Can Europe Make It?

Human rights violations in immigration enforcement at the external borders of the EU

Human rights violations in immigration enforcement at the external borders of the EU are almost a daily phenomenon. Yet, they have been treated as ‘exceptional’. What can we learn from looking at the case of Greek security professionals? 

Dimitris Skleparis
3 June 2014
A man from Algeria is detained in Fylakio detention centre, north eastern Greece

An Algerian man detained in Fylakio detention centre, north eastern Greece. Demotix/Bradley Secker. All rights reserved.From the indefinite detention of third-country nationals and the denial of due process and access to courts, to push backs, ‘sweep operations’, and extraordinary rendition and return policies, illiberal practices in immigration enforcement have long constituted part of the liberal regimes’ migration policies.

They are well embedded in liberal states, as law can safeguard, and, at the same time, curtail fundamental rights. In contrast to the ‘exceptionalism/emergency’ literature, which places illiberal practices outside the normal rule of law, the ‘risk’ literature considers them as routinised banal day-to-day practices of the normal mode of government.

The notion of imminent danger, which is part of the ‘worst-case scenario’ logic, shifts the balance between security and liberty, by always favouring the former in its most coercive form, since any action is preferred to no action at all. This ‘preventive/proactive’ element of risk management produces suspicion and discretion, and undermines our privacy, freedom, democracy and the notion of presumption of innocence.

Risk, and particularly precautionary risk, is the fundamental principle and legitimisation of the liberal state’s protective mandate. However, one should not be deceived into believing that the security professionals’ approach to risk, security and the appropriate control/management of migration is homogeneous. In fact, it is the structural competition among security professionals in Europe over what constitutes the definition of risk, security, and the appropriate control/management of migration that produces the illiberal practices of liberal states. It is this very competition that gives illiberal practices a routine form at the external borders of the EU.

The concept of risk helps us better understand the recurrence of human rights violations in immigration enforcement at the Greek-Turkish borders. To this end, twenty Greek security professionals were interviewed in 2012 in Athens, Lesvos, Orestiada and Alexandroupoli and their discourse was analysed in dissertations they prepared during their period of study at the School of National Security and the Hellenic National Defence College, which train elite security professionals. What follows is the identification of several human rights violations in immigration enforcement in 2012, and their analysis as day-to-day practices of the normal mode of government.

The illiberal practices of Greek security professionals in 2012

In 2012, an unprecedented tightening of migration controls started to unfold in Greece. Operation ‘Aspida’ (‘Shield’) began on August 2, 2012, and enhanced border controls, surveillance and patrols at the Greek-Turkish land border through the deployment of 1,800 additional Hellenic Police Officers, together with technical assets.

This operation at the Greek-Turkish land border was topped-up with the building of a barbed wire fence at the 12.5-km-land border in December 2012. Moreover, operation ‘Xenios Zeus’, which focused on inland detections of irregular stay, was introduced in Athens and then into other urban centres in Greece in early August 2012.

It aimed at cracking down on irregular migrants by detecting irregular residents across the country and subsequently deporting them. The raids on streets and in run-down apartment blocks turned ‘Xenios Zeus’ into one of the largest ‘sweep operations’ ever in the country. In the same period, the Minister for Citizen Protection announced his plans for the creation of 10 operational detention facilities able to host 12,000 people. Finally, in October 2012, through a regulation amendment, the Government extended migrants’ and asylum seekers’ detention by up to 12 months, while it also reduced the period which was accorded irregular migrants for leaving Greece, if not held in detention, from 30 to 7 days.

Since August 2012, illegal push-backs have increased at the Greek-Turkish borders. At the sea borders, the Hellenic Coast Guard deploy what is known as ‘a wall of boats’, while at the land border, whenever a group of migrants is located in Turkish territory, Greek officers arrive at the borderline and create a ‘human wall’ in order to deter the migrants before they cross the border.

These practices constitute violations of the principle of non-refoulement. Human rights violations have also increased in internal migration controls since 2012 according to a recently released HRW report, where the organisation lists practices that amount to ‘arbitrary and discriminatory deprivation of liberty’. It has denounced identity checks that are based on a clearly discriminatory basis, and more specifically, ethnic/racial profiling. It has also openly condemned the routinisation of body pat-downs, bag searches, disrespectful treatment, rude, insulting and threatening behaviour, and the use of physical violence during these checks.

