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It was a clear spring morning on the Greek island of Chios, and the waves pummeled the shoreline, whipping the Aegean into a froth. Antonis Bourmas’ house clung to the edge of a rocky point that faced eastward to Turkey, some 6 miles across the sea. As Bourmas prepared to leave for the school where he taught economics, he spotted something moving in the distance: a boat off the coast of Monolia beach, 200 yards to his north. Through his binoculars he saw that it was lurching toward shore and appeared to lack a working motor. A closer look confirmed his suspicions: This was a boat of refugees coming to seek asylum in Europe.

Bourmas, a trim intellectual with long hair and wire-rimmed glasses, grabbed a jacket and started to scramble down the path from his house toward the beach. He briefly lost sight of the boat, but he soon came across two men and a woman walking in his direction. The woman was carrying a baby and was young, maybe 20 years old, and dressed in jeans, a dark gray sweatshirt, white sneakers, and a black headscarf. She greeted him in English. They were from Syria, she told him, and they had come with 10 more people who remained back at the boat. Could he please help them?

The Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios, and Samos are the main destinations for refugees hoping to enter the European Union through Turkey.

Mother Jones/Datawrapper

Of course, Bourmas assured them. But back toward where he lived, he told them, there was nothing but houses. The best thing to do was turn back and walk toward the town of Agios Ioannis on the other end of the beach. There they’d find a small port building where they could shelter while waiting for the authorities to pick them up, register them, and take them to the nearby camp that housed and processed the island’s refugees—standard protocol for more than 100,000 refugees who had arrived in Chios since 2015.

“Don’t worry,” Bourmas said to the three Syrians. “You’re here now. You’re safe.” The woman nodded and began to cry. That’s the thing that haunts him most, he told me—the final words he spoke as he sent them on their way.

Bourmas then turned back toward home to call for help, as he’d promised. His cellphone wasn’t working properly, but he was able to get in touch with three friends and asked them to contact the Chios police right away. Each of them confirmed later that they had immediately called the authorities. Shortly thereafter, Bourmas looked back down to the shore. The refugees were gone, but police had arrived at the boat and seemed to be inspecting it. Surely they’d convey the group to safety so they could begin their asylum process.

That’s what he assumed. But then, a few days later, he saw a news report about one of the Turkish Coast Guard’s recent sea rescues. In it, a group of officers clad in diving gear and steering a pontoon boat approached a barren, rocky island in the middle of Turkish waters, where at least 10 refugees stood waiting. There was no boat or remains of a boat on the coastline. How the refugees had gotten to this windswept island, and why, wasn’t clear.

LESBOS, GREECE: Volunteers and local residents help a boatload of migrants disembark from their packed vessel, which arrived on the coast after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey.

G.M.B. Akash/Panos Pictures/Redux

And then Bourmas saw her: the woman with the white sneakers and black headscarf, taking the hand of a Coast Guard official and clamoring onto the boat with her baby. It was the same woman he’d met a few days earlier. The group hadn’t made it to the refugee camp after all. Instead, they had been taken back out to sea, and left on the abandoned island with no food or water, just the freezing April winds.

Bourmas was outraged and didn’t sleep for days. He contacted local journalists, who published newspaper stories about what he had seen. But the Greek government denied any wrongdoing, dismissing his story as if nothing had happened.

What Bourmas witnessed is often called a “pushback”—in legal terms, “refoulement”—an extrajudicial deportation of an asylum seeker before they’ve had a chance to pursue their claim. Refoulement is a dirty word in international law; a country cannot legally expel a person asking for protection before they’ve had a chance to plead their case.

