has been holding a parliamentary seat since July 2019.
Varoufakis answered Turkish Minute’s questions about pushbacks by Greek authorities of people trying to seek asylum in Europe by crossing the Turkish-Greek land border and the Aegean Sea. Among these asylum seekers are Turks and Kurds, who are at risk of persecution under the authoritarian rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
According to data from the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), a total of 6,230 pushbacks by Greece took place between January 2020 and May 2021.
Greek border forces violently and illegally detain groups of refugees before summarily returning them to Turkey, human rights watchdog Amnesty International said in a report released in 2021.
“I, as a Greek, a European and a citizen of the world, feel deeply ashamed that society, my society, your society, our society, human society, is investing in death in order to prevent the most logical, natural thing, which is human flow,” Varoufakis said, referring to the pushbacks.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in 2021 rejected accusations of abuse against migrants by the Greek authorities, calling his migration policy “Tough, but fair.”
However, according to the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), an alliance of 105 NGOs across 39 countries, “It is a widely documented fact that Greek authorities are pushing people back to Turkey both over the land and the sea borders. There are thousands of documented cases of pushbacks, and this practice is undeniable.”
“It’s not okay to kill people, to push them back,” Varoufakis said, adding: “It’s not okay to push vulnerable people back into stormy seas during the night, hoping that they either will die or they will live and take out their cheap cell phones and call people back in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Nigeria, and in Ghana, and say, ‘Don’t come, you will die’.”
“And this is the whole point of doing this, the pushbacks have this point, it’s a crime. There’s no other way around it,” he said.
When asked about who is responsible for the pushbacks, Varoufakis responded by saying, “Our governments, the European Union, as a bureaucratic institution, the governments of the European Union and the government of Turkey, all our governments, your government, my government, our governments, are participants, they are co-conspirators in a conspiracy against humanity.”
For Varoufakis, what he calls “the instrumentalization of refugees” is ubiquitous.
“Erdoğan instrumentalizes the refugees. He regulates the rate at which they attempt to cross the border or to cross the Aegean Sea. The European Union is instrumentalizing the refugees. I have accused our bureaucrats and politicians of purposefully creating circumstances in which people die; they drown, as a deterrent to similar attempts to come to Europe. These are not accidents. These are orchestrated deaths,” the Greek MP said and added, “The European Union has been planning policies that will lead to deaths that will, they hope, act as a deterrent to others coming over.”
According to data collected by The Guardian based on reports from United Nations agencies as well as the databases of civil society organizations, European countries pushed back 40,000 migrants, forcibly in most cases, between January 2020 and May 2021 alone, and more than 2,000 migrants died during these pushbacks.
“Ever since we came out of Africa — because we all came out of Africa, according to anthropologists — we have been on the move,” Varoufakis said.
“We populated the four corners of the earth. Europeans spent 1,000 years exporting people to the rest of the world. To Australia to New Zealand, to Africa, to America, North America, South America and Latin America, Central America. You name it, we’ve sent people. And now we are creating a fortress. No, no, no, you cannot move. Moving is illegal. And to prevent movement, we are building walls. We are causing people to die.”
Pushbacks of Turks and Kurds fleeing Erdoğan
Greece strenuously denies accusations of illegally pushing asylum seekers back to Turkey.
However, according to witnesses and rights groups, the summary deportations are happening, and they are also hitting victims of Turkish President Erdoğan’s crackdown on dissent.
Crackdown victims fleeing Turkey comprise people accused of membership in the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, and the Kurds who actively participate in the Kurdish struggle for recognition. They are branded as terrorists, a label frequently used by Turkish authorities to legitimize its targeting of critics, according to legal experts.
According to a December 2021 report by Open Democracy, the number of Turkish refugees illegally sent back home by Greek border officials has risen dramatically amid a surge in migration that is fueled by Erdoğan’s crackdown.
When asked his opinion of the pushbacks of Turks and Kurds by Greek authorities, Varoufakis said both Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis and Turkish President Erdoğan were authoritarians and that it is not surprising that they are “de facto cooperating” on the matter.
“Well, you see, the thing is, authoritarians have a tendency to coalesce. Mr. Mitsotakis is an authoritarian prime minister. He operates in a country whose political system is more liberal than Turkey’s. But he’s not liberal. He claims to be liberal. If you look at what he does, he is actually copying Erdoğan,” Varoufakis said.
“I have been following Erdoğan for decades now. And it is interesting how he began his tenure with some reforms by safeguarding democracy from the military and being more inclusive in terms of income redistribution. But slowly, he started amassing power, introducing authoritarianism, giving himself powers that he shouldn’t have, concentrating power in his hands, and destroying what is left of freedom of the press, freedom in the universities. Good friends work in Turkish universities who are suffocating. Turkey was dropping in the international league tables for freedom of the press, for human rights. It is exactly what has been happening in Greece over the last few years. Exactly,” the Greek MP lamented.
“You know, we are now in 108th position in terms of press freedom according to Reporters Without Borders. Journalists have been followed and have been persecuted. The Erdoğan playbook is being copied by Mitsotakis. He wants to be Erdoğan in Greece,” Varoufakis claimed, adding that he did not find it surprising that the two leaders are de facto cooperating.
