CIVICUS speaks with Melina Spathari, Director of Strategy and Programmes at HumanRights360 (HR360), about the prosecution of civil society activists working with migrants and refugees in Greece.
HR360 is a Greek human rights civil society organisation (CSO) that seeks to protect the rights of all people, empowering them to exercise their rights, with a focus on the most disadvantaged and vulnerable populations, including migrants and refugees.
What is the current situation for civil society activists and organisations helping migrants in Greece?
As the United Nations Special Rapporteur for human rights defenders stated following her official visit to Greece in June 2022, ‘defenders in the country working to ensure the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are currently under severe pressure… At the tip of the spear are prosecutions, where acts of solidarity are reinterpreted as criminal activity, specifically the crime of people smuggling… The negative impact of such cases is multiplied by smear campaigns perpetuating this false image of defenders’.
Since 2010, Greek ruling parties have demonised CSOs, criticising their use of public funding, to delegitimise their criticism of pushbacks of migrants and their condemnation of the conditions in reception and identification centres and refugee camps. In most cases, the allegations against CSOs later proved to be unfounded. This phenomenon is part of a worrying trend that negatively affects CSOs around the globe, which is why civil society has increasingly organised and developed strategies to resist and respond to the attacks they face from governments.
Why is the Greek government criminalising solidarity with migrants and refugees?
In the case of Greece, the speed and impetus of the ongoing crackdown has been fuelled by current trends in both international and domestic politics, involving hostile relations with Turkey and imminent elections in both countries. Deploying a witch-hunt against CSOs kills many birds with one stone: it helps the government gain votes from the far-right side of the political spectrum and helps it manage the damage caused to its reputation by wrong political decisions and neglectful practices. Last but not least, by vilifying CSOs that are active and vocal in the field of human rights, the authorities aspire to manipulate and silence civil society as a whole.
And to some extent, it has worked. Criminalisation has had a chilling effect. There have been some attempts among civil society to gather, discuss, assess the situation and work on a joint strategy, but these actions didn’t flourish. CSOs are now afraid to raise their voice, and we understand them: they have good reason to be intimidated. Still, some acts of solidarity have taken place, especially when those targeted were respected veteran human rights defenders.
Has HR360 been targeted?
In November 2022, the authorities stepped up an attack against our organisation: they demonised HR360 for receiving foreign funding aimed at regranting and disclosed the personal financial situation of HR360’s founders. The public prosecutor began a preliminary investigation, which hasn’t yet produced any outcomes. No information has been revealed, nor has any criminal process been ordered. HR360 finds itself in limbo, facing huge administrative and financial consequences and experiencing severe impacts on staff morale.
But HR360 is not the only victim of this vile smear campaign. In late 2022, the Prosecutor’s Office criminally charged Panagiotis Dimitras, director of the Greek Helsinki Monitor, and Tommy Olsen, founder and director of Aegean Boat Report, a Norwegian CSO that monitors and shares data about the movement of people in the Aegean Sea, for ‘forming a criminal organisation with the purpose of receiving details of citizens of third countries, who attempt to enter Greece illegally, in order to facilitate their illegal entry and stay’. Following the same pattern applied to HR360, Dimitras has been accused of repeatedly conducting activities aimed at gaining illegal income.
What support does Greek civil society need to resist and continue doing its work?
Greek civil society needs more international support, which is currently quite limited and restricted to its advocacy work – that is, it can be used to help migrants and refugees, but not for CSOs and activists to protect themselves and therefore retain the capacity to continue doing their work.
Right now, what Greek activists and CSOs need the most is legal support, including funding to cover legal fees. And in terms of changing the situation in the long term, what’s also needed is a well-organised European awareness campaign highlighting both the vital work civil society is doing and the attacks the government is subjecting it to. This would be very helpful, since bad publicity at the European level is one of the things Greek authorities fear the most.