Last weekend, four Afghan youths were sentenced to ten years imprisonment in connection to the Moria fire last September in a two-day trial that was decried for not meeting legal standards. Greece’s decision to designate Turkey a safe third country has been widely condemned. The number of arrivals to Greece significantly dropped in the first five months of this year.

Six rejected asylum seekers from Afghanistan were arrested by the Greek authorities shortly after a blaze destroyed the notorious Moria camp on the island of Lesvos last September and according to critics were presented “as the culprits and sole cause for the fire, attempting to stifle further public debate on the living conditions inside the camp and the political responsibility.” In March, the Juvenile Court of Mytilene, Lesvos, sentenced two members of the group who had just turned eighteen to five years in prison in a controversial ruling. Despite three others of the remaining four being younger than eighteen at the time of the fire, they were denied a trial before a juvenile court. On 11 and 12 June, their trial took place at Chios Court were the four youths were convicted of “arson, endangering human life and destruction of property” and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. “They were given the maximum sentences possible without the court recognising any mitigating circumstance […] Their age should have been taken into account according to the Greek penal code. What we saw, instead, was a parody of justice,” one of their lawyers, Patrikios Patrikounakis, told the Guardian. Of the fifteen witnesses who testified against the accused, none had seen them on the night of the fire. A key witness, the only person who had allegedly identified the accused, was not present at court and his written testimony was reportedly full of inconsistencies. Journalists, legal observers, and a UNHCR representative were not allowed to attend the trial. The defence immediately appealed against the verdict, with lawyers saying they would take the case to the European Court of Human Rights if needed.

Forty organisations, including several ECRE members, have condemned Greece’s attempt to externalise protection responsibility through its decision to designate Turkey a ‘safe third country’. A joint press release states: “People should not be returned to a country where their lives would be in danger, but multiple reports over recent years warn of the refoulement of refugees from Turkey, even to war zones in Syria. Furthermore, the concept of a “safe third country” presupposes the existence of an essential connection between the asylum seeker and that country, as well as the consent of the third country to receive the returnee. These conditions are not met in the case of Turkey.” A statement by ECRE member Pro Asyl and Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) emphasises: “The designation of Turkey as a safe third country has major political significance and is part of the containment logic of the toxic EU-Turkey deal. The decision essentially dismantles the minimum safeguards of the afflicted Greek asylum system and puts thousands of people seeking protection at risk in stark contravention of basic rule of law principles.” A Content of Protection report on Turkey by the European Asylum Support Office (ESAO), obtained by RSA through an access to documents request, points out systematic deficiencies in Turkey’s protection regime, lack of procedural safeguards, and arbitrary practices in relation to the granting of status, protection from refoulement and living conditions based on sources consulted for the report. According to Greek government sources, a meeting between Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erogan during the NATO Summit in Brussels earlier this week “broke the ice” between the two countries and also the topic of migration was raised. Meanwhile, the Greek coast guard said that on Sunday, one of its patrol vessels in the Aegean Sea had been “harassed” by a Turkish patrol boat.

Greek media reports of significant delays in the construction of new hosting facilities on Chios, Lesvos and at the Evros border outpost after the Council of State accepted the request for imposition of temporary breaks in the tender process due to an appeal submitted against its terms. New data published by the Migration and Asylum Ministry show a significant drop of arrivals to Greece in the first five months of 2021 with a decrease of 68% compared to the same period last year. The NGO Aegean Boat Report recorded yet another pushback in the Aegean by the Hellenic coast guard on 16 June adding to the mounting evidence of illegal Greek prevention and deterrence policies. According to the official statistics, also the number of people hosted in government structures decreased with 53,705 people hosted in May this year compared to 92,463 people hosted in May 2020. However, the living conditions of people on the move in Greece remain dire, as a recent report by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) highlights.

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Photo: ECRE

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