Europe’s Paradoxical Relationship to Human Rights Laid Bare at Greece’s Border

On the 29th of February, Turkish President Erdoğan opened the borders to Greece, especially forcing refugees and migrants to cross the borders to Europe. Thousands of people sought their way to the EU but were met by the military, police and civil vigilantes preventing them with teargas, batons and weapons from reaching European territory. The brutal violence on both sides confined the migrants to a no man’s land without shelter and supplies. Shortly after, the Greek government decided to no longer accept asylum applications, violating a basic human right and the International Refugee Convention. The EU institutions support the actions by the Greek government and sent additional Frontex staff to secure the border. The current Covid-19 pandemic aggravates present issues and poses a particular danger to already threatened lives, amongst others, the people stuck in the refugee camps on the Aegean islands. At the same time, the global health crisis affecting every-body eclipses other issues on smaller scales. 

 Turkey’s decision is perceived as a threat to the European Union on the geopolitical level. By opening the Greek-Turkish border on their side, Turkey breaches the deal with the EU1 and attempts to blackmail the latter to support the Turkish offensive in the Syrian conflict. The EU responds by accusing Turkey of instrumentalising innocent humans to pursue their political goals. In this scenario, migrants are merely reduced to pawns moved around on the board of the geopolitical power game.

Europe’s fundaments are gradually collapsing and instead of rebuilding these, the political forces turn to redress the outer walls of the fortress.

In the speeches held on the 3rd of March in the border town of Kastanies, the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Council Charles Michel, the president of the European Parliament David Sassoli and the president of Croatia Andrej Plenković commented on the situation at the Greek-Turkish border by emphasising the mutual support and unity among European member states in the protection of the external borders. Paradoxically, in the EU’s discourse, the migrants are not described in more human terms but instead identified as a threat. 

The events at the border and the precarious situation in the camps, lacking sanitary equipment, medical care and accommodation facilities, lay bare the paradoxical relationship between, on the one hand, the discourse of Europe as the ideal of democracy and the birthplace of human rights and, on the other, the inhumane actions taking place at the border in an attempt to keep migrants outside of European territory at any cost. It is impossible to make sense of this contradiction. However, it is important to critically analyse the arguments with which the existence of the two realities are justified. Greece, backed up by the EU, has misused the crisis discourse to introduce illegal measures, namely the decision of the Greek government to suspend the registration processes for asylum seekers, the violation of the non-refoulement law and the support of racist and fascist attacks on refugees and volunteers through provocative tolerance, not to mention the horrendous circumstances in the camps on the Greek islands.

The Europe that needs to be protected according to the speakers2 is a Europe built on the pillars of reason and respect for human dignity and human rights (Michel). The universality of the “human” in these terms seems to get lost as soon as people on the other side of the border adhere to it in search of protection. In light of the ongoing “migration crisis”, Europe’s fundaments are gradually collapsing and instead of rebuilding these, the political forces turn to redress the outer walls of the fortress. Thus, the apparent achieved unity is solely linked to the protection of the borders from outer threat. By positioning itself as a victim of Turkey’s power play, the EU seeks to legitimise the violent protection of its external borders against migrants while neglecting its own responsibilities as a geopolitical power in the Syrian conflict. In shifting the discourse from the international geopolitical scale to the inner European level, the EU institutions prioritise their responsibility towards a member state – and its right-wing politics – over the responsibility to protect human rights. It seems as if the European solidarity is confined to the EU’s borders, beyond which it turns into the war-like determination to protect the latter: “Those who seek to test Europe’s unity will be disappointed. We will hold the line and our unity will prevail” (von der Leyen).3

This assertion clearly portrays refugees as a threat; the dominant political discourse of recent years has refigured the refugee as a potential ‘criminal’ or ‘terrorist’ who violently infiltrates the space of Europe (New Keywords Collective 26). “They appear either as threats that call for security measures or as victims that call for aid, frequently shifting back and forth between the affective registers of fear and pity” (Celik 128). The speakers make use of these tropes in order to build the argument for border protection and thus instrumentalise the asylum seekers in the same manner as they accuse Turkey of doing. The asylum seekers are transformed into mere projection screens of objectifying affection, which leaves no space for respect, effectively depriving them of their humanity and rights. Europe’s pretentious role as the ambassador of universal human rights paradoxically co-exists with the EU’s violation of the human rights of non-European citizens hence revealing that there cannot be a universalism without particularism (Celik 129): European identity is based on the principle of exclusion.

