As the year came to an end, we at Project Elpida reflected on the events that took place over the course of 2023. In order to look ahead as we enter 2024, it is important to review the most important developments of the past twelve months
Humanitarians on trial in Greece: A more frequent phenomenon
The year started with the then-latest developments in the court case against Sean Binder, Sara Mardini, Nasos Karakitsos, and twenty other humanitarian aid workers previously volunteering for “ERCI” in Lesvos. Court proceedings had just begun, as the onset of the COVID19-pandemic along other reasons for repeated court adjournment had delayed the case for over four years. While the misdemeanor charges against the defenders were dismissed, humanitarians all over Europe eagerly awaited the verdict on the remaining felony charges. When the appeal by a prosecutor to revisit the misdemeanor charges against the former “ERCI”-volunteers brought the case to the Supreme Court, the initial decision to dismiss them was affirmed. However, this process led to a prolonging of the activists’ ordeal, and their case unfortunately remains open. According to the barrister representing Sean Binder, the 29-year old law student is luckily still able to continue his studies and training despite the ongoing hearings against him.
Sara Mardini, who is also among the most prominent figures involved in the trial, was repeatedly banned from traveling to Greece to be physically present for court proceedings. It remains unclear whether she will be allowed entry into the country for any relevant appointments in 2024. Notably, this is only one of many cases against humanitarians in Greece, as they have multiplied significantly over the course of 2023.
Ongoing demands for a fence along the Bulgarian-Turkish border
In February, the focus of human rights experts across Europe was shifted towards the one-day summit organized by the Special Council of the European Union which was organized to host discussions concerning “urgent matters”, such as the devastating earthquake in Türkiye and Syria and the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia. As the Council entered negotiations over what was called “the migration situation”, a fraction among leading figures re-introduced their repeated request to receive funds for the erection of a fence along the Bulgarian-Turkish border. While the one-day summit resulted in the decision to increase security for the “EU external border” and to reaffirm the Council’s “unrestricted support” for the border agency FRONTEX, there was no final agreement on the matter of the fence. However, not least the ongoing negotiations over Bulgaria’s admission into the Shengen zone have centered this issue. While member states such as the Netherlands and Austria remain opposed to Bulgaria joining the “borderless zone” due to the effects on the so-called “Western Balkan route”, human rights experts have been sounding the alarm over violence enacted upon people on the move by Bulgarian border guards.
Since tensions at the border spiked over the course of 2023, claiming dozens of deaths, and resulting in hundreds of illegal push-backs, calls for a fence are likely to re-enter EU-internal discussions. Just this past October, Bulgarian representatives expressly assured Austrian authorities that the border with Türkiye is “well guarded” during a visit from Austria’s National Council President in the Bulgarian-Turkish border region. Unfortunately, as long as the dominant narrative in the EU stresses the purported issue of “security” over human rights, demands such as militarized border fences will continue to be popular among policy-makers and might eventually become reality.
Greece still seeking an expansion of the 2016 “EU-Türkiye Statement”
Meanwhile, activists also shone the spotlight on the latest developments regarding the “EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan”, which had its seventh anniversary in March 2023. Project Elpida, alongside 19 other NGOs, signed an open letter demanding that the so-called “EU-Türkiye deal” should not be extended. The bilateral agreement stipulated a stronger control of shared border regions in return for 3 to 6 billion Euros towards Türkiye, the financial flows of which were suspended in 2023. Despite the resulting heightened risk for people on the move posing a continuous concern for human rights experts, Greek officials shared this past autumn that they seek an expansion of the 2016 statement.
Following a New York meeting between Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Greece’s Migration Minister stated on a publicly owned television channel that there is “more immediate interest” among Greek authorities. This is an alarming development, as experts agree that the bilateral statement led to exponentially higher risks for people on the move towards the EU, due to being faced with stricter security measures, and resulting in more border violence and forceful detention. Most importantly, the “EU-Türkiye deal” significantly contributes to the normalization and legitimization of illegal pushbacks, which once again peaked during the summer of 2023.
Another electoral victory for Greece’s conservative “Nea Dimokratia” party
Developments regarding Greek politics increasingly gained international attention throughout 2023, as the country’s national elections were held in May. While revisiting the migration policies which were implemented since Kyriakos Mitsotakis first took office in 2019, Project Elpida had discussed further implications of another victory for Mitsotakis’ conservative party “Nea Dimokratia” in a blog post ahead of the elections. Since “Nea Dimokratia” indeed forms the country’s cabinet for a consecutive term, the party’s continued anti-immigration policies still hold relevance for the new year. Therefore, we aim to recap the developments since Mitsotakis’ re-election in the course 2024, especially since this year will mark five years of his presidency.
Germany’s “Migration Summit”: What was decided?
As Greece was in the midst of a national election, a “Migration summit” was held on May 10 in Germany, as representatives of the federation’s 16 states met to discuss policies concerning people on the move. Many states had previously requested increased financial support to optimize their management of so-called “integration programs”, which were denied by Finance Minister Christian Lindner of the conservative “FDP” party.
