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UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants concludes the fourth and last country visit in his regional study on the human rights of migrants at the borders of the European Union: Greece

ATHENS (3 December 2012): Following an invitation by the Government, I conducted a visit to Greece from 25 November to 3 December 2012. During my 9-day visit, I visited Athens, the Evros region bordering Turkey, the Aegean island of Lesvos, and the western port city of Patras. I met with Government representatives, civil society organisations, international organisations, the European Union (EU)’s representation in Greece, as well as migrants themselves, including in detention centres. 

I would like to express my appreciation for the support and cooperation the Government provided in planning and coordinating the visit. I particularly appreciate that the Government allowed me to undertake unannounced visits to any facilities where migrants are detained. This form of cooperation sets a good example which I encourage other States to follow. I would also like to sincerely thank the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for their valuable support and assistance, both before and during my mission.

My mission to Greece has been carried out in the context of my year-long thematic study on the management of the external borders of the EU and its impact on the human rights of migrants. I have visited EU institutions in Brussels, and undertaken country visits to Tunisia, Turkey and Italy earlier this year. I shall develop a thematic study on the issue which will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council’s 23rd session in May/June 2013.  I trust that it will help the Governments of each of the countries visited, as well as the EU itself, to develop durable solutions for migrants in the region, including on the important issue of the management of borders, and adopt a human rights-based approach in accordance with the fundamental principles of international human rights law.  

The Greek-Turkish border is one of the main points of irregular border crossings into Europe. This is in large part due to its geographical location, at the south-east border of the EU. Most of those migrants wish to transit through Greece and travel towards northern Europe, often through Italy. While the Schengen Convention abolished checks at the internal borders and created a single external border for the Schengen countries, irregular migrants who try to leave Patras on the ferries for Italy are apprehended and charged with attempting to leave the country irregularly. Those who make it to Italy are, if detected, prevented from disembarking from the ferry, and returned to Greece through informal push-backs. “Poseidon Sea”, the Frontex operation which used to cover the sea border between Greece and Turkey, was extended in 2012 to also cover the west coast of Greece, where migrants trying to reach Italy by boats operated by smugglers are intercepted and returned to Greece. Furthermore, while most EU countries have stopped returning asylum seekers to Greece under the Dublin II Regulation due to a decision of the European Court of Human Rights (M.S.S. vs Belgium and Greece), I was informed that there are still some returns to Greece based on this Regulation. A very large number of irregular migrants and asylum seekers are thus stuck in Greece. For many of them, returning to their home countries is not an option, as they either fled from violence and persecution, or sold everything they had in order to pay for their journey to Europe. For those who wish to go home however, I welcome that IOM’s assisted voluntary return programme, funded by the EU Return Fund, provides a way for them to return in dignity, with some financial support.

This irregular migration is attracted in part by the unrecognised labour market needs for exploitative labour which exist in many economic sectors of most EU countries. Many Greek interlocutors expressed dismay however at the reluctance of other EU countries at taking on a number of migrants who are stuck in Greece with little possibility of being returned home, and who have, considering the serious economic crisis that Greece is experiencing, little chance of being successfully integrated in the Greek labour market and society. As the large number of irregular migrants stuck in Greece is mainly a result of EU policies and practices, there is a strong need for solidarity and responsibility-sharing within the EU in order to ensure full respect of the human rights of all these migrants.

While I welcome the significant EU funds provided to support migration management in Greece, I regret the bureaucratic hurdles in the Greek government relating to the disbursement of EU funds, including the European Refugee Fund, which provides funding to NGOs who, inter alia, operate shelters for asylum seekers. The under-utilisation of these funds has created significant difficulties for NGOs who rely on these funds in order to implement their programmes. In this respect, I was very impressed by the work of NGOs, and their strong dedication to the human rights of migrants, despite difficult working conditions, and I urge both Greek authorities and the EU to enhance their support to NGOs who provide services to migrants.

While the role of the EU in managing the migration flows in Greece is crucial, the Greek government also needs to significantly step up its efforts in order to ensure that the rights of all migrants within its territory are fully respected. In this respect, I regret the lack of a comprehensive migration policy in Greece, as well as the insufficient cooperation between the different authorities, both at central and local level. In relation to this, I urge the Greek authorities to undertake all the necessary measures to combat discrimination against migrants. I am deeply concerned about the widespread xenophobic violence and attacks against migrants in Greece, and I strongly condemn the inadequate response by the law enforcement agencies to curb this violence, and to punish those responsible. I have also been informed of several cases of police involvement in these attacks. Many of these cases go unreported as irregular migrants fear they will be detained and deported if they contact the police.

