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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

UN SR: ‘It shouldn’t be a crime to help people. In Greece, it's made to seem like it is.'

Updated: Mar 15, 2023

In advance of the release of her in-depth report on the situation facing human rights defenders in Greece, we spoke to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor.

She expressed her shock, dismay and frustration of the response of the government to people working in solidarity with refugees and other new arrivals in the state.

She calls for a complete overhaul of the country’s attitude and response, and an end to the government’s abuse of the law and legal system to attack the very concept of human rights and solidarity.

The overriding response of Mary Lawlor, the UN’s Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders, to the situation facing people in Greece working with refugees and other new arrivals – and those people themselves – is shock.

Shock at the way in which the government and media attacks human rights defenders, shock at how parts of the Greek public are moved by government-friendly media and anti-refugee politicians to threaten and attack human rights defenders, shock at the government’s misuse of laws and the court system, and shock that such things could be the reality in Greece.

As she put it: ‘The situation of refugees is not my mandate. But on hearing what human rights defenders had to say about their experiences attempting to work with people seeking safety in Greece, I organised a visit to the country. I feel very strongly about the complete lack of compassion towards people forced to migrate and for doing that end up being pushed back or dying in the Mediterranean, and I just can’t take it in, that the idea of solidarity which was a good thing, has now been effectively made into some kind of offence.

I held a hearing into the issue after hearing the same descriptions over and over of the challenges of working in Greece from human rights defenders who had or still worked there, and then the Greek Coastguard told me its policy on people arriving in Greece was to control and hem in the whole issue of people travelling – to hold it in. That seemed to me to require investigation, to see how people were being treated and why.

I was shocked because I really didn’t expect it, particularly not in a country with such a proud history of bringing so much to the world’s culture, history and senses of personal freedom and personal self-determination. It was shocking that this country would treat people who are acting in accordance with international rights and law so abominably.

The first thing that shocked me is that in Greece at the moment, there doesn’t seem to be any concept in society or in the government of human rights defenders: who they are, what they do, and why it’s important.

Maybe in part because of this, but also because of its own ideas and opinions, the Greek government is clearly failing to defend and protect human rights defenders in Greece as it should be. International law, and refugee law, spells out clearly what should be happening, and the Greek government is not abiding by those standards, to which Greece has agreed.

Instead, the government is hypercritical of anyone working with refugees, and puts up huge barriers against them.

Speaking from her office in Dublin, in preparation for the release of her report into what she discovered during her visit, she explained why the legal and fair treatment of people who work with those travelling to and arriving in Greece matters.

She said: ‘It’s important because people are dying.

They are people, not just bits of rubble, or stones.

Men, women and children, babies, come with hope and that hope is destroyed. Their chances of protection, of safety, of lives, are destroyed. Even their chances of having medical care and attention. Because of pushbacks. They are so unbelievably cruel.

It just seems to be a game between Greece and Türkiye just pushing people back between them. It’s just unbearable. Unbelievable. Vulnerable people being used as footballs between Greece and Türkiye. We are talking about the lives of people, not bits of rubble and rubbish.

Rights defenders in Greece have brought to light some astonishing and horrifying anti-refugee practices, with at least (and probably far more than) 54,545 men, women and children pushed back from the Eastern Aegean islands since 1 March 2020 (in the same period just 20,097 people have been registered as new arrivals on the islands).

Accurate figures are far harder to compile on the highly-militarised ‘land’ border between Greece and Türkiye on the river Evros, but in January this year, Greece’s Civil Protection Minister Takis Theodorikakos boasted to EU member and neighbouring states’ ambassadors that Greece had ‘prevented 260,000 people from arriving’ in 2022 alone.

Witness and victim testimonies make clear that along with the illegal pushbacks, which have themselves caused deaths in the Mediterranean and on the Evros border, Greek operatives are regularly beating and stripping people of their possessions, and in some cases sexually assaulting them.

But as Ms. Lawlor notes, when they do so, the government responds by attacking them.

She said: ‘The key thing here is that those people are under intense pressure in Greece. The government stigmatises them with comments and actions, and then these stigmatising comments are amplified by pro-government media, and this is a serious problem because it creates a real climate of negativity. Those government and media stigmatisations of human rights defenders then inspire online threats and harassment by the public against people working to protect human rights.