“When a Turkish democrat flees Erdoğan and comes to Greece, Mitsotakis looks at her or him as a potential enemy and returns her or him to Erdoğan. We must have no illusions about this. This is precisely what happens,” Varoufakis said.
Alluding to the fact that Konstantinos Mitsotakis, the father of Prime Minister Mitsotakis who served as Greece’s Prime Minister from 1990 until 1993, escaped to France through Turkey in 1967 when a military coup took place in Greece and he was targeted as a political leader, Varoufakis asserted that it is a duty for democrats to give shelter and asylum to fellow democrats fleeing dictators.
“And we’re not doing it,” he said.
Pushing refugees back to the countries they fled is illegal under the principle of non-refoulement, which forbids a country from forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to persecution.
Interviews and documents received from lawyers in Greece and Turkey as well as from the family members of victims and the victims themselves allege that Greece carried out at least 233 illegal pushbacks of Turkish nationals between May and December 2021 alone, compared to 98 pushbacks tracked in 2019.
All those pushback victims fleeing persecution in Turkey made it to Greece by crossing the land or sea border. They shared their locations with lawyers or family members via messaging apps, or sent pictures and videos of themselves in Greece, in a bid to prove that they had arrived in Greek territory and to avoid being returned to Turkey.
‘A complete and utter travesty’
Answering a question about whether there might be coordinated action between the Turkish security forces and the Greek border forces on the pushbacks of Turks and Kurds, Varoufakis said he could not say with certainty that that was the case without evidence to back his claim, but said he would not be surprised if it were.
“I think that these allegations must be investigated thoroughly. But in the end, you know what, it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t really matter whether they are coordinating or not — the Greek and the Turkish authorities. The whole travesty can work very well without coordination. The Greek authorities strip-search and abuse political refugees coming from Turkey; then they push them back to Turkey. Whether … they picked up the phone before that to tell the Turkish authorities, who cares. The Turkish authorities will be there picking them up and subjecting them to untold hardship, even torture,” Varoufakis said.
Varoufakis pointed out that the plight of political refugees from Turkey is connected to the refugee crisis and the pushbacks.
“One of the ridiculous aspects of the Angela Merkel and Recep Erdoğan agreement back in 2015 was that Turkey was going to be considered a safe country for, you know, Afghans, Pakistani citizens, and so on, Iraqis, to be returned to. Now tell a Kurd that Turkey is a safe place. And a safe place means what? In law, it means that no asylum can be granted in Greece to somebody fleeing Turkey on the basis that Turkey is a safe country,” Varoufakis said. “So essentially, this idea of Turkey being a safe country violates international law, which very clearly states that anyone has the right to have their application for asylum be heard in the country of their arrival. Here in Greece, you arrive in Lesbos; you apply for asylum, [and] you are told: ‘We are not going to consider [your application]. You came from Turkey. Go back to Turkey,’ because they consider Turkey a safe country. It’s a travesty. It is a complete and utter travesty.”
EU-Turkey migrant deal
“The European Union and Erdoğan back in the summer of 2015 committed a crime against logic and against humanity. Angela Merkel; our prime minister back then, my former colleague Alexis Tsipras; the prime ministers of Italy, of Spain, everyone. They got into bed with Mr. Erdoğan,” Varoufakis said.
The Greek MP is a staunch critic of the EU-Turkey migrant deal, an agreement criticized by rights groups that foresaw the payment of 6 billion euros to Turkey to keep asylum seekers from crossing into Bulgaria and Greece.
Since the deal, the number of migrants and refugees arriving in Greece has fallen sharply. In 2015, 856,000 crossed the Aegean Sea, and this figure dropped to 173,000 the next year and to 30,000 in 2017.
“They agreed on a despicable treaty. Quasi treaty. It wasn’t even a formal agreement. If you think about it, what it amounted to was the Europeans, rich Europe, bribing Erdoğan, giving Erdoğan billions of euros every month, every year, so that Erdoğan would allow the Europeans to violate international law on refugees,” Varoufakis said.
“They are completely complicit, the European leaders. And I think it’s essential for us here in Greece, for you in Turkey, for our friends in Germany, to [join] together and to reclaim the notion of human rights.”
Varoufakis was one of the founders in 2016 of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025, (DiEM25), a pan-European political movement that aims to draft a democratic constitution by 2025 that will replace all the European treaties that are in force today. One year after its foundation, DiEM25 declared that it had more than 60,000 members from across the European Union. The movement’s advisory panel includes such notable figures as two-time Palme d’Or film director Ken Loach, renowned philosophers Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek, former UK Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
DiEM25 calls the EU-Turkey deal “shameful” and aims to call on “Europeans and their elected representatives to overrule” the agreement.
“What matters is that our countries and our peoples must build bridges of peace, friendship and solidarity with anyone who’s being persecuted,” Varoufakis said.
“What we now have instead of bridges are battlefields in which … armies from both sides are attacking the weak. That cannot be allowed to continue.”