Unable to stop refugees and migrants from continuing to come – through Turkey, which is supposed to contain them – Greece is now turning toward going after aids groups helping them, even to the point of accusing them of human trafficking.
The European Union hasn't sanctioned Turkey for that same practice – under an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal aimed at slowing the hordes coming to Europe – Turkey was paid 3 billion euros ($3.5 billion) to hold in place some 4.4 million people who had fled their homelands, primarily Syria and Afghanistan.
Instead of going after Turkey for letting traffickers keep sending people, mostly to five Greek islands near Turkey's coast, the New Democracy government has targeted activists who said they were rescuing refugees and migrants.
In a feature, The Wall Street Journal – as have other media reports previously – said that Greece has launched criminal investigations into several organizations and imposing tougher requirements about registering with the government.
“We have seen over the last two years an intensification of the crackdown and criminalization of NGOs working with migrants and asylum seekers,” Eva Cossé, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, told the paper.
“The point is to intimidate and harass them. It has already created a chilling effect in civil society,” she said, with the groups saying Greece – instead of applauding Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working to help alleviate the six-year-long crisis – is trying to stop them.
That's under an apparent belief that if the groups aren't working or cooperating that refugees and migrants will have less incentive to come, with some 100,000 held in detention centers and camps on islands and the mainland.
Virtually all are seeking asylum, which can take two years or longer, and Turkey – in another violation of the swap deal – has slowed to a crawl taking back those deemed ineligible, and getting away with it, the EU looking the other way.
Greece said the aim is to stop human trafficking without explaining why it's not putting pressure on Turkey – through the EU as well – at stopping the source, in Turkey.
“We don't want to be the gateway to Europe for illegal migration or smuggling networks. Also we have done a great job of countering smuggling networks, dismantling them,” said Alexandros Ragkavas, spokesman for the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum.
Since New Democracy took power in July 7, 2019 snap elections the government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has cracked down on refugees and migrants, a harder line after the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA welcomed them but kept them penned in camps that activists said were inhumane.
The Greek Coast Guard, bolstered by the EU's border patrol FRONTEX, has also stepped up its presence in the Aegean, on the lookout for refugees and migrants in rubber dinghies and rickety craft, many of which have capsized, killing untold numbers.
The newspaper said that testimony from numerous migrants suggests Greek authorities also also been pushing back migrants and refugees in the sea or using forcible extrajudicial deportations of migrants who have just entered Greece by sea or land, as well as rounding up migrants from inside Greek territory and sending them back across the Turkish border.
Greece has repeatedly denied using pushback tactics, dismissing all evidence and reports in international media as propaganda by Turkey, which has made the same claims while touting that its Coast Guard has been saviors.
THE DETERRENCE EFFECT
The EU has tilted more toward Turkey in the argument without penalizing the practice of Turkey allowing human traffickers to send the refugees and migrants alleged to have then been pushed back.
EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson told Greece's government in July to stop such actions, which she called “violations of our fundamental European values,” without saying why nothing has been done about Turkey.
In apparent retaliation, Greece has gone after after the aid groups that assist asylum seekers or that document the pushback tactics, saying the rescuers by their presence in the Aegean are actually encouraging people to come – thereby making the activists de facto human traffickers.
In July, Greek prosecutors announced a criminal investigation into 10 people, including four NGO workers, “for the offenses of facilitating the illegal entry of foreigners into Greek territory, espionage, complicating investigations by the Greek authorities, as well as other violations of the immigration code.”
They were also accused of “providing substantial assistance to organized circuits of illegal trafficking of migrants.”
Police didn't name any individuals or organizations, but Tommy Olsen, founder and head of Norway's Aegean Boat Report, learned from leaks to Greek media that they were being investigated and ripped the government that he said should have been doing the work left to the NGO's.
Greek police didn't respond to repeated requests for comment about the investigations, the paper said.
Olsen's group publishes reports on Greece's pushbacks and advises migrants and refugees once they have arrived ashore on how to prove they were in Greece, where the authorities are supposed to process any asylum claim they make, in case they are later pushed back.
Migrants send him photos and videos of distinctive landmarks on Greek islands such as churches and road signs, which can constitute evidence in case their legal rights are later violated, the report added.
“If the Greeks go through their phones and see that migrants shared information with me, they use this as evidence of human trafficking or that I'm trying to disrupt police work on the ground,” Olsen said.
Syrian NGO Josoor learned from leaks to Greek media in late 2020 that it was under investigation, said Natalie Gruber, co-founder and spokeswoman for the group, but that it hasn't been contacted by Greek police or prosecutors.
But team members left the country, intimidated by the news and fearful of being arrested and prosecuted instead of lauded.
“I see this as just another part of the European border regime's deterrence policy,” she said.
That was before the rapid fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban raised fears in the EU and Greece that waves of more refugees will try to get into Greece and the bloc through Turkey, which could use them as bargaining chips in demanding more money – the EU earlier agreed to send another 3 billion euros.
In 2020, during the raging COVID-19 pandemic, Greece's migration ministry began introducing stricter legal and regulatory criteria for NGOs and requiring them to submit to a lengthy registration process. About 65 aid groups working with migrants have been rejected under this process, although they are allowed to reapply, said Ragkavas, the ministry spokesman.
Greece also recently designated Turkey as a safe country for five major nationalities of migrants -Somali, Bangladeshi, Afghan, Pakistani and Syrian—meaning that they should seek asylum there instead.