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(Brussels) – Nationality-based restrictions at the border between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia are preventing asylum seekers from reaching countries where they want to lodge protection claims.

Human Rights Watch witnessed dozens of returns from Macedonia to Greece at the Idomeni border crossing during a three-day visit in late January 2016. The people are returned to a border area with poor conditions, instead of a well-equipped transit camp set up by aid agencies. Unable to proceed legally, people are increasingly trying to cross the border informally, where they face violence from Macedonian guards. And criminal human smuggling rings are taking advantage of the migrants and asylum seekers trapped in Greece at the border and are committing abuses against them, Human Rights Watch said.

“The failure of the European Union to tackle the refugee crisis fairly and responsibly has led to cascading restrictions at borders, with asylum seekers and migrants facing greater risks of abuse and exploitation,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “Desperate people who are the wrong nationality are being denied the right to move on, beaten by border guards if they try to cross, and preyed upon by smugglers.” Greek authorities will not allow asylum seekers to cross into the no-man’s land to reach the Macedonia border post unless they are Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans who express the intention to seek asylum in Germany or Austria.

The failure of the European Union to tackle the refugee crisis fairly and responsibly has led to cascading restrictions at borders, with asylum seekers and migrants facing greater risks of abuse and exploitation. Desperate people who are the wrong nationality are being denied the right to move on, beaten by border guards if they try to cross, and preyed upon by smugglers.
Peter Bouckaert

emergencies director

On November 18, 2015, Macedonia, Serbia, and Croatia began to restrict passage through their borders, allowing only asylum seekers from those three countries to cross. This followed Slovenia’s decision the day before not to allow passage to asylum seekers and migrants from other countries, such as Iran, Eritrea, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Morocco, and Algeria. On January 21, 2016, Macedonian authorities added an additional requirement, allowing Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghan asylum seekers through only if they intended to travel on to Germany or Austria.

Macedonia’s rationale for its restrictions is that anyone else won’t be allowed to cross the Serbian, Croatian, and Slovenian borders and will be stuck in Macedonia.

Macedonian border restrictions have prevented asylum seekers of other nationalities from crossing the border, even if they may have legitimate asylum claims. Because of long-term mismanagement of the asylum system, compounded by Greece’s deep economic crisis and the dramatic increase in arrivals, asylum seekers face serious obstacles to applying for asylum in Greece, and Greece does not offer effective protection to asylum seekers.

The increased restrictions have left thousands of asylum seekers and migrants who do not meet these requirements stranded in Greece. Among those Human Rights Watch interviewed were Iranians, Libyans, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Moroccans, Algerians, Bangladeshis, Palestinians (from Lebanon and Gaza), Somalis, and Eritreans who had traveled to Greece via Turkey.

While some of those trapped may be regular migrants with little chance of obtaining asylum, others appeared to have strong asylum cases. Some of the blocked nationalities have high average EU protection recognition rates across the EU. They include Iranians, 65 percent of whom were granted protection in the third quarter of 2015; Somalis, 59 percent in the same period; and Libyans, 57 percent.

Hossein Fatemizadeh, an Iranian democracy activist (whose name has been changed, as have those of others interviewed, for safety reasons), told Human Rights Watch that he was imprisoned for five years in Iran’s infamous Evin Prison for his participation in the 2009 democracy protests in Tehran, and escaped from Iran to avoid another three years of his prison term. Greek authorities at the Greek-Macedonian border refused to allow him to proceed because he was Iranian.

Samad Ahadi, 38, an Afghan, said he fled Iran with his 27-year-old Iranian wife, Amineh, after her family threatened to kill the couple because they disapproved of the marriage. At the Macedonian border, officials told Samad that he could proceed as an Afghan, but that his Iranian wife could not proceed.

During the Human Rights Watch visit, Macedonian border police at the border gate directly returned anyone they decided had forged papers or whose nationality did not fall within the categories allowed to proceed. Greek police repeatedly refused to allow Human Rights Watch to interview those returned, prevented them from speaking to any of the international observers at the border, and surrounded the returnees until they boarded a bus back to Athens.