Moreover, Amnesty International has publicly accused the Hellenic Police of apprehending and detaining irregular migrants and asylum seekers who are suspected of carrying infectious diseases, such as HIV, based on their country of origin, poor living conditions, occupation as sex workers or their drug use. The organisation has argued that the disproportionate targeting of vulnerable groups only further marginalises them and exposes them to additional human rights violations.

Finally, migrants’ and asylum seekers’ rights have also been violated in detention facilities with no legal aid, no information and no interpretation. Pro Asyl has described detention practices and conditions, particularly in the Evros region, ‘as amounting to inhuman and degrading treatment’ and ‘synonymous with brutality, despair and dehumanisation’.

Additionally, there have been recorded many instances of police violence against detainees, consisting mainly of punches and kicks to the head and body, while there is virtually no complaint mechanism, which results in the lack of protection of the victims and impunity for the perpetrators.

The commonalities between Greek and European security professionals

The analysis of Greek security professionals’ discourse in their interviews with the author and their dissertations reveals a set of beliefs shared with their European counterparts.

More specifically, a certain homogeneity can be identified among them with regard to their bureaucratic interests, their ways of defining potential risks and threats and of collecting data and information on these risks through diverse technologies. Thus, Greek security professionals seem to share with their European counterparts a ‘common sense’ of the definition of security and risk in Europe, and how to deal with it, which does not, however, preclude disagreements.

This ‘common sense’ consists of the secondary importance that these professionals attribute to borders as the main ‘line of defence’ against threats. Emphasis is placed on the externalisation of border controls and the proactive/preventive policing of both the internal and external borders of the EU in order to prevent migrants from crossing the borders and materialise themselves as threats.

Moreover, Greek security professionals share with their European counterparts a focus on global, transnational or regional security, which stresses the importance of ‘policing at a distance’ and the extensive use of databases, such as EURODAC. A third key element of this ‘common sense’ is the (over)valuation of information technologies, that is the collection and digitalisation of data that aim at the proactive identification of a threat prior to its materialisation. Finally, there is a shared agreement on the centrality of the question of the relevant priorities regarding threats.

More specifically, Greek security professionals’ regional/international security concerns revolve around the idea of European/international security as cultural security. They overemphasise the threat that Islam poses to western civilisation, the incompatibility of Muslim and European values, which renders Muslim migrants unable to integrate into European societies, and the imminent danger of extinction that the peoples of Europe are facing in this regard.

Furthermore, Greek security professionals share with their European counterparts the same anxiety about incalculable risks, since the vast majority of newcomer migrants are undocumented. Indeed, not knowing a migrant’s personal details renders him/her capable of anything. The inability to know a migrant’s past and present instils the powerlessness to predict his/her future behaviour, which informs the rationale of ‘worst-case scenario’ that defines contemporary risk management.

In this respect, special emphasis is placed on the extensive collection of migrants’ personal data and information through the utilisation of advanced technological means, which aim at the proactive/preventive control of the threat. By extension, this reflects the secondary character that Greek security professionals attribute to borders as the key line of defence against the migration threat.

In this regard, they prioritise interagency and intergovernmental cooperation, which aims at the externalisation of border controls, as the main line of defence against migration. More specifically, Greek security professionals express their appreciation for the deployment of FRONTEX forces at the Greek-Turkish borders, as the latter have contributed valuable human and technical resources, and know-how with respect to the proactive control of migration.

Additionally, Greek security professionals highlight the important role that the Turkish authorities have started playing in recent years in the preventive control of irregular migrants. A ‘hot line’ has been established between the local authorities on both sides of the Greek-Turkish land border, which enables Greek security professionals to contact their Turkish colleagues instantly in order to act before migrants manage to enter the Greek territory.

The competition between Greek and European security professionals

However, despite these commonalities, competition and struggles frequently erupt between Greek security professionals and their European counterparts over the definition of security, risks, and the appropriate measures to deal with them. It is this very competition that produces the illiberal practices of Greek security professionals at the external borders of the EU.

