Greece effectively has no asylum system. It recognizes as few as 0.05 percent of asylum seekers as refugees at their first interview. A law adopted in July abolished a meaningful appeals procedure. The effect of the new law is that a person who is in need of international protection as a refugee in Greece is almost certain to be refused asylum at the first instance, and having been refused has little chance of obtaining it on appeal. The new law leaves asylum seekers with no remedy against risk of removal to inhuman or degrading treatment, as required by article 39 of the EU's procedures directive and articles 13 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. As a result of this legislative change, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) withdrew from any formal role in Greece's asylum procedure.
Many of those we interviewed said they did not want to apply for asylum in Greece because they had heard that Greece rejects everyone. Some believed mistakenly that they could apply for asylum in other European countries. Access to legal counsel or interpreters is virtually impossible in detention centers in the north and those in need of protection may be unable to access asylum procedures. An Afghan detainee held in Soufli border police station, for example, was informed about her rights in English, a language she does not understand.
Apart from sporadic visits by a lawyer from the Greek Council for Refugees operating under a government agreement, no lawyers or organizations offer pro-bono legal aid in Greece's northern region. Athens-based lawyers who offer pro-bono legal aid told us they are not able to access and speak to detainees in the north unless they present to authorities the names of persons detained. Even when they have the names of detainees, police in the Evros border region might ask them to obtain an additional permit from central police authorities to see persons detained; or police may not respond to their query whether a certain detainee is still held there. Conversations between lawyers and detainees furthermore are rarely confidential and lawyers said that police interrupted their talks and asked them to finish their conversations with detainees.
Even those with access to legal aid and wanting to apply for asylum are not necessarily able to access the minimal procedures that do exist. According to the Greek Council for Refugees, on July 30, Greek police handed over 40 Turkish citizens, among them 18 asylum seekers, including four unaccompanied children, to their Turkish counterparts under a bilateral readmission agreement. Police on Crete, where the group initially arrived, refused to receive their asylum applications despite interventions by local lawyers. The asylum seekers were deported even though the Greek Council for Refugees intervened with the responsible Ministry. In addition, on July 17, Human Rights Watch saw more than 1,000 asylum seekers lined up all night at Athens' main police station trying to file asylum claims, largely in vain.
Greece is bound by the international legal principle of non-refoulement not to expel or return a person to a place where he or she would face persecution, torture, or inhuman or degrading treatment. This obligation applies not only to direct returns into the hands of persecutors or torturers, but also to indirect returns to countries from which persons are subsequently sent to a state where they face such threats. The circumstances of what constitutes inhuman or degrading treatment for an unaccompanied child may differ significantly from that of adults and Greece is obliged to take "measures and precautions" against such treatment when returning a child.
Inhuman and Degrading Detention Conditions
Greece is also bound under European and international law to protect migrants from inhuman and degrading treatment while in Greece. Persons held in detention centers in the north described to us conditions that would violate these obligations. Furthermore, unaccompanied children were detained jointly with adults across detention centers in the north, itself a violation of binding international standards.
People detained at the Soufli border police station, for example, told us that two detainees have to share one dirty mattress and that they are never allowed to go outside. One detainee, a 16-year-old girl in the company of her husband, told us that she felt constantly intimidated in a cell with more than 20 adult men. People detained at Tichero border police station told us they slept on dirty mattresses or on the floor without blankets, and that the bathroom was filthy, with an unbearable smell. Those held in the Venna detention facility said the place was infested with cockroaches and mice, and they complained about a lack of enough warm clothing. Those detained included a disabled man who had lost one arm and could not fully use his other arm but was subjected to the same regime. With the exception of Fylakio detention center, the conditions were compounded by a lack of access to medical care. Except for those held at Venna, those interviewed said they received only two meals per day, which they said was insufficient.
Detainees held at Fylakio detention facility spoke of comparatively better, albeit overcrowded, detention conditions. All persons who had been held there, however, said they experienced or witnessed violence and ill-treatment by guards. Two described an incident in which guards allegedly beat up an Arabic-speaking detainee after he tried to escape.
I saw an Arab who tried to escape. Police caught him and beat him up badly. They took him to the telephone room and covered the window with black plastic. Afterward I went to make a phone call and saw that guy with blood on his head and in handcuffs.
Police also allegedly used violence when intervening in fights among detainees or to punish those who did not stay quiet at night:
I saw once with my own eyes that three policemen beat one person. They beat him in the corridor because he quarreled [with others]. They beat him for a short time with batons, with their hands, and they also kicked him.
