The Greek government is trying to get a free pass on anti-migrant policies that include illegal pushbacks by criminalising civil society solidarity towards migrants and refugees. Humanitarian workers are being tried on serious charges in Greek courts. The space for humanitarian and human rights organisations to do their job is also being closed off through bureaucratic bullying tactics and delegitimising narratives that are fuelling backlash by anti-rights groups. The European Union must urge Greece to respect migrants’ rights and the space for civil society while ensuring its own border agency complies fully with international human rights law and European human rights standards.

In November 2022, Netflix released its acclaimed film The Swimmers, about the 2015 odyssey of Sarah and Yusra Mardini, the Syrian swimmer sisters who pulled to shore a sinking boat full of fellow refugees trying to make it to Europe. Meanwhile, the real Sarah Mardini was awaiting trial in Lesbos, accused along with 23 others of espionage for helping others making the crossing.

Sarah was arrested in Lesbos in 2018 and spent over 100 days in pretrial detention in a high-security jail. Along with the other detained activists, she was subjected to legal proceedings that paid little respect to due process. Deemed a threat to national security, she was eventually expelled and banned from re-entering Greece. Her trial began in November 2021 but was immediately suspended due to the court’s lack of jurisdiction. In January 2023, an appeals court annulled the summons for all foreign defendants on the grounds that it hadn’t been translated into a language they could understand. It also annulled the charge of espionage due to lack of precision.

But the 24 activists still face trial on charges of people smuggling, fraud, membership of a criminal organisation and money laundering, which could mean prison sentences of up to 25 years. Theirs is one of many cases that point to a systematic policy of criminalisation of solidarity towards migrants and refugees – a major factor in the downgrading of Greece’s rating on the CIVICUS Monitor, our online platform that assesses the state of civic space in 197 countries.

A perilous journey

Eight years ago, the Mardini sisters fled war-torn Syria, flying to Lebanon and then Turkey, where a 10-hour bus ride in the hands of people traffickers brought them to the coast. After days of waiting, they and 16 others managed to get onto a flimsy boat designed to carry seven at most. Fifteen minutes into what was supposed to be a short journey to the island of Lesbos the engine failed and the boat started to sink. The sisters jumped into the water and battled the waves for three and a half hours to bring the boat to safety.

After reaching Lesbos, Sarah and Yusra travelled to Athens and then through several European countries by train, bus and on foot, until they reached Berlin, where they were granted asylum. Their journey took about a month.

Growing numbers of Syrians, along with others from the Middle East, Asia and Africa, are putting themselves in this kind of danger to reach Europe. Sarah and Yusra made it in one piece but many others have lost their lives: more than 29,000 have died in the Mediterranean since 2014.

The number of arrivals peaked in 2015, the year the Mardini sisters made their journey. But refugees have continued to arrive, mostly from Afghanistan and Syria, but also from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Palestine and Somalia, among other countries.

After resettling in Germany, Yusra continued training and swam in the Olympics as a member of the Refugee Olympic Team. But Sarah took a different path, joining Emergency Response Centre International, a Greek civil society organisation (CSO) carrying out search-and-rescue operations and providing humanitarian assistance to new arrivals on Greek shores.

Greece had long been a gateway to Europe, but recently turned into a final destination, something it was unprepared for. The European Union (EU)-Turkey Common Declaration, signed in March 2016, put Turkey in charge of stopping unauthorised crossings to the Greek islands. Intended as a temporary measure, it meant anyone who arrived on the islands irregularly from Turkey could be immediately returned there. For every Syrian returned to Turkey, EU member states would accept one Syrian refugee waiting their turn inside Turkey. In exchange, Turkey would receive €6 billion (approx. US$ 6.5 billion) to improve the situation of refugees in the country, while Turkish nationals would be granted visa-free travel to Europe.

The implementation of this agreement may initially have contributed to a reduction in the number of people making the crossing. But the number of people sent to Turkey under the deal was negligible, partly because Greek courts often considered Turkey an unsafe country to return people to.

The situation reached crisis proportions in 2020, when European borders closed in response to the pandemic and Turkey refused to continue receiving refugees from Greece. Lesbos’s Mória refugee camp – Europe’s largest – already held several times the number of people it was designed for. People were stranded in hellish conditions, with no electricity, a limited water supply, lack of hygiene and no adequate medical attention. As the camp grew, many were forced to live in tents and makeshift shelters beyond the perimeter. Violence rose, and even before COVID-19 struck, doctors warned that unsanitary conditions would likely lead to an epidemic outbreak.

Protests erupted in Mória and were suppressed by security forces before the pandemic offered the perfect excuse to limit the freedom to protest. On 1 March 2020, 10 days before the pandemic was declared, Greece’s Governmental National Security Council suspended access to the asylum system for a month for people crossing the border irregularly. Civil society denounced the victimisation of people trapped at Europe’s borders.

In April 2020, the Greek Minister for Immigration and Asylum introduced the Improvement of Migration bill, which allowed the systematic detention of asylum seekers whose appeals had been rejected and the substitution of open refugee camps with ‘closed controlled centres’. Not surprisingly, this top-down hostility against migrants and refugees fuelled the mobilisation of anti-migrant protests.

In September 2020 fires destroyed the Mória camp, leaving thousands without shelter. The closed camps that have since been built may provide somewhat better facilities but also resemble prisons – they are in remote locations and surrounded by military-grade fencing, watched over by police who prevent asylum seekers leaving.