The Europeanization of immigration policy has changed the nature of the national fields of security professionals. Progress has been achieved in the Europeanization of security cooperation; yet, this progress does not entail harmonisation, as some security professionals at the national level still stand firm for traditional solutions to security problems and the resort to local knowledge and resources, and a national security agenda in other words, to cope with the risks. Indeed, national interests, traditional military thinking, and the fetishisation of sovereignty are in a constant competition with the logic of ‘policing at a distance’, the essential nature of interagency/intergovernmental collaboration and new technological trends. For these security professionals, clear knowledge and substantial results can be produced solely through human and local sources, and specific inquiries.

Greek security professionals are particularly persistent with regard to having a national security agenda, national interests, and traditional military thinking, which, in turn, inform a narrow definition of security as an all-inclusive national security, which has to do with the safeguarding of the existence and operation of the State’s institutions.

In this respect, national security cannot be achieved without strong Armed Forces. This thinking guides Greek security professionals’ extensive use of war-like metaphors in relation to migrants, such as ‘the armies [...] of miserable migrants [that arrive in Greece]’, which render migration a primarily national security problem.

These concerns instil fear and suspicion into Greek-Turkish relations, which hinder the prospects of bilateral cooperation and impede the possibility of the externalisation of border controls. According to Greek security professionals’ traditional military thinking, the problem of migration in the country starts with the fact that Turkey traditionally constitutes Greece’s greatest national security threat. In this mindset, the possibility of Turkey using migration as a weapon of asymmetric warfare against Greece in order to destabilise her and subvert her national security internally cannot be excluded.

Greek security professionals’ national interests and security concerns also hinder intergovernmental cooperation with other EU member states. More specifically, Greek security professionals express their strong disagreement with the implementation of the family reunification directive and the Dublin II regulation, which are interpreted as national security threats.

Additionally, the EU’s stance towards Greece regarding migration is perceived as hypocritical, since if the EU really had honest intentions to support Greece in this regard, then ‘the burden of illegal migrants’ would be equally shared among all member states.

Furthermore, interagency cooperation is also viewed through the national security agenda lenses, which obstructs the materialisation of ‘policing at a distance’ and the technologisation of risk management. More specifically, FRONTEX is perceived to be serving the national interests of powerful EU member states, such as Germany. The deployment of FRONTEX forces in Greece and their insistence on the harmonisation of screening procedures in the country is interpreted by Greek security professionals as an attempt to transfer the ‘migration burden’ to the member states at the external borders of the EU by rendering them the ‘buffer zone’, or the ‘first line of defence’, against the migration threat.

Thus, these struggles between Greek and European security professionals lead the former to favour the use of human and local sources in the control and management of migration. They perceive as hypocritical the fact that EU officials initially supported the idea of building and funding the fence in Evros, but later on changed their minds.

Moreover, Greek security professionals suggest that Greeks should make their country inhospitable to migrants by stopping their financial relations with them in order to make them see that there is nothing good in the country and leave. Finally, the detention of migrants for extensive periods of time has been extensively employed in the past as an informal deterrence mechanism, according to the author’s sources.


This article has argued that illiberal practices at the external borders of the EU, and more specifically the Greece-Turkish ones, are produced by the constant structural competition between Greek security professionals and their European counterparts over the definition of security, risk, and the appropriate set of practices to deal with it.

Greek security professionals share with their European counterparts a common discourse that focuses on regional/international security concerns, the logic of worst case scenarios, the secondary role of borders as the main ‘line of defence’ against risks, proactive/preventive measures, the externalisation of border controls, the technologisation of risk management, and interagency/intergovernmental cooperation.

Yet, despite these seeming commonalities Greek security professionals are also involved in a constant struggle with their European counterparts over the authority and monopoly to define security, who/what constitutes risk, and how to deal with it.

Within this context of struggles and competition, human rights violations in immigration enforcement at the Greek-Turkish borders can be seen as mundane manifestations of the attempt of Greek security professionals to safeguard their definition of security, and implement their blueprint for the appropriate set of migration control and management measures.

Yet, they end up undermining, not only national and regional security, the very essence of which they were aiming to defend in the first place, but also human security too, by exposing immigrants and asylum seekers to life-threatening conditions. 

(This article draws on more detailed research in progress)

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