Why are volunteers treated like criminals in Greece?

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Why are volunteers treated like criminals in Greece? By Natasha Tsangarides

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Volunteers from the Boat Refugee Foundation wait at the harbour. They are working in Lesvos, Kos, and Malta to help refugees arriving by sea. Ann Wuyts under a Creative Commons Licence

2015 was a very important year. About one million people moved from their homes and went to Europe by sea. UNHCR says that about 90 per cent of these people came from countries which have refugees. They are running away from war, persecution, and poverty.

As European countries tried to help, they found they were not well prepared. The refugees arrived in such big numbers and this showed the weakness of European borders and the EU’s common asylum policy. Countries have made their borders strong again and the EU is thinking again about the Schengen Agreement. At the same time, especially in Greece, citizen volunteers have helped the weak state and NGO services.

2016 starts with new and different problems. The winter weather has not stopped refugees. Donald Tusk is the president of the European Council. He said: ‘We have no more than two months to get things under control,’ to save the Schengen Agreement, which allows people to travel freely between 28 European countries.

This means making Europe’s external borders strong, especially the border of Greece, where 800,000 people crossed the Aegean Sea in 2015. Frontex is responsible for managing European borders and it has already made the border in Greece stronger. Frontex told the New Internationalist that they have 395 people in Greece, including 178 in Lesvos.

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(or see this infographic here: http://newint.org/features/2016/01/01/the-border-industry/)

And the European Commission has suggested making a European Border and Coast Guard with Frontex people. One idea is to give Frontex the power to send back refugees and to use force.

Another idea is to give this European Border and Coast Guard the power to work in a country against the wishes of the government. This is when they decide it is not protecting its border effectively. An example is places with a very big number of refugees, such as Lesvos in Greece, where almost half a million refugees arrived in 2015.

Greece is finding the refugee problem difficult and in recent months has tried to manage the situation. In Lesvos, they gave the management of the Moria registration centre to the Danish Refugee Council. They stopped entry to certain sites, such as parts of Moria, and registered all NGOs and volunteers on the island.

The authorities have become unfriendly to volunteers. This year they arrested 12 international volunteers in Lesvos. They arrested seven volunteers and accused them of stealing used lifejackets from a town rubbish dump. They arrested two Danish citizens and three Spanish lifeguards and accused them of people smuggling and having knives, after they answered calls for help from a refugee boat.

‘The Spanish lifeguards were saving lives. And we know that without them the number of deaths would be double or triple,’ says Efi Latsoudi from Pikpa. Pikpa is a self-organized group in Lesvos. It has supported the accused, asked for an end to the criminalization of people who rescue refugees on the beaches, and paid for the legal defence of the Spanish lifeguards. ‘They were treated like criminals. They spent 60 hours in a police cell that wasn’t good enough for animals. They couldn’t sleep, eat or go to the toilet. They came to Greece to save lives, to save children. It is clear now that there has been an attack on volunteer groups. They are making them criminals and they are also saying these people are dangerous to the security of the state, I think they are angry about all these rescue operations. They want to take control of the beaches and they want Frontex to operate without people seeing what they are doing.’

The situation is the same in other places in Greece. They have arrested volunteers and activists on the island of Chios. They arrested one volunteer on suspicion of spying after photographing a Frontex boat. And the police in Athens are starting to check their papers and are stopping their rescue operations.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: http://newint.org/blog/2016/01/28/refugees-volunteers-crackdown/

(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).