The denial of registration for Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) the implementing partner of the ECRE Member PRO ASYL in Greece, marks yet another step in the ongoing crack-down on NGOs supporting asylum seekers and refugees. As protests took place in the recently opened ‘closed controlled’ camp on Samos, another two EU-funded facilities have opened on Leros and Kos. The number of applications from Afghan and Syrian asylum seekers declared unfounded or inadmissible by Greek authorities jumped sharply following the decision to declare Turkey safe third country.

In the context of an ongoing crackdown on organisations supporting asylum seekers and refugees, the Greek government introduced “stricter and more intrusive” requirements for NGO registration in a Joint Ministerial Decision (JMD) in September 2020. However, meeting the extensive requirements is no guarantee. RSA’s registration was recently rejected, despite the organisation meeting all statutory formal and substantive conditions. The organisation on 26 November quoted the doubtful reasoning, saying: the “Gov’t states that supporting persons under deportation is unlawful. This is contrary to international, EU and national law”. RSA announced that it will be “challenging this decision, as an alarming move to exclude civil society from assisting refugees and migrants in accessing their rights”. Greek MP Giorgos Psychogios has submitted a petition to the Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarakis, rejecting the exclusion of RSA as unlawful. Psychogios notes that a deportation order does not deprive people of their fundamental rights under Greek and international law. Further, the targeting of organisations and lawyers and the criminalisation of solidarity challenges the basic principles of the rule of law. Parliamentary questions have also been raised at EU level. Damian Boeselager (Greens/EFA) and Tineke Strik (Greens/EFA) have asked the European Commission to clarify if it considers “the position of the Greek authorities, that legal assistance to persons subject to deportation is unlawful, compatible with European values and the EU acquis”, and of the broader compatibility with EU law of the JMD.

Following the opening of a flagship ‘closed controlled’ facility on Samos in September, another two EU-funded structures opened on 27 November on the islands of Kos and Leros. The minister of migration and asylum Notis Mitarakis called the structures – that feature barbed wire fences, surveillance systems and ID and fingerprint scanning at the gates – “a key pillar of our strict but fair immigration policy”. The EU has supplied 276 million euro for the establishment of closed controlled structures in the hotspots of Leros, Lesvos, Kos, Chios and Samos. According to European Commission vice president Margaritis Schinas, the new openings marked “a historic day”. The Commissioner stated: “The new modern and multipurpose reception and identification centers that we inaugurated today on Leros and Kos are another tangible proof of the undivided European solidarity with Greece”. The remarks by Mitarakis and Schinas are contradicted by protests and testimonies from people confined in the structure on Samos. ECRE member the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) says the structure functions more like a prison than a reception facility, and has described conditions as “tragic”.

In June 2021 the Greek government issued a controversial JMD deeming Turkey safe third country for people originating from the main refugee producing countries. Now, statistics reveal clear indications of the impact for the two main countries of origin of asylum seekers in Greece, Afghanistan and Syria. 620 applications by Afghan asylum seekers were declared unfounded or inadmissible by Greek authorities in the second quarter of 2021 compared to 1,935 in the third quarter. For Syrian applicants, the number climbed from 165 to 640 in the same period.

An EU interpreter employed by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) has handed over evidence to EU officials and filed a complaint after he was violently pushed back to Turkey by Greek border guards reportedly mistaking him for an asylum seeker.  European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson stated: “After direct, in-depth discussion with the person on Nov. 25, I was extremely concerned by his account,” further adding “In addition to his personal story, his assertion that this was not an isolated case is a serious issue”. The interpreter revealed to the commissioner that he had witnessed the pushback of at least 100 people. On 11 November the Greek ombudsman announced an investigating into the interpreter’s claims.

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Photo: ECRE

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