Greece Activists Face Intimidation, Threats, Attacks

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A dinghy with migrants, left, in the narrow stretch of water between the eastern Greek island of Lesbos and the Turkish coast on April 2, 2021.
© 2021 Hellenic Coast Guard via AP

A hearing held last week between the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, and human rights defenders in Greece revealed the scale of the hostile environment civil society groups face working on migration in the country.

The nineteen testimonies from the hearing, made public on October 6, show a concerted effort by Greek authorities to delegitimize civil society groups’ work on migration and harass them and their workers through burdensome rules. Their actions raise serious concerns about the groups’ ability to operate in Greece.

“I listened with great concern to the defenders’ accounts of intimidation, threats and physical attacks by right-wing groups, as well as what appear to amount to smear campaigns against defenders in the media, allegedly instigated by MPs and police and involving the leaking of the defenders’ personal information, increasing their level of risk,” Lawlor said in an accompanying statement.

The UN expert heard how Greek authorities are using criminal investigations to harass and intimidate groups investigating abuses against migrants at Greece’s border. In July, news emerged that 10 people, including 4 working for nongovernmental groups, were being investigated for allegedly facilitating irregular entry of foreign nationals from Turkey. No indictment was issued, similar to another investigation against 33 people announced in September 2020, suggesting the investigations are a form of state harassment.

In another case, Seán Binder and Sara Mardini, activists involved in civilian search and rescue operations on Lesbos, were arrested along with two others on dubious charges in August 2018, and held in prolonged pretrial detention until they were released on bail in December 2018. They still face criminal charges that carry potential decades in prison time.

Lawlor said she was disturbed to hear how the fear of arbitrary arrest had deterred some activists from carrying out human rights work and offering humanitarian aid to people at EU borders.

With Greece facing intense international criticism over pushbacks and wider human rights concerns related to migration and asylum, the Greek government has moved to silence groups whose reporting is shining a spotlight on those abuses. In its July EU-wide rule of law report, the European Commission noted the narrowing space in Greece for groups working with migrants and asylum seekers. It should step up its engagement over the issue and press Greece to stop harassing civil society groups and activists.

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