Since 2015, when the refugee and migrant crisis hit new highs across the coastal countries of the Mediterranean, the unrestrained activity of numerous non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has been raising questions and concerns.
Sorting Honest NGOs from Imposters
Despite the presence of several acknowledged NGOs which have been clearly assisting in the mitigation of this unique challenge, there has also been a significant number of dubious entities with suspicious motives, literally created once the European Union started providing huge economic and material resources for the tackling of the refugee and migrant problem.
A recent coordinated operation of the Hellenic Police and the National Intelligence Agency of Greece brought to light a grim reality that many have been fearing for a long time: a number of NGOs not only neglected the problem but actually made the situation much worse by working alongside international networks of criminal migrant smuggling groups.
The joint operation under the codename “Alkmini” started approximately two months earlier around mid-August. Two individuals, recruited by the National Intelligence Service of Greece were sent to the coast of Izmir in Turkey, pretending to be migrants who were willing to illegally enter Greece.
In this context the two recruits established contact with a smuggling network, which offered to take them to Greek territory in exchange for a significant sum of money. The two agents were transferred to the Greek island of Lesbos alongside a number of other asylum seekers. In the process they collected information about the progress of the overall illegal operation and the role of specific NGOs that have been assisting all along.
Modus Operandi for Human Smuggling in the Mediterranean
According to the findings of Operation Alkmini the illegal transfer of these people was coordinated by members of four NGOs with presence in both the Greek and Turkish shores. In this case two women, an Austrian and a Norwegian, both of the working for NGOs, were coordinating the operation from Turkey acting as the link between the smuggling networks in Izmir and the NGO personnel in the Greek islands.
Once the vessels with the smugglers and the asylum seekers were en route, the NGO members in Greece were notified about the time of departure, the estimated time of arrival, and the number of people onboard. Also the exact location of the boats was provided through the ALARMPHONE application. Alarmphone (Watch The Med Alarm Phone Project) is a hotline for boat people in distress; as clearly stated in their official website, the number is not a rescue line, but an alarm number to support rescue operations.
One of the main means of ALARMPHONE is to constantly seek media attention and coverage in order to put political pressure on the local Coast Guard authorities. In the case of the illegal smuggling organized networks, Alarmphone was widely used to either provide data to the NGO members in the proximity of a staged boat sinking so they could push the Coast Guard authorities to intervene, or to spread false alarms of wreck incidents so the local authorities would be kept busy and the boat with the smugglers and the asylum seekers could approach the Greek shores unattended.
The Four NGOs Under Investigation
During the investigation by the Hellenic Police and the National Intelligence Service, 35 people, 26 from Germany, and the rest from Switzerland, France, Spain, Bulgaria, Norway, Austria, Iran and Afghanistan were identified as perpetrators in the illegal smuggling business.
These individuals have been identified and are currently being accused of participating in a criminal organization, people smuggling activity, and espionage. All 35 were arrested and released after once the Greek authorities contacted the respective embassies, and while the investigation is ongoing. All the aforementioned individuals – apart from the two individuals from Iran and Afghanistan – are members of the following four NGOs: FFM eV, Josoor International Solidarity, Mare Liberum eV, and Sea Watch eV.
Three out of the four NGOs are based in Germany, with only Josoor International Solidarity being headquartered in Austria. All four organizations are supposedly based upon volunteer work and donations, but further details about their financial backers and the key personnel working for them remains obscure.
It should be noted that according to the confidential report of the Greek authorities, the NGO Mare Liberum has been playing a key role in the operation since the vessel under the same name and managed by the organization was docked in the island of Lesbos, and has been assisting with the overall illicit process. The Greek task force raided the ship and arrested its crew, while confiscating the electronic equipment found onboard.
Also one of the founding members of Josoor International Solidarity was present in Turkey during Operation Alkmini, reportedly coordinating with the foreign smuggling network. Finally the NGO Sea Watch made headlines in the summer of 2019 with the wide-known case of Captain Carola Rackete, who was arrested after entering the port of Lampedusa carrying 40 migrants onboard despite the ban from the Italian authorities.
How Athens Has Been Handling Rogue NGOs
Since January 2020 the Hellenic Ministry of Migration and Asylum, alongside the appropriate national and local authorities, has adopted a series of measures to deal with the uncontrolled activity of NGOs across the Aegean Sea and within Greek territory. For this reason an official register with all the NGOs operating in Greece was created. The purpose of this record is to separate the NGOs that are operating in good faith and according to the international standards and those that have a rather dubious activity and whose motives are not clear.
Further to this, an additional record was established with the data of the individuals that are working as field operators and are actively involved in rescue operations and the day-to-day administration of the refugee camps in the Greek islands and mainland.
The measures of the Greek government have significantly limited the scope of the NGOs work through constant monitoring of their activities, the continuous control of their access to the “field”, namely the sea routes and the refugee/asylum seekers’ camps and the appointment of Greek officials in key positions for the camps and facilities management and administration. These were roles that until recently were undertaken by the members of the NGOs themselves.
Finally, a constant centralized and well-organized effort among the Hellenic Police, the Hellenic Coast Guard and the National Intelligence Service of Greece is taking place, bringing remarkable results as in the case of Operation Alkmini. Greek authorities are also coordinating with international agencies like Frontex and the role of these bodies is also critical to the accomplishment of each mission and to crack down on dangerous smuggling operations.