While occasional pushbacks have been documented in Greece since the 1990s, in the past two years they have become a routine practice, if not outright policy—stunning in their scope, brazenness, and cruelty. Greece is not alone. The Australian Navy has turned boats of asylum seekers back to Indonesia and Sri Lanka or forced them onto neighboring islands instead of letting them land on Australian shores. Thai authorities have dragged rickety crafts packed with asylum seekers back out to sea; in 2015, pushbacks resulted in the deaths of an estimated 370 people. Recently, armed militias in Poland have literally beaten refugees back across the border to Belarus, where families have frozen to death in the forest. A recent report by Ian Urbina in the New Yorker documented how the European Union is funding secret prisons in Libya where would-be asylum seekers are held to keep them from crossing the Mediterranean and where astounding human rights abuses take place. And at our own southern border, the US government has used Covid-19 threats and an obscure public health law called Title 42 to send asylum seekers back across the border to Mexico—or even all the way back to their home countries—without first considering their claims. Photos of mounted Border Patrol agents chasing down Haitian asylum seekers in Del Rio, Texas, fanned across the internet last fall. These were images of pushbacks in action, dressed up as law.

DEL RIO, TEXAS, USA: This photo of a US Border Patrol agent pursuing a Haitian man on the banks of the Rio Grande prompted widespread outrage. “Human beings should never be treated that way,” said Vice President Kamala Harris.

Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty

Since international refugee law was first developed in the wake of World War II, there has largely been a shared global compact that countries should, morally and legally, protect those fleeing violence or persecution at home. The more than 2 million Ukrainian citizens who’ve fled Russia’s invasion have appropriately benefited from these agreements, though non-citizens, and particularly non-citizens of color, have been blocked from crossing those same borders—a familiar story of exclusion in Europe and elsewhere for refugees from the Global South. Today, the overlapping causes of mass migration—war, inequality, totalitarianism, climate change­—mean more people are on the move than ever before. At the same time, more border walls are being built than at any time in modern history to stop these refugees in their tracks.

But deterrence strategies like border fortification and prolonged detention, or even appalling policies like family separation, have largely failed to keep people from coming. Illegal expulsions, like the one Bourmas witnessed that frigid day on Chios, seem to have a different effect—in Greece and elsewhere. Because they are so violent and take place covertly, they’ve been quite successful in blocking people from crossing borders and diverting them toward other, often deadlier routes instead. In other words, pushbacks are a deterrence strategy that tends to work—and seem destined not only to persist, but to spread, and in turn erode the possibility of safe harbor for those on the run.

In November, I traveled to the northeastern Aegean Sea, across which millions of refugees have made the journey from Turkey to Greece over the last decade, to report on pushbacks. A few days after I arrived on the island of Lesbos—the biggest island in the North Aegean, and where the largest number of refugees had arrived by far—I received an alert from a local activist group. That day, 34 people between the ages of 3 and 50 had landed at dawn on the southern end of the island. The passengers, all from Eritrea and Somalia, had contacted the UN High Commissioner for Refugees hotline, as well as a human rights organization called the Greek Helsinki Monitor, which in turn alerted the Greek and United Nations authorities to their whereabouts and their wish to apply for asylum. They’d also reached out to the Aegean Boat Report, a one-man operation out of northern Norway that documents crossings on its blog and on social media and attempts (largely in vain) to ensure refugees receive protection instead of being secretly expelled.

Once a group contacts Tommy Olsen, the relentless activist who started the Aegean Boat Report in 2017, he collects their geodata and photos to confirm their whereabouts. He thinks one of the best ways to avoid pushbacks is for refugees to be seen by locals and publicly document their arrival. He gets calls practically every day; his phone number has been widely disseminated among refugee networks, and he even suspects that Turkish smugglers hand it out to engender false faith that there’s help on the other side.

After hearing about the 34 on Lesbos, Olsen took to Facebook, where his organization has tens of thousands of followers. “The group is still in hiding,” he wrote, “afraid that if authorities [find] them, they will be illegally returned to Turkey.” His post was accompanied by photos of the bundled-up refugees in an undisclosed inland forest less than a mile from the coast, their faces blurred.

