Obstruction and Repression: Greek Law Forces Mare Liberum’s Dissolution
In a somber announcement, the human rights monitoring group Mare Liberum has announced its withdrawal from Lesvos island, the end of its operations, and the dissolution of the association. The decision came after five years of operation in the Aegean, during which the group faced multiple forms of sabotage, obstruction, and repression.
Mare Liberum is a non-profit organization that works to document and expose human rights violations and border violence against refugees and migrants on the move in the Aegean Sea. Their focus is on the dangerous escape routes between Turkey and Greece, where people often face violent pushbacks by authorities attempting to prevent them from reaching the EU. Through the publication of testimonies and the collection of data on the situation in the Aegean, Mare Liberum aims to bring attention to the voices and experiences of those affected by these violations, and to hold responsible authorities accountable for their actions.
The Hellenic Coast Guard repeatedly attempted to intimidate the group through reckless maneuvers, repeated controls, and questioning of their papers. The German Ministry of Transport also issued a detention order for their ship, and the Greek police raided it and launched an investigation on flimsy grounds.
Despite these attempts to obstruct their work, Mare Liberum continued to operate in the Aegean, defending themselves in German courts against the elimination of the civilian sea rescue fleet using the German Ship Safety Regulation. However, in Greece, a new level of repression has been reached that leaves the group with no room for maneuvering. A repressive law by the Greek government requires all NGOs working in Greece in the fields of asylum, migration, and social inclusion to officially register and certify themselves. Without such registration and certification, civil society organizations are no longer allowed to work in Greece.
Crack-down on NGOs
In April 2020, Greece adopted the Joint Ministerial Decision on the operation of the Registry of Greek and foreign NGOs that operate in the areas of asylum, migration and social integration, along with the Registry of their members. While both registries were established earlier in 2018 and 2020, respectively, the new legal framework imposes additional administrative requirements on organizations and individuals operating in Greece. These requirements are specifically levied on those NGOs working on asylum, migration, and social integration, and may impact their ability to operate freely in Greece. The new legal framework supplements the statutory conditions all NGOs in Greece must fulfill to acquire legal status.
Amnesty International on July 2020 released an statement that the new regulations introduced by the Greek government on the functioning of civil society organizations risk undermining their independence and further shrink the space for civil society, particularly for organizations that act to defend the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. In the midst of an increasingly hostile climate for asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants, and those who try to assist them, Amnesty International is concerned that the new rules threaten the right to freedom of association in Greece.
The new rules appear to impose, in an apparently discriminatory manner, additional, burdensome and intrusive requirements to these NGOs’ registration and operation, including in matters of funding, which make it virtually impossible for certain NGOs to comply. Some of the rules also risk to unduly interfere with NGOs’ autonomy, are at odds with the right to privacy of organisations and their members and appear to assign excessive discretion to registering authorities. The government’s move ultimately risks paralysing the work of NGOs assisting asylumseekers and migrants, especially when it comes to smaller or more recently established NGOs, by creating a silencing and chilling effect on civil society organizations and human rights defenders.
Mare Liberum explained that the registration and certification process creates high bureaucratic hurdles, with organizations required to provide several officially translated and certified documents, including detailed financial data, and personal data of staff and volunteers. Furthermore, the law is not compatible with the EU Data Protection Directive, and three UN Special Rapporteurs have highlighted to the Greek government that the legislation is not compatible with Greece’s obligations under international law to protect the right to freedom of association. The law prevents solidarity work on the ground, and crew members are now threatened with high fines and imprisonment if they do not follow the instructions of the Coast Guard.
Mare Liberum has been unable to fight the law and has ultimately decided to withdraw from Lesvos and end its operations. The group announced that cannot fulfill its central and constitutive function at sea, and obediently following every order to leave crime scenes is not compatible with its human rights monitoring. The group expressed its gratitude to all those who supported their work over the years, and their decision to withdraw reflects the ongoing struggle for human rights in the Aegean.
Over the past years, Amnesty International has noticed with concern an increasingly antagonistic and suspicious attitude of the Greek authorities towards NGOs working with people on the move. This has included both institutional actions – such as regulatory restrictions on NGOs’ operations introduced through the November 2019 law on asylum, and a divisive public discourse, labelling ‘good’ and ‘bad’ NGOs and whipping up sentiment against those who are perceived to help migrants and refugees to the detriment of national interests. As an example, in a radio interview in February 2020, the Deputy Minister for Immigration and Asylum, Giorgos Koumoutsakos, compared NGOs to “leeches” “set up in one night in order to have access to EU funding”. Similarly, upon the adoption of the new law on registration of NGOs’ members, in February 2020, the Greek Government’s spokesman remarked that the listing of members would be “so there is transparency and responsibility, as many NGOs may have helped decisively […] but others operated in a faulty and parasitic manner”.
From Witness to Advocate
Mare Liberum began its work in 2018 and has since been monitoring the situation of refugees crossing the sea from Turkey to Greece. They have documented many instances of violent pushbacks conducted by the Hellenic and Turkish coast guards, the EU border protection agency Frontex, and NATO. Their presence was intended to persuade coastguards to refrain from violence and injustice for fear of documenting illegal actions and legal consequences.