“Dehumanization becomes the condition for the production of the human to the extent that a ‘Western’ civilization defines itself over and against a population understood as, by definition, illegitimate, if not dubiously human” (Butler 91).

Refugees, migrants and other minorities are “confined to the realm of the Other”, the necessary Other against which the European identity of the liberal individual is constructed (Celik 129). The current situation at the Greek-Turkish border reveals this violently created fundament of the European identity construction.

The discourse constructing the migrant Other as the racialised personification of the moral and cultural threat towards a European identity is not directly expressed in the speeches, however, it clearly resonates in the violent words and acts of Greece and the EU institutions. Instead of asserting to protect the European identity, the speakers recourse to the argument of a necessary protection of the national security and sovereignty of Greece and the Greek people, “whose safety, properties and social peace are already threatened” (Misotakis). “Greece is now the shield, the real external border of the European Union and the guarantor of stability for the entire European continent” (von der Leyen) or in other words, Greece is the battleground of the European war against migrants. In this light, Mitsotakis’ argument that “only a state can offer help to the persecuted, but there is no state without safe borders” is led ad absurdum by the fact that he is protecting the borders against those that he purports to help.

The aim of stability and order is formulated as a response to the current state of emergency. The characterisation of the situation at the border as a crisis in itself and a part of the bigger “migration crisis” enables the politicians to legitimise strict and violent measures. “The term ‘crisis’ is commonly used to denote a situation of disruption within a prior situation of stability, and thereby associated with imminent danger demanding immediate action” (NKC 10). The immediacy and urgency of the action is prioritised over the conformity of the measures with national and international legal frameworks. The proclamation of the state of emergency or crisis is itself not bound to a set of rules; it is positioned “at the limit between politics and law” (Agamben 1). It is therefore to be understood more as a strategy following the implementation of a political agenda. “The very distinction between … what is ostensibly ‘stable’ and ‘in crisis’ is altogether tenuous, indeed, dubious” (NKC 10).

Agamben identifies “the voluntary creation of a permanent state of emergency … [as] one of the essential practices of contemporary states” (2). The ability to judge a situation exceptional demonstrates a “prerogatory power” (Butler 59), blurring the line between democracy and absolutism (Agamben 3). The thereby implemented “provisional abolition of the distinction among legislative, executive, and judicial powers” centralises these powers in the name of urgency into the hands of one political body (ibid. 7). In the case of the confrontation of the border forces and the refugees at the Greek-Turkish border, the proclamation of the state of exception has an “immediate biopolitical significance” in that the EU seizes the right to monitor the migrant bodies, pushing them back, arresting them and expelling them (ibid. 3). In this scenario the EU, and Greece in particular, are following their interest “through the deployment of authoritarian measures” (NKC 11). Especially in the context of numerous interlocking crises, it becomes obvious that the term ‘crisis’ is more a deliberately used political tool than an objective judgement of a situation based on a universal definition. “Labelling a complex situation … as a ‘crisis’ and therefore as ‘exceptional’ tends to conceal the violence and permanent exception that are the norm under global capitalism and our global geopolitics” (NKC 10f.). The solution proposed by the politicians is the protection of a status quo whose inherent structural violences cause migration in the first place; it is thus not the aim to resolve the problems at their base. This would demand an uprooting of long-established neocolonial hierarchical structures in international relations. By focussing on the political error committed by Turkey, the EU refuses to assume responsibility in causing the ‘refugee crisis’ through the failure to formulate a clear and common politics in the Syrian conflict and a common asylum politics managing the inclusion of millions of refugees in order to prevent a ‘crisis’.