By that evening, still no one had come to their aid.

When the 34 arrived on Lesbos, the Greek government’s pushback campaign had been well documented. Though it started in earnest in the spring of 2020, the seeds had been planted at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, when nearly a million refugees crossed into Greece by land and sea. Several thousand would arrive on Lesbos in a single day. And although Greeks largely welcomed them at first, many citizens and government officials eventually grew weary of the toll and expense of housing the refugees, especially since Greece’s economy was still recovering from the global collapse of 2008. As in the United States, the influx of refugees further polarized Greece socially and politically—and contributed to the rise of both far-right extremism and a strong leftist solidarity movement.

According to EU laws, all asylum seekers must have their claims handled in the country where they first set foot, which means the responsibility of housing, processing, and integrating them rests far more heavily on places like Greece and Italy, where most seafaring refugees make landfall. Though the European Union funds these services, the arrangement can feel wildly unjust to countries that have now, for many years, been on the front lines.

By 2016, the EU had made a deal with Turkey to use its border authorities to stop people from crossing into Europe, and the flow did ebb. But refugees kept coming. In 2019, right-wing politicians led by current Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis swept the Greek elections after vowing to secure the borders and tighten restrictions on refugees. Just months after the new Greek government took power, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that his forces would stop patrolling the borders; thousands of refugees attempted to cross by land and sea, causing a panic across the EU and particularly in Greece. Erdoğan eventually ordered the border patrols to restart, but by then Greek officials had decided to take matters into their own hands. Refugees routinely began reporting to watchdog groups and the press about having been beaten, threatened with knives and guns by masked Coast Guard officials, and stripped and humiliated, as well as having their phones and documents stolen from them, and their rafts intentionally swamped by engine wake.

Because pushbacks happen clandestinely, exact numbers are hard to come by, but human rights organizations make estimates based on a combination of Turkish Coast Guard data, personal testimonies from refugees, and eyewitness accounts. In 2020, a leading sea watch organization, Mare Liberum, documented 9,798 individuals pushed back in the Aegean, and overall fewer than 10,000 refugees managed to register on the Greek islands that year, compared to nearly 60,000 in 2019. In 2021, pushback reports only increased: Between January and September, Mare Liberum counted 9,600 pushbacks in the Aegean—with more than 2,200 reported in September alone. According to the Danish Refugee Council, at least 12,000 pushbacks occurred in Europe in 2021.

KUZNICA, POLAND: The Polish military patrols the border with Belarus in November, when thousands of people attempted to cross as part of what many saw as a crisis manufactured to destabilize the EU.

Irek Dorozanski/Polish Ministry of National Defense/Getty

Despite widespread evidence, the Greek government denies that these mass expulsions are taking place. Not only are they not pushing people back, government officials claim, but they are saving lives at sea by attending to the occasional shipwreck and by supposedly curbing the big business of human smuggling. And in June 2021, Mitsotakis’ government declared Turkey to be a “safe third country” for people traveling from Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, essentially creating a legal framework that makes it easier for Greece to reject asylum claims from these countries.

“I will break and crush trafficking networks,” Mitsotakis told reporters last summer. “Their potential customers will know that they could pay $1,000 or $2,000 and not reach Greece.” 

The day after the 34 arrived in Lesbos, Olsen told me, the group had moved farther up into the mountains, where it was more difficult to get help. He shared screenshots from their WhatsApp messages. “We need UN guarantee that they take us to camp not Turkey,” one wrote.

But no such guarantee came, and still no one had come to their aid.

One of the reasons that pushbacks work is that the Greek government—largely at the hands of local police and Coast Guard officials—has been intimidating, arresting, and criminally charging volunteers, NGO workers, and even journalists who have come to document and lend a hand. Olsen, for instance, spent years volunteering on Lesbos; he was accused of human smuggling and espionage for his work and now cannot return to Greece for fear of being arrested. In 2018, 24 humanitarian workers, mostly international volunteers conducting life-saving rescues in Greek waters, were charged with multiple felonies and misdemeanors and face up to 25 years in prison. In November 2020, a Canadian journalist documenting pushbacks was arrested, his car and equipment confiscated, and charged with smuggling. He was deported and is prohibited from visiting Greece again.

