Registry of NGOs working with refugees and migrants in Greece under scrutiny

Risks of repression of civil society organisations supporting refugees and migrants in Greece have been heavily exacerbated by successive legislative reforms in 2020, introducing disproportionate and ambiguous requirements for registration on two Registries managed by the Ministry of Migration and Asylum.[1] None of the legal changes has been preceded by a public consultation.

Mounting evidence of warnings from domestic and international bodies

Since the adoption of the legal framework, an increasing number of institutions at Greek, European and international level have raised concerns as to the compatibility of the NGO registration rules with the country’s legal obligations, in particular human rights duties.

  • Council of Europe Expert Council on NGO Law: An opinion of the Council outlined multiple issues of compliance of Greek legislation with the right to freedom of association, both procedural and substantive. It raised breaches of the rights to privacy and freedom of association on account of onerous, complex, time-consuming and costly registration requirements, as well as a lack of legal certainty in the domestic provisions. The Council recommended that the “Ministerial Decision and related legislative provisions should be substantially revised so that they are brought into line with European standards”, following consultation with NGOs.

  • Greek Ombudsman: In reply to a complaint by RSA, HIAS and the Greek Council for Refugees, the Ombudsman identified areas of the legal framework in need of review such as the objective criteria for assessing the efficiency of organisations, clear and precise definition of criminal offences warranting refusal to register individuals on the NGO Members’ Registry, and the establishment of clear criteria for assessing the personality of individuals requesting registration.

  • European Parliament: The Civil Liberties, Justice & Home Affairs (LIBE) Committee asked the European Commissioner for Home Affairs to conduct a legal assessment of the compatibility of Greek legislation on the NGO Registry with EU law, namely the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the asylum acquis.

  • European Commission: The first annual Rule of Law Report of the Commission highlighted, in relation to the NGO Registry, “criticism from a number of stakeholders, as they consider that the regulations on the operation of NGOs include too stringent and disproportionate requirements for registration and certification”.

  • >European Parliament: MEP Tineke Strik requested the European Commission’s assessment of the compatibility of Greek legislation with the EU fundamental freedoms, the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and information on its intended action vis-à-vis the Greek authorities. In its reply, the European Commissioner for Justice refrained from responding to the specific questions asked.

  • Council of Europe Expert Council on NGO Law: In an addendum to its earlier opinion, the Council deplored the adoption by Greece of even more stringent registration requirements in full disregard of its recommendations, and stressed that the Ministerial Decision “should be revoked as soon as possible.”

  • United Nations Special Procedures: The Special Rapporteurs on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, on the situation of human rights defenders, and on the human rights of migrants voiced concerns on the “significant and detrimental impact on the operation of all civil society organizations working with migrants and refugees in Greece”, with particular focus on the complexity and high costs of registration imposed by Greek legislation, contrary to the right to freedom of association. The three Special Rapporteurs urged Greece to “undertake a review of Law on NGOs and the JMD to ensure that they are in accordance with Greece’s international human rights obligations”.

  • Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights: In reference to the positions taken by the Expert Council on NGO Law and the UN Special Rapporteurs, the Commissioner stated in a letter: “I share these concerns, and call on the Greek authorities to build on the recommendations issued by these bodies in order to actively create and maintain an enabling legal framework and a political and public environment conducive to the existence and functioning of civil society organisations.”

  • Bar Association of Athens stated in an opinion that Greek legislation on the NGO Registry may in no way impose restrictions on the legal profession exceeding those set by the Lawyers’ Code (L 4194/2013) and identified several provisions in contravention of said Code. The Bar Association also stressed the need for an assessment of whether the registration rules infringe the fundamental and constitutional rights to freedom of association, non-discrimination, private life, data protection, free development of personality, freedom of expression, and access to employment.

The implementation of the NGO Registry so far

In an information note released in May, the Ministry of Migration and Asylum refers to 36 registered organisations and 78 rejected applications. This means that negative decisions are more than double the number of positive decisions on registration applications. Another 97 applications are pending.

