At this point, more than 20,000 asylum seekers find themselves stuck on Greece’s North Aegean island of Lesbos. The island has been at the epicentre of the refugee crisis since 2015 after it became one of the prime targets for migrants to make landfall and late the home of Moria, the stinking and now notorious over-populated refugee camp that houses more the overwhelming majority of the migrants who are currently on Lesbos.
It was, therefore, no surprise that clashes between asylum seekers, the island natives, and law enforcement officials erupted on February 3. However, for the first time since the migrant crisis erupted five years ago that the Greek government spoke explicitly, and from the very beginning, about the riots, saying they were at least partially perpetrated by certain NGOs.
A high-ranking Greek government official told New Europe that certain individuals who work for some of the NGOs that are specifically active with the migrants on the Greek islands were behind the uprising on Lesbos, which, the official noted, appeared to be highly organised and fully coordinated.
Furthermore, the request for a “decongestion” of the islands was odd. Decongestion is a method that has been followed in the past and proved to be both insufficient and unsuccessful. The procedure saw asylum seekers considered “vulnerable” transferred from the islands to facilities on the Greek mainland. And while this seems relatively plausible, asylum seekers that are being transferred are not considered eligible for a return to Turkey, according to the Joint EU-Turkey Statement, since the Turkish government has agreed to only accept individuals from the islands, where asylum applications are submitted and finally processed.
Greek government officials are, therefore, taking into considering that some NGO members are manipulating asylum seekers to push for new transfers to the mainland, meaning they would be ineligible to be repatriated to Turkey.
The role and contribution of the NGOs has been widely discussed since the migration crisis first began in Greece in the summer of 2015. The European Commission has channeled funds to Greek national authorities, but also to international organisations that were actively trying to manage in the flood of migrants since that time.
According to a January report about the EU’s Financial Support to Greece, which was compiled by the Commission, more than €690 million have been granted to international organisations and more than €275 million have been channeled to Greece’s national authorities through the EU’s Emergency Support Instrument. All in all, more than €2 billion have been doled out since 2015 through three different European funds. However, not all of the NGOs in the field seem to be fulfilling their obligations in the correct manner. And while this may not apply to well-known organisations and Non-Government Organisations like the International Organization for Migration, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Medicines Du Monde, or several Greek organisations that include Metadrasis and Smile of the Child, there are specific grey zones. Certain active NGOs have received funds and, according to Greek officials, play a dubious role in the migrant crisis.
A new online registry
The Greek authorities are now putting forward a new online registry for NGOs that are active on the islands and on the mainland. The idea is not new. Back in 2016, the then- Minister for Migration, Yannis Mouzalas, initiated a similar registry. However, looking back at the results, only 86 NGOs were listed. According to officials familiar with the matter there are and have been hundreds of NGOs active in Greece for the management of the refugee crisis.
The Greek government is now going one step further. The new legislation by the Hellenic Parliament will require NGOs to not only register, but also identify their employees. As a result, only employees who are authorised will have access to facilities on the islands and the mainland. This is considered an important differentiation with the previous policy of the leftist SYRIZA government that largely turned a blind eye to certain NGOs’ malpractice habits as well as certain radical activist elements that used the organisations for cover.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis noted that most of the NGOs in Greece had contributed a great deal to helping manage the migrant issue and have assisted the Greek authorities. There are, as Mitsotakis noted, many who have failed to fulfill their humanitarian duties and who have helped foment unrest amongst the migrants; which will no longer be tolerated by the Greek authorities.
“The NGOs will have a full name and be monitored by the Greek state”, said MItsotakis.
In addition to the allegations that some members of NGOs had a hand in planning the recent uprising on Lesbos, some Greek officials ratcheted up their rhetoric by indicating that personnel involved with many of the NGOs have close ties to Turkey. Some have been spotted travelling to the Turkish coast, at several of the points of departure for the migrants, which has raised serious questions about their role on the Greek islands.
Up to this point, the Greek authorities are not looking into those accusations as concrete cases, however, according to sources at Greece’s Ministry of Migration, the reasoning behind the new legislation is to tighten control over active NGOs, particularly for those with questionable motives, a point that as highlighted by the country’s alternate Minister for Migration, George Koumoutsakos, who compared certain NGOs to “leeches” and who described a well-connected network of interests that is in place amongst several of the organisations.
For all others, according to a source who spoke with New Europe, “Those who do their job correctly, have nothing to be afraid of.”