Moreover, Germany-based humanitarians shared concerns that the decisions made during the summit might lead to increased externalization of border policies. In an open letter which was co-signed by 12 NGOs, Project Elpida joined the demands for an increased accommodation of people on the move in Germany, with a particular sensitivity for intersectional marginalization. Despite Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ commitment to allocate an additional 1 billion dollars from federal state-level among the 16 states at the conclusion of the summit, representatives requested a new meeting to be held in autumn 2023. In a resolution paper published this past November, the joint decisions were outlined. These include a transformation of the current federal-to-state financial support system into a “per capita flatrate” for each asylum applicant, the design of a “payment card” model instead of cash payments made towards displaced people, and the installment of a special commission for the topics relevant to flight-migration.
However, the November meeting also resulted in an agreement on stronger border control, increased deportations through bilateral agreements with particular states of origin, and, indeed, an increased externalization of the asylum application procedure. In light of the so-called “Rwanda deal” this development poses a great concern for the international solidarity community and people on the move in Europe.
The CEAS Reform: Which changes will be implemented by the EU Council in April?
At the beginning of this past summer, Project Elpida discussed the potential reform of the EU’s current “Common European Asylum System” (CEAS), an issue which was centered by EU policymakers after the arrival of approximately 8 million people fleeing the full-scale invasion of Ukraine since February 2022. Even though the final resolutions will be decided during the first half of 2024, the current reform plan is available for viewing online. According to the EU Council’s official website, the reform seeks to standardize the treatment of asylum seekers across all member states. However, the Union’s aim to systematize the process and increase its speed for all applicants, bears great risks for displaced people, as the current proposal allows for lesser opportunities to individually and sensitively review each application. Particularly the goal to “make the system more efficient and more resistant to migratory pressure” implies that the current trend of transforming initial reception facilities such as the ones on Lesvos and Samos into more remote, isolated, and highly securitized camps will continue, allowing for less mobility on the one hand as well as less transparency, accountability and increased state control on the other.
2023 - A deadly year
The fires in northern Greece’s Evros region in August 2023 claimed dozens of victims. Among those who were affected fatally, the vast majority were displaced people. This devastating news highlighted once more the increased vulnerability of people experiencing displacement in Europe, and the deep distrust towards state authorities and front-line responders, even during grave emergency situations, as well as the spike in right-wing extremism and targeted violence. Moreover, the shipwreck off the coast of Pylos, which was estimated as the deadliest such incident in the Mediterranean in recent years, resulted in the senseless death of several hundred victims, and triggered investigations into the Greek coast guard Pre-existing allegations against coast guards were affirmed when a detailed timeline of the day in question was unraveled by news reporters, particularly the investigative journalists forming the independent media outlet “Solomon”, who won a journalism prize for their revealing reports on the shipwreck. Joining efforts with “StrgF/ARD” and “The Guardian”, they uncovered that multiple calls for help made from people on deck were ignored, and the wellbeing of approximately 700 passengers was willfully neglected.
While both events made international headlines and held the attention of the public for extended time periods, they were far from the only news reports about the deaths of displaced people along the so-called “EU external borders”. On August 9, a shipwreck claimed 41 lives off the coast of the Italian island Lampedusa. It was survived by four passengers, who told Italian authorities they had initially set off from the Tunisian coast city Sfax, a region which has repeatedly claimed attention for its role in border externalization policies. On October 15, three people drowned off the coast of the Greek island of Symi, and just two days later, two more bodies were recovered from different shipwrecks in eastern Mediterranean waters. Most recently, at least 61 passengers of a boat carrying 86 individuals drowned near Zuwara, northwest Libya, on December 16. According to IOM spokesperson Flavio Di Giacomo, at least 2,013 people died in the Central Mediterranean while crossing the waters hoping to arrive on European soil in 2023. These numbers re-emphasize the fatal implications of the ongoing policies aiming at upholding “Fortress Europe”. Now more than ever, the international solidarity community is aware that many of the incidents leading to the deaths of displaced people are a result of criminal negligence on the side of authorities rather than tragic accidents.
What did this year look like for people arriving in Europe?
Apart from comments on various policy-decisions and news reports, the team behind Project Elpida also shone a light on the difficulties that persist for people on the move in Europe on a grass-root level. Over the course of the last six months, we posted articles on the struggles faced by NGOs operating in Greece who increasingly lack the financial means to effectively support displaced people, as well as the reoccurring issue of detention upon arrival, the degrading, inhumane conditions of detention facilities, and the renewed relevance of discussions around the term “illegal immigration”. As Project Elpida aims to remain attentive to the respective conflicts resulting in flight movements, we also posted an overview of the most important historic and recent developments in Afghanistan and Yemen, two countries that were threatened to be forgotten amidst the ongoing war in Ukraine, which sadly continues to claim countless victims.
Despite the many devastating news about conflicts, deaths, disappointing political developments changes, and the persistence of countless challenges displaced people and those who are supporting them continue face in Europe, we were also able to remain hopeful, mainly due to the support we and other NGOs were able to not only retain but widen throughout the year. We would like to thank our readers, donors, followers, and all our network for the engagement and care we were collectively able to demonstrate in 2023. Project Elpida’s Advocacy Blog will continue to include individual campaign reports and updates about the various sites the team is engaged at in 2024.
Happy new year, in solidarity! ELPIDA stands for hope!