Greece pushes back the boats and illegal migration drops from 850,000 to just 12,500. Could the UK do the same?

Suella Braverman MP with Greek border guards during a visit to the north eastern Greek border with Turkey in Alexandroupolis. Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has been vowing to make his country “less attractive” to asylum-seekers and it appears to be working.

UNHCR figures show illegal migrant arrivals to Greece fell from 856,7723 in 2015 to just 12,758 in 2022.

Not only has Prime Minister Mitotakis built a wall to stop illegal migrant arrivals by land, the Greek coastguard are reportedly pushing boats back at sea and stopping them from ever reaching Greek shores.

“In Greece, pushbacks at land and sea borders have become the de facto general policy,” the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Felipe Gonzalez Morales has confirmed.

The Greek islands in the Eastern Aegean Sea have long been a common entrance point into Europe for migrants using Turkey-based smuggling networks. Campaign groups warn the numbers are on the rise.

Currently it is the countries along the Mediterranean coast that bear a large part of the burden. In fact Turkey now hosts more than 4 million refugees, more than any other country in the world. But watch groups report for many migrants, their ultimate desire is to reach “El Dorado, Treasure Island”… also known as the UK.

To stop them entering Greece, the Greek authorities have built a 16ft steel fence along 25 miles of its border with Turkey and ramped up coastguard numbers with increased patrols. They’ve also invested in drone technology, state-of-the-art thermal cameras and radar to systematically comb the waters for the migrant boats.

Suella Braverman MP on board an Hellenic Coastguard open patrol vessel the Fournoi with Coastal Commander Dimitri Tsinias (right) off the island of Samos where she met crew and saw how the Greek authorities are trying to cracking down on migrant crossings. Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The Greek government say the patrols and wall are functioning as an effective deterrent, helping prevent at least 250,000 crossings at the land border last year.

Currently spanning 37.5 kilometers (25 miles), officials say they plan to extend the wall by 35 kilometers over the next 12 months with more than 100 kilometers of wall then to be added to that by 2026.

Just a few years ago, Greece was at the very heart of the global migration crisis. Nearly a million illegal migrants turned up on its beaches in 2015 alone, many fleeing war in Syria.

But in just a few short years, the country has managed to count fewer annual migrant boat crossings than the UK. Just 12,758 people arrived on Greek beaches in small boats in 2022.  

However, Greece’s tough stance has sparked criticism from some. Turkey and global rights groups have repeatedly condemned Greece’s practice of pushing back illegal migrants, saying it “violates humanitarian values and international law by endangering the lives of vulnerable migrants, including women and children.”

The European Court of Human Rights has also condemned the Greek authorities’ treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in multiple cases.

But are “push backs” illegal?

Professor of Maritime Law, Professor Jason Chuah at The City Law School in London says:

“Pushbacks are not illegal per se. The Law of the Sea Convention 1982 allows coastal states to take ‘the necessary steps’ to prevent the passage of any vessel that is not innocent. That includes a vessel seeking to unload persons ‘contrary to the immigration laws and regulations of the coastal State’ (art 19(2)(g)).”

However, he points out that the provision does not absolve a state from its duties under the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) convention. Broadly speaking the convention obliges signatory states, such as the UK, to co-ordinate the delivery of survivors to a place of safety. This may involve cooperating with other states – such as France – to allow the survivors to disembark at a place of safety.

Pushbacks, as long as they are safe, also seem to be welcomed by many Greek nationals. Poll after poll shows the majority of Greeks perceive refugees as potential threats to their country’s scarce economic resources. Furthermore, more than half of the population support the notion that “refugees will negatively affect the economy due to costs on the already struggling welfare system provisions.”

Prof Yannis Tsirbas, who teaches political science at the university of Athens says the Greek public are proving to be “very insensitive” on the issue. He says:

“The government’s stance may be hostile but it has also proven to be a major success.”

In the UK so far this year, nearly 6,000 illegal migrants have already arrived on British shores, a figure which will exponentially grow as the weather gets better over the coming months. Just last weekend 748 illegal migrants were detected crossing the English Channel in small boats without permission to enter Britain.

There has already been a £500 million investment from the UK government as part of a three-year contract with France, meant to help put a stop to the dangerous crossings. The UK investment is supposed to pay for vehicles, surveillance equipment and drones to help stop the boats from leaving France.

However, numerous press reports suggest the British-funded French police have been seen standing by and watching migrants run across French beaches to board the small boats without trying to stop them.

A Calais based journalist told the Conservative Post:

“The police will pretend to stop the boats leaving if they know they are being filmed but in their hearts they want the migrants gone. They want them off French soil. Let it be England’s problem. This is how the French police here in Calais think.

“When the camera stops rolling they even joke about giving them bigger boats!”

In footage captured by ITV last week the “newest UK-funded hardware is watched by unbothered French cops appearing to let migrants cross in front of them.”

Determined to find out how Greece has so dramatically lowered its illegal migration numbers, former Home Secretary Suella Braverman MP went on a fact finding mission spending a day with the Hellenic Coast Guard on patrol in the Aegean waters around the Greek island of Samos.

Ms Bravermann said:

“What Greece have achieved is quite remarkable. They have done that through a zero-tolerance approach of securing their borders and a robust level of deterrence. They have made it clear that if you come to Greece illegally, you’re not welcome.

“And I think what we can learn and take away from their experience is that in order to fix this problem — in order to stop the boats — we need to take bold and tough measures. We can’t be timid. 

“We need to be clear and open about what we are doing and why we are doing it — even in the face of fierce opposition.”

Migration Watch UK, an independent and non-partisan research organisation have been crunching the migration numbers. They are quick to point out that while “immigration is a natural part of an open economy and society, the current level of immigration into the UK is much too high.”

A Migration Watch UK source said:

“The authorities have shown themselves unable or unwilling to ensure that our borders are protected and secure, with more than 100,000 people having entered the country via illegal means in just under five years. The level of immigration needs to be reduced and proper and effective control of the UK border must be restored.”

Their figures show the scale of immigration over the past 20 years is unprecedented in our history.

In 1997, net migration was just 47,000. In the years that followed it rose to well over 200,000 and reached 267,000 in 2005. Under the last Labour government (1997-2010) an extra 3.6 million foreign migrants arrived.

The coalition government elected in 2010 pledged to reduce net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ (a promise that was repeated in 2015 and 2017). However, overall net migration rose to a more than a third of a million.

Suella Braverman MP calls it a growing “hurricane” and says politicians in the past have been “far too squeamish of being smeared as racists” to be effective.

Ms Braverman said:

“Here in the UK we have been incredibly generous through our safe and legal routes. We’ve taken and welcomed more than 500,000 people since 2015 through our humanitarian routes.

“But we need solutions and we need to take bold measures. People have to realise there are far more people in poorer countries who would love to move to Britain than could ever be accommodated.”

Conservative MP Dame Andrea Jenkyns has called for a debate in Parliament on the ‘True Cost of Illegal Migration.’

More to follow.

Find out more at

Main photo: Suella Braverman with Greek border guards during a visit to the north eastern Greek border with Turkey in Alexandroupolis to view surveillance facilities and learn how Greek security forces are monitoring the land border with their Turkish neighbours. Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo


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