“The Greek authorities’ misuse of the criminal justice system to harass these humanitarian rescuers seems designed to deter future rescue efforts, which will only put lives at risk,” a Human Rights Watch representative said in a 2021 report.

And it seems to have worked. These days, a boat arriving to shore is rarely met with the humanitarian assistance it would have received in the early days of the Syrian refugee crisis. Passengers know to expect pushbacks. When they land, asylum seekers scramble off their boats and into the woods, where they call international rescue lines and appeal for help from the United Nations, often trying to make their way to the island’s refugee camp to register themselves before the Greek authorities find them. It’s a horrific game of cat and mouse, with the refugees often relying on a single man in northern Norway for any hope of protection.

Olsen sent me a voice memo he’d received from the group of 34, in which a man speaks above the sound of rustling leaves. “My language no good. I speak Arabic, little English. We are group, 34 person. We have four child. Please help me, please help us, please help us. We wait here in our place. I’ll send you new location.” Another message read: “We are 34 people, we have been many hours in the jungle. Children with us. They are crying for hungry and cold please come us soon. Some of us are about to dying for hungry and cold. Please and please help us soon.” By Monday, two days after their arrival, the group was still hiding in the forest.

The next morning, as I awaited more news of their fate, I interviewed a Cameroonian I’ll call Pierre—a thin man with short-cropped hair who had owned a flower business in the city of Yaoundé. We met in the foyer of Fenix, a local legal aid organization that had taken up his asylum case. Covid was surging again, and we both kept on our masks as we spoke, the rain coming down so loudly at times that it was hard to hear one another. He spoke with his hands for emphasis, punctuating his words by widening and narrowing his eyes, often shaking his head as he told his story.

In Cameroon, he explained, LGBTQ communities are widely persecuted. As a gay man, Pierre lived one life in public and another underground. But in 2018, he was beaten up for being gay and left for dead on the street. Months later, someone killed one of his friends and threatened to do the same to him. He knew there was no way for him to stay alive, so he sold his business and arranged passage to Turkey, where he boarded a boat to Greece to seek asylum.

At first light, Pierre told me, he could see the outline of a Greek island just up ahead—which island, he wasn’t sure. It seemed like they would make it. But as they neared the shore, a Greek Coast Guard boat approached and began yelling at the group. A larger vessel then started looping around their boat packed with roughly 30 people, creating a whirlpool wake that threatened to swamp their small craft. The authorities began kicking and slapping at people’s outstretched arms. Then, Pierre said, the Coast Guard towed it back into Turkish waters and began whacking their engine with rods and batons until it was in pieces. Just before they sped away, the officers speared the pontoons of the boat.

Pierre’s companions were weeping and praying as their boat took on water. One man said he had already been pushed back several times by the Greek Coast Guard, but this time was different. “They always destroy the engine and take your things,” Pierre remembered him saying. But now it seemed like the officers were trying to kill them.

EDIRNE, TURKEY: Greek police use tear gas to repel thousands of people trying to force their way through the northwestern Turkish border crossing of Pazarkule in June 2020.

Emin Özmen/Magnum Photos

Just before Pierre’s vessel went under, the Turkish Coast Guard appeared and rescued the group, placing them in detention for a day before releasing them in the coastal city of Izmir. Pierre tried again for Greece a month later, this time making it to Lesbos. His group immediately hid in the woods, he told me, afraid of how badly they’d stick out. “We were Black people on an island full of whites.”

