The World War on Asylum

Malcolm Harris / The Intercept
The World War on Asylum Members of a migrant caravan. (photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

From Mexico to the Mediterranean, rich countries would rather see refugees die than recognize their legal asylum rights.

When people told aid worker Fayad Mulla that as soon as asylum seekers land on Greek soil, they’re immediately chased by groups of “masked men” assigned to kidnap them, Mulla found it hard to lend the stories credence.

Reports and rumors about black ops by Greek authorities have floated around for years, but the idea of state-sanctioned thugs running around beating migrants, throwing them in the trunks of cars, and forcing them back onto boats was too much for Mulla to believe. “It’s a European Union country,” he told an interviewer from the BBC, explaining his skepticism. That changed when he caught it on tape.

Through a long lens, he recorded a video of Greek guards on the island of Lesbos marching migrant families onto a speedboat. In one shot, you can clearly see a uniformed man in a balaclava carrying a child onto the boat. It’s shocking, yet this is part of a logical progression of escalating violence against migrants as governments erode the linked rights to asylum and rescue.

The BBC interviewed Mulla as part of its new documentary, “Dead Calm: Killing in the Med?” which starts with the question and ends with the facts: The Hellenic Coast Guard has turned the internationally recognized right of refugees to apply for asylum into a sick game, chasing down every man, woman, and child who lands unbidden in the country’s archipelago as part of a coordinated effort to deny them asylum rights.

Rather than an exception, the Greek strategy has become a signature model in the global war on asylum-seekers. From Venezuela to Mexico to Libya to Hungary to Japan, we’re seeing a semi-coordinated effort among wealthy countries to abolish one of the few legal responsibilities the world’s rich and comfortable have toward the poor and afflicted.

Mulla’s video, first published by the New York Times in 2023, is a smoking gun, but analysts have also compiled a ton of circumstantial evidence that details an inescapable pattern. Forensic Architecture tracked and mapped over 2,000 instances of what the research group calls “drift-backs” from Greek territorial waters between 2020 and 2023. Once captured by the masked men, migrants are put onto motorless rubber boats and literally shoved toward Turkish territorial waters. Instead of the authorities expelling people directly, according to Forensic Architecture, “natural processes and geographical features of the Aegean archipelago — currents, waves, winds and uninhabited rocks — carry out the expulsion, distancing the perpetrators from the impact of their lethal actions.” The group counts 55,445 people expelled via the technique over three years, including 24 deaths and 17 disappearances.

Not included in the Forensic Architecture count is the June 2023 sinking of the migrant ship Adriana in the Mediterranean, in which over 600 people lost their lives. As recounted by survivors in “Dead Calm,” the Hellenic Coast Guard was so slow to respond to the ship’s distress that presumed negligence becomes probable malice. Ultimately, it was a Mexican-owned luxury yacht that came to the rescue, such as it was. But the Greeks weren’t the only ones responsible for the Adriana disaster: As Mulla said, Greece is part of the EU, and the EU has Frontex, an international border management agency. At its Polish headquarters, Frontex was monitoring the situation, but that didn’t do the passengers on the Adriana much good. Pushed by the BBC to condemn the now well-documented practices of the Hellenic Coast Guard, Frontex Fundamental Rights Officer Jonas Grimheden walked off the set.

Though it appears that the EU is defending the Hellenic Coast Guard, the inverse is closer to the truth: As the southeastern corner of the EU, Greece is responsible for deflecting as many migrants as possible from Europe.

“This border is not only a Greek border, it is also a European border,” declared European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen in a 2020 joint press conference with the Greek prime minister. “I thank Greece for being our European aspida in these times,” she said, using the Greek word for “shield.” Greece is between Europe and many tens of thousands of people seeking refuge from conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East, and it stands astride the border wearing a mask and strapped with a combat knife. In support of this border work, the EU has funneled billions of euros to its member-state. Frontex also deploys aerial surveillance assets, its own ships, and even on-the-ground personnel who have collaborated with Greek police in the drift-back scheme.

