The Greek government is expanding the fortification of the Evros border and providing 50 new vessels for the Hellenic Coast Guard. The already dire situation for refugees in Türkiye is worsening after the recent tragic earthquakes. New reports shed light on detention and abuse in pre-removal centres on the mainland and closed controlled camp on Samos.   

At the Second European Border Management Conference hosted in Athens on 24 February, Greek Migration & Asylum Minister, Notis Mitarachi responded to questions from journalists on the extension of the fence on the borders with Türkiye. The minister defined such an extension as: “necessary for our own migration policy, a choice of national significamnce,” stating it “will be built along the entire length of Greece’s border, with or without European funding”. Mitarachi added that the European Commission “has accepted the fact that some expenses for the fence’s construction, such as those relating to matters of technology, can be financed by the European Union”, pointing to fences as the least violent way of protecting EU territory.

In response to the recent displacement following the earthquakes in southeast Türkiye and northern Syria resulting in enormous destruction and leaving at least 50,000 people dead, Greece has further “fortified” its borders. Reportedly, hundreds of border guards have begun patrols in the Evros region that has long been the scene of systematic pushbacks and contingency measures were stepped up to stop expected arrivals. “We must take into account that there have been a large number of Syrians who have been living with restrictions, and now that those geographical restrictions have been lifted we will see internal movement in Turkey, as well as Turkish citizens; if there is not an effort by the international community to support Turkey within Turkey, then there will be a great effort by Syrians or Turks to come to Europe,” said Greece’s Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi in a recent interview with Greek media. The Greek government has also announced the acquisition of 50 new vessels for the Hellenic Coast Guard – notorious for its role in systematic pushbacks at sea – at the cost of 105 million Euro co-funded by the EU to strengthen “control and monitoring of illegal migration flows”. In 2021, the European Commission – previously funding the Hellenic Coast Guard – had made further funding conditional to an independent fundamental rights monitoring mechanism. However, it recently adopted the Border Management and Visa Policy (BMVI) national programme for Greece and stated in its decision that pre-conditions related to fundamental rights are met, and thus greenlighted further funding to the Hellenic Coast Guard.

The situation for refugees in Türkiye has become increasingly dire over the past months and according to the Global Detention Project (GDP) further worsened after the devastating earthquakes. The organisation and its partner, the International Refugee Rights Association (IRRA) points to a “less well acknowledged” impact “on the large population of refugees in the earthquake zone and in particular, those who are locked inside detention centres”. GDP further states: “detention facilities continue to detain non-nationals with no official confirmation of their structural stability—or the conditions that detainees face inside. Alarmingly, reports also indicate that Türkiye continues to deport non-nationals from the affected region and that people incarcerated in criminal prisons in the region are suffering a surge of human rights abuses since the earthquakes struck”. Besides, the earthquake has triggered anti-migrant sentiment and hate speech towards Syrian refugees, limiting their access to shelter and emergency assistance. Despite the worsening situation for refugees in the country, Greek authorities announced on 1 December 2022, that Turkiye remained on the list of “safe” third countries for applicants of international protection from main countries of origin including Syria. Following judicial review applications lodged by Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) and ECRE member the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) on the legality of the Greek national list, the Greek Council of State has published its judgment and referred preliminary questions to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). RSA has provided an unofficial translation of the key points and the ECRE Weekly Legal Update summarized questions including on the interpretation of article Article 38 of the Asylum Procedures Directive.

Dangerous attempts to cross the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean to Italy or Greece from Türkiye continue. Following recent tragedies in the Aegean another four people were reported missing after a boat carrying 22 people got in distress of Samos on 23 February. On 1 March, at least two people died and one remains missing after a dinghy overturned off the northeastern coast of Kos, in Eastern Greece. According to authorities 27 people were rescued. According to UN figures, at least 378 people died in the eastern Mediterranean in 2022. Additionally, pushbacks in the Aegean persist. Aegean Boat Report documented 25 cases of pushbacks affecting 692 people in the period of 20-26 February. These illegal practices of pushbacks “constitute a systematic, meticulously planned and comprehensive policy of the Greek state, involving multiple actors and operational step”, the latest report by ECRE member the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) confirms, adding that “pushback operations and the concomitant targeting of those working to defend the rights of victims in Greece are not isolated incidents, but an unofficial migration and border policy implemented by Greek state actors and their auxiliaries”.

Meanwhile, according to confidential documents seen by The New York Times, the Fundamental Rights Officer (FRO), Jonas Grimheden from the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) stated last year that the agency: “should stop operating in Greece because of serial abuses by Greek border guards, including violently pushing asylum seekers back to Turkey and separating migrant children from their parents”. However, in seeming contrast to the earlier position, he recently suggested the agency should reinforce its presence in “trouble spots” like Greece, given the reports of abuse against asylum seekers. “Yes, that still makes sense in my view, in all places where we see fundamental rights issues,” Grimheden stated, further pointing to the The New York Times coverage as “an oversimplification of things”.

Three recent reports provide new evidence of systematic detention and abuse of migrants and asylum seekers in Greece. The report ‘Prison for Papers’ by the Mobile Info Team “focuses on the detention of applicants of international protection and third country nationals subject to return orders who have been detained at some point between 2020 and 2022 in one of six Pre-removal Detention Centres (PRDCs) on mainland Greece”. Manon Louis, Advocacy Officer at the organisation states: “Systematically depriving people on the move of their liberty in facilities characterised by appalling conditions and a general lack of access to basic rights forms part of a much broader tactic of deliberative rights abuses aimed at preventing migration flows into the country”. Louis further notes: “The utter lack of transparency or public access to detention centres in Greece fosters fertile ground for rights abuses, where civil society organisation visits are infrequent and complaints mechanisms are virtually non-existent”. Also, Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) has released the report ‘Dark Rooms, Degrading Treatment and Denial’ on “the use of violence in Greece’s pre-removal centres. The report “focuses on the severe and structural use of internal violence by detention authorities in formal sites of detention across mainland Greece. The trends and typologies of violence evidenced in detention facilities correspond with those used at the border, indicative of the systemic nature of abuse of people-on-the-move in Greece”. Finally, the organisation, I Have Rights has published a report on ‘The EU-Funded Closed Controlled Access Centre – The de facto Detention of Asylum Seekers on Samos’. According to the organisation, the report: “demonstrates that the restrictions placed on the liberty of people on the move in the Samos Closed Controlled Access Centre (CCAC) result in the CCAC being a site of de facto detention. Through comparing the restrictions of liberty in the CCAC with Greek and European legal standards, the report concludes that such restrictions are unlawful”. I Have Rights points out that: “the blanket de facto detention of newly arrived asylum seekers to the CCAC is the basis of current infringement decisions against Greece, released this January by the European Commission, who has determined that this practice is in violation of EU law”.

In a case by GCR before the Administrative Court of First Instance: “The decision of detention and return of an Afghan citizen, who had been arrested and detained while waiting for the date of full registration of his asylum application, was judged as illegal”. RSA called the decision “Very important” noting it is: “The first to recognize the problematic current procedure to asylum access and its consequences for persons who want to submit request for international protection”. According to the organisation: “The Court found that already by entering the online platform of the Department of Immigration and Asylum and submitting an application for scheduling his registration, he had “acquired the status of an asylum seeker”. The Court ordered the lifting of his detention.

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