Human Rights Watch was able to interview several who had been brutally beaten by Macedonian border guards as they tried to cross illegally, and international observers working on the border said that they regularly see migrants who tried to enter Macedonia illegally return with injuries that they believe were from beatings by Macedonian guards.

There is never any justification for guards to abuse asylum seekers and migrants, Human Rights Watch said. Guards should stop abusing migrants, and those who do should be held accountable.

Human Rights Watch is also concerned about smugglers targeting and abusing the asylum seekers and migrants blocked in Greece because of the increasing border restrictions. In interviews with Human Rights Watch, aid groups and United Nations officials identified abuses by smugglers as among their top concerns.

The organized criminal smuggling groups offer both fake paperwork and transport to Belgrade or Germany for a minimum of US$1,200. Most asylum seekers and migrants interviewed described being approached by smugglers in Athens’ Victory Square; at the EKO gas station in Polykastro, where some are taken after being refused entry to Macedonia; or at the Idomeni border region. The smugglers often collect the extortionate fees, then abandon the asylum seekers and migrants without helping them cross the border or continue on their journey.

Humanitarian groups, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Medecins Sans Frontières (MSF), have established a transit camp at the border with a permanent humanitarian and protection presence. The Idomeni transit camp can accommodate up to 1,200 people in heated tents with beds, food, water, and proper sanitation, but at the end of January, only about one-third of the camp was occupied.

Humanitarian organizations said that since December 9, Greek police have been diverting all asylum seekers and migrants traveling by bus to the Idomeni border crossing between Greece and Macedonia to the EKO gas station in Polykastro, a small town about 15 kilometers away.

No food assistance is available, though some food is for sale at the gas station. MSF operates a small medical clinic at the site, and has erected some large tents for shelter, but there are more asylum seekers and migrants than beds. As a result, many sleep out in the open, around open fires in freezing weather conditions.

During three visits to the site, Human Rights Watch found at least 1,000 people stranded at the EKO station each time, including families with babies and young children, people with disabilities, and the elderly. Smugglers could be seen openly operating at the site, and officials of nongovernmental groups expressed concern about the security of the people stranded there and their potential exposure to extortion, violence, sexual abuse, and human trafficking networks.

Aid organizations working at Idomeni told Human Rights Watch that the Greek authorities justified their decision to restrict access to the Idomeni transit camp as an attempt to avoid the crowd-control problems experienced at the border crossing in November, when the border crossing was first restricted to Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans and violent clashes resulted.

Blocking someone from lodging an asylum claim based on their nationality runs counter to the right to seek asylum set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the right to asylum under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

“Officials in Greece and throughout the Balkans need to understand that their increasingly restrictive border practices leave migrants and asylum seekers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by criminal smuggling gangs,” Bouckaert said. “And the authorities shouldn’t force people to sleep outside in the middle of winter when there is a properly set up tent camp available down the road.”

Greece’s Flawed Asylum System
Despite reforms, chronic deficiencies remain in the Greek asylum system, including obstacles to applying for asylum, inadequate reception conditions for asylum seekers, and hurdles to integration in Greece. The Greek Asylum Service has set up a system for appointments almost exclusively through Skype, while a shortage of staff and interpreters and technical difficulties mean people often must try for weeks before even getting an interview. Without adequate access to asylum registration, people 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 alternatives and of whether their detention is necessary or proportionate. Many asylum seekers and refugees, including children, are left unassisted by the government and are destitute, homeless, or living in substandard conditions.

In December 2015, the European Commission opened infringement proceedings against Greece for failing to fully implement the Asylum Procedures Directive, which sets out common procedures for granting and withdrawing international protection, and the Reception Conditions Directive, which deals with access to reception conditions for asylum seekers while they wait for examination of their applications. The plan to relocate tens of thousands of asylum seekers in Greece to other EU countries to alleviate the strain on the country’s asylum system is being implemented very slowly, with only 202 transfers to date.

