A hearing with United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor revealed that Greek civil society organisations are forced to operate under hostile conditions of harassment and intimidation imposed by authorities as well as far-right activists. Despite conclusive and ever-mounting evidence of violent pushbacks in the Evros region and the Aegean Sea, the Greek government continues its strategy of deflection and denial. After the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) handed over the cash assistance component of the Emergency Support to Integration and Accommodation (ESTIA) scheme to the government in early October it has unravelled within weeks.

The Greek government has long been engaged in a crackdown on NGOs working to support asylum seekers and refugees including through controversial measures like “disproportionate and ambiguous requirements for registration” and the use of criminal investigations to harass and intimidate organisations investigating abuses at the border. After a hearing between civil society and United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, the latter stated:” “I listened with great concern to the defenders’ accounts of intimidation, threats and physical attacks by right-wing groups, as well as what appear to amount to smear campaigns against defenders in the media, allegedly instigated by MPs and police and involving the leaking of the defenders’ personal information, increasing their level of risk”.

The documentation of systematic violent pushbacks by Greek authorities continues to mount. The latest revelations came in the form of extensive video material and forensic evidence brought forward through a joint investigation led by Lighthouse Reports. In their latest quarterly update, Mare Liberum registered 198 documented incidents involving more than 4,900 people illegally pushed back to Turkish waters in the Aegean Sea over the past three months. According to the organisation there were 91 cases involving 2,289 people in September – the highest number recorded since March 2020. According to Aegean Boat Report, 29 people were towed towards Turkey and left adrift with a damaged engine on 8 October after being handed over to the Hellenic Coast Guard by an Italian vessel operating under Frontex command. On the same day footage was released of 18 people violented pushed back by the Hellenic Coast Guard and left to drift towards Turkey. A retired Greek police officer confirmed in an interview that he personally conducted 2,000 pushbacks over 20 years in the Evros region separating Greece and Turkey. He said pushbacks were carried out with the knowledge of authorities and based on orders from superiors.

The Greek government continues to pursue a policy of deflection and denial regarding pushback allegations. In front of the parliament, migration and asylum minister Notis Mitarakis rejected allegations of 24 people pushed back in September and called such reports “organised propaganda” and an “orchestrated attack”. The minister claimed, despite evidence to the contrary, that the incident never happened. He further stated: “Europe is not bordered by warring countries. And the majority of people arriving are not at risk in the last transit country, so it’s important to redefine how [migration policy] works and how border security works”. Greece was among 12 member states asking the European Commission for an “Adaptation of the EU legal framework to new realities”. The group said physical barriers were “a measure for protection of the EU external borders” and asked for such measures to be “adequately funded from the EU budget as a matter of priority”. After the latest round of documentation of violent pushbacks, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson met with Croatia and Greece to discuss violations. Following the meetings the Commissioner stated: “I must say that the Croatian government takes this very seriously, they are going to immediately investigate”, however continued: “My discussion with the Greek minister was different, and I have made clear that I will not accept that Greece do not do investigations on this”. In a measured response, Mitarakis stated “Every claim made is investigated by the judiciary, and by our internal audit”. Greece has announced the deployment of an additional 250 officers to join the 1,500-strong border force over several months, and 800 extra border guard personnel will be stationed at airports and in regions close to the Greek-Turkish border.

After handing over the accommodation component of the ESTIA programme to the Greek government in May, UNHCR has also transferred administration of the cash assistance component of the scheme to the Migration Ministry. The transfer of accommodation responsibility early in the year quickly unravelled and history looks set to repeat itself less than two weeks after the government took over the cash assistance scheme. Due to the inability of the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum to ensure provision of cash assistance hundreds of people in camps in Northern Greece are lacking food. At the same time, the decision to discontinue financial support and food distribution to people who have completed the asylum procedure means people staying in the camps for lack of alternatives are left without access to food. A Legal Note published in the spring by Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) and ECRE member Pro Asyl revealed significant obstacles to documentation and services for people granted international protection.  This has left an increasing number of these people at risk of homelessness and destitution, while countries across Europe attempt to return a rising number of recognized refugees that have chosen to move onwards from Greece.

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Photo: ECRE

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