Yet another asylum seeker had to stand trial over charges of being a human smuggler and of being responsible for a lethal shipwreck he survived. He was sentenced to 146 years imprisonment. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights urged the Greek authorities to end and investigate pushbacks and expressed concerns over the deteriorating situation for people on the move in Greece and NGOs who support them, while a new report outlines the horrific extend of violence used during illegal pushbacks. Recent deaths and suicide attempts in Greek camps and at the borders highlight the unbearable conditions asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants face in Greece.

On 13 May, 27-year-old Mohamad H. was sentenced to 146 years imprisonment by a court in Mytilene, Lesvos. After fleeing from Somalia to Turkey, the young father of four attempted to reach Greece on a rubber boat together with 33 others in December last year. Their boat capsized near Lesvos and two of the passengers drowned while the remaining, including Mohamad H., were rescued by the Greek coast guard.  Having survived this tragic journey in hope of finding refuge, Mohamad H. was arrested for steering the vessel and charged by the Greek authorities with “illegal transportation of third-country nationals into Greek territory” (human smuggling), with the aggravating circumstances of endangering the life of others and with causing the death of two people. According to survivors, Mohamad H. tried to save everyone’s life when their boat got into distress, but under Greece’s strict migration law “just touching the wheel is enough to be sentenced to many years in prison as a ‘smuggler’”, the lawyers representing Mohamad H. said. The trial took place just weeks after the scandalous sentencing of 52 years imprisonment and 242,000 Euro in fees for a young Syrian refugee for “illegal entry” and “facilitating illegal entry”.

In a letter sent to the Minister for Citizens’ Protection, the Minister of Migration and Asylum, and the Minister of Shipping and Island Policy of Greece, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović urged the Greek authorities to investigate allegations of pushbacks and ill-treatment of migrants, to ensure an enabling environment for NGOs, and to improve reception conditions. The Commissioner refers to the mounting cases of pushbacks at land and sea borders, documented for several years by media, NGOs, international organisations, and Greece’s national human rights structures and expresses deep concerns “that the official reaction of the Greek authorities has often been to simply dismiss allegations of pushbacks.” In their response to the letter, the ministers deny alleged breach of rights and highlight the lifesaving efforts of the Greek authorities stating that Greek officials would perform their duties in an “unfavourable environment of intended misleading information emanating in most cases by the smugglers networks and by those supporting them.” In its recently published Annual Torture Report 2020, the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) analyses violence used during pushback operations with a special focus on Greece and Croatia. In 2020, BVMN collected 86 pushback testimonies from Greece, affecting at least 4,583 people. 89% of pushbacks carried out by Greek authorities contained one or more forms of violence and abuse which according to the NGO “amounts to torture or inhuman treatment”. More than half of the groups subjected to torture or inhuman treatment by Greek authorities included children and minors. The recorded incidents include multiple cases where Greek officers beat and then threw people into the Evros river with many incidents leading to people going missing, presumingly having drowned and died. On 7 May, the already decomposed body of a young man was recovered at the Evros river. The man is believed to have drowned while attempting to cross the river from Turkey to Greece.

The Commissioner’s letter also expresses concerns over the treatment of asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants who already are in the country, including worrying conditions in reception facilities and the implications planned closed facilities would have for the rights and well-being of those affected, particularly children. There have been reports about high walls being built around existing camps across Greece and several incidents in the past weeks illustrate the harrowing living conditions people arriving in Greece face. On 3 May, a 28-year old Somalian refugee died in his tent in the overcrowded VIAL camp on Chios. When his death was discovered about 12 hours later, his body was swarmed by rats and mice and had bites on his ears and hand. According to Apostolos Veizis, executive director in Greece of the international humanitarian organisation Intersos: “People are exposed on a daily basis to rats, rubbish and violence. In clinics across the islands children are often admitted with signs of rat bites. It’s shameful and appalling that they have to live in such disgraceful conditions when it really needn’t be the case.” On 9 May, a 51-year-old Iranian asylum seeker was found dead in his tent in the same structure. He had been living in VIAL camp for one and a half years and reportedly suffered from heart problems. On 10 May, a Somali refugee gave birth at the side of a road outside VIAL camp while waiting for an ambulance. Also on 10 May, a 19-year old Syrian attempted to take his own life by jumping from a building block in Mytilini, Lesvos, out of desperation over his situation. Thoughts of suicide are not uncommon among the refugee population in Greece.

The so-called Moria 2.0 camp on Lesvos where more than 6,000 people live in shared tents has seen a recent outbreak of COVID-19 with 30 people who tested positive and more than 100 who were placed in quarantine in a section of the camp. Local media reports that the rollout of vaccines for asylum seekers will start in late May but that the only asylum seekers eligible for the vaccine are those who live in camps located in popular tourist destinations. According to an NGO worker on the island of Leros, there is a “huge lack of information” about the vaccines among the migrant population and a recent poll conducted by Greece’s National Organization for Public Health (EODY) concluded that only 40% of asylum-seekers who responded were willing to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

On 4 May 2021, a German Administrative Court published its decision in the case of a Syrian national who was apprehended at the German-Austrian border and forcibly returned to Greece where he has been living on the streets of Athens since his deportation in August 2020. The court found that, in view of the conditions in Greece, the applicant’s rights under Article 4 of the Charter and Article 3 ECHR were violated and continued to be violated until the applicant was returned to Germany. Further, it concluded that the bilateral readmission agreement between Germany and Greece that was the basis of the return order was “clearly unlawful”. The court ordered that the applicant has to be brought back to Germany. ECRE members the Greek Refugee Council (GRC) and PRO ASYL supported the procedure.

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 Photo: ECRE

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