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Greece: Regulation of NGOs working on migration and asylum threatens civic space

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AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC STATEMENT

index number EUR 25/2821/2020

New regulations introduced by the Greek government on the functioning of civil society organizations risk undermining their independence and further shrink the space for civil society, particularly for organizations that act to defend the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. In the midst of an increasingly hostile climate for asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants, and those who try to assist them, Amnesty International is concerned that the new rules threaten the right to freedom of association in Greece.

With the adoption on 14 April 2020 of the Joint Ministerial Decision (JMD) No 3063 on the operation of the Registry of Greek and foreign NGOs that operate in the areas of asylum, migration and social integration in Greece, and on the Registry of their members, Greek authorities have tightened up the requirements imposed on organisations and individuals to be able to operate in Greece. While both registries were originally established in October 2018 and February 2020, respectively, the JMD introduces new administrative requirements which are liable to affect organisations’ ability to continue to operate freely in Greece. These requirements are in addition to the statutory conditions that all NGOs in Greece must fulfil in order to acquire legal status and are only imposed on those organisations which work on asylum, migration and social integration.

Significantly, the new regulations are implemented in the context of recent reforms of asylum and migration laws in Greece, adopted in November 2019 and May 2020, which greatly restricted asylum-seekers' and migrants’ rights and also introduced restrictions on NGOs, including in terms of registration requirements. Article 58 of the new law of May 2020 (Law no 4686/2020, amending various provisions of immigration and asylum law) now makes registration an overarching requirement for all organisations working in these fields in Greece, stating that those that do not register “cannot participate in the materialization of activities of international protection, migration and social integration within the Greek territory and particularly in the provision of legal, psychosocial and medical services of Article 47 para. 5, in the provision of material reception conditions of Article 55 para 1 and in the provision of information and updates of Articles 66 and 69 of La. 4636/2019 (Α΄ 169)”. While setting minimum conditions for NGOs registration, Article 58 reserves to the Minister of Immigration and Asylum the power to set further requirements.

Amnesty International is seriously concerned that the rules introduced through the JMD and Article 58 risks to unduly restrict the freedoms and independence of NGOs and individuals working with people on the move. The new rules appear to impose, in an apparently discriminatory manner, additional, burdensome and intrusive requirements to these NGOs’ registration and operation, including in matters of funding, which make it virtually impossible for certain NGOs to comply. Some of the rules also risk to unduly interfere with NGOs’ autonomy, are at odds with the right to privacy of organisations and their members and appear to assign excessive discretion to registering authorities. The government’s move ultimately risks paralysing the work of NGOs assisting asylumseekers and migrants, especially when it comes to smaller or more recently established NGOs, by creating a silencing and chilling effect on civil society organizations and human rights defenders.

Over the past year, Amnesty International has noticed with concern an increasingly antagonistic and suspicious attitude of the Greek authorities towards NGOs working with people on the move. This has included both institutional actions - such as regulatory restrictions on NGOs’ operations introduced through the November 2019 law on asylum, and a divisive public discourse, labelling ‘good’ and ‘bad’ NGOs and whipping up sentiment against those who are perceived to help migrants and refugees to the detriment of national interests. As an example, in a radio interview in February 2020, the Deputy Minister for Immigration and Asylum, Giorgos Koumoutsakos, compared NGOs to “leeches” “set up in one night in order to have access to EU funding”. Similarly, upon the adoption of the new law on registration of NGOs’ members, in February 2020, the Greek Government's spokesman Stelios Petsas remarked that the listing of members would be "so there is transparency and responsibility, as many NGOs may have helped decisively [...] but others operated in a faulty and parasitic manner”.

In March 2020, the mounting negative perception of NGOs in Greece and tensions in the local population reacting to the announcement of new closed centres opening on the islands and the events at the Turkey land borders, culminated in a series of attacks against refugees, journalists, NGO workers, activists and members of organizations on Chios, Lesvos and Kos. Fires were also set in Lesvos in an NGO community centre and a UNHCR transit shelter and in Chios in a warehouse run by volunteers.

In this already tense climate, the JMD of April 2020 and Article 58 of the May 2020 Law seem to be aimed at consolidating an increasingly restrictive control of the work of NGOs working on migration and asylum, which undermines their independence and operations. These restrictions risk, in turn, limiting the services available to asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants in Greece, who often rely on NGOs for the provision of basic services, legal assistance or other forms of support. This trend could be further compounded by a new law establishing a national NGO registry under the Ministry of the Interior and imposing new requirements on civil society organizations, which is set to be voted by the Greek parliament at the end of July.

As the Greek government has proven unable to address the appalling conditions of the over 30.000 people who survive in overcrowded and unsafe camps on the islands, with thousands of refugees at risk of homelessness and destitution following the latest government measures, the introduction of regulations that threaten to undermine the activities of NGOs cannot but be considered a dangerous and callous decision.

The JMD and the provisions under Article 58 have been received with criticism by many Greek and international NGOs. On 2 July, the Council of Europe Expert Council on NGO Law of the Conference of INGOs (international non-governmental organisations) of the Council of Europe (CoE) issued its “Opinion on the compatibility with European standards of recent and planned amendments to the Greek legislation on NGO registration”, concluding, among other things, that:

“[t]he provisions will have a significant chilling effect on the work of civil society on account of the significant number of NGOs who are likely not to complete the registration process either because they are ineligible for registration or certification on formal grounds, are rejected by decision-makers for having failed any number of the overly broad criteria for registration or certification, or because they exempt themselves from the registration process because it is judged to be too onerous, they do not wish to share personal data or they are unconvinced that there is a reasonable likelihood of registration or certification”.

The Opinion recommends that “The Ministerial Decision and related legislative provisions should be substantially revised so that they are brought into line with European standards.”

Against this backdrop, Amnesty International expresses its key concerns on how the JMD and Article 58 risk undermining the independence and ability to operate of NGOs working on migration and asylum in Greece and threaten the right to association of their members. For the sake of simplicity, unless otherwise stated, in the following text the terms NGOs or NGOs’ members are used to refer to those organisations working on migration, asylum and social integration, which are the subject of the rules in question.