The report highlights that in 2019, 60,000 people on the move reached the Greek islands, the highest number since the EU-Turkey deal in spring of 2016. However, even more, people were intercepted by the Turkish coast guard and returned to Turkey. The crew witnessed and documented several incidents where Frontex personnel as well as the Hellenic and Turkish coast guards were operating at the edge of their legal framework. They published reports of deportees as well as of people who survived the crossing and were admitted to one of the camps. They reported on the stranding of survivors in the camps on Lesvos, Chios, and Samos, who were prevented from both continuing their journey and arriving.
Calling it pushbacks does not describe at all what people who experienced these human rights violations are reporting – abandoning people in unseaworthy vessels or on life rafts, some of them handcuffed, throwing them in the sea to drown or drift back to Turkish waters must be seen as attempted murder. Through pushbacks, those seeking protection are not only deprived of their right to asylum but are frequently killed or severely injured. Since 2020, there has been a massive escalation of border violence in Greece. Especially on the scale of these incidents. Many people on the move on the island of Lesvos have reported experiencing at least one, often several pushbacks.Pushbacks from the Greek islands and in the Aegean sea, September 11, 2022
The situation came to a dramatic head in 2020 when Turkish President Erdoğan changed the tactics of the Turkish coast guard to put pressure on the EU. The boats of migrants were no longer stopped by the Turkish coast guard on their way to Greece. The extreme right in Greece took advantage of the situation and incited outbreaks of violence against migrants and planned camp facilities. Crew members were also threatened and attacked during this time. Nevertheless, the activists decided to stay.
In the shadow of Covid and the tensions between Turkey and the EU, members of the coast guards became increasingly openly violent. Covered by the new right-wing government in Greece and EU Commissioner Von der Leyen, there was a new quality of violence and pushback that continues to this day. Mare Liberum witnessed a dramatic increase in human rights violations in the Aegean, at sea, and on land. The organization first released the collected data in 2020 in the form of a first pushback report. Almost 10,000 illegal pushbacks and violations of the right to asylum had to be identified. Human rights violations have reached a level that has not been abandoned to this day.
Since September 2022, the crews and the association were threatened with heavy fines if they sailed with the ship. Consequently, they concentrated on observing the situation on the ground. Mare Liberum’s report is a reminder that the EU and its member states must protect the rights of refugees and ensure their safety. The organization called for an end to the violence against refugees and an end to illegal pushbacks.
In the Aegean Sea, the struggle for human rights monitoring continues, with the scandalous absence of civilian organizations and rescue ships between Turkey and Greece. This is a critical time for such monitoring, as various actors are making access to asylum more difficult and legitimizing the EU’s deadly isolationist policy.
NGOs working on asylum, migration, and social integration face severe restrictions in Greece, combined with systematic repression and criminalization. Fewer and fewer solidarity structures can operate, and the right to asylum in Greece is significantly limited. The authorities declared Turkey a safe third country for people from several nations, allowing them to deport protection seekers without examining their asylum applications.
Attempts to restrict the right to asylum are also being made at the EU level. The Instrumentalization Regulation, discussed in December 2022 by the European Union’s Home Affairs and Justice Council, would allow member states to restrict asylum if they see a supposed threat to “national security.” This regulation aims to give legal legitimacy to the EU’s lethal isolationist policy, making access to asylum even more challenging. Some member states have even called for the reform of the Schengen Borders Code to legalize pushbacks, an alarming attempt to legalize violence against people on the move.
In these years we saw a sharp increase in violence against people on the move, including illegal pushbacks by the Greek authorities. Such inhumane treatment of refugees and asylum seekers is not only a violation of human rights but also a moral outrage. Those who have already made it to Greek islands are pushed back into Turkish waters, often in life rafts or unseaworthy boats. Such acts are accompanied by violence, humiliation, and even torture. Survivors of such incidents face systematic criminalization and are often sentenced to decades in prison without a fair trial.
The case of an Iraqi asylum seeker is one of the examples. On 08 May 2023, after almost three years of waiting, the smuggling trial of A.B. is scheduled to take place in Mytilene/ Lesvos. Despite video evidence to the contrary, A.B. was singled out by the authorities and accused of steering the boat in which he and 28 others arrived in Greece. Consequently, for almost a month he was detained together with hundreds of people in the port of Mytilene and later transferred to the Malakasa camp on the Greek mainland. Conditions in the port of Mytilene were appalling. Lawyers, journalists, the UN and members of the European Parliament were denied access.
The basis for the charges, as it is very common in such cases, are the testimonies of two officials of the so-called Coast Guard who stated that A.B. had steered the boat. One of the Coast Guard officers made his statement months after A.B. arrived in Greece and months after A.B. himself had been transferred off the island.
This illegal treatment of refugees has forced many of them to hide in the forests, fearing for their lives. People have died from hunger, thirst, and lack of medical care. It is heartbreaking to see that people who seek protection from violence and persecution in their home countries are met with brutality and indifference. Moreover, the conviction of refugees on charges of “aiding and abetting illegal entry” or “smuggling” is a gross misrepresentation of their situation.
Since there are no safe and legal corridors into the EU and the asylum system in Greece is extremely restrictive, most people seeking protection have no choice but to try to cross the border between Turkey and Greece clandestinely. This lack of safe and legal corridors thus makes spaces for abuse of power and exploitation of people on the move possible in the first place. Those responsible for these human rights crimes must be held accountable immediately for these human rights crimes.