Mr. Michalis Chryssochoidis

Minister

Ministry of Citizen Protection

 

Dear Minister Chryssochoidis:

We are writing to you as a follow-up to our visit to Athens between April 13 and 15, which included a meeting with your Secretary General, with other staff from your ministry, and visits to the detention facilities at Petru Ralli police station and the former Ellinikon airport.

We want to begin by thanking you and your ministry for its openness and for the cooperation extended to us during our visit.  We found our discussions with Secretary-General Tassoulas, Brigadier Katriadakis, and other senior staff at the ministry to be constructive. During our visit to Petru Ralli we were given unfettered access to detention facilities and to staff working in the asylum section.  We were given similar access to the two detention facilities at Ellinikon, including transport to and from the facilities during a taxi strike, which was greatly appreciated. We hope that the visit can serve as a foundation for constructive engagement between Human Rights Watch and your Ministry.

This letter contains observations and concerns from our visit and our reflections on the asylum reform process that the government of Greece has begun under the leadership of your ministry. 

First of all, we would like to let you know that we were appalled by the conditions in the two detention facilities of the old Ellinikon airport, in particular at the older facility, which held 55 detainees on the day of our visit, out of a total of 133 detainees held in both sites.

The majority of detainees held at the older facility were mostly deprived of natural light and kept in poorly lit cells that did not allow for any privacy. Detainees said they had only once been let into an adjacent courtyard for 15 minutes for the past two months, and were not given any access to the outside yard during the entire winter. Concerns were also raised about the poor quality of food provided at the facility, with some detainees complaining it was sometimes rotten.

Cells in the newer of the two facilities were overcrowded and dirty, and in at least one cell, detainees had to share beds. The outdoor area did not provide for any shade, and was littered with small heaps of unknown waste.

Both facilities lacked medical personnel, and detainees furthermore complained that they had not been given items for personal hygiene such as toothbrush, soap, shampoo, and washing powder, and that hot water was very scarce. Neither facility provided detainees with clean sheets and they instead slept in blankets which appeared used. Some detainees said they suffered from skin disease.

It further became evident that access to asylum is not guaranteed for those in the facilities we visited. Many detainees we spoke to were unaware that they could claim asylum, particularly at the two Ellinikon facilities, where unlike Petru Ralli, the telephones to which detainees have access do not include lists of organizations that can provide advice and assist with claims.

Since we were informed that these particular facilities were used to hold migrants pending their deportation, we were astonished to find in one detention facility a migrant from Afghanistan (verified through language) and several persons who appeared to be from Somalia and Sudan, countries to which deportation is not possible, according to police officials at Petru Ralli police station. One asylum seeker held in the newer facility further told us he had been returned from Norway and showed us documentation supporting that claim.

Conditions in both facilities are clearly unacceptable. Our findings indicate that they would amount to inhuman and degrading treatment, in violation of binding international law. We urge you to immediately shut these facilities down, to release migrants whose deportations cannot be carried out within a reasonable time, and to transfer any remaining persons to adequate facilities after considering whether less restrictive alternatives to detention would be appropriate. We further urge you to examine all remaining detention facilities and to proceed in the same manner with all detention facilities that blatantly fail to guarantee minimum standards and violate detainees' fundamental rights.

Regarding the reform plans in general, we were pleased to hear that your Ministry has embarked on a broad consultation process with non-governmental organizations and the UNHCR to establish a new asylum system. We welcome plans to draft a law that will overhaul the current asylum system, ensure the correct identification and protection of vulnerable groups, and limit time in detention for vulnerable groups and asylum seekers. We understand the law is to be finalized this summer and submitted to Parliament this fall. We also take note that a presidential decree is to be issued soon that will reinstate the appeals procedure for rejected asylum seekers and aims to reduce the current backlog of decisions at first and second instance.

We urge you to keep the drafting of the new law as a key priority on the agenda of the ministry's work and to ensure its adoption by parliament this fall. Given your government's full policy agenda, we are concerned that the presidential decree, which does not sufficiently address existing flaws in relation to first instance decision-making and the protection of vulnerable groups, could become the de facto permanent system.

We are also concerned that Greece will continue to be confronted with a considerable number of rejected asylum seekers and migrants who for legal or practical reasons cannot be returned to their country of origin. As you know, this group is currently subject to repeated cycles of detention and release despite the fact that they cannot be deported. We therefore urge you to address the status of these persons in the future law to ensure they are protected from detention when their deportation is not feasible.

We further understand from our meetings that the planned presidential decree will not include improved protection for unaccompanied migrant children. On the basis of our existing research, we therefore fear that these children will continue to be detained by police solely on the grounds of their migration status and for several months. We urge you to instruct your officials to refrain from detaining unaccompanied migrant children until procedures for their proper identification and referral to care come into effect with the adoption of the planned new law.

We were pleased when you announced early in your tenure your commitment to create an independent agency to probe migrants' allegations of police abuse. In our meeting with the Prosecutor General, however, we were made aware that no discussion has taken place so far on how this future body might interact with prosecutors at various levels. We urge you to expedite plans and to consult with the Prosecutor General at an early stage, particularly in light of the new recently issued guidelines for prosecutors on the investigation of complaints against the police.

With regard to the case of 17-year-old Hussein Mohammed Zadar who was allegedly beaten by a police officer in the former detention center on Lesvos Island on October 22, 2009 (see our letter addressed to you on November 2, 2009), we kindly ask you to share with us the conclusion of the internal disciplinary investigation carried out by the police.

We further kindly ask you to provide us with updated statistics on the number of asylum claims received and adjudicated at both first and second instance, the numbers of deportations, and the number of cases pending at first and second instance for the year 2009, with a break-down by country of origin, and if available, separate figures for unaccompanied migrant children.

Last but not least, we want to express our surprise about your Ministry's decision to forbid the local refugee support group "Human Rights Movement of Samos Island - Solidarity to Refugees" access to the detention center on Samos, on the basis that there was "no more need" for their presence. This decision by your Ministry ends access to a human rights group that has been permitted to visit the detention facility for migrants on Samos Island for several years. We are concerned that the decision will limit transparency about conditions and the treatment of migrants in this detention center. We urge you to reconsider this decision and renew access for the organization.

We acknowledge that your Ministry is undertaking serious efforts to bring about change at a time of acute economic crisis and within a system (under the Dublin II regulation) that places a disproportionate burden on Greece and other countries on the EU's external frontiers. We also recognize that the reform process will take time to bear fruit, and requires appropriate support from the European Union and other member states. We encourage you to continue your efforts, and to measure your success not simply by the adoption of laws or policies but by their practical effect in making Greece a safe country for refugees, migrants, and unaccompanied children.

We look forward to a continuing dialogue on these important matters.


Sincerely,

                                                       

Benjamin Ward                                                                     

Deputy Director                                                                                   

Europe and Central Asia Division                                        

 

Simone Troller

Researcher   

Children's Rights Division

 

Cc: Viviane Reding, Vice President for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, European Commission

Cecilia Malmström , Commissioner  for  Home Affairs, European Commission

Judith Kumin, Regional Representative, UNHCR EU Office

Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner for Human Rights, Council of Europe

Mauro PALMA, President, European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Juan Fernando LÓPEZ AGUILAR, Chair - Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, European Parliament