Stranded refugees and migrants are pushed back by Greek riot police after they tried to storm Macedonia from the Greek side of the border during a protest, near the Greek village of Idomeni, February 29, 2016.  

(Brussels) – The chaos and violence unfolding on the Greece-Macedonia border are a direct result of discriminatory border closures and Austria’s unilateral cap on asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said today. Thousands of asylum seekers and migrants are effectively trapped in Greece as a result of the border closures, and they face an ever-deepening humanitarian crisis.

“Trapping asylum seekers in Greece is an unconscionable and short-sighted non-solution that is causing suffering and violence,” said Eva Cossé, Greece specialist at Human Rights Watch. “It demonstrates once again the European Union’s utter failure to respond collectively and compassionately to refugee flows.”

On the morning of February 29, 2016, Macedonian police fired teargas and stun grenades after asylum seekers and migrants stormed a gate on the border. The humanitarian non-governmental organization Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF) told Human Rights Watch that it treated 22 people following the clashes, including 18 with respiratory problems from the teargas and four hit by rubber bullets and sticks. They said that 10 children, including some under age 5, were among the injured.

Human Rights Watch was unable to determine whether the use of force by police in this incident was justified. However, Human Rights Watch has documented past instances of excessive police violence by Macedonian officers against asylum seekers and migrants at the border with Greece, including the excessive use of tear gas and stun grenades. Police should not use force unless strictly necessary, and should exercise restraint if the lawful use of force is unavoidable, Human Rights Watch said.

About 7,000 people, including families with children, are stranded at Idomeni, on the Greek side of the border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, with hundreds more stuck inside Balkan countries. With the official camp in Idomeni designed for only 2,500 people, many people there are living in squalid conditions around the camp and along the route from Polycastro village to the border, with little food or shelter.

The clampdown on onward movement to the north comes in the wake of Austria’s introduction of a daily cap of 80 asylum applications as of February 19, and a subsequent restriction by Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, and Macedonia, on the number of asylum seekers and migrants allowed to enter each country’s territory, to 500 people a day. Austria has also capped at 3,200 per day the number of non-EU citizen migrants and asylum seekers allowed to cross into its territory across external borders. Police chiefs from all five countries agreed on February 18 to joint measures to restrict movement, including imposing stringent requirements for proving nationality, denying entry to those who may have spent time in a third country, requiring a new travel document that can only be issued in Macedonia, and considering daily quotas.

Since November 2015, Macedonia, Serbia, and Croatia have restricted passage across their borders, only allowing asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan to cross. On February 19, 2016, they imposed additional restrictions by banning people from Afghanistan from entering their territories. In practice, the five governments are allowing only small numbers of Syrians and Iraqis to cross borders. Afghans, the second-largest national group reaching Greece from Turkey via the Aegean Sea, are unable to leave Greece to travel north. Greek authorities have periodically bused Afghans from the border back to Athens, most recently on February 23.

Blocking someone from lodging an asylum claim based on their nationality is a violation of international law. This discrimination violates the right to seek asylum as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the right to asylum under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, Human Rights Watch said. In addition, the European Commission has condemned Austria’s cap on asylum applications, calling it “plainly incompatible” with EU and international law. Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia should swiftly put an end to these policies, Human Rights Watch said.

According to Greece’s migration minister, an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 migrants and asylum seekers are currently in the country – not only on the islands, but also in Athens. In the country’s capital, a humanitarian crisis is unfolding, with the authorities unable to provide for basic needs such as food, water, and medical care. With temporary shelters and transit centers already full, thousands of people sleep in the open at the port in Piraeus, waiting to be transferred to a shelter, or until they make their way to Idomeni. With an average of 2,000 to 3,000 people arriving every day by boat from Turkey, the Greek government has asked ferry companies to delay crossings from the Aegean islands to the mainland.

The dramatic increase in arrivals in 2015 exacerbated chronic deficiencies in Greece’s asylum system where, despite reforms, people face severe obstacles to applying for asylum, inadequate reception conditions for asylum seekers, and hurdles to integration. 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 appointment to lodge an asylum application. Without adequate access to asylum registration, asylum seekers remain at risk of detention and deportation as irregular migrants.

In recognition of the strain on Greece, still suffering a deep economic crisis, other EU countries agreed to relocate 66,400 asylum seekers from Greece over the next two years. As of February 24, almost six months after the plan was agreed upon, only 295 people had been relocated.

At the same time, the European Commission is pushing Greece to take sufficient steps to enable returns of asylum seekers to Greece under the European Union’s Dublin Regulation. Under Dublin, the EU country of first arrival should be responsible for processing an asylum claim and other EU countries can return asylum seekers to the country of first arrival. These returns have been all but suspended since the European Court of Human Rights ruled in January 2011 that conditions for asylum seekers in Greece amounted to degrading treatment.

EU countries should move swiftly to fulfill their commitments under the relocation plan to alleviate the burden on Greece, Human Rights Watch said. That should include giving people who arrive in Greece more incentives to participate through better information and speedier processing, making places available for the relocation of asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other EU countries, and ensuring proper functioning of “hot spots” created for faster and better processing and screening to respect migrants’ rights fully. 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.

“It’s ludicrous to see on one hand a relocation plan designed to alleviate the strain on Greece, and on the other hand efforts by some member states that risk turning the country into a massive refugee camp,” Cossé said. “But above all, governments are not taking into account the real risk of suffering for hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children who won’t have a meaningful chance of getting the protection they need.”