More lives lost in deadly tragedies off Leros and Lesvos and two survivors charged with alleged crimes. The Greek Council of State has formulated preliminary questions regarding Turkey as a safe third country for asylum seekers whose applications are rejected as inadmissible, to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). More scrutiny by European Commission and Ombudsman over situation in EU funded closed controlled camps.

At least nine lives have been lost after two deadly shipwrecks in the Aegean within days. Reportedly, both boats had departed from the Turkish coast in bad weather conditions. Four children and a woman died after a shipwreck on 5 February when a boat carrying more than 40 people crashed into the rocky coast of Leros. According to local media the body of a young woman was recovered in the water and 42 people including 10 children were rescued – four children aged two to five years old died in the hospital after the rescue. Five people are dead and nine people are missing after a second tragedy on 7 January off Lesvos. A rescue operation was launched after an inflatable rubber boat was found on the rocks off the shore of Lesvos and 27 people were rescued. MSF Sea reported on 8 February: “Today our MSF teams found another 7 people from yesterday’s shipwreck in Lesbos. For over 24h people were lacking food and water, sleeping in -0 temperatures. We provided medical aid, food and clothes. People are still missing”. According to the Hellenic Coast Guard “a 17-year-old foreigner, as well as a 30-year-old foreigner” who survived the shipwreck off Leros were arrested on alleged crimes including facilitation of entry into Greek territory of third-country nationals, causing a shipwreck and manslaughter by negligence. Researcher, Lena K commented, stating: “Another case of going after people steering boats, I guess” in reference to Greece’s ongoing crack-down on refugees including survivors. Meanwhile, the trial of M.M a pregnant mother of four who tried to commit suicide two years ago by lighting herself on fire out of desperation over living conditions in the temporary Mavrovouni (Moria 2.0) camp on Lesvos began on 8 February before the Mytilene court. According to ECRE member, HIAS Greece representing her in court: “Before her desperate act, she had been restricted from relocating with her family to Germany due to her pregnancy. Fortunately, she survived her ordeal but was subsequently charged with arson with intent and destruction of public property”.

On 6 February, Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) published a press release on the Greek Council of State formulating preliminary questions regarding Turkey as a safe third country for asylum seekers whose applications are rejected as inadmissible, to CJEU. According to the organisation the decision was issued following a request for annulment of the Joint Ministerial Decision designating Turkey as a safe third country for asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, by ECRE member the Greek Council for Refugees (GRC) and RSA. “Specifically, the Council of State submits questions to the CJEU regarding the influence on the legality of the national list of the fact that, for a long period of time (over 20 months), Turkey refuses the readmission of applicants for international protection, while at the same time it is not clear whether the possibility of a change in Turkey’s attitude in the near future has been taken into account”, RSA state further noting: “It must be reminded that the above Joint Ministerial Decision: was enacted as the culmination of a policy of denying protection to refugees entering Greece from Turkey, initiated by the EU-Turkey Joint Declaration in March 2016; has led to summary rejections of applications for international protection, leading to thousands of refugees being deprived of any protection, while they cannot even be returned to Turkey, as readmissions to Turkey have stopped since March 2020; and has placed the applicants in the status of undocumented immigrants, in conditions of social exclusion, economic exhaustion, homelessness, with the risk of even prolonged detention in our country”.

The European Commission recently issued infringement letters against Greece including over arbitrary detention of asylum seekers during screening procedures, dubbed in law as “restriction on freedom” inside Reception and Identification Centres on the islands, the land border and two mainland locations. According to the EU Observer: “A European Commission threat to take Greece to court over asylum violations may involve EU-funded centres”. The Multi-Purpose Reception and Identification Centres (MPRIC), officially called Closed Controlled Access Centres on the five islands of Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros were established with 276 million Euros in EU funding. According to EU law detention is considered a last resort but as reported by RSA “Blanket de facto detention” during screening is a “Chronic issue” in Greece. Several submissions to the European Ombudsman including from RSA and HIAS Greece have critically reviewed the situation in the MPRIC centres. Launching their Contribution to the Ombudsman’s Strategic Inquiry relating to respect for fundamental rights in EU-funded migration management facilities in Greece, International Rescue Committee (IRC) and I Have Rights (IHR), stated: “Based on the two organisations’ experience, it argues that conditions in these closed centres are inconsistent with EU standards on reception and integration, as well as the 12 guiding principles of the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) for protection-sensitive and fundamental rights-compliant reception at the EU external borders”. ECRE member, Fenix – Humanitarian Legal Aid was among five organisations meeting the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) “to emphasise the rights violations and inhumane living conditions asylum seekers on Lesvos face”. According to the agency, director Michael O’Flaherty was on Lesvos: “to meet asylum seekers, civil society & officials to gain first-hand insights on fundamental rights challenges & needs of operating & living in rebuilt EU camps”.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.