The ongoing crack-down on NGOs and criminalisation of solidarity continues at full speed. While denying pushbacks amid new reports of incidents the Greek government announces “blocking” 40,000 people from arriving in the Evros region in the first four months of 2022.

The Special Secretariat for Stakeholder Coordination at the Ministry of Migration and Asylum has approved the registration of the NGO, Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) without amendment of the organisation’s statute. However, the approval comes after an initial rejection of RSA’s application in October 2021 – a decision based on the “development of activity” “in support of persons under deportation” that was allegedly contrary to Greek legislation. The rejection raised significant critique and was deemed “wrong and unlawful amongst others by the Greek Ombudsman intervening in line with his mandate, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, as well as by civil society organizations active on refugee issues in Greece”. In an expert opinion on the “highly restrictive framework for registration” introduced in a second Joint Ministerial Decision (JMD) in April 2020, ECRE stated: “The legal framework does not comply with the requirements that rule of law dictates and the European and international obligations that Greece has undertaken in that regard”. Meanwhile, the ongoing criminalization of solidarity and crack-down on NGOs and journalists continues.

Based on their knowledge of the location of people stranded in the Evros region and requests for assistance on their behalf, NGOs have been accused of cooperating with irregular smuggling networks with authorities reportedly initiating an ‘investigation’ into organisations active in the region. The local commentator Manos Moschopoulos stated: “Once again, Greek authorities are reportedly trying to make sure there are no witnesses to the illegal actions of law and border enforcement” also noting: “I’ve seen this narrative before – ‘how do the NGOs know where refugees are? They must be talking to smugglers!’ Bullshit. Refugees send coordinates to NGOs because they can’t trust the police to do their job. How could they when pushbacks take place at an industrial scale?”. Der Spiegel reporter, Giorgos Christides states: “A more likely explanation of the sudden scrutiny: NGOs have the bad habit of alerting the police, the press, even the European Court of Human Rights about the presence of vulnerable people on Greek soil. The ECHR has issued lately more than a dozen interim measure orders”. The known Dutch correspondent in Greece, Igeborg Beigel who was recently attacked in the street after a heated exchange with Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarachi, faced trial on 1 June in the Piraeus Courts charged with “facilitating the illegal stay of a third-country national” for hosting in her home in Hydra an Afghan refugee who had not yet been granted asylum. The trial was reportedly postponed after the first hearing. MEP for the green group, Tineke Strik commented on the trial: “Criminalization of humanitarian assistance must stop now. Penalisation of pushbacks must start now”.

The Greek government – denying pushbacks despite indisputable and ever mounting evidence – proudly announced on 28 May that 40,000 people had been “blocked” from entering the country along the northern border with Turkey in the first four months of 2022. Defining people on the move as “illegal immigrants,” who: “have tried to enter the country illegally,” Greek Civil Protection Minister, Takis Theodorikakos, stated: “We effectively repel any threat to our country, to our borders”. Greece is planning a massive extension of the border wall along the country’s border with Turkey. According to Notis Mitarachi the steel wall will be extended from 40 to 120 kilometers. The minister stated to local media: “It is a government decision to extend the border wall further and we have requested European funding”. Turkey has not accepted any readmissions under the EU Turkey deal since March 2020 and will reportedly continue to reject returns from Greece unless the country stops pushbacks and revoke the safe third country list – Greece deems asylum applications by nationals from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan and Bangladesh inadmissible based on Turkey being safe for them. Deputy Migration Minister Sophia Voultepsi recently criticised a reporter for asking her about pushbacks, reportedly calling him “A fascist” and the “disgrace of journalism”, noting “There are no pushbacks nor have they ever been proven” and adding: “We don’t care at all what Brussels is saying”. An Interview by Dutch outlet Volkskrant with European Commissioner Margaritis Schinas, does not suggest the Greek government have to fear criticism though. A compilation of translated questions and answers from the interview by Policy Advisor at European Parliament, Julia Verheul includes the following exchange: “Q: There are hundreds of documented examples of pushbacks, but the Commission has never launched disciplinary proceedings. Why not? A: I have a clear conscience about this. External borders must be protected! There will be no EU migration policy without effective border control. I have nothing with political parties and NGOs that shout: “Abolish border control! Please come in and then we’ll see”. Meanwhile, the Deputy Prosecutor of the Supreme Court has provided a “Timely reminder of Greece’s positive duty to investigate discrimination, ill-treatment or rights violation against migrants at a critical time for Rule Of Law”.

Regardless, reports of pushbacks and abuse by Greek authorities continue to emerge. Der Spiegel reporter, Giorgos Christides reports on the pushback of 94 people to Turkey after they were stranded in the Evros region for five days, stating: “authorities showed contempt for the European Court of Human Rights and local prosecutor orders, failing to provide immediate medical help, food & water even though they knew where the group was located”. Further, he describes how Turkish authorities have forced members of the group back across the border under threat of deportations to Syria – the people are now again left on an islet in the Evros river and the European Court of Human Rights has issued new interim measures to provide assistance and not remove the group from Greek territory. ECRE member Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) and HumanRights360 are urging Greek authorities to comply with the ECtHR’s Decisions and rescue 52 Syrian refugees, “amongst whom families with minors with multiple health problems are stranded on an islet in Evros river” for three days. The NGO hotline Alarm Phone also reports of people stuck on an islet in the Evros region, warning of the risk of pushbacks. Greek police forces are accused of having shot with rubber bullets at two Afghans trying to cross the border from Turkey with Turkish media reporting they are now under treatment in a hospital.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.