Accounts of Abuses by Macedonian Soldiers
Cyrus, 24, an asylum seeker from Iran, told Human Rights Watch that he had crossed illegally into Macedonia from Greece one night in late January 2016, joining a group of about 35 Iranians. Inside Macedonia, the group was caught by the Macedonian army, and severely beaten:

We were all caught by the Macedonian army. They called us terrorists. It was during the night. My friend Majid, he was beaten and they broke his nose and fractured his skull. Then they just dropped us back at the border and left us there. So we took him to the doctor, and he was sent to Athens for treatment. Some of the others were robbed, but not me and Majid. We heard them say that they had been robbed of their mobiles and money by the soldiers.

Samir, 23, a Moroccan migrant, said he had been beaten by Macedonian soldiers around January 26, when he and others crossed illegally into Macedonia and were caught, and that a week earlier, one of his friends was beaten so badly by Macedonian soldiers that his leg was broken:

We came to Greece in December, about a month ago. When we arrived at Moria registration camp, the authorities refused to register us, and some other Moroccans were arrested. After two weeks, a big group of us snuck onto the ferry to Athens, without tickets. We came to the border five days ago with a fake paper saying we were Iraqi – we met a guy in Athens who said he could sell us papers for 50 or 100 euro. But when we got here, the Greek police said it was fake.

So, two days ago, I tried to cross the border. We crossed the fence where it was cut open, at night, with nine people. We were soon caught by the Macedonian army, and they started beating us with their batons. When they were beating us, they were laughing at us, saying, ‘You are Moroccans and want to go to Germany?’ They hit me on the shoulder and then were kicking us until we were put on the truck. They didn’t rob us. They put us on the truck and brought us back to the border and made us go back to Greece.

One of my Moroccan friends had his leg broken 10 days ago in Macedonia. He crossed the fence into Macedonia and they were caught by the army and beaten. The soldiers ordered them to lay down on the ground. It was raining, and they kicked them hard and broke his leg. He is now in Athens in the hospital. His name is Khaled, he’s 24 years old.

An international observer at the border, who asked not to be identified so she could continue working there, confirmed that she regularly saw people returned from Macedonia to Greece by the Macedonian army, and that some of those returned showed clear injuries:

We regularly see people being returned at the border gate with serious injuries, including broken limbs. It is the Macedonian army who return these people directly to the border gate, and push them back to Greece. The Macedonian army vehicles are noisy, so when we hear the vehicles we go to the gate and see the returns ourselves. But often, the Greek police take custody of the victims and refuse to allow us to speak to them, putting them straight onto buses back to Athens.

Accounts of Abuses by Smugglers
Abbas Farhadi, 43, left Iran with his wife and three children, hoping to go to Germany, but found himself stuck in Greece because Iranians were not allowed to cross into Macedonia. He said he was approached by smugglers in Athens who persuaded him to pay them €4,500 to be smuggled to Belgrade, but then just disappeared:

We were in Victory Park in Athens, not knowing what to do. We were just sitting in the park, and these three Afghan guys came to us, and said, “Where do you want to go to? We can arrange it for you.” So we paid them 4,500 euro, 1,500 for each adult. They took us to a wooded area near the border, and then said to wait there, saying they were going to get food and supplies. But then they never came back, they just disappeared. So we walked for five hours to the border at Idomeni, so we can take a bus back to Athens.

Cyrus, 24, an Iranian asylum seeker, told Human Rights Watch that he and six other Iranians had paid a smuggler to be taken from Athens to Austria. Once he obtained the money, the smuggler failed to deliver on his promises. When the men complained, they were brutally beaten and kicked out of the smuggler’s safe house without their luggage:

We were seven people, and we paid the smuggler between 1,300 and 2,000 euro each to be smuggled out to Austria. Then, he just kicked us out, laughing at us and saying we should go complain to the police. We lost everything we had. I complained, and they beat me and broke my nose. My friend was also beaten. They had knives, and they beat us with their fists. My friend lost all of his possessions when they beat us and kicked us out of the house.

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