EU has signed a financing agreement for the construction of new structures to replace overcrowded camps on Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Leros and Kos. Council of Europe’s anti-torture Committee (CPT) calls for reform of Greek immigration detention system and ending pushbacks. The whereabouts of more than 32,000 rejected asylum seekers are unknown to Greek authorities.

On 13 November the Head of the EU Task Force for Greece, Beate Gminder and Greek Migration and Asylum Minister, Notis Mitarakis signed an agreement for the financing of the constructing of new structures on the Aegean islands of Samos, Kos and Leros to be established by the autumn of 2021: “In 12 months from today we should not have any of the legacy reception system we are seeing today,” said Mitarakis. Also on 13. November, the first meeting of the working group for the coordination of the procedures for the final termination of the operations of the reception and identification centers in Vathi on Samos and on Leros took place. Further, a cooperation agreement for the establishment of infrastructure, including a day centre for 500 homeless refugees in the Elaionas camp is to be set up by the Municipality of Athens, the Ministry of Migration and Asylum and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). The required funding of EUR 12 million has to come from EU programmes and the ministry’s public investment programme.

CPT published on 19 November a report on a rapid reaction ad hoc visit to Greece in March 2020 finding: “structural deficiencies in Greece’s immigration detention policy. Migrants continue to be held in detention centres composed of large barred cells crammed with beds, with poor lighting and ventilation, dilapidated and broken toilets and washrooms, insufficient personal hygiene products and cleaning materials, inadequate food and no access to outdoor daily exercise. The situation was further aggravated by extreme overcrowding in several of the facilities. In addition, migrants were not provided with clear information about their situation”. CPT further notes that: “families with children, unaccompanied and separated children and other vulnerable persons (with a physical or mental health illness, or pregnant women) were being detained in such appalling conditions with no appropriate support”. The Greek authorities on 14 November announced the abolishment of the practice of holding newly arrived unaccompanied children in police custody across the country for months often without guardians. Mitarakis stated: “We will move with legislative changes to stop the scheme of unaccompanied minors being kept in police custody, a system that started in 2001.” The detention of children often prolonged due to lack of shelter capacity has been widely criticised and was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in 2019 while more cases are pending before the Court, yet 331 remained in detention in March 2020.

The CPT report also highlights: “consistent and credible allegations of migrants being pushed back across the Evros River border to Turkey,” raises concern over the Greek Coast Guard preventing boats carrying migrants from reaching Greece, and “questions the role and engagement of Frontex in such operations”.  As part of its response to the CPT report the Greek ministry of foreign affairs stated that operations in the Evros region in cooperation with Frontex aim “to effectively prevent illegal entry into our country.” According to the EUobserver: “The operations listed include Broad Scale, Operation Shield, and the Frontex’s Rapid Border Intervention 2020 and its Flexible Operational Activities Land 2020”.

A redacted chain email from the EU’s border agency obtained following a freedom of information request by the EUobserver reveals state-sanctioned pushbacks from Greece and casts doubt on explanations given by Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri. The mail chain relates to an incident on 6 March where Danish crew operating under the Frontex coordinated operation Poseidon, refused orders to force migrants and asylum seekers on a small boat back to Turkey and includes lines clearly reflecting a direct order from the Greek coastguard: “HCG Liaison Officer –Technical Equipment (LO-TE) informed a crew about an order from his authority to transfer the migrants back to the rubber boat and escort / transport them into TUR territorial waters (TTW)”. In his explanations to the European Parliament, Leggeri described the situation as an isolated incident resulting from a “misunderstanding”.

Lawyers are currently preparing a case before the UN Human Rights Committee on behalf of a Syrian man with legal stay in Germany, on the claim that he was detained and forced to Turkey by Greek authorities when searching for his brother in Greece.

Greek authorities are unaware of the fate of 32,574 rejected asylum seekers. At a press conference on 19 November, Mitarakis explained the situation referring to problems of return and the Turkish halt on readmissions under the EU-Turkey deal since March under the pretext of the Corona pandemic. According to statistics compiled by Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) 5,793 persons staying irregularly, including third-country nationals and EU citizens, have been returned in so far this year. 53.7% (3,110) were forced returns carried out via bilateral or EU readmission agreements, 12.3% (711) were voluntary departures following the issuance of a return decision, and 34% (1,971) were assisted voluntary returns organised by IOM. RSA further notes: “The ongoing insistence of the Greek authorities on the EU-Turkey deal amounts to a conscious policy choice of confinement of people in inhuman conditions on the islands, despite a demonstrable lack of prospect of removal to Turkey”.

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Photo: ECRE

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