European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson toured the eastern Aegean and announced over 250 million euro of EU funds for reception structures on five Greek islands. The Commissioner and Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum Notis Mitarachi said new structures on Lesvos and Samos will be fenced and have controlled entry and exit. Journalists criticised lack of access to the so-called Moria 2.0 camp. Two deadly incidents took place in Greek detention centres; the Greek Refugee Council called for an end to detention. Mitarachi dismissed reports of pushbacks as “fake news”, while the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) urged Greece to investigate “hundreds of pushbacks.” A relocation flight for recognised refugees took off from Lesvos to Germany, amid calls for more solidarity.

On the occasion of her visit to the eastern Aegean islands Samos and Lesvos, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson announced that the EU would provide €155 million to the Greek authorities for the construction of new reception centres on the islands Lesvos and Chios. With €121 million awarded in November 2020 for structures in Samos, Kos and Leros, the financial support for reception in the eastern Aegean totals a quarter of a billion euro. During a joint press conference in Lesvos, Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum Notis Mitarachi said the construction process currently underway on Samos, Kos and Leros will be finalised in three months. In regard to the planned structures in Lesvos and Samos he pointed out that they will be fenced all around with areas for separating vulnerable groups inside the main structure, and that entry and exit to the camp will be controlled and possible only at set hours. No date was specified for when the structures will be operational, but both Johansson and Mitarachi stressed that no-one should spend the next winter in the current facilities. A statement issued by Johansson ahead of the visit read: “Winter hardship in 2020-2021 was unfortunate. Winter hardship in 2021-2022 must be avoided.”

During the press conference, Mitarachi fended off critique of the lack of access for journalists to Moria 2.0, currently hosting approximately 6,650 people, saying the camp was “not an exhibition centre for people to walk in and out at any time” but that access would be granted upon request. After the conference, journalists were taken on a tour through the camp: on a fixed route and escorted by police while conversations between journalists and residents were prevented. Journalists who participated in the tour described the experience as shameful and one stated that the tour had resembled a safari. Limitations on press freedom in regard to the camp has been a frequent concern. Restrictions include fines for residents for filming or taking pictures inside the structure.

During the past week, two deadly incidents took place in Greek detention centres. On 27 March, a 24-year-old man committed suicide at the pre-departure centre in Corinth. Reportedly, he had been detained for 16 months and was waiting for his release, but the Greek authorities had extended his detention. Protests broke out among camp residents following his death. On 26 March, in the pre-departure centre in Kos, a 44-year old man died of peritonitis after an appendicitis attack. Reportedly, he had screamed in pain for days but guards did not respond to his requests to be taken to hospital. In light of the growing attention to police violence in Greece, an article by the Border Criminology blog highlights that “Immigrants, especially those found inside detention facilities, have endured police violence for many years.” Inside the state’s detention centres and police stations, police violence against migrants has long been “routine, systematic and cloaked in a climate of impunity.” In response to the two deadly incidents in Greek detention centres last week, ECRE member the Greek Refugee Council called on authorities to end current practices of administrative detention and to amend national legislation and practice in line with basic standards of human rights protection.

According to a report by Der Spiegel, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has recorded hundreds of pushbacks at land and at sea in Greece since the beginning of last year and handed the collected information over to Greek authorities. “We expect the Greek authorities to investigate these incidents,” UNHCR representative in Greece, Mireille Girard said and underlined “The right to asylum is under attack in Europe.” A Joint Action against push-backs signed by 49 NGOs – including several ECRE members – stresses: “Although not a new phenomenon, this policy of land and sea pushbacks has, however, escalated in an unprecedented fashion over the last year, both in terms of frequency of incidents and of the means employed.” The signatories call for an end to pushback practices, the establishment of an independent monitoring mechanism, protection and justice for victims, and protection of those who report pushbacks. Asked at Monday’s press conference about pushbacks by the Greek coast guard, Mitarachi dismissed them and suggested people smugglers were behind this “fake news”, saying they were losing their financial grounds due to Greek government efforts. Asked specifically about UNHCR’s reports, he added: “We do take them seriously.” Commissioner Johansson underlined: “I think the Greek authorities can do more when it comes to investigating these alleged pushbacks.” MEP Erik Marquardt (Greens/EFA) has disclosed on twitter that he has obtained 166 GB with video material of pushbacks involving the Greek coast guard. The data was received from Turkish authorities and Marquardt announced independent experts would be charged with its evaluation. On 31 March, the NGO hotline for people in distress Alarm Phone said it was contacted by 41 people who feared being pushed back after having arrived on Lesvos and being put on a bus by police. According to UNHCR Greece, they were transported to Megala Therma camp.

More than 280 recognised refugees were flown from Lesvos to Germany on 31 and 24 March. In the wake of the fire that destroyed Moria camp in September, Germany committed to relocation of 1,553 recognised refugees. Efforts to meet the target have been stepped up in the last six weeks and civil society organisations urge authorities to continue to relocate people from the camp beyond the targeted number. This is a “humanitarian imperative” in light of the continuous dire living conditions in the hotspots on Greek islands, Peter Neher, president of ECRE member Caritas Germany said.

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