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Europe’s Human Rights Chief Rips Greece Over Refugee NGO’s

September 5, 2021

The Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner said Greece's New Democracy government, which has become hard line in dealing with refugees and migrants, should withdraw legislation that would punish activist groups helping save them. Under draft legislation before Parliament – controlled by the government – members of charities involved in rescue operations conducted without Coast Guard permission could be jailed for up to a year and fined 1,000 euros ($1,190), with the NGOs facing additional fines and deportations would be accelerated.

The problem for Greece is that the Coast Guard, with the alleged support of the government, has been pushing refugees and migrants back to sea and Turkey, which has allowed human traffickers to keep sending them. The government has denied the practice but stories keep coming in the media repeating the allegations – also made by Turkey, which has gone unpunished for letting human smugglers operate during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union.

The New Democracy legislation would impose heavy penalties on nongovernmental organizations that carry out unsanctioned rescue operations of migrants at sea, the groups saying they are rescuers doing the government's job. Mijatovic, said in a statement that the proposed changes would “seriously hinder the life-saving work” carried out by NGO's, some of which are being prosecuted for rescuing refugees and migrants from rubber dinghies and flimsy craft. New Democracy has toughened border controls since taking office in 2019 and promised more restrictions to keep out Afghans fleeing the Taliban and who want to find sanctuary in the EU.

The government has extended a border wall abutting Turkey along the Evros River, will use drones and high-tech surveillance to find refugees and will step up patrols in the Aegean near Turkey's coast. Mijatovic said some of the measures in the bill had been toughened after a period of public consultation for the draft legislation had ended. “Civil society organizations are instrumental in protecting the rights of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants, and play a major role in reporting and documenting pushbacks or other human rights violations,” she said. Greece has rejected repeated allegations by human rights groups that it carries out summary deportations, or pushbacks, that deny migrants the right to seek international protection.

Lesbos and other Greek islands close to the coast of Turkey were the main entry point for refugees and migrants into the EU during mass displacements in 2015 and 2016 largely caused by wars in Syria and Iraq. More than a million people used the route to cross into Greece and onto other European countries during the crisis before the bloc closed its doors to them, dumping the problem largely on Greece as well as Spain, Italy and Malta. Speaking at a security summit in Slovenia, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis expressed support for a decision by EU home affairs ministers to seek cooperation with countries in the region “to prevent illegal migration from” Afghanistan. “I think what happened in 2015 was a mistake. We acknowledge it openly. We (must) address the need to support refugees closer to the source of the problem, which is Afghanistan,” Mitsotakis said. Based in Strasbourg, France, the Council of Europe was founded in 1949 to monitor human rights across the continent, and has 47 member states including Turkey and Russia, among the world's top violators of human rights. It is separate from the EU which has done too little to help deal with the refugee and migrant crisis, the government said, although the current and former migrant affairs commissioners are from New Democracy.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)

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