They knew the coordinates of the camp and that they were roughly 30 miles away, so they started walking. On their second day there, police found them and loaded them into a van with other non-Greeks. They parked in a remote, wooded area. It was hot in the van, and the authorities opened the sliding doors to let in fresh air. But every time a car would drive by, the police would slam the doors shut, as if hiding them.

Pierre was sure he’d be pushed back to Turkey again, but eventually, by some stroke of luck, the authorities brought his group to the Mavrovouni refugee camp near the island’s capital of Mytilene. He told me he had no idea why, but perhaps because so many people on the island had already seen the group and knew of its whereabouts, it was harder to just disappear them.

As we ended our conversation, it began to rain even harder. I thought again of the 34 people who I worried were still hiding in the forest. Just like when Pierre landed on Lesbos, no one had come to help the group and ensure safe passage to the camp. Over and over, I asked humanitarian aid workers and organizations why this was. Criminalization was the answer I kept receiving—fear of being arrested.

While this of course made sense, the response spoke to a troubling dynamic of human rights work more generally: the degree to which advocates can become desensitized to the very circumstances they are trying to fight. I wasn’t immune. In September, Greece had opened a new detention facility that presaged the future of refugee reception in the country: guarded, prisonlike facilities—located far from urban centers and thus isolated from humanitarian support—that registered refugees could only leave from time to time with special permission. In other refugee camps throughout Greece, refugees have generally been free to come and go as they please. (The Biden administration cited this very model for potential use in the United States.)

When people discussed the camp and decried the closed conditions, I heard a faint voice in my head: “Well, at least they can leave sometimes.” In the US, after all, immigration detention wasn’t like prison; it was prison. What the voice in my head revealed was that, much as I have reported on the terrors of closed immigration facilities, I have also been infected by the impulse to normalize them.

After my meeting with Pierre, I drove him back to the Mavrovouni camp. He raced through the downpour toward the entrance, where he showed his ID and walked through the metal detectors to get back inside. It continued to rain all day and night. The next morning, I drove toward the island’s south, past the mountainous region where the 34 refugees had been hiding for days in the elements with no food or shelter. I wondered if they were still there, or if they’d been found and dragged back out to sea.

After wending through southern Lesbos, I boarded an evening ferry headed into the slip of sea separating Greece and Turkey. I planned to meet a lawyer on the Greek island of Samos named Dimitris Choulis, who seemed to be one of the few people who had figured out how to stop pushbacks as they happened.

Choulis was born and raised on Samos, and, in 2021, he and his colleagues from the island’s Human Rights Legal Project began to openly meet refugees where they come ashore or, more frequently, where they are hiding out in the woods, and immediately alerting authorities and reminding them of laws that protect such actions. Authorities routinely “bully and intimidate” Greeks who help refugees, he said, and seize on any opportunity to detain them for supposed infractions. When I asked him how he managed to successfully intervene when so many others have failed, he shrugged.

“What people have to understand is that Greece is still a country, with laws, and I am merely using those laws and making sure they are followed,” he told me. And, he emphasized, he wasn’t afraid of being arrested or, in spite of the threats he and his family routinely receive, being run out of town. “Poverty didn’t make me leave. Breaking up with my girlfriends and seeing them in the square with her new boyfriend didn’t make me leave,” he said, smiling. “So how can these threats make me leave the island?”

Choulis is a 40-year-old straight shooter with a narrow face and wide grin—a man who constantly seems to be in motion. The morning I met him in the main square of the capital city of Vathy, he was dressed in cargo pants with a hoodie pulled tight over his head, a large umbrella stuffed into his pocket. Even though he had a meeting in a few minutes, he had time for a quick cup of tea. I watched him pour six packets of sugar into his mug. “Are you going to use this?” he said, pointing to my small pot of honey. This, too, he spun into his tea.

