Guest post by Mariana Gkliati, PhD researcher at the Institute of Immigration Law, Leiden University. Her doctoral research focuses on the effective legal protection of individuals against human rights violations in the area of asylum and immigration attributed to Frontex.

In a previous post on 21 March 2016, I discussed certain alarming developments in EU policy that indicate a tendency towards placing a strain upon civil society which has been providing humanitarian assistance to newcomers at the EU’s external borders.

Photo by Salam Aldeem

EU Council and Commission documents, published in the beginning of the year, called for the intensification of law enforcement and the incorporation of NGOs into the governmental structures in Greece, while in the ‘war on smuggling’ there’s a failure to provide for a humanitarian exemption. These documents were followed by the adoption of new legislation in Greece, which provides for the control and close monitoring of NGOs and independent volunteers. In particular, everyone operating on the island of Lesvos needs to register with the police, while a ‘Coordinating Committee’ will be responsible for the registration, identification, and certification of all groups and NGOs, and it will approve and continuously control all their activities. As a consequence, individuals and groups will not be able to provide assistance to migrants without prior approval, and those who conduct humanitarian work without being included in the national registry could face charges of smuggling and complicity in a criminal organization.

Already within a few months, the policies have started taking effect, painting a bleak picture for human rights protection in Greece.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), reports a crackdown on civil society, describing judicial harassment of several groups and NGOs working to protect the rights of migrants on Greek islands. Volunteers from Team Humanity Denmark and of the Spanish NGO Professional Emergency Aid (PROEM-AID) were arrested in January during a rescue operation. The five volunteers were charged with smuggling and face up to ten years of imprisonment.

The Observatory also reports that 60 volunteers from several countries (Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Austria, Spain, the UK, and the Czech Republic), operating within the framework of the Dutch group Aid Delivery Mission in Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonia border, were subjected to verbal harassment by the police, arbitrary house searches, and were threatened with arrest.

Finally, the report refers to an amendment to the aforementioned legislation that places service providers at the army-led detention facilities in northern Greece under the supervision and control of the Ministry of Defense. It states that, in practice, the Army has refused many NGOs access to these centers, while those active in non-official camps are facing extensive threats of arrest and prosecution for violating the immigration law.

Borderline Europe, in the context of the EU project ‘Controversies in the EU migration policy - to provide cover versus securing the borders,’ is documenting cases where volunteers have been wrongfully accused as smugglers. The organization is monitoring trials of ‘flight helpers’ in Germany, Austria, Italy, and Greece. In one of the cases in Greece, a 69 year-old German pensioner has been sentenced to 16 years in prison.

Furthermore, 14 activists were arrested in April at the Greek-Macedonian border in Idomeni, accused of inciting migrants to storm the razor-wire fence dividing the two countries, while there are numerous other examples of volunteers being systematically stopped and searched, arrested, and fingerprinted in an arbitrary manner.

The press in Greece is regularly reporting cases of arrests of local and foreign volunteers, either adopting a critical stance or supporting the prosecutions. Such incidents are also mentioned in the Facebook pages of groups operating in Lesvos, such as Horio tou Oloi Mazi and Platanos Refugee Solidarity, including the issuing of administrative fines and the forceful eviction of camps and soup kitchens.

These incidents can hardly be considered isolated occasions of a single member state exceeding its powers. Rather, they fit EU policies that have been becoming exceedingly restrictive over the course of the last three decades, since 1990, when the Dublin Convention and the Schengen Implementing Convention were adopted.

Driven by a tendency to stop entry and create ‘disincentives’ for irregular migrants, EU laws and policies are focusing on migrant detention, the sealing of borders, and the criminalization of irregular migrants and those that assist them. Since spring 2015, the newly acquired EU emphasis on the ‘war on smuggling’ has manifested in practice in military action at the EU’s external borders (EUNAVFOR Med) and intensification of law enforcement at the domestic level. Without appropriate safeguards, these measures essentially criminalize and victimize volunteers who practice solidarity with those in need of international protection, as it has been the case in Greece and several other EU member states.

This new tendency isn’t unique to the EU context. For example, such an approach has been contested in the Canadian case of R v Appulonappa, where the lower court deemed Canada’s smuggling provisions overbroad because it had criminalized assistance to those in seek of protection. The criminalization was successfully challenged by the civil society campaign ‘Proud to aid and abet refugees.’

Even in a fight against smuggling and trafficking, human rights and international law govern states’ responses. In particular, the UN Protocol Against Smuggling provides that those providing humanitarian assistance to smuggled persons are to be exempted from criminalization (Article 6), and states should provide care and assistance to those intercepted (Articles 16, 18(7), (8), 19(1)). Moreover, the EU Reception Conditions Directive lays down standards for the appropriate reception of applicants of international protection. As the recent crisis in EU asylum policy has shown, while the EU members states have failed to abide by these minimum standards, EU citizens have managed to uphold the spirit of assistance and protection.

On the other side of the spectrum, far-right populist parties are increasingly gaining popularity in Europe, with some of the most prominent examples being the recent electoral success of the Austrian rightwing populist Freedom Party (FPÖ), Hungary’s Jobbik, and Golden Dawn in Greece (which is currently standing trial as a criminal organization).

Against this background, the EU and its member states can do more to abide by their international obligations, while at the same time taking a step forward towards counteracting the slippery slope of racism, xenophobia, intolerance, and extremism.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Gkliati, M. (2016) Proud to Aid and Abet Refugees: The Criminalization of ‘Flight Helpers’ in Greece. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2016/05/proud-aid-and (Accessed [date]).