The European Commission has reiterated its demand for a rights monitoring mechanism as a precondition for the release of migration management funding for Greece. Systematic pushbacks continue with limited scrutiny and oversight. With kids back in school after the summer, NGOs raise alarm about the exclusion of refugee children of education in Greece.

The establishment of a mechanism to monitor human rights abuses at borders is a precondition for the release of an additional 15.83 million euro of funding for Greece. “Setting up an independent and credible monitoring mechanism will help prevent fundamental rights violations at the borders and ensure that procedures are in place to effectively investigate any allegations of such violations,” an EU spokesperson told EURACTIV, noting also that this is a matter of urgency for the Commission. “We are now waiting for more details from the Greek authorities before we can finalise our assessment” said the spokesperson. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR), and European Network of National of National Human Rights Institutions (ENNHRI) welcomes such an initiative and has provided the Greek government with ten recommendations to ensure the mechanism is “credible, transparent and effective”. These include providing the monitoring mechanism with a broad mandate, guaranteeing its independence, and ensuring operational autonomy.

The Greek government has so far moved in the opposition direction by effectively blocking human rights oversight and criminalizing rescue activities by NGOs. A controversial bill recently approved by parliament imposes heavy restrictions for NGOs active in the areas of competence of the Greek Coast Guard. In an article entitled “Is it a crime to rescue drowning people?”, Greek newspaper Ethnos compares the situation in the country to Italy’s criminalisation of civilian search and rescue operators under the former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. Minister of Migration and Asylum Notis Mitarakis – known for introducing numerous controversial and criticised measures – has suggested that no civilian search and rescue operator could have a legitimate reason to conduct rescues.

Despite government restrictions on NGO monitoring, evidence of pushbacks keep mounting. Aegean Boat Report has released a detailed investigation into the pushback on 8 September of 25 people from Samos. Samos has been the scene of numerous violent incidents, including sexual harassment, robbery and return of two Congolese nationals, an incident currently under investigation by the local Prosecutor’s Office. Aegean Boat Report on 13 September expressed disquiet that a group of people arrested after hiding in the woods on Chios would “find themselves drifting in life rafts in the Aegean Sea tonight, robbed of their belongings by the Greek police”. On September 15, the Turkish Coast Guard reportedly rescued 28 people including six children.  This group reported having arrived on Samos before being beaten, robbed and set adrift on rafts by Greek police. A variety of other deterrence measures are also applied by Greek authorities. Police headquarters previously annulled the practice of handing out 5000 euro fines to people arriving by sea for violations of COVID restrictions.  Yet, the Hellenic Coast Guard on Chios continues to implement fines, despite the fact that tests and a two week quarantine is mandatory for people entering the VIAL refugee camp.

According to Der Spiegel journalist Giorgos Christides, Greece is set to launch an international campaign using media to target mainly Afghans – the main country of origin for arrivals in the country– with the message: “Greece guards its borders & does not allow illegal flows, implementing a strict but fair immigration policy, always respecting European and international law”. Reportedly, the initiative is co-financed by the EU. Campaigning group Europe Must Act has reported the opening of a new “closed, prison-like camp is opening on Samos”. The 250 million euro camp entirely financed by the EU is located at a distance from the town and thus all services.  According to Europe Must Act: “the camp is the emblematic example of EU and Greek migration policies of containment and deterrence”. Children’s access to education in the camp remains unknown.

The Greek Ombudsman as well as the European Committee of Social Rights have found Greece to be in violation of the right of refugee children to quality education.  In April, Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) in April released a report entitled “Excluded and Segregated” on the lack of access to education in Greece for refugee children. The report underlined that: “The exclusion of refugee children from the Greek education system reached record levels during the COVID-19 pandemic” and noted a “worrying emerging discourse” promoting education of refugee children solely through non-formal education inside Reception and Identification Centres (RIC) and camps”. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), fewer than one in seven children in Greek camps have been attending school over the last year. At the beginning of a new school year on 15 September, Save the Children and ECRE member Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) condemned the exclusion of refugee and asylum seeking children from school.  The later called for: “urgent action by the Greek government and the European Union to address the shockingly low numbers of refugee children attending school”, further stating that the “lack of sufficient staffing, absence of transport arrangements, and community hostility have been compounded by the impact of Covid-19, creating the perfect storm ahead of the new school year”. According to these organisations, despite Greece receiving millions of euros in education funding and making commitments to provide learning opportunities to more than 20,000 children “less than 15% of children in refugee camps attended formal school. In the notorious Reception and Identification Centres (RICs), the attendance rate drops to 0.3%”. The lack of schooling adds to the dire circumstances for children in Greek camps: a psychologist from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) on Lesvos has reported seeing “many cases of incontinence, nightmares, often suicidal ideas and sometimes suicide attempts. A seven year old child told me he wanted to drown in the sea”. The government’s approach to refugee and asylum seeking children was also illustrated by a government website that pointed to children’s names that “didn’t look Greek” on a kindergarten roll as evidence of the “severe demographic and social problem caused by migration.”

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Photo: ECRE

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