MEPs, UN experts and NGOs express support for 24 people facing severe charges and up to 25 years of imprisonment for their efforts to save lives while working and volunteering for the Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI). The number of asylum seekers residing in state-run facilities has dropped significantly, with many left in destitution. A large majority of family reunification requests from unaccompanied children in Greece are rejected by EU member states leaving them exposed to inadequate conditions.

71 members of the European Parliament have signed an open letter in support of 24 humanitarian workers facing charges of human trafficking, money laundering, fraud and espionage over their involvement in search and rescue operations off Lesbos in 2018. The letter – signed by members from five political groups – states: “We express our grave concern about the charges that have been filed against Seán, Sarah, Nassos and others. We call for a thorough review and change to Member State policies that have led to the criminalisation of humanitarian workers such as Seán, Sarah, and Nassos, and to ensure the protection of humanitarian assistance at the EU’s external borders under national and European laws”. MEP Erik Marquardt stated that accusations: “are false and only serve the purpose to criminalise the lifesaving act of rescuing people. […] The Commission must not allow humanitarianism to be punished while human rights violations by EU states go unpunished”. UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor warns that a guilty verdict “would set a dangerous precedent of making criminals of people who support the rights of migrants and refugees across Greece and the European Union”. Further, it would: “lead to more deaths at sea and could see others put behind bars for human rights work”. Via the campaign Free Humanitarians, 49 NGOs have addressed an open letter to Greek authorities and the European Commission demanding the charges against the 24 be dropped. “The charges are exceptionally serious but are far from uncommon as authorities across Europe continue to criminalise people and organisations that assist and support refugees and save lives” they state. According to the organisations, 171 individuals across 13 European states faced criminalisation in 2019, and between 2020 and 2021 at least 44 people in Greece faced accusations similar to those against the 24 people on trial. The case, initially set for trial 18 November, has been postponed until a later date and referred to a higher court, reportedly because one of the defendants is a lawyer. Thereby, the local court criminal court on Lesvos lacks jurisdiction. While the crack-down on organisations and people supporting refugees and asylum seekers is significant in Greece, it also constitutes a wider European trend. In their recent report: ‘Europe: Open Season on Solidarity’ the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders highlight a number of obstacles faced by rights defenders, including: “the difficulty of accessing people on the move and the locations where human rights violations are committed against them; the criminalization and stigmatization of their work and of people on the move; and the increasing involvement of non-state actors in violations”.

According to the Migration and Asylum Ministry, the number of asylum seekers in Greek island facilities and in facilities across Greece has dropped by 76 per cent and 47 per cent respectively. The most significant decrease is recorded in the island hotspots of Samos (92%), Chios (91%), Leros (88%), Lesvos (65%), and Kos (54%). The overall number of asylum seekers in government-run facilities decreased from 71,247 to 37,951 between October 2020 and October 2021. According to local media: 9,794 third country nationals left for European or third countries through return, relocation, and “expulsion” while 7,242 people arrived in Greece. “The decrease in people residing in state reception facilities does not mean refugees enjoy protection. People granted asylum are left in destitution without support or means to access their rights. At the same time, lower numbers of arrivals cannot be disentangled from systematic allegations of push backs to Turkey,” said Minos Mouzourakis, Legal & Advocacy Officer for the Refugee Support Aegean (RSA).

A new report by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) reveals that in 2020 only 469 unaccompanied children in Greece were granted family reunification while 823 were rejected. This means that a total of 74% of all family reunification requests by unaccompanied children in Greece were rejected by other EU member states. Further, the waiting time for family reunification from Greece can be up to two years. According to IRC, as of 15 October 2021, 2,159 unaccompanied children were residing in various types of accommodation in Greece receiving different levels of protection and support. Despite improvements due to decreasing numbers of unaccompanied children in Greece: “Many children continue to be deprived of basic rights and services, such as access to healthcare, education, as well as services of psycho-social and legal support. These are all compounded by the lack of continuity that short-circuits the interim guardianship programme and the delays in the implementation of the permanent nation-wide one”.

Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) Greece has communicated a case to the European Court of Human Rights alleging that the quarantine and reception conditions imposed on a gay unaccompanied child arriving to Lesvos in March 2020 amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The case also challenges whether the minor had at his disposal an “effective remedy” to complain about his living conditions, as required under the ECHR. The NGO stated:: “Unfortunately, S.I. is one of the many cases we are aware of, where children who insist they are minors are incorrectly registered as adults and abandoned to their own devices, instead of being referred to age assessment procedures. It is shocking to see how a child who travelled all the way to Europe in search of protection eventually found himself sleeping next to snakes, was exposed to a heightened risk of COVID-19, and was repeatedly assaulted and revictimized within the very facility that is meant to receive people fleeing persecution”.

On 14 November, a group of fourteen unaccompanied children left Greece to be relocated in Portugal. Since the beginning of the relocation programme for unaccompanied children, a total of 1,063 unaccompanied children have been transferred to other EU states.

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Photo: ECRE

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