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Greece: detention facilities in crisis, warns UN expert on torture

Detention centres under pressure

20 October 2010

ATHENS (20 October 2009) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, warned Wednesday that “Greek prisons are overcrowded and law enforcement officials are overwhelmed” under the pressure of a constant flow of hundreds of irregular migrants entering via Turkey on a daily basis.

“The unprecedented numbers have put the border guard stations, police stations and migrant detention centres into a critical state,” Mr. Nowak said at the end of his fact-finding mission to Greece, from 10 to 20 October. “I believe the Government has the will to address this challenge. The key factor will be the implementation of new policies and practices in the midst of the current economic crisis.”

“However, Greece should not carry the burden of receiving the vast majority of all irregular migrants entering the European Union,” the Special Rapporteur stressed. “This is a truly European problem which needs a joint European solution.”

In his view, the European Union should immediately renegotiate the Dublin II Regulation to ensure a fairer system of burden sharing which also takes into account legitimate concerns of asylum seekers and irregular migrants. “I fully support the recommendation of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and human rights institutions to halt all returns under Dublin II due to the inadequate protection against refoulement and the inhuman detention conditions for migrants in Greece,” he said.

Mr. Nowak, who was able to conduct unannounced visits to places of detention and interview detainees in private thanks to the cooperation of the Hellenic Police and the Judicial Services, found detainees locked up for up to six months in overcrowded, filthy cells, with very bad ventilation and lighting. Access to medical care, lawyers and interpreters was also very limited.
“In a number of Criminal Investigation Departments (CID), I found more than 40 foreigners held in administrative detention in office space temporarily used as make-shift cells,” the UN independent expert said. “In CID custody, the conditions were particularly appalling. Such conditions of detention clearly amount to inhuman and degrading treatment, in violation of Articles 7 and 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

The Special Rapporteur received numerous consistent allegations of beatings by police officers, however, there is only little forensic evidence and he only came across a few cases of ill-treatment amounting to torture. “An independent and effective police complaints mechanism with monitoring and investigative powers needs to be established” noted Mr. Nowak.

Greece is facing a national crisis regarding irregular migration. In 2010, almost all arrests of irregular migrants in the European Union took place in Greece. Most irregular migrants are held in administrative detention for up to six months pending deportation to their country of origin. In absence of judicial review it is extremely difficult for migrants to challenge their detention. Moreover, alternatives to detention are rarely considered and the specially designated migration detention centers in the country currently operate outside the legal framework since the joint decision of the four Ministers concerned has not yet been issued.

Greece suffers from a highly dysfunctional asylum system with protection rates at first instance of almost zero per cent. Asylum seekers also appear to be generally detained while waiting for their claim to be processed and there is a backlog of 52,000 cases to be examined as of August 2010. The Readmission Protocol with Turkey facilitates the deportation of immigrants to its neighbouring countries. Citizens of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iraq or the Syrian Arab Republic face a serious risk of being deported by Turkish authorities to their countries of origin without a proper individual assessment of the risks, which constitutes a violation of the principle of non-refoulement under Article 3 of the Convention Against Torture.

The UN expert concluded by saying “I am encouraged by the legislative developments the Government has said it will introduce to the migration and asylum procedures. I also encourage the Government to undertake significant reforms to the criminal justice system such as: reducing the use of pre-trial detention, ensuring judicial review, establishing an independent police complaints mechanism, decriminalizing certain offences, ensuring fair and speedy trials, reducing prison sentences and applying non-custodial measures.”

Manfred Nowak, appointed Special Rapporteur on 1 December 2004 by the UN Commission on Human Rights, is independent from any government and serves in his individual capacity. He has previously served as member of the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, the UN expert on missing persons in the former Yugoslavia, the UN expert on legal questions on enforced disappearances, and as a judge at the Human Rights Chamber for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nowak is Professor of Constitutional Law and Human Rights at the University of Vienna, and Director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights.

(*): Read the Special Rapporteur’s full statement (English and Greek versions), and learn more about his mandate and work at:

Check the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment:

For more information and media requests, please contact Ms. Sonia Cronin (Tel: +41 (0)79 444 3993 / e-mail: [email protected]).