Greece accuses aid groups of helping smugglers

ATHENS – As Greece comes under criticism for its swift return of migrants across the Aegean Sea to Turkey, it is cracking down on the ac...


ATHENS – As Greece comes under criticism for its swift return of migrants across the Aegean Sea to Turkey, it is cracking down on the activities of some aid groups working with refugees, accusing them of facilitating trafficking and l ‘spying.

Greek authorities have also stepped up accusations against Turkey for failing to prevent migrant smuggling boats from leaving its shores, violating an agreement reached between Turkey and the European Union at the height of the refugee crisis in 2016. .

Police on the Greek island of Lesvos last week said they initiated criminal proceedings against 10 foreigners, including four members of foreign non-governmental aid organizations, accused of facilitating the illegal entry of migrants and spying .

The announcement came 10 months after Lesvos police opened a similar case against 33 aid workers, which also included charges of running a criminal organization and violating state secrets laws. .

North Aegean Police spokesman Nikolas Ververis said on Thursday the two cases involved prosecutors and there had been no arrests. He declined to name the aid groups in question while the investigation was ongoing.

Greek authorities, who have also been criticized for prosecute migrants accused of human trafficking, suggested that some aid groups were helping the smugglers. Lesvos police last week accused those investigated of “providing essential assistance to organized migrant smuggling networks” under the guise of humanitarian aid.

He said he used mobile messaging apps to provide migrants leaving Turkish coasts with details of Greek coast guard operations, positions of military installations and other information.

Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi, who in December accused Turkey and some aid groups of facilitating smuggling rackets, did not respond to a request for comment. In his comments in December, the minister said smugglers asked migrants to contact Aegean Boat Report, a Norwegian group that monitors migrant arrivals, and another aid group.

Aegean ship report said the allegations of his involvement in smuggling rings were “baseless and incorrect”.

“The priorities of the Greek government unfortunately seem far removed from those of us who work to promote and protect the safety and human rights of men, women and children seeking safety,” the organization said via Facebook Messenger.

Greece has repeatedly denied accusations it pushes migrants back to Turkey, despite proof to the contrary compiled by help and media groups. He claims to have rescued thousands of people at sea while keeping his own borders and those of Europe.

Although arrivals from Turkey have slowed considerably – they are down 96% from last year – Greece and Turkey remain at odds on how to handle migration flows following a dispute over maritime borders last summer which brought them closer to the conflict.

After a contraband boat sank off Crete last week, leaving at least seven migrants missing, Greece’s Migration Ministry spoke of an “unnecessary tragedy” that Turkey could have avoided. Greece’s coastguard entered Turkish waters on Friday to rescue 10 migrants after another boat sank and Turkey failed to respond, Migration Minister Mitarachi told the country’s parliament , noting that three migrants were missing.

This is not the first time that aid groups have found themselves in the crosshairs of Greece. In 2015 and 2016, when more than a million migrants flocked to Greece and exceeded its resources, aid groups intervened. In 2018, four volunteers from aid groups, including Syrian refugee Sara Mardini, who is the sister of Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini, face similar charges. After several months of detention, they were released pending trial, which has yet to take place.

Last year, Greece’s conservative government introduced stricter rules for the operation of dozens of non-governmental organizations, allegedly to enhance transparency and accountability. But the rules made it difficult for some organizations to function. The Council of Europe has asked these restrictions to be revoked.

Adriana Tidona, European migration researcher for Amnesty International, said the regulations and criminal prosecutions against aid groups were of great concern.

“In the past, we have seen the Greek authorities sue humanitarian actors without reason to provide assistance to asylum seekers and migrants,” she said. “This shouldn’t continue.

She added that the criminal charges worsen an already restrictive climate for aid groups. New laws – both administrative and criminal – are also being enforced in Italy, Spain, France and Cyprus to hamper the activities of the groups, she said.

Iason Apostolopoulos, an aid group worker, was due to receive an award from the Greek government for rescuing migrants, but that honor was taken away from him, apparently due to his criticism of the country’s migration policy. No official reason was given, but a prominent ruling party lawmaker tweeted the aid worker ‘s criticism of government policies.

According to Ms Tidona, the fact that alleged human rights violations, such as push-backs of migrant boats and violence at borders, were not adequately investigated and were “highly politicized” affected the public perception of migrants. people who work for migrant aid groups.

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