The EU Is Outsourcing Border Control to So-Called “Safe Third Countries”

It’s 9 pm in Thessaloniki, Greece, and on the third floor of a beaten-up office block on the outskirts of town, a presentation is taking place. The lights are turned off and the audience sits down on two couches and a few plastic stools.

“Yes, that’s good,” the presenter says. “Next slide please.”

Elaine Harrold is the presenter, who is an employee of the Border Violence Monitoring Network in Greece. She looks behind her at the large dustsheet. The sheet is propped up on two clothes rails and has a blurry projected image at its center.

“Here’s just one report of a pushback we collected in 2021,” Harrold says. “Pushbacks consist of forcing individuals across national borders without documentation or the provision of basic rights like access to translation. They are illegal, often violent, and stand against every piece of refugee protection legislation in Europe.”

Harrold looks behind her, and turns to point at the pixelated satellite photo. “On September 12, 2021, the respondent we interviewed described being approached by a group of armed police in the center of Thessaloniki, where he was detained, loaded into a van and transported to a cell on the outskirts of the city.

“After two days spent in the cell, a time in which the respondent reports multiple accounts of physical and mental abuse, he was loaded into a police bus with around 30 others, and driven four hours east to Feres. Feres is a border city on the Evros river. The surrounding region is somewhat of a dark zone for media access, but reports speak of ‘warehouse style’ asylum-seeker holding facilities, where basic welfare standards and human rights protections are completely disregarded.

“Here the respondent was collected with around 90 others and driven to the border. The groups were then forced onto dinghies at the river’s edge and told to cross the border to Turkey. The authorities selected individuals from the detainee population themselves to drive the boats, promising the drivers reentry into Europe if they agreed.”

Harrold tracks her finger across the border to Turkey, “The river crossing here is very dangerous and the site of countless asylum-seeker disappearances. The crossing is highly weather dependent. Sometimes, detainees are forced onto the islands between the two nations and prevented from accessing either bank.

“Sadly, events like this one are just a routine occurrence at the southern borders to the European Union, and since 2016, BVMN has collected 1,353 reports of illegal pushbacks across the Balkan entry points. However, it is not surprising that violent methods of immigration control are used in this wider context.

“In the hierarchy of political and geographical privilege, less powerful states like Greece and Turkey are offered massive incentives to limit asylum seekers entering the EU. The issue of harboring and managing the migrating populations is outsourced to these countries, and with the geographical distance and complexities of shared responsibility, the EU politicians who fuel the subsequent human rights abuses rarely have to answer for them directly.”

Detention as default

The following afternoon in Thessaloniki, at the headquarters of the city’s largest refugee support organization, a mother in a giant puffer jacket shields her daughter from the wind. Two young men stand beside her, one holding a crutch in his left hand and the other leaning against a wall.

These individuals are part of the community of “People on the Move” (POTM) in Thessaloniki. “People on the Move” is the most recent descriptor for the complex population of migrants on European soil, encompassing both refugees and asylum seekers. Many of these people lack documentation and cannot access the labor market or healthcare system. They often turn to volunteer organizations for help.

Today, however, this small group will be turned down. It’s mid-afternoon and they’ve missed their chance to be treated. The space used by the volunteer organization is dual-purpose. In the afternoon, the makeshift clinic becomes a distribution centre, stocked with donated clothes, vegetables, and other necessities. Such services are highly needed in the city. POTM is a group of people who are homeless or live in temporary government housing. They are in various states of engagement with Greece’s asylum system. Many of them are discouraged from interacting with police by the threat to long-term detention.

Oxfam was founded on November 16, 2021. “Detention as default,” A briefing on the Greek asylum situation. This 31-page document by Oxfam shows a shocking picture of the Greek asylum system. It suggests that Greece and the EU are conspiring against asylum seekers, creating a hostile environment and using detention centers to undermine any attempt to create a productive asylum system.

Referring to figures as of June 2021, Oxfam points out that 3,000 migrants are in administrative detention. This means detention without criminal prosecution.

There is a long line of POTM waiting to be served. During food distribution, a saloon car pulls up in front of a police officer wearing plain clothes. “They usually don’t bother us too much anymore,” says Bill O’Leary, a retired teacher from the United Kingdom, and the coordinator for that afternoon’s distribution, “They just come here to count the POTM, … trying to track the numbers in the city.”

Second-Class Humans

It’s Friday evening in Thessaloniki, and the waterfront promenade is busy with shoppers, bar-hoppers and teenage couples walking hand in hand. This city is built around the sea. A wooden pier, with benches and teenager groups, extends eastward into the Mediterranean.

“When I was in Turkey, we worked every day,” says Robin, one of the community volunteers. “I was a tailor, working in a T-shirt factory. It’s not very complex work you understand, very basic and hard.”