In addition to his keen knowledge of Greek laws, a large part of why Choulis has been able to avoid arrest is precisely because he is a local, with local relationships and local respect. In addition to the occasional threat, he also often receives tips. As we walked down the promenade toward the courthouse, an older gentleman stopped Choulis. Yesterday, the man told him, there had been a boat that landed in his southern village, but the authorities took the passengers away. Choulis thanked the man for the info.

“This happens all the time,” he told me.

Choulis has also secured access for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to accompany his team to the arrival sites. After so long a journey and such exposure to the elements, refugees often need urgent medical assistance and mental health support.

But for all his bluster, Choulis is still exceedingly careful not to do anything that cynical government officials might cast as aiding human smuggling. If someone contacts his phone, he asks them to share their location; if they say they are in Turkish waters, he immediately says he is unable to assist anyone outside of Greece.

A few weeks before my visit, he’d met with Cornelia Ernst, an EU parliamentarian who traveled to Samos as part of a delegation to learn more about the refugee situation in Greece. When the delegation arrived on November 3, they learned of a group of refugees hiding out on the island, afraid of being pushed back. Ernst went with Choulis and the MSF team to try to meet them. But the police were blocking passage to where Choulis knew the refugees were hiding out. “It was unclear whether [the police] were also trying to locate the people or surveilling us,” Ernst later wrote on Twitter. “After searching and shouting for 15-20 minutes a group of four men and one woman came out of the bushes, saying they were all Somalis, and that they arrived during the night with 19 other people that they lost after the landing…”

The other 19 people were nowhere to be found. Ernst asked both the Coast Guard representative and the Greek minister of migration and asylum about their whereabouts, but they gave no answer. “Instead,” she wrote, the minister “announced his intention to prosecute the lawyer who was with us”—meaning Choulis. (So far, no charges have been brought against Choulis, and he dismisses the threat: “I want them to bring me to court,” he said.)

BOSANSKA BOJNA, BOSNIA: An Afghan man named Muhamed and his daughter, Saman, carry 10-month-old Darya in her stroller near the Bosnian border with Croatia. The family was pushed back into Bosnia at least 11 times by the Croatian police.

Alessio Mamo/Redux

The night after I met Choulis for tea in the square, Olsen sent an update on the Lesbos 34. Over the past few days, their messages had become more desperate. The group moved farther and farther into the woods, splitting into smaller bands and coming back together again in their attempts to stay hidden and survive. In one message he shared, a woman speaks breathlessly into the phone: “Hello, help me, help me, I’m here with a baby, please, please help me.”

“The children will die of starvation,” another message read. “And so will we.”

Eventually, some of the group ended up at one of the island’s most well-known churches and, at Olsen’s urging, took pictures of themselves in front of it. “It would now be extremely difficult to deny their presence on the island, or impossible,” Olsen wrote on his blog. They found a spot to hide nearby and texted him that a car was approaching. They suspected it was the police. After that, Olsen didn’t hear from them again.

The next day, the Turkish Coast Guard announced that it had found a lifeboat carrying 23 people—12 from Eritrea and 11 from Somalia—who said that they’d spent nearly three days in hiding on Lesbos. The people in photos published by the Turkish authorities matched those in the pictures that the group of 34 had sent Olsen. What had happened to the other 11 people wasn’t clear, but what was certain was that these 23 people had been forcibly removed from Greece, blocked from seeking asylum. Another pushback on the books.

In October, the media outlet Lighthouse Reports published an extensive and damning article on mass expulsions throughout Europe, with footage of pushbacks taking place in Greece. Because the Greek Coast Guard routinely confiscates or destroys phones, such footage is rare. When I asked Notis Mitarachi, the Greek minister of migration and asylum, about the report, he didn’t miss a beat. “I found it shocking,” he said, “and said we have to investigate. [We] asked them to provide detailed information to the authorities.” The investigation couldn’t move forward, he said, because Lighthouse Reports wouldn’t give up its sources. But there was no denying pushbacks were taking place. At a November press conference, a Dutch journalist named Ingeborg Beugel said as much to the Greek prime minister.

