LONDON: A Greek minister has accused several charities of working with human traffickers to form a refugee-smuggling network that stretches from Somalia to the UK.
Migration and Asylum Minister Notis Mitarachi named seven charitable organizations that officials suspect provide funds for traffickers. The money allegedly is used to help illegal migrants from Somalia to enter Greece and, from there, travel to other European nations.
He told the Times newspaper that Norwegian aid agency Aegean Boat Report, the London-based Al-Khair Foundation and five other groups are believed to be complicit in efforts to aid smugglers.
“Contacts in Mogadishu facilitate transport to Istanbul, even paying for migrant airfares on Turkish Airlines,” Mitarachi said. “From there, migrants are transported to key points along the Turkish coast, working with aid groups to push them to islands like Lesbos. Contacts push them to Athens … then to Berlin, then to Calais where they are stashed in a truck, ending up in London.”
It is a criminal offense in Greece to help an illegal migrant enter the country. Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, such as Lesbos, are on the front line of Europe’s migrant crisis. About 17,000 of the 90,000 illegal migrants in the country, who are seeking asylum in Europe, are stuck there in limbo, often in poor conditions in overcrowded refugee centers.
In video testimony seen by Times reporters, a Somali refugee who was rescued while attempting a journey from Turkey to Greece on Dec. 2 said he received help to pay for his journey from Al-Khair Foundation. During the same attempt to reach Greece, 34 Somalis drowned.
The man said he and two others entered Turkey on student visas. He told Greek authorities that some Somalis return to Mogadishu to bring more migrants to Europe, helped by funding from Al-Khair.
Mitarachi said Greece will limit the ability of charities working in refugee camps to hire private contractors.
“If a company wants to provide cleaning services, for example, they should be allowed to tender, not be sidelined because there is some ‘save the world’ NGO that wants a million euros to clean the camps,” he added.
Greek authorities say the accounts given by migrants match reports from intelligence agencies about refugee-smuggling networks, which are accused of exploiting a loophole introduced by Turkey in the system for student and healthcare visas. It allows young Somalis to travel legally to Turkey on visas issued by liaison officers and a Mogadishu hospital funded by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They are then put in contact with smugglers in Turkey who organize illegal crossings into Greek territory.
According to testimony from refugees, Turkish officials provide Somalis with preferential treatment while detaining migrants of other nationalities, the Times said.
A number of charities accuse countries in the Mediterranean of making some legitimate humanitarian activities illegal in an effort to limit the number of migrants reaching their countries.
Aegean Boat Report said it is forced to assist migrants arriving in Greece because officials there are sending them back to Turkey. It need volunteers to help with rescue efforts and documenting the refugees, the organization added. Al-Khair Foundation declined to comment.
Official figures reveal that while the overall number of migrants arriving illegally in Greece from Turkey fell by more than 96 percent during the coronavirus pandemic, the number of Somalis increased — accounting for almost half of the total.