Migrant groups denounce ‘witch hunts’ as Greece tightens grip

With dozens of Syrian asylum seekers stranded on the Greek-Turkish border in July, lawyer Evgenia Kouniaki never imagined that taking on her case would see her quit her NGO in protest at perceived government pressure.

But in a country determined to reduce migration from neighboring Turkey, rights groups are facing mounting hostility as some activists pull out of the fight.

Kouniaki told AFP that there were once up to 10 people in the Evros region who helped victims of controversial “pushback” tactics allegedly used by Greek border guards to bring migrants back to Turkey. Athens denies their use.

“Now we are fewer and fewer,” she says, complaining that she got less legal work because of her involvement in the sensitive case of the Syrian migrants.

About 50 humanitarian workers are currently being prosecuted in Greece, following a trend in Italy that also criminalizes providing aid to migrants.

“The Greek authorities are conducting a witch hunt against refugees but also against their defenders,” sixteen human rights groups said last month.

The organizations, which included prominent NGOs Refugee Support Aegean, the Greek Council for Refugees and the Greek League for Human Rights, called on the country’s authorities to stop “undermining and demonizing” migrant support groups.

Despite extensive media and NGO investigations and numerous testimonies from alleged victims, the Greek authorities have consistently denied pushbacks.

Greek officials, meanwhile, have continued to verbally attack asylum support groups.

“As a Greek … I will not work with NGOs that undermine national interests,” Deputy Migration Minister Sofia Voultepsi told state television ERT in September.

Greece’s conservative government, elected in 2019, has promised to make the country “less attractive” to migrants.

border wall

Part of this strategy is the extension of an existing 40-kilometer wall on the Turkish border in the Evros region by 80 kilometers.

A further 250 border guards are to be deployed in the area by the end of the year.

But on the Evros River itself, the natural border between Greece and Turkey, refugees continue to make their way to Europe.

Humanitarian workers rarely have access to the militarized area, which is patrolled by police, Greek soldiers and the European border control agency Frontex.

In July, two lawyers were accused of facilitating illegal entry for migrants when they tried to file asylum applications for two Iraqis and five Turks.

In August, Vienna-based human rights group Josoor said Athens was making “enormous efforts” to link them to illegal smuggling and filed three cases against them that did not lead to convictions. The group ceased its activities in October.

“There are very few NGOs left in Greece,” Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi told Skai TV this week.

“Of those operating (at the height of the migration crisis) in 2015-2019, the vast majority left the country of their own volition,” he said.

Kouniaki’s then-group HumanRights360 was embroiled in a row after supporting the 38 Syrian asylum-seekers stranded on an island in the Evros River for several days.

The asylum seekers claim that a five-year-old girl died of a scorpion sting during this period.

But Athens has tried to refute the claim and has since tried to discredit the aides who came to help them.

The HumanRights360 manager did a U-turn after initially claiming the island was Greek, which would have held the migrants Athens accountable, and finally publicly saying it was Turkish.

Many of the NGO’s staff, including Kouniaki, resigned in protest at the about-face, insisting that HumanRights360 had been forced to intervene by the government.

“Toxic” rhetoric

“We’ve had to deal with dozens of similar situations … but this high-profile case embarrassed the government,” said Kouniaki, who was denied access to the northern Greek camp where the Syrians were later taken.

Athens has taken steps to control the work of migrant groups, arguing that regulation is necessary because they encounter vulnerable people.

New registration requirements were introduced in February 2020. In September 2021, a new law criminalized charities that carried out sea rescues without the consent of the Greek Coast Guard.

Critics warned the new rules would affect services for thousands of vulnerable people.

The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatovic, warned last year that the law would “seriously hamper” NGOs’ life-saving work and surveillance.

Anti-NGO rhetoric turned “poisonous” from February 2020, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would allow asylum seekers bound for the EU to cross Turkey’s borders, said Lefteris Papagiannakis, director of the Greek Refugee Council.

“Athens accuses Ankara of exploiting refugees and using them to destabilize Greece. As a result, the NGOs that defend them are labeled as agents of Turkey in public discourse,” Papagiannakis said.

UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor said in June that there was “increasing criminalization of humanitarian aid” in Greece.

She also criticized “hostile remarks” towards human rights defenders who are “labeled as traitors, enemies of the state, Turkish agents, criminals and smugglers and human traffickers” – sometimes by key government figures.

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