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Greece Targets NGOs Accused of Human Trafficking From Turkey

refugees crossing to less
Refugees crossing the Mediterranean sea on a boat heading from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos on January 29, 2016. Credit: Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe.CC–BY-SA-4.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Four NGOs stand charged with smuggling illegal immigrants from Turkey to Greece in the summer of 2021. The NGOs, both well-known and reputable, allegedly colluded with traffickers working from the Turkish coast. They have also been accused of spying on the Hellenic Coast Guard.

The groups face charges based on information provided by an undercover sting operation led by the Greek National Intelligence Service (EYP). Two foreign nationals evidently posed as would-be refugees to Greece after traveling to Turkey. Once there, they apparently requested transportation on one of the numerous smuggling boats from the Turkish Riviera to Greek islands such as Lesvos.

The incident highlights the constant struggle of Greek authorities to stem undocumented migrants from entering the country.

It also comes at a time when Athens is under increasing international pressure to stop alleged illegal pushbacks.

Greece has been accused of migrant pushbacks by several NGOs and foreign media, allegations that Athens has been denying.

In July, a joint investigation by the Guardian, Lighthouse Reports, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and ARD Report München alleged that several undocumented migrants who had recently crossed into Greece from Turkey through Evros River were used as boatmen to ferry other migrants back to Turkey.

In February 2022, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) called for Greece to stop pushing back migrants attempting to seek asylum in the country.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi spoke out against “the increasing number of incidents of violence and serious human rights violations against refugees and migrants at various European borders” that have led to multiple deaths. Grandi also called out Greece directly.

Human trafficking to Greece

This is not the first incident the Hellenic Coast Guard has brought to light. In September of this year, police arrested two hotel owners on Rhodes for their involvement in the smuggling of illegal migrants from Turkey to Greece.

Furthermore, in July, a large international criminal organization responsible for helping undocumented refugees into the country was dismantled by the Greek authorities. Indeed, in total, Greece has stopped almost 160,000 undocumented migrants from entering the country this year.

The problem, in fact, is endemic in Greece today. It has been since the migrant crisis in the Aegean exploded in 2015. The current sting operation took place in August of this year. Its code name was Alcmene after the mother of a mythological hero in Greece and the demigod Hercules.

According to EYP, the NGOs allegedly providing humanitarian services used the Alarm Phone app for the purpose of smuggling. The Alarm Phone app is an emergency channel often migrants who find themselves in distress use while crossing the Mediterranean.

Critics, however, were quick to point out that it is in essence a tool for those who want the coast guard to pick them up in order to enter European countries more easily. This is especially so because if no one hears the call, then NGOs and the Alarm Phone app use social media to apply pressure on the government.

Credit: Hellenic Coast Guard

Smugglers from Western Europe

The alleged human smugglers come from Western Europe. The EYP has identified them as Swiss, French, Austrian, German, Norwegian, and Bulgarian. Two other groups were based in Berlin.

According to a report published on Monday, the EYP named thirty-five members of four different NGOs who coordinated with traffickers from Turkey on the departure and arrival of illegal immigrants and unregistered asylum seekers to the Greek isles using “illegal methods and procedures.”

The investigation began when the Port Authority of Kos heard of a dinghy entering the port with no sign of migrants on the boat although the coast guard and police later identified them.

The authorities received an email after with the refugee names from a lawyer who was the head of an NGO. The coordinator of the trafficking was a Turkish coast guard. The NGOs allegedly received the lists in order to prevent deportation.

Lesvos is one of the islands that has seen a majority of the flood of migrants. Most came from war-torn Syria and Iran after fleeing to Turkey. Nonetheless, many also came from as far away as Congo, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Burma.

The northern borders were another hot spot prior to the government and other neighbor states sealing them off. The case against the NGOs is unique, although in 2020 on Lesvos the government charged another group from central and northern Europe with trafficking. The group was forced to stop their activity and leave Greece.

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