The Greek government is denying that any asylum seekers have been (illegally) pushed back to Turkey, which would contravene the UN Convention provision of non-refoulement, which is also incorporated in Articles 18 and 19 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

On the other hand, some German NGOs have been trying to document that such events are happening. Mysterious masked men (suspected to Greek officials) were seen pushing the potential refugees back. The (Spiegel) article also notes that:

From the Greek perspective, the accusations are largely hypocritical. Turkey itself, after all, is currently involved in returning refugees to war-torn Syria and has, according to human rights activists, already sent hundreds back to that country.

But that does not absolve Greece in case they are found doing the same. Unlike Turkey (or Mexico), where the rule of law is not subject to sharing with supranational entities much, Greece is part of the EU. So, who in the EU would have a legal standing to "sue Greece", and in what court could they present (alleged) evidence that Greece is (illegally) pushing back asylum seekers?

Update: News footage has been broadcast now showing the Greek coast guard firing warning shots at migrant boats and trying to physically push them back. I guess one doesn't need to worry about the identities of those masked men... But the question remains, is there any legal recourse in the EU that e.g. NGOs could pursue?

  • 5
    to be cynical: what would motivate EU to initiate aggressive punishment mechanisms against Greece for something most/all the member states are probably secretly relieved happened anyway? Human rights groups/political parties may try to push something through using EU mechanisms but what would the governments' interests in starting it? They'll hold their nose or be shocked, shocked, at worst. Mar 2, 2020 at 22:14
  • 1
    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica: yeah the EU as a body is probably not going to do it. I'm asking if NGOs could do it somewhere within the EU court system. Mar 2, 2020 at 22:18
  • ok, yes, a closer reading shows that. i'll still stick to my opinion that the EU is not going to as a whole facilitate legal actions anymore than strictly necessary. Mar 2, 2020 at 22:20
  • Who's is entitled to investigate the issue? I thought the legal base is not a European agreement, but a UN treaty.
    – FluidCode
    Mar 3, 2020 at 0:02
  • @FluidCode: non-refoulement is also enshrined in various EU documents; see the 1st Wikipedia link, e.g. "Through court cases (see Soering v. United Kingdom and Chahal v. United Kingdom) and interpretations of various international treaties in the 1980s, the European Commission on Human Rights shifted preference away from preserving state sovereignty and towards protecting persons who might be refouled." Mar 3, 2020 at 1:00

2 Answers 2


Your posting mixes advocacy and questions.

  • Non-refoulement does not allow a refugee to cross as many borders as he or she likes. It requires the refugee to be processed and housed at the first safe country. Calling Turkey safe may be debatable, but it is clearly much safer than Syria, and it is the official position of the EU that Turkey is safe for Syrians even while individual Turkish and Kurdish applications are granted.
  • The ECHR recently judged a case where groups of migrants break through border controls. This judgement was widely criticized by human rights organizations, but it is the decision of the ECHR.

Regarding your question:

  • The EU commission or member states could start an ECJ case for Greek treaty violations if they believe that this is a violation of the EU treaties.
  • Individuals who have been returned can sue in the ECHR.
  • Thanks for the 1st bullet correction; I was actually wondering about that. Der Spiegel didn't question that issue in their article at all... i.e. didn't bother once to say that Turkey could be considered a safe country (safer than Syria anyway). Mar 3, 2020 at 10:40
  • @Fizz, one could try and make the case that Turkey is no longer safe, and that the EU's determination of safety is based on outdated assessments and political expediency. One could also argue the other way, and the outcome in a fair court would be far from certain.
    – o.m.
    Mar 3, 2020 at 17:14
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    Your interpretation of the “non-refoulement” principle is debatable and at odds with a lot of (case) law in various countries. Same thing for safety in Turkey. As far as courts in the EU are concerned, even Greece isn't safe.
    – Relaxed
    Mar 3, 2020 at 20:23
  • @Relaxed, I very much tried to make clear that both views on Turkey can be argued. I do not endorse any side.
    – o.m.
    Mar 4, 2020 at 6:00

Here's a summary of the recently decided (Feb 13, 2020) N.D and N.T. vs Spain case, which was mentioned in the accepted answer. The Grand Court

addressed whether the removal of the applicants amounted to an expulsion or ‘non-admission’ of entry. The GC interpreted expulsion in the generic sense, consistent with previous findings, to mean any forcible removal irrespective of, inter alia, the lawfulness of an applicant’s stay. Indeed, a collective expulsion is characterised as an absence of a reasonable and objective examination of each applicant’s particular case. In the present case, both requirements were satisfied.

However, the GC also highlighted, in accordance with its settled case law, that an applicant’s own conduct is a relevant factor in assessing the protection afforded under Article 4 Protocol No. 4. Indeed, in situations applying to persons who cross a land border in an unauthorized manner, taking advantage of the group’s large numbers, the GC will consider whether the respondent State provided genuine and effective access to means of legal entry. In this case, the GC was not convinced that the State had failed to provide such access, and concluded that the applicants had in fact placed themselves in jeopardy by participating in storming the border rather than using the existing procedures. In particular, the GC observed that the applicants could have applied for visas or for international protection at a border crossing point. It concluded that the applicants’ expulsions did not violate Article 4 Protocol 4. However, it added that this finding does not alter the broad consensus within the international community regarding the obligation for States to protect their borders in a manner compliant with Convention rights, highlighting in particular the principle of non-refoulement.

Furthermore, the GC found that the applicants placed themselves in an unlawful situation by deliberately attempting to enter Spain as part of a large group rather than using available legal procedures. The lack of available individual procedures to challenge the removal was therefore deemed a consequence of the applicant’s unlawful attempt to gain entry. The GC held there was no violation of Article 13 in conjunction with Article 4 Protocol 4.

In view of this, "storming the border en mass" is indeed unlikely to result in anything but (now clearly legal ECHR-wise) pushback.

There's also more commentary (not sure if entirely correct) that

This decision repeals a previous ECtHR judgement of 2017 which had condemned push-backs and which Spain had asked to be referred to the Grand Chamber.

The "repeal" seems to refer to preliminary ECHR judgement in the same case. The same Verfassungsblog page says that the UNCHR had concluded (in its testimony to the European court) that the provision for visa applications was basically legal fiction, with only a couple of applications being made over the years in that border area. But nonetheless the ECHR thought it was paramount. (I think this is important in regard to the Greece events as well.) Also that blog says that shooting in the direction of boats or swimmers has been done before, by Spain in this case:

Migrants trying to reach the Spanish enclaves by sea are equally liable to be pushed-backed to Morocco. Actually, one of these cases put the public spotlight on Spain’s interventions at the border: in February 2014, Spanish Guardia Civil prevented a group of people from swimming to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, even firing rubber bullets, with the result of 15 migrants drowning near El Tarajal beach.

Apparently no legal action was taken on that, but rather Spain passed an even more draconian border law in the aftermath.

N.B. an (informal) terminology that is used to discuss this kind of summary rejection (pushback) is "hot returns" or “hot deportation.” (slightly different from "express deportation" as a summary written order is used in the latter, but not the former).

An article in the Guardian makes it more clear that the latest N.D. & N.T. ECHR decision was indeed an appeal

The grand chamber’s ruling comes three years after the same court unanimously ruled Spain had violated rules that prohibit collective expulsion and had denied the right of effective remedy. The latest ruling followed an appeal by Spain.

The 2020 GC decision was also unanimous. Also surely of relevance:

the governments of France, Italy and Belgium ended up joining Spain’s appeal, indicating that the verdict could have a huge impact on the future of Europe’s migration policies.


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