Robin is Afghani. He’s in his mid-20s with a boyish face and impeccable English. “You take one piece of fabric,” he says, mimicking the action with his hands. “You attach it to another. It is good to have work, but the conditions are very bad and the migrants have no security.”

Behind Robin’s head, the lights of a pirate-themed tourist ship sail peacefully across the bay. “You work all month, and at the end of the month, the boss decides to pay you or not. It is unfair, but the migrant has no power or protection.” The group around him nod solemnly.

Since the Syrian civil War in 2014, the situation of migration in Turkey is becoming increasingly problematic. Massive numbers of people fled to Greece and Italy after the collapse of the government in Syria.

Turkey was created to meet the refugee registration demand. “Temporary Protection” (TP) is a new status for legal registration of migrants. In its initial conception, the TP status was a short-term emergency measure. It offered basic protections but did not include the international guarantees and complexities surrounding asylum seekers. But with the wider economic and political situation at play, this “short-term” plan for TP registration was to come under pressure.

With the signing of the EU Turkey agreement in March 2016, 6 billion euros in financial aid was promised to TurkeyTo shelter refugees and limit their entry to Europe. This was the foundation for a large refugee outsourcing industry. With Turkey currently operating as an active asylum seeker barrier, the temporary protection status would be crucial in managing the additional population.

One of the fundamental rights under the TP status was the migrants’ ability to access the labor market. A work permit under TP could be granted to an individual, which would allow them to earn a minimum wage or provide basic welfare. Importantly, however: the responsibility to apply for these documents lay in the hands of the employerOften, the incentive was to skip formalities and pursue casual deals instead.

“You have not worked hard enough,” Robin says dramatically, lifting the blade of his hand into the air. “You are not worth your full salary. I pay you only half.” He drops the act and smiles, “It is very bad treatment we know. But the migrant has no documents, so they cannot argue.”


Eight years after the Syrian migrant crises began, the country now holds the largest population of refugees in the worldThe majority of them are under temporary protection. Due to the collapse of democracy and other factors, a new wave is now migrating into Turkey. There are other, more dangerous growth factors that can be triggered by the large increase in displaced people crossing the border.

Following consistent EU pressure, the EU imposed a June 2021 deadline. Greece designated Turkey as a “safe third country” for asylum seeker deportation. As a premise, the use of such “safe third countries” is simple. A prospective asylum applicant can return to a country they have already applied for asylum if they have passed through it or have a connection to that country.

In theory, the move to make Turkey a “safe third country” cut Greece’s responsibility for asylum-seeker protection by two-thirds. However, many critics felt that this was a deliberately cynical play by Greece and EU.

“The concept of a safe third country presupposes the provision of a level of protection in accordance with the Geneva Convention on Refugees by the third country,” stated Vasilios PapadopoulosPresident of European Council on Refugees and Exiles and member to the Greek Council for Refugees. It also suggests “the existence of an essential link between the asylum seeker and that country and the consent of the third country. In the case of Turkey, none of the above is the case.”

According to its critics, adding Turkey to the “safe-third-country” list had not only endangered the human rights of the asylum seekers but further extended the means for asylum-seeker outsourcing. With the “safe-third-country” principle in play, a dangerous legal framework had been extended, and the EU now had greater freedoms to use financial and political incentives to pressure Turkey into harboring asylum seekers.

A Crossroads for Europe’s Refugee Policy

The Balkan migratory routes make it easier to travel through Thessaloniki in the spring months. Foot traffic increases as well. The geopolitical climate has changed dramatically since the advent of war against Ukraine.

Make no mistake, Russia’s aggressive invasion has catalyzed both an acute European refugee crisis and a very long tail of humanitarian support required across the region. Let’s put these numbers in perspective: 2015 was the peak of the Syrian migration crisis. 1.3 million refugees crossed the borders into Europe. Fast forward to 2022 and you will see that more than four times as many people have crossed the Ukrainian border in the last three months. 7.2 million peopleYou are in dire need of immediate refuge or long-term support.

How will this new crisis impact the already difficult situation for migrants on the continent, Looking back at our current moment in history, it seems that the next five years could be a turning point in the story about immigration policy in Europe.

With the huge increase in POTM across the continent and the already unstable economic climate, governments will face unavoidable questions. The dangerous practice of outsourcing refugee support to less-stable countries will also be brought into the public eye.

It is too early to predict the outcome of these discussions. In the face of increasing hardship and crisis, the morality and character of European citizens will be tested. Are they willing to accept the reality of human displacement and war at their borders? Or are they willing to close their eyes and use their geographical, financial and political privileges to stay insulated?