I also deeply regret the Greek government’s new policy of systematically detaining everyone they detect irregularly entering the Greek territory, including unaccompanied children and families. I also regret the “sweep operations” in the context of operation “Xenios Zeus”, which have led to widespread detention of migrants in different parts of the country, many of whom have lived and worked in Greece for years. The enhanced border controls at the Greek-Turkish land border under operation “Aspida” (“Shield”) initiated in August 2012, which included the deployment of approximately 1800 border police officers, coupled with the construction of a fence and the Frontex operation “Poseidon Land” have resulted in a renewed influx of irregular migrants via the islands of the eastern Aegean Sea, with boats arriving on the different islands almost daily. The migrants are routinely detained, either in coast guard facilities or police stations. However, in Lesvos, I noticed that, due to the limited detention capacity and the resulting overcrowding, some migrants are quickly released, and others, particularly families and unaccompanied children, are not detained at all. Unless they are provided with a deportation order from the police, they are not allowed to board the boats leaving for Athens and are thus stuck on the island and have to sleep on the street or in parks. Just before my visit to Lesvos, the local authorities provided facilities (a summer camp close to the airport) to house some migrant families. While I greatly appreciate this initiative, it is run by volunteers from the local community, and is not sustainable without support from Greek authorities. I thus urge the Greek government to support this important initiative, as well as the construction of more open shelters for migrants, which could be used as an alternative to detention, particularly for families and children. The Greek government should cooperate with NGOs in this respect.

I am concerned about the inadequate detention conditions, as well as the insufficient procedural safeguards in the detention facilities for migrants. I visited the Tychero Border Police Station in Evros, Venna and Komotini detention centres in the neighbouring Rodopi regional unit, the central police station in Mytilini on Lesvos, the central police station in Patras, the coast guard’s detention facility at the port in Patras, Korinthos detention centre, Amygdaleza detention centre, Amygdaleza detention centre for minors, Agios Panteleimonas police station and Petrou Ralli detention centre. In general, the detainees had little or no information about why they were detained, and how long they would remain in detention. This also applied to some of those who had engaged lawyers, and they complained that the lawyers simply take their money and do not follow up on their cases. Those who had applied for asylum often had no information about the status of their case, and others had not been able to apply for asylum from the detention facility. The medical services offered in some of the facilities by KEELPNO (Hellenic Centre for Disease Control and Prevention) were highly insufficient. Most of the detention facilities I visited lacked heating and hot water, and the detainees complained about insufficient amounts and poor quality of food, lack of soap and other hygiene products, as well as insufficient clothing and blankets. Of all the detention facilities I visited, Korinthos was the only which allowed the migrants to keep their mobile phones. In the other facilities, access to a phone was not guaranteed for those who did not have money to pay for the calls themselves.

I am concerned that there is no automatic judicial review of decisions to detain migrants. Furthermore, access to an interpreter and lawyer is not guaranteed, thus making any objection against the detention decision virtually impossible, particularly as detention and deportation orders are written in Greek. I also regret the excessive duration of detention of migrants, which may be extended up to 18 months: this duration has often been justified as a deterrence mechanism for other potential migrants, whether or not a durable solution can be found in each individual case.

There is a strong need for regular, unannounced visits of all places of migrant detention in Greece. In this respect, I welcome the signature by Greece of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT). A draft law provides that the Ombudsman will be designated as the National Preventive Mechanism. I urge Greece to proceed with the swift ratification of OPCAT, and provide the necessary resources to the Ombudsman’s office in order to be able to conduct regular unannounced visits to detention facilities all over the Greek territory, including all places where migrants are detained.

The detention of migrants is based on law 3386/2005 for those who are detained upon entry at the border. For those detained while already residing in Greece, it is based on law 3907/2011, which implements the EU Returns Directive. The latter provides that migrants shall only be detained if no less coercive measures may be applied effectively. However, I learned that no such non-custodial measures exist presently, and migrants are systematically detained. I urge Greek authorities to undertake an assessment of the necessity of detention on an individual basis, and apply non-custodial measures whenever possible. In particular, unaccompanied children and families with children should not be detained.

