(Athens) – Greek authorities, in coordination with the European Union, are automatically detaining all asylum seekers and migrants who arrive on the islands of Lesbos and Chios in deplorable conditions, Human Rights Watch said today. The detention of about 4,000 people creates particular hardships for vulnerable people who are held, such as children, pregnant women, and people with disabilities.
The blanket detention of all asylum seekers and migrants in closed facilities is unjustified, given the possibility of less restrictive options, and amounts to arbitrary detention. The two closed facilities should be converted into open camps with appropriate services and safety for people needing protection from war, persecution, and human rights abuses.
“The EU’s policy, carried out in Greece, has locked up families and others who have fled horrors such as ISIS terror, Taliban threats, or Syrian-government barrel bombs,” said Eva Cossé, Greece specialist at Human Rights Watch. “When alternatives to detention exist, as they do on the Greek islands, there is no legal or moral justification to hold asylum seekers and migrants behind bars.”
In visits to Lesbos and Chios from April 3 to 9, 2016, Human Rights Watch found that the police-guarded camps on both islands were holding a wide array of people with special needs, including women with young children, pregnant women, unaccompanied children, elderly men and women, and people with physical and psychosocial disabilities. None of the detainees had proper access to health care, sanitation facilities, or legal aid.
Both camps began operating as open reception and registration centers for the hundreds of thousands of people who had reached the islands since early 2015 but they were converted suddenly to prison-like camps on March 20, 2016, when a deeply flawed deal between the EU and Turkey came into effect. Asylum seekers and migrants who have arrived since then are detained by Greek authorities, with help from the EU’s border agency, Frontex, and forbidden to leave the camps.
The Moria facility on Lesbos, with about 3,100 people, is surrounded by fence topped with barbed-wire. At the VIAL facility – a former aluminum factory – on Chios, the roughly 1,000 detainees are only allowed to move in a limited area with housing containers, surrounded by a fence with barbed wire.
As open facilities, Moria and VIAL had been serviced by a variety of humanitarian organizations and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but most of these, including UNHCR, suspended their operations after March 20, consistent with their policies not to provide services in closed facilities.
Conditions at Moria and VIAL deteriorated rapidly due to the fear, frustration, over-crowding, and lack of services. Tensions at VIAL culminated on April 1 when violent clashes erupted between Syrian and Afghan detainees. About 400 people broke free from the facility and are now at one of two open camps in the town of Chios.
Greece’s new detention policy resulted from the agreement between the EU and Turkey reached in mid-March. On April 2, the Greek parliament hastily adopted a law that allows blanket “restriction of movement” on new arrivals inside closed facilities at border entry points – such as the islands – for up to 25 days during reception and identification. It provides for asylum seekers to be detained for up to three months while their claims are processed.
People subject to deportation, including back to Turkey, can be detained for up to 18 months. The law decreased the maximum time that asylum seekers can be held in detention in Greece, but provides for a fast-track procedure to examine international protection claims within 15 days, including appeal. The fast-track procedure has not begun yet, but once in place, it would undermine the effective exercise of asylum seekers’ rights, Human Rights Watch said.
Many, if not most, of those currently detained in VIAL have expressed a desire to seek asylum in Greece, but the system is overwhelmed and the promised EU support is lagging, Human Rights Watch said. Similarly, as of April 12, all except 15 people detained in Moria had submitted an asylum application, according to the Greek police.
A key aim of the EU-Turkey deal is to reject almost all asylum applications on the grounds that Turkey is a safe country for refugees and asylum seekers, and to enable swift deportations back there. Turkey cannot be considered a safe country due to its refusal to grant effective protection to non-Europeans in need, including Afghans and Iraqis, Human Rights Watch has repeatedly said. Turkey has also repeatedly pushed Syrians back into the war zone and closed borders to others trying to flee.
The EU-Turkey deal is fundamentally flawed and should be repealed, Human Rights Watch said. All asylum claims submitted by people in Greece should be examined on their individual merits, and other EU countries should support Greece and asylum seekers there by immediately fulfilling their commitments to relocate tens of thousands of asylum seekers from Greece. EU and Greek authorities, in cooperation with UN agencies, should provide alternative accommodation for all asylum seekers, and limit the detention of asylum seekers to exceptional circumstances.
“The current situation in Greece for desperate asylum seekers is perverse,” said Cossé. “People fleeing danger are detained in unacceptable conditions while they await a likely return to unsafe Turkey or languish in the dysfunctional Greek asylum system.”