People on the move are criminalised, journalists intimidated and solidarity structures increasingly attacked. As violence against people on the move escalates in Greece, the Greek government is trying to cover up its human rights crimes and silence critical voices with repressive laws and criminal charges on flimsy grounds.
Two weeks ago, the brutality of the Greek authorities escalated once again. In July a group of about 40 people, including seven children and a pregnant woman, were stranded on an islet while trying to cross the Evros river from Turkey to Greece. They were forced to stay on the islet for over a month in inhumane conditions. This brutal pushback is the longest ever documented.
Reportedly, the group first reached the Greek bank of the Evros River, east of the village of Kissari, on July 14. Two men are reported to have drowned during the dangerous crossing of the river. The Greek police pushed the desperate group back to the Turkish side. A third man was reportedly killed by the Greek security guards, who beat him so brutally that he died on the spot from his injuries. However, they were not helped in Turkey either. The Turkish officers threatened to deport the protection seekers back to Syria if they did not leave immediately towards Greece. So the people were pushed back to the Greek side, where they faced again the murderous violence of the Greek border police. The group became a pawn in a political power play between Turkey and Greece. Greece reportedly pushed the group back several times, and on several occasions both Greek and Turkish border guards allegedly fired on them. When the protection seekers were stranded on an islet in the middle of the river, the Greek authorities still refused to provide any help. The people had to drink water from the polluted river. On 8 August, a five-year-old girl, Maria, is reported to have died of a scorpion sting. The desperate parents tried to preserve their daughter's body in the water before finally burying her on the small islet. Greece was ordered by the European Court of Human Rights to rescue the group. Instead, the Greek government categorical denied the existence of the group for weeks despite overwhelming evidence.
The cold and murderous line of the Greek authorities in this case led to criticism of the government in the Greek public, where pushbacks and border crimes are not usually widely mentioned. In response the Greek government is spreading massive disinformation about the case and questioning the group's testimony.
The murderous actions of the Greek authorities are not an isolated case. Brutal, illegal pushbacks regularly occur at the Evros river and in the Aegean Sea. According to the Greek government, alone in this year 154,000 people have been “prevented” from reaching Greece from Turkey. But neither the Greek border police nor the coast guard have to justify their crimes or are held accountable for it. On the contrary, not those responsible, but all those who document these crimes are defamed by the Greek authorities. The journalist Giorgios Christides, who regularly reports on illegal pushbacks and other human rights violations in Greece, and a non-governmental organisation have now been targeted by the Greek authorities. A few days ago, Giorgios had conducted an interview with the parents of Maria, who are currently detained in a reception center in Fylakio. The Greek authorities announced that they would take legal action against the non-governmental organisation for allegedly providing him with illegal access to the camp. The non-governmental organisation has taken legal action against the Greek government after the massive human rights violations in Evros.
Activists are being silenced
The attack on Giorgos and the non-governmental organisation is just one example of how Greece wants to obstruct the work of all those who document human rights violations against people on the move at sea, on land and in the camps. This includes journalists, activists and non-governmental organisations. The authorities resort to all means to achieve this. Arbitrary arrests and detentions, restrictions on access to the camps, surveillance and intimidation to cover up the massive human rights violations are common practices of the Greek authorities. Freedom of the press and freedom of speech are restricted!
For example, a government spokesperson publicly called the activist Iasonas Apostolopoulos a "traitor to Greece" for criticising the brutal and illegal pushbacks by the Hellenic Coast Guard during a speech in the European Parliament. This verbal attack on him triggered a massive wave of hate speech and intimidation attempts from the far right, including dozens of death threats. That was not the first attack on Iasonas, there were already intimidation attempts to silence him a few months ago.
Intimidation of journalists is also becoming more frequent in Greece. In particular, journalists who report on migration, especially on the Greek government's handling of it, are confronted with surveillance and intimidation attempts. On Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index, Greece is ranked 108 out of 180, the lowest within the EU.
Mare Liberum and many other civil groups who work on the topic of illegal pushbacks in the Aegean are accused by the Greek authorities in several pending court cases of allegedly forming a criminal organisation whose aim is to smuggle illegal travelers from Turkey to Greece, spy on Greece and steal state secrets. The minister in charge called the groups a threat to national security.
Civil society organisations being targeted
The work of non-governmental organisations has also been severely restricted in Greece for the past two years. Two ministerial decisions from April and September 2020 state that all non-governmental organisations working in Greece in the sectors of asylum, migration and social inclusion must officially register and certify. Without such registration and certification, civil society organisations are no longer allowed to work in Greece.
The registration and certification process creates high bureaucratic hurdles. All organisations must provide an array of officially translated and certified documents, including detailed financial data, personal data of staff and volunteer supporters. The cost of registration and certification is estimated at several thousand Euros. Even if all documents are complete and submitted on time, the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum has the power to refuse registration of non-governmental organisations and individual NGO members for vague and arbitrary reasons.
The legal changes have been criticised by numerous organisations and institutions. For example, three UN Special Rapporteurs wrote to the Greek government highlighting that the legislation is not compatible with Greece's obligations under international law to protect the right to freedom of association. A further amendment to the law in early September 2021 extended the registration and certification requirement to all organisations operating within the jurisdiction of the Greek Coast Guard. The law thus also applies to rescue ships and monitoring missions at sea. Due to this change in the law, Mare Liberum also had to stop activities at sea.
Repression and systematic criminalisation of people on the move
These reforms should also be seen in the context of other changes made by the Greek state in its treatment of people on the move, which are part of an attempt to restrict migration to Greece and the access to asylum, and to cover up human rights violations. Thus, brutal and illegal pushbacks have become the new modus operandi of the Greek authorities towards people on the move since 2020 - without any consequences. They have become a supposed normality in the Aegean. In 2021, the Greek authorities declared Turkey a safe third country for people from Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. This allows the Greek authorities to systematically deport protection seekers to Turkey without examining the application for asylum - the human right to asylum is extremely restricted in Greece.
The few people who manage to reach the Greek islands face systematic criminalisation. In most cases, at least one person is arrested when a boat arrives on the Greek islands. Most are then convicted of "aiding and abetting illegal entry" or "smuggling" for allegedly steering the boats in which they fled. Away from the public eye and without access to adequate legal support, people are systematically sentenced to decades in prison. There is no "fair" trial for the accused that adheres to the applicable law. According to the Greek Ministry of Justice, alleged "smuggler" constitute the second largest group in Greek prisons.
This is partly due to the 2015 European Agenda on Migration, which adopted repressive approaches to migration management. The fight against so-called smugglers was set as a priority. Under the guise of fighting smugglers and securing Europe, draconian measures are allowed against already marginalised people. The real crime, however, is the border regime.
Human rights crimes without consequences
The repression and criminalisation of the Greek authorities against refugees and all those who show solidarity has created a toxic atmosphere of fear. Many NGOs or activist networks have since been forced to stop their work in Greece. This leaves gaps in the solidarity structures that have been standing up for refugees' rights and the concrete improvement of the situation at the EU's external border in Greece for years. In the end, the ones who suffer from this criminalisation policy are all those who try to reach Europe via the Aegean Sea or Evros river and are brutally pushed back and put in danger of their lives. There is no official control mechanism that guarantees the observance of human rights at the EU's external border. If the civilian actors are also removed, the Greek authorities and Frontex will be able to continue to commit systematic human rights crimes against people on the move without this being documented and made public. Illegal asylum laws can continue to be enacted without anyone complaining. The situation at Europe's external borders is thus to be quietly driven out of the public consciousness.