“When violence against NGOs broke out in early 2020, and especially after that, it became clear that the police would not come to our aid. That’s when I felt extremely vulnerable, targeted and unsafe, even just walking down the street.”  – Rachael L., a humanitarian worker who left Greece in early 2020 after several years of working on Lesbos.

This piece is part of a novel collaboration between The Paris Globalist and The Governance Post, the international affairs magazine by students at the Hertie School in Berlin, Germany.

The difficulties of living as a refugee on Lesbos have been reported worldwide. The infamous Moria camp and its successor Mavrovouni (also ‘Moria 2.0’) are an uncomfortable human rights mark against the European Union. The challenges facing NGO workers on the Greek island, however, are less known. These workers, often volunteers, bridge gaps in humanitarian assistance in education and healthcare. I recently asked a handful of workers about their experiences over the last year. Remarkably, many of their descriptions of early 2020 sounded more like a warzone than the EU. Their stories ranged from being attacked in a car and having car tires slashed to feeling unsafe with police and being forcibly stopped by anti-migration zealots on the way to the refugee camp.

‘A powder keg’

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic reached Lesbos, times were hard on the island. In February 2020, Turkey announced that it would no longer restrain refugees seeking to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Several protests in support of refugee rights as well as against the Greek government’s inaction to remove the camps took place. One international report described the situation as a “powder keg ready to explode”. 

Following these unpleasant events, on the night of March 7, 2020, the NGO International School of Peace (ISOP) was destroyed in a criminal inferno. Three Palestinian indivuals were arrested and charged with arson, but no information has been released about their motives. One suspect is a naturalised Greek citizen who lived on Lesbos, while the other two are suspected to have come from Athens to burn the facilities.

Led by two Arab Israeli Life Movements, ISOP provides educational opportunities to children and adult refugees staying in the Moria and Mavrovouni camps. Anat Sharon, a founding member of the school, told Haaretz that NGO workers were used to threats and potential violence, but blamed the Turkish government for overheating the situation. 

“President Erdogan opened the borders to allow refugees to move into Greece, creating a boiling point that causes a lot of frustration for the local residents, and encourages far-right groups to raise their heads, act violently and terrorise the police, the aid organisations and the refugees,” said Sharon. 

Sadly, the loss of the ISOP building foreshadowed a larger blaze. In September 2020, Moria was lost to a fire, displacing the more than 10,000 people who resided there. One NGO worker, who prefers to remain anonymous, described nearly being attacked for supporting the refugees during the destruction of the camp. He also said he was “followed, harassed, and nearly driven off the road by another car” on several occasions throughout the year.

Unaware of legal protection

International law recognises and appreciates the role of human rights defenders in challenging state actions and providing gap humanitarian assistance. It also understands the importance of protecting these defenders so they can carry out their work. These safeguards are formally outlined by both the United Nations and the EU. Greece and its EU partners have a clear and documented record of unequivocal support regarding these principles and commitments. However, four of the five human rights defenders I interviewed were not aware of any international instruments providing rights and protections specifically to human rights workers.

At the UN level, the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders was adopted by the General Assembly in 1998, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It clearly outlines state obligations towards humanitarian and human rights workers. These concepts were strengthened in 2000 when the UN Human Rights Commission appointed a UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders.  In 2004, the EU adopted similar protections.

While these protections exist for NGO workers and volunteers, the Greek government has some legitimate concerns about the proliferation of NGOs on Lesbos. From the beginning of the refugee crisis, the Greek oversight capability could not keep up with the pace and variety of arriving NGOs. The state now attempts to regulate NGOs more strictly. 

Separately, Greek police recently filed criminal charges against 33 NGO members who are alleged to have conspired with migrant smugglers to facilitate transport from Turkey. But neither the lack of administrative regulations nor the unlawful activities of some NGO workers abdicate the government’s obligation to protect law-abiding humanitarian workers.

A protective relationship

Greece and the EU need to reexamine their program and implement smarter policies to protect human rights and dignity of movement to their refugee population. At a minimum, on-the-ground workers, police and military should be aware of both the rights of refugees and human rights defenders. 

Boris K., a long-term NGO worker on the island, offered concrete suggestions when we spoke. “It could be highly beneficial for all humanitarian workers arriving in the island to be informed of the legal protections as a part of the onboarding process. Additionally, organisations functioning on the ground could be asked to keep a copy of the relevant documents on display in their offices. These and other measures could be facilitated by a designated public office that is entrusted with the monitoring, tracking and or reporting of incidents.” This type of community-based support could allow Greece and the EU to develop healthier, protective, and symbiotic relationships with the NGOs and would minimise local tensions and aggressions.

 Whether Greece and the EU reach an agreement or the refugee policy gridlock remains, the heated topic of migration will be present in political and cultural discourse. International conflicts and climate change are likely to cause the number of migratory people to rise in the years ahead. Because these are realities that must be faced, NGOs will continue to be present across the islands of the Aegean Sea to fill the gaps. The Greek state should fulfil its commitments to make human right defenders on Lesbos free from harassment, threats, and violence. 

Strangely enough, COVID-19 was helpful here: the lockdowns and uncertainty early in the year lowered the heat on this crucible of societal tensions. Non-locals left the island and outside activity became minimal. But the fundamental factors that created the pressure cooker of early 2020 remain. It is likely that they will reemerge in force as the public health threat recedes later in 2021 and beyond.