One example of this, she notes, is the case of Iasonas Apostolopoulos, a sea-rescuer who has been an outspoken critic of pushbacks. He was attacked by the Greek government and Nea Dimokratia MEPs after speaking in the European Parliament in May 2022 against pushbacks carried out by Greek operatives.

Ms. Lawlor said: ‘He saves people from the sea, and was abused after speaking out against pushbacks. He was labelled an internal enemy by the MEP Elissavet Vozemberg-Vrionidi, and he is now receiving constant harassment including death threats.

She also strongly criticised the Greek government’s series of criminal allegations against human rights defenders. In recent months hearings have been held or announced against several humanitarian workers, all of them working on rescue or pushbacks-related matters.

But in common with many inside and outside of Greece, she strongly questions the validity of the government’s allegations, and argues they are deliberately designed to prevent people carrying out such work, and discouraging others from starting similar activities.

She said: ‘It’s mad stuff.

Cases that are hard to believe. Prosecutions are being undertaken with a lack of any evidence against people, claims of smuggling or being a criminal organisation. There is no evidence any of this is true.

Nothing is evidence based, and there are a lot of cases against people protecting human rights. It is a deliberate policy to stop people getting involved in this work, or continuing it. To stop people who want to show solidarity and protect people who are arriving in Greece.

Now so many people are fearful because if people contact them from a boat, they are conflated with people smugglers. People helping people are accused of being people smugglers and it scares them from helping people and upholding and defending their rights.

Panayote Dimitras [of Greek Helsinki Monitor] has been defending human rights for decades, but now he’s barred from doing that. His ‘crime’ was telling the police about people who had arrived in Greece. Tommy Olsen of Aegean Boat Report faces the same charge. But that isn’t a crime.

People have been forced to cease, or prevented from carrying out legitimate, important, legal, work because of the fear of what will be done to them if they continue.

In some cases people have been charged with criminal activity just because they have provided people with some food and water. That’s not against any law and neither should it be. These are the kind of things we have seen generally in Greece: they are not the exception, but the norm.

I sat with so many people, including people who were afraid to give their names publicly for fear of what might be done to them. People set up services helping irregular migrants with food, clothes, legal assistance, interpretation. What is wrong with that? Why are these people being threatened?

Border monitoring and search and rescue are now treated as crimes in Greece. The means by which people are allowed to do these vital tasks have been squeezed so much that now almost no-one can do them and those who do are repeatedly scapegoated in the media and threatened with court action.

Even when the government cannot find reason to publicly-smear, or embroil in court proceedings, human rights defenders working with refugees and other travelling people, Ms. Lawlor argues that it finds other ways – in fact abuses of the law – to make it almost impossible for them to do their jobs.

She said: ‘The fact as well is that organisations are being forced to register in Greece in difficult administrative ways. It’s a really restricted legislation – you can’t work in the field unless you are registered, but it’s almost impossible for most people who want to work with refugees and asylum seekers to register, because the government has made it that way. It’s just not in line at all with Greece’s obligations under the law. It’s designed to stop people from working. The government has made this this way.

People are refused for reasons which are nothing to do with the law, but instead based on the preferences of the Greek government.

Lawyers can’t get access to represent people, even children are unrepresented, not getting access to lawyers. None of this is acceptable.

MSF is prevented from going to landing sites to give new arrivals medical aid. They are being told this is because of the law. It’s a serious misuse of the law, and it’s happening all the time.

Ms. Lawlor carried out her investigatory visit to Greece from 13-22 June 2022, her first country visit specifically to find out more about its record and practice regarding human rights defenders.

She visited Athens and Thessaloniki, and the Aegean islands of Chios, Lesvos and Samos, where many of the people who arrive in Greece seeking safety land, and met representatives of the country’s coastguard, police force, local and national courts, bar associations, local prosecutors, civil society actors, NGOs, lawyers and journalists.

She said: ‘From that perspective, it was precisely the kind of visit you’d hope to have, with no-one holding back.

Nor was everything she discovered negative.

