The European Union should press the newly elected Greek government to end the abusive detention and summary expulsions of migrants, including unaccompanied children, and to reform the country's broken asylum system, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
In a large-scale crackdown between June and August 2009, the Greek authorities arrested hundreds of migrants across the country, evicting them from run-down dwellings in Athens, bulldozing a makeshift camp in Patras, and detaining new arrivals on the islands. Unaccompanied children caught up in the crackdown were among the many subsequently transferred to detention centers in the north, close to the Turkish border. From there, in secret nighttime operations, the Greek police forced dozens of migrants - possibly hundreds, including unaccompanied children and potential refugees - across the border into Turkey.
"Greece's illegal expulsions have reached a new level," said Simone Troller, researcher at Human Rights Watch, "Migrants are now being arrested throughout the country and then pushed back to Turkey. Clearly, people who need protection are not safe in Greece."
Greece's dysfunctional asylum system is entirely in the hands of police, who create obstacles to filing asylum claims and deny asylum seekers fair hearings and assessments of their claims. More than 99 percent of asylum seekers are denied after their first interview. In July, the previous government effectively abolished asylum appeal procedures, a standard requirement under European and international human rights law. The action left adults and children alike with no effective remedy and at risk of being deported to places where their lives and safety may be at risk.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 16 persons who were detained in Greece's northern border region between July and September. Two of them described to us how Greek police forced them across the Evros River into Turkey. The Turkish authorities then sent them back to Afghanistan. Eight others said they saw Greek police taking other migrants away from detention centers at nightfall in trucks or vans. Four of them said that those who were taken away later got in touch with detainees who stayed behind and told them the police had expelled them to Turkey.
These new accounts are consistent with Human Rights Watch's previous documentation of Greece's systematic and illegal expulsion of migrants and refugees in a November 2008 report, "Stuck in a Revolving Door: Iraqis and Other Asylum Seekers and Migrants at the Greece/Turkey Entrance to the European Union". At that time, Human Rights Watch conducted private and confidential interviews in various locations in both Greece and Turkey with 41 asylum seekers and refugees, all of whom gave consistent accounts of Greek authorities taking them to Evros River at night and forcing them across. The recent interviews present new evidence that Greek authorities are now not only expelling migrants caught near the border, but also those, including potential refugees and unaccompanied children, apprehended in other parts of the country.
Migrants, including asylum seekers and children who were held in detention facilities in northern Greece, also told Human Rights Watch of overcrowded, unhygienic conditions with insufficient food and untreated health problems. Several spoke of ill-treatment by guards. These reports are consistent with Human Rights Watch's earlier documentation of detention conditions for and ill-treatment of migrants and unaccompanied children.
Greece's asylum system and detention conditions clearly breach EU law as well as European and international human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said. Yet, despite ongoing criticism and a recent worsening of the situation in both law and practice, the European Commission remained silent and failed to hold Greece to account.
"Greece's abusive detention and illegal expulsion of migrants has gone unchecked for too long," said Troller. "With a new government in place, ending this abuse, protecting migrant children, and reforming asylum practices should be urgent priorities for Athens, and for Brussels."
Human Rights Watch called on the new government in Greece to put an immediate halt to the illegal expulsions across the Evros River. Greece should also enforce the prohibition on exposing people to a risk of ill-treatment, both in Greece or as a result of being removed from Greece. And it should guarantee access for all migrants to the asylum procedure, and restore a meaningful appeals process.