ATHENS – Greece’s attempts to keep out refugees and migrants has led to prosecuting some of those helping or rescuing them, while also denying pushing them back at the land border with Turkey and at sea near Greek islands.
In a feature for Middle East Eye, correspondent Patrick O. Strickland wrote of the case of refugee rights activist Panayote Dimitras being among those charged and saying authorities “wanted to shut me down as quickly as possible”.
Dimitras is Director of Greek Helsinki Monitor and supports refugees and migrants who went to Turkey fleeing war, strife and economic hardship making a risky journey to Greece.
The group documented rrivals on Greek islands and reported their locations to police so that they couldn’t be pushed back, or unlawfully expelled from the country, the report said.
But in December, 2022 a a prosecutor on the island of Kos charged Dimitras and another advocate, the Norway-based Tommy Olsen of Aegean Boat Reports, with crimes related to alleged human smuggling.
“We’ve been the pain in the ass of the Greek authorities because we have documented pushbacks and related violence,” Dimitras told Middle East Eye, describing the charges as a form of“revenge” to get them.
Dimitras has had to pay a 10,000-euro bail, has been banned from international travel, must check in twice a month at a police station and has been barred from conducting work related to the Helsinki Monitor.
Other activists and NGOs have been charged, including for rescuing people at sea which Greece sees as aiding smugglers – but the traffickers that Turkey allows to operate have largely not been.
Nor has Turkey been sanctioned for allowing human smugglers there to operate in violation of an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union that slowed the numbers of arrivals.
In January, a court on Lesbos dropped misdemeanor charges against 24 aid workers, including Irish-German activist Sean Binder and Syrian refugee Sara Mardini, had stood accused of espionage, disclosure of state secrets, unlawful use of radio frequencies and forgery.
They still face felony charges including aiding smuggling networks, being members of a criminal organisation and money laundering which critics have dismissed as ridiculous and a ruse to stop them from aiding refugees.
Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi appeared on the state broadcaster ERT and claimed pushback allegations were part of an “organized attack” on the country and denied they were happening.
That contradicted reports by human rights activists, volunteers, NGO’s, eyewitnesses including refugees and migrants, videos and major media reports about ongoing pushbacks.
Mary Lawlor, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, has criticized the Greek government over the pressure on humanitarians and aid workers, the report added.
Lawlor said “human rights lawyers, humanitarian workers, volunteers and journalists have been subjected to smear campaigns, a changing regulatory environment, threats and attacks, and the misuse of criminal law against them, to a shocking degree.”
In response, Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said none of that was true and that “criminal prosecution can be instigated in cases of suspicion of illegal collaboration between anyone, including any NGO members, and cross-border criminal networks engaged in illegal activities”.
Dimitras said that “almost every step taken” by authorities is “a breach of their own law.” He also added:“It’s not the kind of climate you find in states that have supposedly properly functioning democracy.”