Greece’s appalling treatment of asylum seekers and migrants was, until recently, a blot on its reputation alone. But in November, the European Union and its member states became complicit in Greece’s shameful conduct when Frontex, which manages migration at the EU’s external borders, began deploying a multinational team of border guards in northeastern Greece along the Turkish border.
Just as the “guest officers,” in Frontex-speak, were arriving from across the European Union, the European Court of Human Rights, whose rulings bind EU states, barred Belgium from returning an Afghan asylum seeker to Greece because it would subject him to inhuman and degrading conditions in migrant detention centers there and leave him unprotected in Greece’s dysfunctional asylum system.
So, while Europe’s top human rights court, whose rulings bind EU states, banned border guards in Belgium from sending asylum seekers to Greek detention because of abusive conditions there, Frontex was asking Belgium (and other states) to send their border guards to Greece to participate in a mission to apprehend irregular migrants and help Greece detain them in those same detention centers
As Justice and Home Affairs Ministers meet in Brussels this week [22-23 September] to consider expanding Frontex’s mandate, by giving it more operational power and a more explicit duty to respect human rights (changes already agreed by the European Parliament last week), they should reflect on whether they really want to share Greece’s shame.
In December 2010, during the Frontex deployment, Human Rights Watch visited detention centers in northeastern Greece and found the authorities were holding migrants, including vulnerable groups, such as unaccompanied children, for weeks or months in filthy and grossly overcrowded conditions.
The Feres police station, with a capacity for 30, held 97 detainees in squalid and dangerous conditions. “You cannot imagine how dirty and difficult it is for me here,” a 50-year-old Georgian woman detained there said. “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 unaccompanied children were held 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.
And conditions have not improved. This month, detainees in Fylakio put their own lives at risk by burning mattresses to protest their treatment.
Member states and EU agencies such as Frontex are barred under European and international human rights law from knowingly exposing anyone to inhuman and degrading treatment. Right now, cooperation with the Greek detention system means doing just that.
But this does not mean the EU should wash its hands and turn away. It should instead make Frontex’s engagement in border enforcement operations in Greece – and anywhere else – contingent on placing apprehended migrants in decent facilities.
This week, as it takes its hardest and most significant look at Frontex in years, the Council of Ministers should demand that the Greek government immediately transfer migrants to areas of Greece where detention standards meet human rights requirements. Without a positive response from Greece, the ministers should exercise their sovereign discretion by immediately making detention spaces available in their countries where conditions meet international and EU standards, or they should withdraw their border guards and direct Frontex to suspend its activities in Greece.
And as it amends the regulation that created Frontex, the Council should ensure that Frontex never again places European border guards in a position where they expose migrants and asylum-seekers to inhuman and degrading treatment.