September 21, 2011


Between November 2, 2010 and March 2, 2011, nearly 12,000 migrants entering Greece at its land border with Turkey were arrested and detained. The detention facilities where they were held did not meet minimal human rights standards. Though their treatment varied from place to place, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has held that migrant detention in Greece generally constitutes “inhuman and degrading treatment.”

During this same period, the European Union’s (EU) agency for the management of operational cooperation at external borders, Frontex, provided Greece with both manpower and material support, made available by participating states, which facilitated the detention of those migrants in sub-human conditions in Greece’s overcrowded migrant detention centers.

This report addresses this disturbing contradiction. Although the ECtHR categorically ruled that the transfer of migrants to detention in Greece would expose them to prohibited abuse, an executive agency of the EU and border guards from EU member states knowingly facilitate such transfers.

The focus of this report is the period of Frontex’s “RABIT 2010” deployment in Greece. With RABIT (“Rapid Border Intervention Team”), Frontex deployed 175 border guards contributed by Norway and EU member states to the Greek government’s efforts to manage the influx of migrants into the northeastern region of Greece along the Evros River bordering Turkey. The “guest officers,” chosen from a pool provided by participating EU member states and other non-EU European states, operated in Greece in their respective national uniforms but not under the operational control of their home authorities.

Frontex describes its mission as one of coordination, research, and surveillance. But Frontex sent equipment such as vans, buses, patrol cars, and a helicopter, provided by participating states, and covered the expenses incurred by the RABIT operation. Frontex also operated in close proximity to the four detention centers where human rights violations have consistently been recorded. During the RABIT operation, guest officers from participating states who went out on patrols with at least one Greek officer were authorized to apprehend migrants and then transfer them to Greek counterparts who ran the detention facilities.      

Frontex has been present in the Evros region since October 2010. The RABIT mission was designed as an emergency measure in response to the arrival of a large number of migrants to Greece. RABIT was initially planned to end December 2 but was extended until March 2, 2011, and then replaced by a permanent Frontex presence conducting the same tasks.

During Frontex’s deployment, on January 21, 2011, the European CtHR issued a judgment that was not specifically directed at Frontex but which is fundamentally relevant to its role in Greece. In M.S.S. v. Belgium and Greece the court found that Greek detention practices violated Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, and that Greece’s asylum system was dysfunctional. The court also concluded that Belgium too violated its human rights obligations by knowingly exposing the applicant, an Afghan asylum seeker, to inhuman and degrading treatment when it transferred him back to Greece. The court said that Belgium infringed upon a right that it had previously recognized as “non-derogable, even in cases of extreme pressure or emergency.” 

In the course of the RABIT mission in Greece, Frontex also facilitated the transfer of migrants to centers of detention within Greece where Human Rights Watch documented the same inhuman and degrading conditions as those condemned by the ECtHR. Human Rights Watch contends that Frontex is similarly responsible for having knowingly exposed migrants to treatment which is absolutely prohibited under human rights law.

During the four months examined in this report, RABIT patrols regularly apprehended migrants who crossed the border into Greece and took them, sometimes in buses provided by Frontex, to the detention centers. After patrols, border guards deployed as part of the RABIT force reported back to their home authorities, who knew or should have known about the conditions to which their agents were sending the migrants. Nevertheless, no European participating state publicly raised concerns that the activities of the patrols involved violations of the prohibition on inhuman treatment, and none withdrew from the mission.

In December 2010, during the RABIT deployment, Human Rights Watch visited detention centers in the Evros region of Greece 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.

We found overcrowding to be a common problem in detention facilities in the Evros region. In Tychero, Feres, and Soufli, women were held in the same cells with men. The Feres police station held 97 detainees at the time of our visit, though the police said its capacity was 30. A 50-year-old Georgian woman detainee 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 Fylakio, by contrast, the authorities separated men from single women but detained unaccompanied children together with unrelated adults in large, 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.

Human Rights Watch’s observations and the testimonies we gathered on detention conditions in Evros in December 2010 were consistent with our previous reports on conditions in Greek migrant detention centers dating from 2008 and those of other organizations which have been monitoring and documenting the conditions of detention for migrants in Greece.  In a January 2011 review of these reports the ECtHR concluded:

All the centers visited by bodies and organizations that produced the reports … describe a similar situation to varying degrees of gravity: overcrowding, dirt, lack of ventilation, little or no possibility of taking a walk, no place to relax, insufficient mattresses, no free access to toilets, inadequate sanitary facilities, no privacy, limited access to care. Many of the people interviewed also complained of insults, particularly racist insults, proffered by staff and the use of physical violence by guards.

During the RABIT mission Frontex also provided personnel who conducted nationality-determination screenings that were, in effect, rubber-stamped by the Greek authorities. These screenings determine detainees’ country of origin in order to facilitate their deportation. Although these screenings were not intended to identify international protection needs, in reality they were usually the most substantive interviews detainees had before being deported.  Given the formidable barriers to lodging asylum claims in Greece at that time (particularly in the Evros region), the exclusive enforcement emphasis of these interviews appears to have contributed to the protection gap in the Evros region, including the risk that genuine refugees might not be identified and would be subjected to refoulement. 

This report argues that Frontex activities in Greece do not meet the standards set out in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, by which Frontex is bound. Since the ban on participation in activities which would expose individuals to inhuman and degrading treatment is absolute, the onus is on the EU to work with Greece to rectify the situation of inhuman and degrading conditions in detention before it co-operates with Greece in activities that are intricately linked to the task of detaining migrants.

In this regard, Human Rights Watch welcomes the decision to deploy European Asylum Support Officers (EASOs) to Greece to assist the Greek authorities in establishing a working asylum system and that EASO has made Greece a priority for 2011. Human Rights Watch also welcomes amendments that are expected to establish a Fundamental Rights Officer (FRO) within Frontex and a Consultative Forum to assist the agency in fundamental rights matters— though we have reservations about proposed amendments to the Frontex Regulation that would expand and operationalize its mandate.

These measures alone, however, are not sufficient.

In order to comply with human rights obligations not to expose migrants to the inhuman and degrading conditions in the Evros region, Frontex should immediately make its engagement in border enforcement operations in Greece contingent on the placement of apprehended migrants in facilities with decent conditions, which could be achieved in the short term by transferring irregular migrant detainees to other areas of Greece where detention standards are acceptable, such as on Samos Island, or making detention spaces available in other places in the EU where conditions meet international and EU standards.

Furthermore, all states that participate in Frontex and contribute border guards and material support also bear responsibility and incur liability for human rights violations by virtue of their involvement in Frontex activities. All participating states are bound by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and participating EU member states are also bound by the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights.  Each participating state should carefully review its co-operation under the auspices of Frontex with a view to assessing the risk that such co-operation facilitates the violation of fundamental rights

While the primary focus of this report is on Frontex and its responsibility not to be complicit in human rights violations, it is not meant to absolve the Greek authorities from their responsibilities. Since 2008, Human Rights Watch has published three reports documenting Greek violations of the rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants. Several other organizations have published similar reports. Greece’s well documented failure not only to provide decent conditions of detention for migrants but also asylum for refugees has been acknowledged by the Greek government, which should take immediate steps to improve detention conditions and implement the recently announced reforms of its asylum system.   

As new migration crises emerge in the Mediterranean basin and as Frontex’s responsibilities expand, there is an urgent need for a shift in EU asylum and migration policy from an enforcement-first policy to a protection-first policy. This is not only legally required but is a worthy and achievable approach for the EU, its agencies, and member states to take in addressing real problems that are susceptible to real—and principled—solutions.