The Greek authorities recently replied to the Council of Europe that the “objective of the Register is not to set barriers to the NGOs and in no case the registration procedure is intended to be excessive or cumbersome.” They added that “the objective is to set the same rules for all NGOs operating in Greece… as well as to verify that they offer high quality services to the beneficiaries”.

However, the assessment of registration applications in practice gives rise to grounds for believing that the criteria are not applied transparently, fairly, consistently and lawfully. For example, the Ministry of Migration and Asylum has issued negative decisions to certain organisations on the ground that they have not provided financial reports for covering the two years preceding their applications. However, it has approved the applications of several NGOs founded less than two years ago and thereby unable to provide such documentation. Investigative research published by outlets including Solomon and Inside Story raises particular concerns about ‘ghost organisations’ added to the Registry:

  • One of the approved organisations was founded in September 2020 and successfully applied for EU funding under the ESTIA programme one week later. Parliamentary questions on the registration of said NGO were submitted on at least three occasions. In its replies to Parliament, the Ministry of Migration and Asylum has refrained from responding to the above questions and failed to submit the documents requested.
  • In another case, the recommendation of the competent Assessment Commission, No 9949/16.12.2020, highlighted that the organisation in question had not submitted financial statements or activity reports concerning its operation for the past two years. In an interview with Inside Story, the organisation noted that it could not have implemented activities due to lack of funding. The NGO has been added to the NGO Registry and is receiving EU funding under the ESTIA programme.
  • A third NGO was set up in March 2019 and had no activity prior to its registration. The registered address and landline of the NGO in Athens correspond to a car rental company undergoing liquidation. In February 2021, journalists contacted the phone number and were informed that the premises were empty.
  • One of the approved organisations was founded in September 2020 and successfully applied for EU funding under the ESTIA programme one week later. Parliamentary questions on the registration of said NGO were submitted on at least three occasions. In its replies to Parliament, the Ministry of Migration and Asylum has refrained from responding to the above questions and failed to submit the documents requested.
  • In another case, the recommendation of the competent Assessment Commission, No 9949/16.12.2020, highlighted that the organisation in question had not submitted financial statements or activity reports concerning its operation for the past two years. In an interview with Inside Story, the organisation noted that it could not have implemented activities due to lack of funding. The NGO has been added to the NGO Registry and is receiving EU funding under the ESTIA programme.
  • A third NGO was set up in March 2019 and had no activity prior to its registration. The registered address and landline of the NGO in Athens correspond to a car rental company undergoing liquidation. In February 2021, journalists contacted the phone number and were informed that the premises were empty.

Only at the end of April 2021 did the Ministry issue a Circular to specify that organisations founded less than two years prior to the submission of their registration application are not barred from requesting inclusion in the Registry.

In addition, while 78 NGOs have had their applications rejected and another 97 have pending applications for registration on the NGO Registry, since December 2020, the Special Secretary for Stakeholder Coordination has granted exceptional permission to 9 NGOs through the use of the derogation set out in Article 16 of JMD 10616/2020[2]. Most of the organisations concerned provide services in Reception and Identification Centres (RIC).

Judicial review applications for the annulment of the Decision are pending before the Council of State.

For more information:

Notes
[1]        Article 191 L 4662/2020, Gov. Gazette A’ 27/07.02.2020; Joint Ministerial Decision (JMD) 3063/2020, Gov. Gazette B’ 1382/14.04.2020; Article 58 L 4686/2020, Gov. Gazette A’ 96/12.05.2020; JMD 10616/2020, Gov. Gazette B’ 3820/09.09.2020.
[2]        Special Secretary for Stakeholder Coordination, Decision 141/2020, 1 December 2020; Decision 186/2020, 29 December 2020; Decision 202/2020, 30 December 2020; Decision 187/2020, 30 December 2020; Decision 188/2020, 30 December 2020; Decision 189/2020, 30 December 2020; Decision 208/2020, 30 December 2020; Decision 209/2020, 30 December 2020; Decision 8/2021, 11 January 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/39cjFXT.

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