I went with an open mind,’ she said. ‘Generally, it seemed that other human rights defenders, working for women’s rights, the LGBTQI+ community, young people, were able to work in Greece without too much trouble: they were able to do their jobs because they were not engaged in issues considered controversial.

But there’s a real disparity, a difference in the ability to do a job if you take up an issue seen as controversial: the rights of refugees and migrants.

The Special Rapporteur’s criticisms are not solely of Greece. The EU, too, she points out, must accept some responsibility for what is happening in Greece, and certainly within the rest of the bloc. But she also notes that the Greek government must take by far the greatest share of the blame.

She said: ‘It’s not about just castigating Greece. It’s also about the whole EU, which needs to open access to migrants and refugees in a freer way.

As well as the Greek government, the behaviour of the EU is also shameful. It talks out of both sides of its mouth. It pours money into Greece but it does not do any burden-sharing.

It seems to me that the EU is absolving itself of its responsibilities, and not acting in accordance with its charter.

There has to be, in my view, an agreement between EU states to accept refugees.

We know the EU controls borders and people who try to enter face enormous difficulties set up by it when people try to get to the EU.

The EU takes in so few people compared to other countries around the world. In many EU countries people entering to work is of benefit. There are genuine benefits to welcoming refugees and other people in terms of people coming to take on work and jobs, but also there are great benefits in terms of opening people’s minds, having other cultural experiences, food, music: things people like!

The EU could do more to get Greece to do what it should be doing. It has guidelines on protection of human rights defenders which spells out the steps to defend them and their rights.

But this does not exonerate Greece, because what has happened in the last few years is its responsibility, and it has caused it to happen.

She also believes that the wider Western world should take greater responsibility for people who are forced to move, not least because it helped create, she argues, their reasons for doing so.

She said: ‘In many ways, the US and the West are responsible for many of the terrible conditions people are fleeing, including climate change and overconsumption. They are force people to flee, so they must be part of the solution. They need to open and plan regular avenues to migration, because they always blame people smugglers but if people had access to legal routes, they wouldn’t have to turn to people smugglers.

In Greece, the government is misusing anti-smuggling and other laws to attack and harm human rights defenders and the people they work for. The policies are being used in a bad way, not in compliance with UN protocols, including even the definition of people smuggling.

It is a trend of the times, and migration is the issue of the times. It’s not something that’s just going to end.

The report on the situation in Greece will be published tomorrow, (Wednesday 15 March 2023).

It ends with 27 recommendations for the Greek government, and three for human rights defenders working in Greece, a reflection of where she believes the responsibility lies for the crisis facing human rights and their defenders in the country.

Summing up those recommendations, she said: ‘Well, it’s actually quite simple. We always have to abide by international law, refugee law. These are laws and structures Greece agreed to uphold and abide by and is failing to do so.

In the early years of the refugee response, everyone tried. The numbers of new arrivals were huge, and there was no real infrastructure in place, but there was a real willingness. Now, there is none. The last few years have really been far worse.

The Greek government needs to rethink, to reshape, and place human rights and solidarity at its core.

The government needs to publicly acknowledge the right to defend human rights. It needs to drop its outstanding, vexatious charges against human rights defenders and publicly recognise the concept and role of human rights defenders. It can’t keep publicly smearing them and stigmatising solidarity. It must drop the criminal charges. It’s really mad stuff.

Greece needs to reshape its migration policy, and put human rights and solidarity at its core. It must amend its laws, policies and practices to follow this. It needs a structured framework so human rights defenders can do peaceful, legitimate work.

It must look at the whole registration process. It’s designed to stop people working, rather than helping them act in conformity with international law. The process needs to be quick, and not expensive. The government is preventing a good registration system from happening.

The Greek government must look at the simple fact that solidarity is not a crime and should not be punished.

It should understand that human rights defenders have legitimate rights to defend people’s rights. The Greek government is preventing that in the area of refugees and migrants, although it does allow it in other areas.

At the end of the day, it shouldn’t be a crime to help people. In Greece, it is made to seem like it is.

This interview and its contents may be shared with humanitarian workers and in social contexts. For republication or use in media, please contact for details.


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