Europe doesn’t just fund the Greek side: The European Union has sent over $10 billion worth of assistance to Turkey, a non-member state, to help guard the border. Billions more have gone to Egypt, Tunisia, and Mauritania — all with the goal of reducing the number of asylum-seekers who make it to somewhere within the EU where they can exercise their inviolable rights.

In the Western hemisphere, Mexico serves as un escudo for the United States, shielding its richer neighbor to the north.

President Joe Biden ended the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy, but his June order to halt asylum processing at the southern border has had a similar effect. And under heavy pressure from the United States, Mexico adopted the cost-effective practice of pushing migrants back to the country’s own south, relying on the difficult journey to dissuade people traveling to the U.S. from Central and South America. Last month, the Associated Press reported accusations from an asylum-seeker that she was beaten by Mexican soldiers in front of her children before they were all put on a bus south. Such scenes and their direct connection to U.S. policy are so well-documented that any deniability is implausible, but that seems to be good enough for Biden and the international bodies to which heads of state are supposedly accountable.

If Donald Trump wins in November, the American attack on asylum will only accelerate. Like other conservative demagogues, the ex-president has made “migrant crime” a focus of his campaign, using it as an all-purpose answer in last month’s debate. Along with “Remain in Mexico,” we can expect Trump to reinstate Turkey-style Asylum Cooperative Agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras at minimum. The Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 victory plan goes further, hinting at a frontal attack on the right to asylum itself. “International organizations and agreements that erode our Constitution, rule of law, or popular sovereignty should not be reformed,” the authors write, “They should be abandoned.”

The dastardly Project 2025 schemers are correct about one thing: It is not the prerogative of individual states to protect their borders by whatever means they choose. The right to seek asylum as a refugee is statutorily enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention and is, in theory, one of international law’s few guarantees. Non-refoulement (the French word for “push back”) is supposed to be a human right.

But if the rich Western countries who enforce international law conspire to obviate the same rule, there’s not a lot anyone can do about it. For example, Hungary is currently subject to a $1 million euro fine per day by the EU’s highest court to penalize it for refouling migrants, but Prime Minister Viktor Orbán should be able to afford it: von der Leyen graciously unblocked over 10 billion euros in frozen EU funds for Hungary’s illiberal ruling clique in December. Taken as a whole, the EU’s position is clear — and clearly lawless. Investigative agencies will continue to write their reports, but there’s no way to appeal the decisions of armed men in masks.

As of yet, nations are not challenging the Refugee Convention directly, even as they move to scale back and even nullify its protections. In this environment, nations that sit between the world’s richest countries and its poorest and most war-torn can offer a valuable service as buffers and border guards. Every asylum-seeker that Greece pushes back is one that Germany never needs to worry about accommodating.

Though a climatically and politically unstable world does mean more refugees, the global attack on asylum is not a byproduct of overwhelming immigration. Japan, for example, tightened its policy in June by making it easier to deport asylum-seekers, although the restrictive country only awarded refugee status to 303 people in 2024, which was still a national record. A few hundred people in a population of over 100 million can’t pose any real burden on the country’s resources; the problem is with the principle that people are entitled to flee hardship and seek refuge. The goal is to whittle a right into a rare privilege.

To accomplish that, the West has to find ways to make seeking asylum even less appealing and more dangerous than the wars and disasters people are fleeing in the first place. Authorities must invent new cruelties to administer, cook up new nightmares to visit on the world’s most desperate. With their masks and knives and beatings, the Hellenic Coast Guard leads the way.

“There is a huge amount to learn from the Greek authorities and the Greek government in terms of the approach that they’ve taken towards illegal migration,” United Kingdom Home Secretary Suella Braverman told the press after a guided tour of coast guard operations on Samos, an island notorious for drift-backs. In April, the day after the U.K. passed a new policy that involves deporting asylum-seekers to Rwanda, five people drowned in the English Channel on their way to Britain, including a child.

As far as rich countries are concerned, these drownings are not a problem — they are a model policy solution. So if you want an image of the future, imagine a masked man kidnapping a child, putting her on a raft, and shoving it into the open sea, over and over and over again.

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