Human rights defenders in Greece, particularly those working on migration, operate in an environment of pervasive fear and insecurity, according to United Nations special rapporteur on human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor.
“I am concerned about the increasing criminalization of humanitarian assistance in Greece. Solidarity should never be punished and compassion should never be put on trial,” she said this week while presenting her preliminary findings at the end of a 10-day mission in the country.
With Greece facing intense international criticism over unlawful pushbacks of migrants at its borders and wider human rights concerns related to migration and asylum, the Greek government has moved to silence groups and individuals documenting these abuses. While acknowledging Greece’s migration challenges and government efforts to address them, Lawlor criticized burdensome rules for the registration of nongovernmental organizations working on migration, introduced in 2019, calling them discriminatory and in violation of Greece’s international human rights obligations.
The UN expert noted that human rights defenders not only face criminal sanctions for their activities, but are operating in an increasingly hostile environment where the general public is influenced by negative rhetoric from high-ranking officials and their unfavorable portrayal in the media, which often conflates their activities with traffickers and criminal networks.
Greece fell 38 positions within a year in Reporters Without Borders’ 2022 report on the Press Freedom Index, with the organization marking it the lowest-ranked European Union country for press freedom. “Journalists who counter the government’s narrative on the management of migration flows are often under pressure and lack access to mainstream media outlets.… Journalists reporting on corruption are sometimes facing threats and even charges,” Lawlor said. She noted that journalists have very limited or no access to facilities where migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers are being held, further contributing to a general lack of transparency regarding the government’s policies in this area.
Lawlor will present a detailed report with her findings at the March 2023 session of the UN Human Rights Council. The government should listen to what the UN expert has to say and champion human rights defenders. The European Commission, which noted in July last year the narrowing space in Greece for groups working with migrants and asylum seekers, should step up its engagement on the issue and press Greece to stop harassing civil society groups and activists.