Syrian refugees are seen onboard the rescue ship "Aegis 1", near the Greek island of Oinousses on January 28, 2016. 

(Athens) – Calls to quarantine Greece and to prevent the onward movement of asylum seekers put their rights at risk, Human Rights Watch said today. Asylum seekers and migrants in Greece face chaotic registration procedures, serious obstacles to applying for asylum, and inadequate reception conditions.

“It’s deeply troubling to hear EU leaders discuss plans to trap people in Greece by sealing the country’s northern border while people continue to risk their lives to reach Europe, and thousands more are suffering in Greece,” said Eva Cossé, Greece specialist at Human Rights Watch. “Greece has its fair share of responsibility for the situation on the ground, but turning the country into a warehouse is no solution to Europe’s refugee crisis.”

Over 800,000 people crossed from Turkey to the Greek islands in 2015, and over 44,000 have made the journey since the beginning of 2016. According to the International Organization for Migration, at least 158 women, men, and children have died in the Aegean Sea since the beginning of 2016. A significant portion of those who successfully made it to Greece subsequently traveled through the Western Balkans to other EU countries. Thousands remain in Greece, after the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia closed its border in November to all but a handful of nationalities.

On January 27, the European Commission criticized Greece for seriously neglecting its frontier duties to Europe's free-travel Schengen zone and said that Greece could be subject to new border controls by other EU countries if it fails to remedy the problems within three months. Slovenia recently urged the EU to reinforce the Greece-Macedonia border, and Belgium’s migration minister proposed creating detention camps in Greece for up to 400,000 refugees and migrants.

At the same time, the EU is intensifying its efforts to get Turkey to stem the flow. The leader of one of the parties in the Dutch coalition government announced on January 28 that the Netherlands is pushing for a plan for a core group of EU countries to accept 150,000 to 250,000 refugees a year from Turkey in exchange for Turkey accepting the automatic return of all those who travel irregularly to Greece. It is unclear how much support the proposal has from the Dutch government.

Significant resettlement from Turkey to the EU would help to establish safe and legal alternatives for asylum seekers, but it should not be conditional on Greece summarily returning asylum seekers to Turkey. Turkey cannot be considered a safe country for automatic returns.

In Greece, the failure of successive governments to adopt coherent migration and asylum policies, chronic mismanagement of the asylum system, and, most recently, the deep economic crisis and the dramatic increase in sea arrivals from Turkey, have created a humanitarian crisis. The government has failed to provide for the most basic needs and rights of thousands of asylum seekers and migrants on the Aegean islands, in Athens or at its northern border with the Republic of Macedonia.

Despite reforms in recent years, problems in Greece include serious difficulties for those who try to apply for asylum, the government’s failure to identify and support vulnerable individuals, inadequate reception conditions for asylum seekers, and hurdles to integration for people who remain in Greece.

Most new arrivals have no access to services mandated by Greek law, and the situation is particularly dire both on the islands and in Athens for vulnerable people such as pregnant women, female heads of household, unaccompanied children, and people with disabilities. The law provides for mobile first-reception units to identify vulnerable groups, conduct medical screening, provide socio-psychological support and information on the rights of migrants and asylum seekers, and refer vulnerable people to social services. But only two units are operating, on Lesbos and Samos, and they are understaffed.

The vast majority of people arriving in Greece choose to continue their journey to other EU countries. Those who want to apply for asylum in Greece face serious problems. The Greek Asylum Service has set up a system for appointments almost exclusively through Skype, but it’s very difficult to get through and people can wait for weeks to book an appointment.

Without adequate access to registration, they remain at risk of detention and deportation as irregular migrants. Those who apply for asylum after they are detained can be held throughout the examination of their claim for up to six months, without proper consideration of whether their detention is necessary or proportionate and without considering alternatives. According to the Greek Asylum Service, only 13,197 people applied for asylum in Greece in 2015.

Authorities in Athens are struggling to find facilities to temporarily host thousands of people. Many asylum seekers, including children, are left unassisted, destitute, homeless or living in substandard conditions. According to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, the total reception capacity for those who have applied for asylum in Greece is 2,109 places.

There are also 1,600 places for temporary stays in Athens. On a visit in December to one of these facilities, Human Rights Watch observed overcrowded and dirty conditions, well below international human rights standards. In October, the Greek government promised to create two centers for a total of 8,000 to 10,000 people, but has made little progress toward that goal.   UNHCR said in December that it plans to gradually establish another 20,000 reception places through an apartment rental plan, hotel vouchers and host family programs.

A plan to transfer 66,000 asylum seekers from Greece for relocation to other EU countries over the next two years has gotten off to a poor start. Only 157 asylum seekers have been transferred out of Greece under the plan since it began in September 2015. The EU and its leaders have criticized Greece for moving too slowly to create five “hot spots” to provide triage for arriving migrants and asylum seekers, and to enroll people in the relocation plan. So far, Greece has only one operational hot spot, in Lesbos.  

At the same time, EU countries have deployed just over half the personnel needed for Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office to help staff and operate these centers. EU countries have made only 4,237 places available, less than 3 percent of the 160,000 target over the next two years, while some governments are conditioning relocations on “preferences.” Only Syrians, Iraqis, and Eritreans are eligible to participate in the plan. Afghans, who make up one-fourth of those who have reached Greece by sea so far this year, and who have a high rate of recognition for asylum across the EU, are excluded.

The stress on Greece’s obligation to stop onward movements is based on the Dublin Regulations—EU rules that generally require the first country of entry to take responsibility for asylum applications. There is broad consensus that the Dublin system has not worked, and the European Commission is preparing a proposal to revise the regulations and create a permanent distribution mechanism to ensure a more equitable distribution of responsibility for asylum seekers. Almost all EU countries stopped returning asylum seekers to Greece under the Dublin rules after a 2011 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that found conditions in Greece inhuman and degrading.

Greece should address the systemic failings in its asylum system to ensure compliance with EU and international standards. The EU as a whole should take effective measures to distribute responsibility in the refugee crisis more equitably, in a manner that respects the rights of all asylum seekers and migrants.

EU countries should move swiftly to fulfill their commitments under the relocation plan to alleviate the burden from Greece, including by giving the people who arrive in Greece more incentives to participate through better information and speedier processing, and ensuring proper functioning of hot spots in full respect of migrants’ rights. The Dublin system should be replaced with a more equitable mechanism for determining the member state responsible for examining any particular application for international protection. The EU should expand safe and legal channels for people to go to Europe, including through increased resettlement, humanitarian admissions, humanitarian and other visas, and facilitated family reunification.

“Trapping asylum seekers in substandard conditions in Greece would be disastrous for these women, men and children, and is the exact opposite of the kind of sharing of responsibility that we need to see,” Cossé said. “It would also signal an utter lack of leadership by the EU in the continuing global refugee crisis.”