We received additional allegations of police violence from persons detained at Tichero and Feres border police stations, and from a person held at an unknown location near Komotini.
Several persons interviewed said it was forbidden to make phone calls from Soufli and Tichero border police stations. One detainee at Soufli told us: "One detainee said if you have a lawyer you might get released but we don't have a telephone so how can we contact our family to get us a lawyer?" Another person said that although detainees held at Fylakio detention centers were permitted to make phone calls on Mondays and Thursdays, no calls were allowed during the first ten days.
Asked whether they tried to file a complaint, one detainee told us: "I never complained to anybody. We didn't complain. It wouldn't have helped if we'd said anything. The captain would have told us to stay quiet." Although the police chief in charge of the Fylakio detention facility assured us he would investigate any allegation of ill-treatment brought forward by detainees, he added that he has never received any complaints.
The EU's Failure to Hold Greece Accountable
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the European Union to hold Greece accountable for its violation of European asylum standards, including while recent arrests and transfers were still ongoing. Yet, despite having a mandate and a duty to enforce member states' implementation of EU legislation, the European Commission has not spoken out against Greece's effective abolition of the right to seek asylum or to appeal rejected asylum claims, or its abusive detention and expulsions of migrants, including children. In fact, Jacques Barrot, vice-president of the European Commission responsible for justice, freedom, and security, was on an official visit to Greece when the new presidential decree was published that effectively eliminated the appeals procedure in violation of binding EU standards.
The European Commission's failure to call publicly for Greece to remedy these serious violations of EU standards and European and international human rights and refugee law sends a worrying signal that abuses may go unchecked. It is vitally important for the Commission to take the opportunity of a new administration in Athens to press in the strongest terms for immediate and fundamental reform of Greece's asylum system, meaningful access to protection, and an end to abuse.
The Commission should without delay issue a reasoned opinion on Greece's current breaches of EU standards on asylum and migration, identifying the steps needed to bring Greece back into conformity with EU and human rights law. It should also make clear to Athens that unless the new government takes those steps, the Commission will refer its failure to uphold EU standards to the European Court of Justice.
In two reports published in 2008, Human Rights Watch further called on European governments to stop sending migrants and asylum seekers, including unaccompanied children, back to Greece under the Dublin II regulations. We concluded that Greece violated both EU standards and international human rights law by holding migrants in unacceptable detention conditions, by preventing persons in need of protection from seeking asylum, and by failing to protect unaccompanied migrant children.
Under the European Union's Dublin II regulations, the country where a person first entered the EU is generally held responsible for examining that person's asylum claim, whether or not the person applied there. While the Dublin II regulations are premised on the notion that all EU member states have comparable asylum and migration practices, there are wide disparities, with some countries like Greece effectively offering no protection at all. This disparity underscores the importance of reforming the Dublin system while at the same time ensuring that EU member states are held to account for their failure to respect their obligations under EU law. Only then can the EU take meaningful steps toward creating a common European asylum system.
New Greek Government Should Take Urgent Action to Stop Abuses
Human Rights Watch calls on the new government in Greece to take urgent steps to end abuses against refugees and migrants, including children. We reiterate the recommendations we made to the-then Minister of Interior in August:
Issue a public statement committing the government to treating migrants apprehended in Greek territory in a humane and dignified manner. Guarantee all migrants unhindered access to the asylum procedure and protection from refoulement.
Immediately ensure that the practice of illegal expulsion across the Evros River be stopped; carry out an investigation leading to identification and levying of appropriate sanctions of officials involved in such illegal acts.
Rescind Presidential Decree 81/2009, create a functioning asylum system in which trained staff assess asylum claims on the basis of confidential and private interviews, and allow for a fair and independent review of appeals.
Refrain from detaining unaccompanied migrant children and from summarily deporting them without prior assessment of the risks they face upon return. Create sufficient number of care places for all unaccompanied migrant children in Greece. Consider the granting of temporary residence for unaccompanied children on humanitarian grounds, as provided for in article 44(c) of Law 3386/2005, to protect them from repeated arrest and detention until a durable solution in their best interests is found.
Close substandard detention centers and open new facilities ensuring adequate space, cleanliness, recreation, access to health care, and legal and family visitation necessary for humane conditions of detention. Migrants should only be detained as a last resort, when actual proceedings for their deportation are ongoing, and when it is the only method necessary to secure persons' lawful deportation, and when the necessity of detaining them is subject to regular review, including by the judiciary. Asylum seekers should not be detained.
Ensure full access for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Human Rights Watch, and other reputable organizations to all migration detention facilities, Coast Guard vessels and facilities, and to entry and border points and the border region.