Last week I held a hearing with human rights defenders engaged in solidarity with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Greece.
The hearing took place in two sessions, the recordings of which can be seen below.
Collectively, the defenders’ testimonies painted an extremely concerning picture of the environment for working to see the human rights of all protected and realised in the country, with two clear issues arising.
Firstly, the delegitimization and criminalisation of solidarity, with some defenders having been falsely accused of serious crimes carrying long prison terms, including people smuggling, membership in a criminal organisation, money laundering and espionage; and secondly, what might be called ‘bureaucratic harassment’: the placing of undue regulatory burdens and obstacles before NGOs trying to provide legal and practical support to people on the move, and to report on violations of their rights.
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.
It was disturbing to hear how the fear of arbitrary arrest had deterred some of the participants from carrying out their human rights work and offering humanitarian aid to people at the border of the European Union. Given the cases that have already been brought against some defenders, it would seem this risk is very real.
In the first session, I heard from Seán Binder, who had been involved in civilian search and rescue operations on Lesvos until his arrest on spurious charges in 2018, Marie Banck and Isa Krischke from the organisation Mare Liberum, which monitors human rights at sea, Tommy Olsen, founder of Aegean Boat Report, which has documented pushbacks in the Aegean, Panayote Dimitras from the Greek Helsinki Monitor, which, among other things, has been reporting on racially motivated crimes in Greece, Vasili Sofiadellis of the Changemakers Lab on Lesvos, which promotes digital skills and social entrepreneurship as tools of empowerment and integration, Madi Williamson, a nurse and volunteer specialised in migratory health, Natasha Dailiani, from Legal Centre Lesvos, which has been gathering evidence of pushbacks, including testimonies from victims, and Zacharias Kesses, an immigration lawyer who has represented several other migrants’ rights defenders.
In the second session, I heard from Dimitris Choulis, a lawyer from Samos, defending migrants’ rights defenders, asylum seekers and refugees, Sebene Eshete and Evgenia Kouniaki, policy officer and lawyer at the NGO HumanRights360, which conducts border monitoring at the land border of Evros. Natalie Gruber, founder of the organisation Josoor, which supports victims of pushbacks to Turkey, Hope Barker, representing the Border Violence Monitoring Network, which denounces pushbacks and violations of the rights of people on the move at and within Europe’s borders, Minos Mouzourakis, from Refugee Support Aegean, which focuses on legal assistance and strategic litigation in support of refugees and asylum seekers, Elli Kriona, attorney at HIAS Greece, which has been working on Lesvos since 2016, Vassilis Papastergiou, from the Greek Council for Refugees, Asterios Kanavos, a lawyer with Fenix Humanitarian Legal Aid, which mainly works on Lesvos, and Niki Georgiou, a lawyer who works with Equal Rights Beyond Borders, an NGO active on Kos and Chios, as well as in Athens.
I will be following up on the issues raised by the defenders.