Greek authorities continue conducting pushbacks with impunity amid a continued crackdown on solidarity. Türkiye, considered safe by Greece, is increasingly unsafe for refugees and Turkish nationals alike and has seen an alarming number of deportations. The closure of the ESTIA programme leaves thousands of vulnerable people on the move without adequate accommodation.

Greece continues its violations of EU and international law by conducting pushbacks. Only in the first week of 2023, the Hellenic Coast Guard stopped 32 boats carrying 1108 people, marking an increase of 125% in pushbacks compared to the first week of 2022. “The lack of action by the Commission has created this atmosphere of impunity”, says Tineke Strik, MEP from the Left/Greens, as the European Commission can hold Greece accountable for its ongoing violation of EU law and initiate infringement proceedings. However, not invoking the tools available are “political decisions”, says Catherine Woollard, director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), adding that “It’s always important to underline that the situation would be much, much worse if legal challenges weren’t taken, because then you have a situation of total impunity, rather than partial impunity”. The role of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, in ensuring respect for the fundamental rights of people on the move at EU’s external borders, has been questioned in an op-ed by Bernd Parusel, an expert in migration and asylum at the Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies. Parusel suggests two options for the agency, that has seen plenty of allegations of misconduct including through complicity in pushbacks in Greece: “I suggest that Frontex could either pursue a policy of withdrawal or non-engagement in member states where risks of fundamental rights violations arise. Or seek to do the opposite: try to show its presence and engage as much as possible to prevent possible violations or at least document and report them”.

Meanwhile, the crackdown on solidarity in Greece persists as a ‘farcical’ trial of 24 aid workers on the Greek island of Lesvos began on 10 January after four years of waiting in what has been described by experts as “the largest case of criminalisation of solidarity” in Europe. The Greek authorities’ accusations against the defendants include crimes such as membership in a criminal organisation, money laundering and espionage. If convicted, some might face up to 20-25 years in prison. Among the accused are Sara Mardini and Sean Binder, who spent 106 days in pre-trial detention in 2018. Sara Mardini, a professional swimmer and refugee in Germany, saved the lives of 18 fellow passengers when together with her sister Yusra Mardini, an Olympic swimmer, she helped drag their sinking dinghy to safety on the journey from Turkey to Greece in 2015. In addition to criminalising her humanitarian work, Mardini was banned from entering Greece to attend the trial and testify, which is a violation of the right to be present at one’s own trial guaranteed in international, EU, and Greek law. Seán Binder, a German citizen raised in Ireland and a certified rescue diver said that the trial is an “attack on the idea of human rights and rule of law”, adding: “If I can be criminalised for mostly doing little more than handing out bottles of water and smiles, then so can anyone. This trial is not about me and Sara, or even the 22 other defendants. This trial is about the Greek authorities trying to crush compassion and prevent people from seeking safety. But I trust that justice will prevail and we will be able to get on with our lives”. “The case was used as an example to stop other young people thinking of coming to Greece to help and join that big wave of solidarity”, said Clio Papapantoleon, the legal representative of Mardini and Binder, while Nils Muiznieks, director of Amnesty’s European Regional Office said: “This trial reveals how the Greek authorities will go to extreme lengths to deter humanitarian assistance and discourage migrants and refugees from seeking safety on the country’s shores, something which we see in a number of European countries”. Moreover, Commissioner of Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, communicated in a statement: “Smear campaigns targeting individuals defending human rights, cumbersome NGO registration procedures and undue pressure on journalists have undermined the protection of human rights and shrunk the civic space in the country”. In addition to the people on trial now, the heads of two other refugee-support groups, Greek Helsinki Monitor and Aegean Boat Report, are facing criminal charges of facilitating entry of migrants and membership in a criminal organisation.

The trial of the 24 humanitarians continued on 13 January after the lawyers submitted their procedural objections on 10 January including lack of clarity of accusations, a presumption of innocence, lack of official communication, and lack of accessible legal information. ECRE member Fenix Legal Humanitarian aid communicated to us: “Friday’s trial is a matter of life and death as the further criminalisation of humanitarians, and especially rescue workers, will result in further loss of life of people seeking refuge. Moreover, while solidarity workers are increasingly faced with prosecution and bureaucratic hindrance, people seeking asylum are most regularly criminalised. One day before the trial of the 24 humanitarians, a significantly underreported case took place: Mohamad appeared in court to appeal his 140+ year conviction for people smuggling. In reality Mohamad is not a people smuggler, but an asylum seeker who fled Somalia in search of safety, and was forced to steer the dinghy he arrived on. This was enough reason for the Greek state to prosecute him. While his sentence was significantly reduced, meaning that he will soon be released from prison, he was not acquitted; he will always be followed by the criminalisation of his search for safety”. Fenix communicated that the persecutor recommended the annulment of the procedure for all the foreigners defendants due to the lack of translation and of the call to trial due to vagueness regarding the crime of espionage, referred cases accused of forgery and membership of criminal organisations to the lower court, and annulled the procedure for the Greek defendants to whom the referring decision was not serviced.

Greek authorities announced on 1 December that Turkiye remains on the list of “safe” third countries for applicants of international protection from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Somalia despite reports and stats proving the opposite. In 2022 alone, Turkiye “broke record” by deporting 119,817 people in its ongoing efforts to combat “illegal” migration. This number of deportees is 159% more compared to the same period in 2021. Meanwhile, 20,802 Turkish nationals have applied for international protection in Germany in 2022 due to “restrictions of basic freedoms as well as political oppression and decrease in Turkish economy”, marking a significant increase compared to 7,873 applications in 2021. Moreover, on 31 December, the Greek government officially closed all ESTIA housing, an accommodation programme which was set up to decongest the migrant camps and temporarily house asylum seekers and refugees. According to the Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarakis, the ESTIA program “successfully completed its goal, having hosted more than 90,000 asylum seekers since its transfer to the responsibility of the Ministry of Migration and Asylum.” While for Fenix, the Greek government didn’t achieve the mission of the ESTIA programme: “the Greek Government took over from UNHCR the EU-funded ESTIA II program with the intention of increasing its capacity from 25.500 to 40.000 places by the end of 2021. Not only did this not materialise, but also in February 2022, the Ministry of Migration and Asylum announced the restriction of the capacity of ESTIA II to 10.000 places by April 2022, aiming to fully complete it by the end of 2022, while there was no provision for the vulnerable asylum seekers currently accommodated there”. Fenix says that the closure of ESTIA programme leaves thousands of vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees without adequate accommodation and urged the Greek government to stop “implementing discriminatory and anti-refugee policies” and “suspend the removal of vulnerable asylum seekers from ESTIA II and take effective measures to ensure that vulnerable asylum seekers are accommodated” in dignified conditions.

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