Civil society under attack

Greece saw a change of government in 2019, with a left-led administration replaced by a centre-right party. Intensified restrictions on immigration and civil society have followed.

In February 2020, Greece changed its law on the registration of CSOs that work on migration, asylum and social integration. Law 4664/2020 created a registry containing information not only about CSOs but also their members, employees and associates. The government said this would it ‘control the activities’ of CSOs helping asylum seekers, accusing them of operating in a ‘faulty and parasitic manner’.

A further law change in May 2020 added additional details on the legal requirements for the registration of CSOs and emphasised that only registered CSOs could undertake asylum, migration and social integration activities.

In September that year, the government introduced even stricter and more intrusive registration requirements. Council of Europe experts concluded that the changes could lead to ‘a worrying humanitarian situation’ and recommended substantial revisions to bring new laws into line with European standards.

The changes mean CSOs working on migration, asylum and social integration must register with the Ministry of Migration and Asylum, which has complete discretion to accept or reject applications and doesn’t need to explain its decisions. There’s a long list of registration requirements and obligation to register extends to staff, members and volunteers of CSOs. If the Ministry of Migration and Asylum assesses one person to be noncompliant, both they and their CSO can be prevented from registering. Unregistered CSOs are not authorised to operate.

Deliberately opaque registration processes are used as a political tool to punish some and reward others. This became clear as soon as October 2020, when a former political group affiliated with the new ruling party legally reorganised as a CSO working in the field of asylum and was quickly registered and awarded a large grant to build housing for refugees.

In comparison, Refugee Support Aegean, a well-known rights-based CSO that takes legal action to support refugees, had to wait a year and a half to learn its registration application had been rejected. The reason provided was that it was unlawful to support people facing deportation. Following an intervention by the Greek Ombudsman’s office, its application was only approved in May 2022.

In September 2021, a new Deportations and Returns Law imposed financial and criminal sanctions on CSOs involved in search-and-rescue operations at sea conducted without permission of the Hellenic Coast Guard. International CSOs are only allowed to participate in search-and-rescue operations if they and their members, associates and employees are registered with Greek authorities, and only when Coast Guard action isn’t possible. Violations could entail fines of up to €6,000 (approx. US$7,100) for organisations and €1,000 (approx. US$1,200) for individuals, who could also be prosecuted and sentenced to a year in prison, with longer sentences if found responsible for an accident. Repeat violations could bring higher fines and cancellation of registration.

New laws have provided legal cover for tactics being used to criminalise solidarity. The government falsely accuses activists of serious crimes that carry long prison terms, subjects them to long criminal procedures and detains them, while harassing their organisations with all the recently introduced regulatory burdens.

Criminalisation is accompanied by acts of intimidation, threats and physical attacks by right-wing groups, along with media smear campaigns instigated by politicians and police that involve the leaking of activists’ personal information. Further attacks can be expected ahead of the May elections as the ruling party attempts to strengthen its faltering poll lead.

A free hand for cruelty

Evidence is mounting of pushbacks against migrants by the Greek authorities, which are illegal under international law. The EU’s external border agency, Frontex – itself heavily criticised for failing to protect human rights – has reported that migrants on the Turkish-Greek border are being rejected and sent back.

The Greek government continues to deny it, but in May 2022 it proudly announced that 40,000 ‘illegal immigrants’ had been ‘blocked’ from entering the country along its border with Turkey in the first four months of 2022, referring to them as a threat to national security that had been successfully neutralised.

In July 2022, the European Court of Human Rights issued a historic ruling on Greece’s illegal pushbacks, but it didn’t make much of a difference. Greece has exploited a growing divide between the EU’s human rights mechanisms and migration policies.

Migrants and refugees trying to reach the EU have long been pawns in someone else’s game. Turkey uses them to extract concessions and funding from the EU. Greece has repeatedly accused Turkey of not doing enough to stop people traffickers bringing migrants across their shared border, which is also the EU’s external border. But Greece has also taken financial advantage: between 2015 and 2021, it received a staggering €3.39 billion (approx. US$3.68 billion) in migration-management EU support.

In early 2020, Greece bolstered border patrols, installed cameras and radar and reinforced a 40-kilometre steel fence on its border with Turkey. The plan is to extend the five-metre-high wall to 120 kilometres, with EU funding.

Anti-migrant measures were heightened in the aftermath of the earthquakes that devastated south-east Turkey and northern Syria in February. The EU is already funding and testing an advanced surveillance network that uses machine-learning software and cameras and sensors to detect people trying to cross. If human rights violations take place it will be hard to tell, as outside civilian monitors are denied access.

The Greek government is repressing civil society because civil society is defending human rights and making the case for more humane treatment of migrants and refugees. The government wants to pursue its restrictive policies unhindered, even when they break international law. In attacking civil society, it’s paying a backhanded compliment to the power voluntary action can have. For civil society, this is all the more reason to resist and push on.


  • The Greek government must stop pushbacks against migrants and refugees and comply with its obligations under international law.
  • The Greek government must stop criminalising solidarity and end its restrictions on civil society organisations working with migrants and refugees.
  • The European Union should ensure that its border agency Frontex complies fully with international human rights law and European human rights norms.

Cover photo by Louiza Vradi/Reuters via Gallo Images