Criminalization at Europe’s borders: uncovering the risks faced by those who support asylum seekers

Asylum seekers traveling to Europe via irregular migration routes often rely on the assistance of lawyers, NGOs and volunteers after arrival. Based on research conducted in Greece, Bird Gem details the risks these individuals and organizations take in their efforts to provide support.

Increased attention is now being given to the illegal activity of “push-backs”, the violent, dangerous and often deadly practice of preventing access to asylum at state borders. However, it is also vital that the growing risks faced by lawyers, NGOs and activists working to support asylum seekers are also recognised.

The criminalization of humanitarianism is by no means a new phenomenon, rescues at sea leading to arrests and the refugees who were forced to steer the boats they were fleeing on to save the lives of others accused of smuggling. Affected communities, activists, journalists and academics continued to raise awareness of the violence and criminalization occurring at Europe’s borders and elsewhere. In what follows, I focus on the specific example of Greece.

In May 2021, the Council of Europe urged Greece to investigate a series of pushbacks in the Aegean Sea and there was in progress disputes between Greece and Turkey on the responsibilities of the two countries at their land and sea borders. While these political conflicts continue, lives continue to be lost. In this context, NGOs, activists and lawyers have been placed in increasingly difficult situations as they continue to raise awareness and tackle pushbacks and wider cases of border violence, while also being exposed to an increased risk of criminalization.

Speaking to groups based in the Aegean, we are reminded how hostile the environment is, both for those on the move and for those working to support them. One person told me that the current agenda is to “silence those who are part of and work alongside displaced communities…to criminalize those who speak out against inhuman treatment”. This can be seen for example on the island of Samos, where in September 2021 a new Closed and Controlled Access Center (CCAC) was opened – a new reception model in the border regions of Greece.

The CCAC is located in a remote part of the island, surrounded by barbed wire fences, with closed entry and exit procedures. It is more than 7 km from the main town of the island, in the heart of a mountainous region. Before the opening of the CCAC, asylum seekers were accommodated at the Reception and Identification Center located next to the main town of Vathy. While conditions in the camp were appalling, with a reliance on weather-unsuitable informal shelters, unsanitary facilities and often inedible food, the camp’s location at least ensured access to NGO support on the ground. island that may have been based in the city.

Over the years, this has included a kitchen and restaurant, a women’s center, various educational and community centers, and distribution spaces. The move towards increased isolation and the use of ‘prison-like’ structures is only one aspect of the criminalization and otherness faced by those seeking asylum in Greece. It is yet another approach that alienates and excludes displaced people from the local community and support networks.

At the same time, an activist reminded me that NGOs and activists find themselves in difficult positions and face increasing risks of criminalization. Every day they wake up and face the dilemma that they are “trying to do something” within the system to support the people who often suffer from it. At the same time, they are very aware of the risks, not only for themselves but also for the people they accompany, people on the move who are often forced to exist in terriblejail like ‘ conditions in camps and reception centres.

Without the support of NGOs, people in the asylum system would face even worse situations, with extremely limited access to health care, education and community activities. It is therefore vital to ensure that NGOs continue to be able to provide this support. The question therefore is how, in an increasingly hostile environment, can we continue to provide this support and actively denounce the policies and activities of the State.

A key takeaway here, which was reminded to me by someone active in these support networks, is that “from an outside perspective, it’s hard to understand how hostile the system has become” . It is imperative to support the [displaced] community and its allies and resist the environment of fear that is cultivated”. So it’s not just a role for the people on the ground. It is also a role for wider communities both in Greece, in the European Union and internationally.

As journalists continue to shine a light on the alleged role of state and international actors in the illegal activity of repressions, the international community has a role to play in condemning these activities and ensuring respect for the human rights of displaced communities. It is also essential that we listen to and support actors on the ground who provide immediate support to those affected by these policies, continue to advocate nationally and internationally for long-term durable solutions and humane migration policies, collect vital evidence of abuse, including testimonies from people who have experienced pushbacks, and raise awareness of the failings of a system that currently puts people’s rights and lives at risk.

Note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: Nicolas Economou /

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