As an international authority and an ambassador for the rights of refugees, the UNHCR4 accused the Greek government of acting against the 1951 Refugee Convention and urged them to refrain from excessive violence and assure a rightful process of asylum applications (UNHCR). The Greek government refers to the sovereignty of the nation state to justify their actions, evoking a process that Butler elucidated in Indefinite Detention: “The law is suspended in the name of the ‘sovereignty’ of the nation, where ‘sovereignty’ denotes the task of any state to preserve and protect its own territoriality” (Butler 55). Where governmentality denotes the democratically led political process, the suspension of law is a “tactic of governmentality” to reintroduce sovereignty, synonymous for divergent authoritarian measures of a nation state (ibid.). The proclamation of the state of exception facilitates this transgression to authoritarian politics within a democratic state.

In these times of multiplication of crises – humanitarian, health, democratic – it becomes more important than ever to observe the political tactics and strategies of governments. We should keep in mind how easily the discourse of crisis is instrumentalised to validate policies and acts that contradict the constitution of democracies and that violate basic human rights in the pursuit of national interests.

The term ‘crisis’ is more a deliberately used political tool than an objective judgement of a situation.

We relate the word ‘crisis’ to certain affects of fear, helplessness and urgency, which can easily be transformed into suspicion and hate directed towards the Other, the outer threat. Before finding comfort in a simplistic solution for a complex situation we should try to understand the origin and ramifications of a situation denoted as ‘crisis’. In light of the endlessness of wars waged for profit and the changing climate, global migration flows will intensify. Hence, we need to distance ourselves from the perspective of a state of emergency to be able to face the future transformations with humaneness and understanding. Faced with the current global Covid-19 pandemic, and a high probability of recurrent future ones, this seems more important than ever. The widely perceived state of emergency is misused to distract from objectionable political processes disguised as measures for the greater good. This argument, however, implies the exclusion of migrants from the right to health care, basic hygienic infrastructure and preventive practices, as the camps are overcrowded, deprived of running water and soap, and a lack of medical staff.


Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. “The State of Exception as a Paradigm of Government”. In State of Exception. Translated by Kevin Attell, University of Chicago Press, 2005 pp. 1-32.

Butler, Judith. “Indefinite Detention”. In Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. Verso, 2004, pp. 50-101.

Celik, Ipek A. “The Overarching Trope of Victimhood”. In Permanent Crisis. Ethnicity in Contemporary European Media and Cinema. University of Michigan Press, 2015, pp. 127-34.

De Genova, Nicholas & Martina Tazzioli (eds.). Europe/Crisis: New Keywords of “the Crisis” in and of “Europe.” New Keywords Collective. Zone Books online, 2016. At:

Lehnert, Mathias. “Von Wegen Recht und Ordnung”. der Freitag, 04.03.2020,

Lehnert, Matthias. “Alles für die Festung Europas”. der Freitag, 25.02.2020,

Mitsotakis, Kyriakos and Charles Michel, Ursula von der Leyen, David Sassoli, Andrej Plenković. Press Conference at the border between Greece and Turkey, 03.03.2020, Kastanies, Greece.

UNHCR. UNHCR Statement on the Situation at the Turkey-EU Border. UNHCR, 02.03.2020,

Varoufakis, Yanis. “Die Angst der kleinen Leute”. der Freitag, 06.03.2020,

  1. This deal designates Turkey as a safe country for asylum seekers and orders any illegally entered migrant back to Ankara. For every person that is thus sent back to Turkey, the EU agreed to take up one refugee from Syria, who has already passed the registration process. Further, the deal grants financial aid to Turkey and loosens the visa regulations between Turkey and the EU.
  2. When I talk about “the speakers” or make a general statement about the discourse in the speeches held on the 3rd of March, I mainly refer to the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Council Charles Michel and the president of Croatia Andrej Plenković. The standpoint of the president of the European Parliament David Sassoli shifts from the general discourse.
  3. In light of the Corona crisis, it appears that the test of Europe’s unity has already failed. If Europe seems united in rejecting the migrant Other, the virus also pried open Europe’s own dis-unity during this crisis, with the more economically privileged nations refusing solutions such as the Eurobonds helpful to the most afflicted countries. The crisis has shown a massive North-South divide inherent to the EU itself and the paradox of the term Union itself.
  4. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees