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EU Human Rights Chief Tells Greece to Stop Hounding Refugee NGO's

Αssociated Press

FILE- Migrants stand behind a fence at Karatepe refugee camp, on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, Monday, March 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Panagiotis Balaskas)

The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović said Greece's New Democracy government should back off trying to prosecute activists she said have saved refugees at sea trying to reach Greek islands.

The council makes up the heads of state of the European Union's 27 member states but can't force the Greek government to alter its plan that's aimed at non-government organizations it accused of aiding human smugglers.

Mijatović said that “would seriously hinder the life-saving work carried out at sea by NGOs, and their human rights monitoring capacities in the Aegean,” where five Greek islands near Turkey's coast are holding thousands in detention camps.

Turkey is supposed to contain some 4.4 million refugees and migrants who went there fleeing war, strife and economic hardship in their homelands but during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the EU has allowed traffickers to keep sending them, without being sanctioned.

Mijatović in May sent a letter to Greek authorities stating the valuable role she said the NGO's and activists play in helping the country deal with some 100,000 refugees and migrants that the government wants to stop from coming.

She urged Greek legislators to reject a government bill – New Democracy has a majority in the Parliament – as she argued the measure would violate the human “They should refrain from harassing human rights defenders or obstructing their work, whether through legislative, judicial or administrative means,” she added but so far she has been ignored in her pleas.

She also said that the right of people to seek asylum could be undermined although virtually all of them being held want sanctuary, a process that can take two years or more.

“I am disappointed to learn that the comments and recommendations made by the national human rights structures and expert NGOs regarding the lack of sufficient human rights safeguards were not taken into consideration by the Greek authorities,” she said.

Six years after the refugees and migrants began pouring into Greece from Turkey the New Democracy government is, instead of pressing Turkey harder to take back those denied asylum, targeting the NGOs.

In August, The New York Times reported on the crackdown against the NGO's and who said they are trying to rescue refugees and migrants but aren't complicit in trafficking.

HANDS ACROSS THE WATER

That came as police on the island of Lesbos, the favored destination of refugees and migrants, where they are being kept in a temporary tent city, said they brought a case against 10 foreigners, including four members of NGO's, charging them with  facilitating the illegal entry of migrants and espionage, the paper said.

Ten months earlier, police there charged 33 workers of aid groups of similar charges that also included charges of running a criminal organization and violating laws covering state secrets.

A spokesperson for the northern Aegean police, Nikolas Ververis, told the paper that both cases are before prosecutors but that there haven't been any arrests, nor would he name the groups being investigated.

The government has been accused of pushing back migrants and refugees into the sea between Greek islands and Turkey, which it has denied, and with operating inhumane detention centers and camps.

Lesbos police accused those being investigated of “providing essential assistance to organized networks for the illegal smuggling of migrants” under the guise of humanitarian aid, which one of the groups dismissed as poppycock.

It said they used mobile messaging apps to provide migrants leaving Turkish shores with details about Greek Coast Guard operations, the positions of military facilities and other information, the paper added.

Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis didn't respond to a request for a comment but in December, 2020 he said that migrants were being instructed by smugglers to contact Aegean Boat Report, a Norwegian group that monitors migrant arrivals, and another aid group.

The NGO said the government was trying to shift blame for its own failures to help refugees and migrants, calling allegations of its involvement with smuggling rings were “baseless and incorrect.”