There does not seem to exist a clear, coherent strategy as to what to do with irregular migrants who are not clearly and easily deportable. In cases, migrants are released with an order to leave the territory within 30 (sometimes 7) days, when it is clear that this will not happen. Moreover, unaccompanied or separated migrant children are often released from detention, without any particular status, and without the appointment of a guardian, even though the public prosecutor is supposed to appoint guardians to all unaccompanied children. I met migrant children who lived in abandoned buildings or under highway overpasses, without any proper status and without any institutional support apart from the action of some civil society organisations. It is contrary to the human rights framework to pursue a policy that leaves individuals in a state of legal limbo such that one cannot build a future of any kind and can only live day after day at a level of precarious survival, in constant fear of arrest, detention and deportation.
The Office of the Ombudsman and the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) are important institutions, able to enhance the protection of the human rights of migrants in Greece, including through visits to detention facilities. I urge Greek authorities to ensure them a sufficient budget, and guarantee the financial autonomy of the NCHR, in accordance with the Paris Principles.

I commend the EU for its extensive support to the Greek authorities in the realisation of their Action Plan on Migration and Asylum, including through the European Asylum Support Office. I also commend the Greek authorities for the plans regarding the future civilian asylum service and first reception service, both provided for by law 3907/2011. I have been informed by Greek authorities that these services should be operational by the summer of 2013. If properly implemented, such measures could effectively quickly screen in migrants with vulnerabilities (asylum seekers, children, migrants with illnesses or disabilities, victims of trafficking, victims of violence, persons in need of family reunification), undertake an individual assessment of migrants for whom detention is necessary and the reasons why it is necessary, release all the other migrants with an appropriate status, and thus reduce the hardship experienced at present by many migrants. I am concerned however by the lack of appropriate staffing and budget yet dedicated to these two services, and I urge the Greek government and the EU to work together in order to ensure their swift operationalization.                                                        
Preliminary Recommendations to the Greek government:

  • Adopt and implement a comprehensive migration policy which has the human rights of migrants as its framework.

  • Refrain from detaining individuals for the sole purpose of their irregular migration, always explore alternatives to detention and ensure adequate monitoring access to all migrant detention facilities to lawyers, NGOs, UNHCR and other international organisations.

  • Refrain from detaining children and families with children, in conformity with the principles of the best interests of the child and of family unity. Shelters should be established, particularly for these categories of migrants.

  • Provide appropriate detention conditions, and ensure that all migrants deprived of their liberty are able to promptly contact their family, consular services and a lawyer, which should be free of charge if necessary, seek asylum if requested, have access to a doctor and to an interpreter, and have the right to promptly challenge their detention.
  • Adopt a policy that promptly provides any migrant who cannot or is not effectively deported with a temporary residence status that allows them to work and live a life in dignity. No migrant should be left in a state of legal limbo.
  • Investigate all cases of xenophobic violence and attacks against migrants, including any law enforcement involvement in these crimes. In order to undertake proper investigations, the migrants must be able to report these crimes without risking detention and deportation.
  • Initiate a strong public discourse on social diversity and inclusion, which stresses the importance of fighting discriminatory behaviour and attitudes towards marginalised persons and groups, including migrants.
  • Reinforce, in competent staff and resources, human rights institutions, such as the National Human Rights Commission and the Office of the Ombudsman, in order to allow them to effectively accomplish their mission.
  • Ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which would provide the Greek government with a useful framework for managing migration while ensuring the full respect for the human rights of migrants.
  • Ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and establish a National Preventive Mechanism with a mandate to undertake unannounced visits to all places where migrants are deprived of their liberty. 

Preliminary Recommendations to the European Union:

  • Ensure that the full protection of the human rights of all migrants, regardless of their status, is the primary consideration for its support to the Greek efforts in managing the migration flow entering the EU territory, including in relation to the activities undertaken by Frontex at the Greek borders.

  • Focus its support to Greece on initiatives that may improve the conditions of migrants such as the first reception service and the asylum service, rather than building more detention centres.

  • Enhance its support, both technical and financial, to civil society organisations which offer services and support to migrants, regardless of their status.

  • Consider alternative ways of funding projects in Greece, including providing more direct funding to NGOs which support migrants, thus ensuring that they will receive the funds in time to implement their projects.