“Prime Minister Mitsotakis, when, at last, will you stop lying? Lying about the pushbacks, lying about what is happening with the refugees in Greece?” she asked. “There has been overwhelming evidence, and you keep denying and lying…Why are you not honest? Why don’t you say, ‘Brussels left us alone. We waited for six years, nobody did anything, we need to relocate, they don’t do it…and yes, I do cruel, barbarian pushbacks’?”

Mitsotakis could barely mask his scorn. “I understand that in the Netherlands you have a culture of asking direct questions to politicians, which I very much respect,” he said. “What I will not accept is that in this office you will insult me or the Greek people with accusations and expressions that are not supported by material facts.”

The most telling response to the question of pushbacks I received was from Kostas Moutzouris, the regional governor of the North Aegean. “Because you are recording,” he told me with a smile, pointing to my iPhone on the table, “I don’t accept that there are pushbacks.”

We are no strangers to this kind of doublespeak in the United States, where an attorney for the Department of Justice argued in a public courtroom in 2019 that providing soap and toothbrushes to detained immigrant children wasn’t necessary to the government’s obligations to provide them “safe and sanitary” conditions. Perhaps the best way to navigate these verbal gymnastics is to speak the same language. Choulis told me of a time he reached a group of refugees too late, after the police had already detained them. “Here,” Choulis said to the officers, handing them bags of provisions. “Give them this water and this food.”

“We don’t know what you’re talking about,” he recalls the police saying—there weren’t any refugees there.

“Okay,” he said. “If you find them, give them the water. And if you don’t find them, please also give them the water.”

While EU authorities condemn pushbacks, they, too, seem to be engaged in this doublespeak; all member states wish for fewer refugees and thus benefit from Greece’s actions. There are videos and extensive witness testimony revealing that the European border force, Frontex, has been aware of, if not even sanctioned, some Aegean pushbacks in the past. After the Lighthouse Reports piece, the EU opened an investigation into Frontex and Greek authorities, but so far nothing has come of it.

That seems unlikely to change anytime soon. That’s because, if you look at the numbers—and ignore the pesky legal requirement, not to mention the moral imperative, to respect human rights—the pushbacks are working. In 2021, 8,935 refugees crossed into Greece by land or sea and were registered by the authorities, compared to 15,696 in 2020 and 74,613 in 2019, before routine pushbacks began. But perhaps the pushbacks’ biggest success is that people are now choosing not to head for Greece and are instead seeking out other routes toward Europe—including the treacherous journey through Belarus into Poland, with Belarus using refugees as a cynical political weapon against its antagonists in Europe.

It’s one thing to create laws and build barriers that keep people from crossing a border; it’s quite another to covertly remove those seeking asylum once they’ve already crossed. But viewed another way, all border violence is situated along an advancing continuum. We saw the image of the US Border Patrol officer pursuing the Haitians on his horse, his reins dangling like a whip. How far away is the United States from a similar pushback regime, really? The Greek government has offered a playbook to other countries attempting to stanch their own flows.

When I met with Antonis Bourmas at his clifftop home in Chios, he shared that he will never forgive himself for sending the refugees away, even though he couldn’t have guessed what awaited them. He brought out a bottle of homemade tsipouro, a kind of strong Greek brandy, and poured cups for me, my translator, and himself. The more you study them, the more pushbacks have a numbing effect, one that worsens amid the swelling authoritarian absurdism in Greece and elsewhere: the pretending away of border violence, the creation of systems and physical structures both ridiculous in their overall inefficacy—in 2020, for instance, Greece proposed building a floating wall across the surface of the sea—and epic in their violence.

On Bourmas’ front porch, we looked out across the Aegean to where that border wall might one day bob, and where more boats were sure to cross—and be sent away. “You know it’s up to you to save these people,” he said. “And I didn’t do it.” It was only midday, but we drank anyway.

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.


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