When dozens of Syrian asylum seekers were stranded on the Greek-Turkish border in July, lawyer Evgenia Kouniaki never imagined that taking on their case would lead to her quitting her non-governmental organization (NGO) in protest against perceived government pressure.
However, in a country determined to reduce migration from neighboring Turkey, rights groups are facing increasing hostility, with some campaigners stepping away from the struggle.
There were once up to 10 people in the Evros region helping victims of controversial “pushback” tactics allegedly used by Greek border forces to return migrants to Turkey, Kouniaki said.
Athens denies their use.
“Now we are fewer and fewer,” Kouniaki said.
About 50 humanitarian workers are facing prosecution in Greece, following a trend in Italy, which has also criminalized the provision of aid to migrants.
“Greek authorities are engaging in a witch hunt targeting refugees, but also their defenders,” 16 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 in-depth investigations by the media and NGOs, alongside abundant testimony from alleged victims, Greek authorities have consistently denied pushbacks.
Meanwhile, Greek officials have kept up verbal attacks on asylum support groups.
“As a Greek ... I will not work with NGOs that undermine the national interest,” Greek Deputy Minister of Migration and Asylum Sofia Voultepsi told state TV ERT in September.
Greece’s conservative government, elected in 2019, has vowed to make the country “less attractive” to migrants.
Part of that strategy involves extending an existing 40km wall on the Turkish border in the Evros region by 80km. An additional 250 border guards are to be deployed in the area by the end of the year.
However, at the Evros River itself, the natural border between Greece and Turkey, refugees continue to make their way to Europe. Humanitarians rarely have access to the militarized area, patrolled by police, Greek soldiers and European border control agency Frontex.
In July, two lawyers were accused of facilitating the illegal entry of migrants while trying to file asylum applications for two Iraqis and five Turks.
In August, the Vienna-based rights group Josoor said that Athens was making “immense efforts” to link them to illegal smuggling, filing three cases against them that did not result in convictions.
The group ceased operations last month.
“There are very few NGOs left in Greece,” Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum Notis Mitarachi told Skai TV this week.
“Among those operating [at the height of the migration crisis] in 2015-2019, the great majority have left the country on their own accord,” he said.
Kouniaki’s then-group, HumanRights360, was embroiled in a row after assisting 38 Syrian asylum seekers stranded on an Evros River islet for several days.
The asylum seekers said that a five-year-old girl died from a scorpion sting during this time, but Athens has sought to disprove the claim, and has since tried to discredit the aid workers who came to help them.
“We have 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, saying that regulation is necessary because they encounter vulnerable people.
New registration requirements were imposed in February 2020. In September last year, a new law criminalized charities undertaking sea rescues without the approval of the Greek coast guard.
Critics said the new regulations would impair services to thousands of vulnerable people.
The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic last year said that the law “would seriously hinder” the NGOs life-saving work and monitoring.
Anti-NGO rhetoric became “toxic” from February 2020 when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would allow asylum seekers aiming for the EU to cross Turkey’s borders, Greek Council for Refugees director Lefteris Papagiannakis said.
“Athens accuses Ankara of instrumentalizing refugees and using them to destabilize Greece. As a result, the NGOs that defend them are described in public discourse as agents of Turkey,” Papagiannakis said.
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