What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Greek authorities crackdown on critical nonprofits amid backlash for refugee pushback

Police in Greece’s most eastern islands have launched a human-trafficking prosecution against nonprofits that help asylum seekers try to avoid being pushed back at sea to Turkey. The move is being seen as part of a wider effort by some European countries to criminalize humanitarian organizations as the Greek coast guard defends its pushback efforts. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fifty-seven migrants are presumed dead today off the coast of Libya, as refugees and migrants continue their desperate journey to Europe.

    But in the country that's borne the heaviest load amid the crisis, police in Greece have launched a human trafficking prosecution against nonprofits that help asylum seekers try to avoid being pushed back at sea to Turkey.

    Last week, special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reported on violent pushbacks by the Greeks at sea.

    But, as Malcolm also found, pushbacks are happening on the River Evros along the land border between Greece and Turkey.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    It took persistence for Huda and her three children to reach Greek soil. They were pushed back to Turkey three times, before finally crossing the sea to the island of Samos.

    Can you just describe to me how you feel about the way in which you have been treated?

  • Huda (through translator):

    We were it's like going from one war to another. I didn't find anything better here than the life I was living.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The Palestinian family's three pushbacks happened on the treacherous Evros River, a militarized zone dividing Greece from Turkey.

    Can you describe what happened when you were pushed back?

  • Huda (through translator):

    They pushed us back in a very aggressive way. On the way back to Turkey, we were ordered into a vote meant for just for three or four people. They put 32 people in altogether with some Syrians that work with. They put us all in the river and sent us back.

    They told us, two days before, someone fell in the water and died. They said: "If you return here, you will have the same fate."

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    This Kurdish woman is laying low in the Greek capital, Athens. She's afraid Turkish agents will kidnap her, take her back to Turkey and throw her in jail. She's a vocal opponent of Turkey's increasingly authoritarian President Erdogan and fled to Greece to seek political asylum.

    Like these migrants, she boarded a small boat and paddled across the Evros River to the European Union side, but was pushed back by Greek border guards, in breach of international conventions stipulating that asylum seekers should not be expelled if their lives or freedom are at risk, and especially not back into the arms of their persecutors.

  • K (through translator):

    Being a refugee is a right, unfortunately, because if only everyone could live freely and economically secure, if only there were no wars in people's countries. But they all exist.

    And people have the right to live. They have the right to a better life, without going to prison, without being killed.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Spyros Oikonomou of the Greek Council for Refugees is outraged by pushbacks of any kind.

  • Spyros Oikonomou:

    It's the most blatant violation of international human rights law. It actively places in danger, people's lives and their rights. I don't really see anything being more dreadful. And, in all honesty, it's an international shame.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Greece is currently erecting a Donald Trump-style wall along the Evros. Greece has the dilemma of feeling abandoned by its European Union partners, because so many nations refuse to accept migrants.

    And, at the same time, it's obliged to defend the E.U.'s borders.

  • Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi:

  • Notis Mitarachi:

    We don't want to be the gateway to Europe for the smuggling networks. We don't want to be the gateway for millions of people to enter the European Union through Greece and end up in all the member states of the European Union.

    But we still feel we're alone, Greece, Italy, Spain, Malta, and Cyprus, the five Mediterranean countries, in tackling the pressure from migration.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The battle over the Greek pushbacks is heating up. The police on the Greek islands next to the Turkish coast have just launched a prosecution against international nonprofits and some individuals who help asylum seekers and who've criticized pushbacks.

    The police say they may be well-meaning, but they have committed felony crimes, such as people trafficking and espionage.

    Veteran humanitarian and political analyst Panayote Dimitras is fighting back. He's been to Greece's Supreme Court to demand that a prosecutor investigates hundreds of pushbacks by the state.

  • Panayote Dimitras:

    Europe should be more ashamed than anybody else, because it's their orders that are to be carried out by all the other players. It is their policies, their agreements that are at the root of the problem.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    What a difference five years makes. Spring 2016, and Portuguese coast guards are racing to rescue Syrians in distress off the island of Lesbos.

    The Portuguese were contributing to the European border agency Frontex and saving lives. Fast-forward to this decade and footage of a Romanian Frontex ship apparently pushing back migrants towards Turkey.

    In a damning report, the European Parliament has condemned Frontex for failing to uphold its human rights obligations. Frontex, based in Warsaw, responded by saying it would look into the Parliament's recommendations about improving.

  • Panayote Dimitras:

    Europe should change. And, if Europe changes, every other player will be forced to change.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Dimitras is disturbed by a European trend of criminalizing pro-migration nonprofits. These people were saved off the coast of Libya in June as they tried to reach Italy.

    Their rescuers were from Doctors Without Borders, whose ship, the Geo Barents, replaced other vessels outlawed in Italian waters. After landing the migrants in Sicily, the ship was detained for 24 days for what the nonprofit described as punitive reasons. But it was released today.

  • Spokeswoman Barbara Deck:

  • Barbara Deck:

    Since the beginning of 2021 up until now, at least 790 people have been confirmed dead or missing. The need to be back at sea is imminent. We cannot let people perish at the deadliest sea border of the world.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Back on the Greek island of Samos, Huda has now been granted asylum. The Greeks accepted she was escaping conflict and poverty, but, above all, protecting her children from an extremely abusive father.

  • Huda (through translator):

    I want my children to be in a place where they are not afraid. I want them to be safe. I want them to study. I want them to be like any children, like any child that loves to play, that goes to school, that finds a familial environment, where there's respect for their childhood.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    In Athens, the Kurdish asylum seeker issued this appeal.

  • K (through translator):

    All of Europe, all of the world has to be against this. We cannot turn our backs on people who had to escape wars and dictatorships that our very own states foster.

    If we are not able to stop wars and migration, we have to make sure that they happen in humanitarian conditions.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    What's drawing migrants to the European Union are its democratic and humanitarian principles.

    Currently, all along its frontiers, critics argue those values are being tarnished, and they wonder, how long will the hypocrisy continue?

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Athens.

Listen to this Segment