Six years after refugees and migrants began pouring into Greece from Turkey – where they had gone fleeing war, strife and economic hardship in their homelands – the New Democracy government is accusing activist groups of helping them reach Greek islands and working with human smugglers.
In a feature, The New York Times reported on the crackdown against Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights groups who said they are trying to rescue refugees and migrants but aren't complicit in trafficking.
Turkey, which has repeatedly violated a 2016 swap deal with the European Union by allowing human traffickers to keep operating not only has gone unsanctioned but is being rewarded with 6 billion euros ($7.12 billion) that's supposed to be used to contain them.
Greece now has stepped up claims that Turkey keeps breaking the agreement and also hasn't lived up to taking back those denied asylum in Greece, which is holding nearly 100,000 of them.
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.
That came 10 months after 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.”
“The Greek government’s priorities, sadly, seem far removed from those of us who work to promote and safeguard the security and human rights of men, women and children seeking safety,” the organization said via Facebook Messenger.
In 2020, the government implemented tougher rules for NGO's who often fill in a gap that otherwise sees refugees and migrants go without sufficient help, activists saying the measures are designed to constrain them.
Adriana Tidona, a European migration researcher for Amnesty International, said the regulations and the criminal case against the aid groups were worrying.
“In the past, we have seen Greek authorities senselessly pursuing humanitarian actors for providing assistance to asylum seekers and migrants,” she said. “That shouldn’t continue,” she added.
Iason Apostolopoulos, an aid group employee, had been scheduled to receive an award from the Greek government for rescuing migrants, but that honor was withdrawn, apparently due to his criticism of the country’s migrant policy.
No official reason was given, but a prominent lawmaker from the ruling party referred on Twitter to the aid worker’s criticism of government policies in an apparent retaliation for speaking out.
Tidona said alleged human rights abuses, like pushbacks of migrant boats and violence at the borders, were not properly investigated and “heavily politicized” moves were affecting the public perception of people who work for aid groups dealing with migrants.
A report by Amnesty International last year said that aid workers and journalists were being harassed for their activities related to the migrant crisis that is ongoing.