When dozens of Syrian asylum seekers were stranded at the Greek-Turkish border in July, lawyer Evgenia Konyaki could not have imagined that taking on their case would lead to her withdrawing from her NGO in protest of perceived government pressure.
But in a country determined to curb immigration from neighboring Turkey, rights groups are facing growing hostility, with some activists turning away from the struggle.
Konyaki told AFP that there were up to ten people in the Evros region helping victims of controversial “pushback” tactics allegedly used by Greek border forces to return migrants to Turkey. Athena denies using it.
“Now we are getting less and less,” she said, complaining that she receives less legal work because of her involvement in the sensitive issue of Syrian migrants.
About 50 humanitarian workers currently face prosecution in Greece, following a trend in Italy that also criminalizes providing assistance to migrants.
“The Greek authorities are engaged in a witch hunt targeting refugees, but also their advocates,” 16 human rights organizations said last month.
The organisations, which included prominent refugee support NGOs in the Aegean region, the Greek Council for Refugees and the Greek League for Human Rights, called on the country’s authorities to stop “undermining and demonizing” migrant support groups.
Despite in-depth investigations by the media and NGOs, along with copious testimonies from alleged victims, the Greek authorities have consistently denied the pushbacks.
Meanwhile, Greek officials continued verbal attacks on asylum support groups.
“As a Greek… I will not work with NGOs that undermine the national interest,” Sophia Voltepisi, the deputy immigration minister, told state TV ERT in September.
Greece’s conservative government, elected in 2019, has vowed to make the country “less attractive” to immigrants.
Part of this strategy includes extending a 40-kilometre (25-mile) wall on the Turkish border in the Evros region by 80 kilometres.
An additional 250 border guards are scheduled to be deployed to the region by the end of the year.
But on the Evros River itself, the natural border between Greece and Turkey, refugees continue to make their way to Europe.
Humanitarian workers rarely have access to the military zone, which is patrolled by Greek police, soldiers and European border control agency Frontex.
In July, two lawyers were accused of facilitating the illegal entry of migrants as they tried to file asylum applications for two Iraqis and five Turks.
In August, Vienna-based rights group Bridges said Athens was making “tremendous efforts” to link them to illegal smuggling, filing three cases against them that did not result in convictions. The group ceased operations in October.
“There are very few NGOs left in Greece,” Migration Minister Notis Mitarashi told Sky TV this week.
“Of those who worked (at the height of the migration crisis) in 2015-2019, the vast majority left the country on their own,” he said.
Konyaki’s then-consecutive HumanRights360 group got involved after helping 38 Syrian asylum seekers who had been stranded on an island on the Evros River for several days.
Asylum seekers claim that a 5-year-old girl died from a scorpion sting during this period.
But Athens has sought to refute the claim, and has since tried to discredit the aid workers who came to their aid.
The HumanRights360 director made a drastic U-turn after initially claiming the island was Greek, which would have made Athens the responsibility of immigrants, and eventually saying publicly that it was Turkish.
Several NGO employees, including Konyaki, quit in protest of the change, insisting HumanRights360’s hand was forced by the government.
“We’ve had to deal with dozens of similar cases…but this high-profile case has embarrassed the government,” said Konyaki, who was denied access to the northern Greek camp where the Syrians were later transferred.
Athens has taken steps to control the work of immigrant groups, arguing that regulation is necessary because they encounter vulnerable people.
New registration requirements were imposed in February 2020. In September 2021, a new law criminalized charities carrying out sea rescues without the approval of the Hellenic Coast Guard.
Critics have warned that the new regulations will impair services for thousands of vulnerable people.
Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović warned last year that the law would “seriously hamper” the work of life-saving and monitoring NGOs.
Lefteris Papagianakis, director of the Hellenic Refugee Council, said anti-NGO rhetoric became “toxic” starting in February 2020 when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would allow asylum seekers aiming for the EU to cross Turkey’s borders.
Athens accuses Ankara of exploiting refugees and using them to destabilize Greece. As a result, the NGOs it defends have been branded in public discourse as agents of Turkey.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, said in June that there was an “increasing criminalization of humanitarian aid” in Greece.
It also criticized “hostile comments” towards human rights defenders who are “labeled as traitors, enemies of the state, Turkish agents, criminals, smugglers and smugglers” – sometimes by senior government figures.