(Brussels) – Frontex, the European Union’s external border enforcement agency, is exposing migrants to inhuman and degrading conditions, Human Rights Watch said in a report issued today. Migrants apprehended along Greece’s land border with Turkey are sent to overcrowded detention centers in Greece, Human Rights Watch said.
EU justice and interior ministers are expected to approve changes to the rules governing Frontex operations at a two-day meeting starting on September 22, 2011, but the changes do not go far enough to remedy the situation, Human Rights Watch said.
The 62-page report, “The EU’s Dirty Hands: Frontex Involvement in Ill-Treatment of Migrant Detainees in Greece,” assesses Frontex’s role in and responsibility for exposing migrants to inhuman and degrading detention conditions during four months beginning late in 2010 when its first rapid border intervention team (RABIT) was apprehending migrants and taking them to police stations and migrant detention centers in Greece’s Evros region. The RABIT deployment has been replaced by a permanent Frontex presence.
“Frontex has become a partner in exposing migrants to treatment that it knows is absolutely prohibited under human rights law,” said Bill Frelick, Refugee Program director at Human Rights Watch. “To end this complicity in inhuman treatment, the EU needs to tighten the rules for Frontex operations and make sure that Frontex is held to account if it breaks the rules in Greece or anywhere else.”
In November 2010, Frontex, the EU agency for the management of operational cooperation at external borders, began providing Greece with manpower and material support to patrol its borders along the Evros River with Turkey. Frontex sent175 border guards for Frontex’s first RABIT deployment from a pool provided by participating European states. Frontex calls the border guards “guest officers.”
The report is based on interviews with 65 migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in Greece in November and December 2010 and February 2011, as well as with Frontex and Greek police officials. In December 2010, during the RABIT deployment, Human Rights Watch visited detention centers in the Evros region and found that the Greek authorities were holding migrants, including members of vulnerable groups, such as unaccompanied children, for weeks or months in conditions that amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment.
For example, the Feres police station held 97 detainees at the time of Human Rights Watch’s visit, though the police said its capacity was 30. A 50-year-old Georgian woman detained there said: “You cannot imagine how dirty and difficult it is for me here… It's not appropriate to be with these men. I don't sleep at night. I just sit on a mattress.”
In the Fylakio migrant detention center, Human Rights Watch found unaccompanied children mixed with unrelated adults in overcrowded cells. Sewage was running on the floors, and the smell was hard to bear. Greek guards wore surgical masks when they entered the passageway between the large barred cells.
“While the primary focus of this report is how Frontex has a responsibility not to be complicit in human rights violations, that doesn’t absolve the Greek authorities,” Frelick said. “The Greek government should take immediate steps to improve detention conditions and carry out the asylum system reforms it promised.”
During the RABIT deployment, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), a Council of Europe court that also binds EU states, issued a judgment, M.S.S. v. Belgium and Greece, which found that conditions in Greek migrant detention centers were inhuman and degrading. The court said Belgium violated its human rights obligations by knowingly exposing an Afghan asylum seeker to such treatment when it transferred him back to Greece.
“It’s a disturbing contradiction that at the same time that the European Court of Human Rights was categorically ruling that sending migrants to detention in Greece violated their fundamental rights, Frontex, an EU executive agency, and border guards from EU states were knowingly sending them there,” Frelick said.
Frontex activities in Greece do not comply with the standards set out in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, by which Frontex is bound, Human Rights Watch said. Since the obligation not toexpose people to inhuman and degrading treatment is absolute, the onus is on the EU to work with Greece to rectify detention conditions before it cooperates with Greece in activities that are intricately linked to the task of detaining migrants.
Frontex should immediately make its engagement in border enforcement operations in Greece contingent on placing apprehended migrants in facilities with decent conditions, Human Rights Watch said. This could be achieved by transferring them to other areas of Greece where detention standards meet human rights requirements or by making detention spaces available in other places in the EU where conditions meet international and EU standards.
Amendments to the Frontex regulation, expected to be adopted this week, recognize the need for enhanced human rights scrutiny of its operations. They create a position for a fundamental rights officer within Frontex and a consultative body on human rights with civil society representation.
These measures are a start, but insufficient because they don’t provide a mechanism to hold Frontex to account when its operations breach human rights and EU law, Human Rights Watch said. The fundamental rights officer should be given the mandate to refer breaches to the European Commission for investigation and enforcement.
“As new migration crises emerge in the Mediterranean basin and as Frontex’s responsibilities expand, there is an urgent need to shift EU asylum and migration policy from enforcement-first to protection-first.” Frelick said. “This is not only legally required, but the EU, its agencies, and member states can and should respect and meet the EU’s own standards.”