Athens, Greece (TFC) – Since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, a steady stream of refugees fleeing the conflict has flowed from the Middle East into Europe. Many of these refugees have transited into Europe via Greece. This influx of refugees has been met with a massive humanitarian response and numerous aid organizations and volunteers have flocked to Greece to help these people in need. Unfortunately, the Greek government has been hostile to the refugees and there have even been accusations that the Greek coastguard attempted to sink rafts carrying refugees in the open ocean. The events of the past few days indicate that this hostility is now being extended to the people who attempt to help these people in need.
Since the European refugee crisis began, Greece, who was already facing severe economic hardship, has borne a part of the refugee burden. As of November 2015, UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, estimated that Greece was hosting over 20,000 refugees on some of its archipelagos with thousands arriving every day. This influx of refugees has overwhelmed the resources of local communities and the Greek government, who has turned to the UN for support. As a result, many of the refugees are living in over-crowded accommodation.
However, despite the assistance that the Greek government has provided to refugees, there have been other events on the ground that have been deeply worrying. The Greek government is facing intense domestic pressure to curb the influx of refugees. It would seem that they are caving into this pressure. According to a report from Human Rights Watch, the Greek government has been deporting refugees back to Turkey immediately after rescuing them at sea. This report also make disturbing allegations of masked men, armed with military-grade weapons, threatening, beating, and forcefully returning refugees back to Turkish controlled waters. Some of the refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch believe that these men were Greek coastguard.
It is amidst this backdrop that Greece’s crackdown on humanitarians has occurred. On 14 January 2016, five humanitarians from Denmark and Spain, who volunteered to rescue refugees at sea, were arrested. They were subsequently charged with human trafficking, which carries a penalty of up to ten years in prison. These charges have been denied by the humanitarians and their respective organizations who claim that these charges are an attempt to intimidate them. Fortunately, all of them were released on bail pending their court date.
Sadly, this is only part of a growing trend of governmental suppression of humanitarian aid workers. The Australian government, who has been heavily criticized for its treatment of refugees, has also cracked down on humanitarian charities. In 2014, the Australian government accused nine employees of Save the Children of misconduct at an Australian refugee processing/detention center in Nauru, resulting in their expulsion from the country. Specifically, they accused these Save the Children employees of encouraging the residents of the center to protest against Australian refugee policy and to engage in self-harm. These actions against Save the Children followed accusations that the Australian government failed to protect children in the camp from sexual abuse.
Despite the fact that Save the Children was cleared of wrongdoing and the Australian government recently admitted that the expulsion of the aid workers was unwarranted, their fortunes have not improved. In October 2015, Nauru accused Save the Children of leaking details about the asylum center to the press and raided their offices twice (allegedly in the presence of Australian Border Force officers), seizing computers, hard drives, and other equipment. Save the Children’s contract to operate in the asylum center was also not renewed, which resulted in their withdrawal from Nauru. Following this saga, the CEO of Save the Children hinted that this crackdown was politically motivated.
These attempts to clampdown on aid workers and humanitarian organizations are alarming. The world is in the midst of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Currently there are 59 million refugees fleeing war and according to the UN Refugee agency, nearly one percent of the world’s population is a refugee, internally displaced person, or seeking asylum. In order to effectively respond to this humanitarian catastrophe, aid workers must be allowed to work freely and any attempt to hinder their work directly harms refugees, whose lives are in the balance. As a result, the repression of humanitarians for political purposes is entirely unacceptable and constitutes an attack on the values of humanity and compassion that they represent.