(Athens) – Plans to resume returns of asylum seekers to Greece put the rights of thousands of people at risk, Human Rights Watch said today. The move demonstrates once again the European Union’s failure to uphold its human rights obligations and share responsibility for refugees.

The European Commission announced on December 8, 2016, that EU countries should be able to gradually return asylum seekers to Greece under EU asylum rules, as of mid-March 2017. National courts in a number of EU states have blocked returns to Greece after the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2011 that deficiencies in the Greek asylum system and its degrading treatment of migrant detainees meant it was not safe to return asylum seekers there. The EU’s own Court of Justice has also ruled against transfers. 

“It’s astonishing that the European Commission thinks asylum seekers should be sent back to Greece, where thousands are already suffering as a direct consequence of the EU’s policies,” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of adding to Greece’s burden, EU governments and institutions should be working to alleviate it, by relocating asylum seekers from Greece to other EU countries.”

Families waiting for a bottle of water and a sandwich per person at a camp in Idomeni, Greece, March 2016.

© Zalmaï

More than 62,500 women, men, and children stranded in Greece face abysmal and volatile conditions as a result of Western Balkan border closures, a deeply flawed EU-Turkey deal, and a poorly executed EU relocation plan. Asylum seekers and migrants in Greece face multiple human rights violations, including obstacles in accessing adequate protection, and reception conditions that are well below international human rights standards. The situation is particularly dire for vulnerable people such as pregnant women, female heads of household, unaccompanied children, people with disabilities, and the elderly.

The European Commission wants Greece to resume accepting returns under an EU asylum rule known as the Dublin Regulation, contending that Greece has made “significant progress in putting in place the essential institutional and legal structures for a properly functioning asylum system.” The Dublin Regulation generally requires the first EU country an asylum seeker reaches to take responsibility for their claim, and permits other EU countries to send them there if they travel onward from that first country.

While the Commission points to improvements in the Greek asylum system and in reception capacity, in reality Greece’s asylum and reception systems still have severe deficiencies. These are made worse by the closure of the Western Balkan migration route that traps asylum seekers in Greece, and by the EU-Turkey deal, which keeps them on Greek islands.

The government is not making adequate provision for the basic needs of thousands of asylum seekers and migrants contained on the Aegean islands, or in camps and official reception facilities in mainland Greece.

Human Rights Watch and other groups have documented severely overcrowded and unhygienic conditions on the Islands. Many people sleep on the ground in small tents or makeshift shelters constructed from blankets, plastic sheeting, and scraps of fencing and cardboard. Health care is inadequate, and food is insufficient and of poor quality.

On the mainland, many asylum seekers are left unassisted, destitute, homeless, or living in substandard conditions and unprotected from the cold. That includes people with disabilities, women with newborn babies and pregnant women, elderly people with serious health problems, and other vulnerable groups. Due to lack of space in dedicated shelters despite considerable increase in capacity over the past year, unaccompanied children are often detained, sometimes with adults, for lack of a better alternative.

Instead of focusing on returning asylum seekers to Greece, the European Commission should take urgent steps to alleviate the sufferings of asylum seekers in Greece, by accelerating relocation of asylum seekers, in particular unaccompanied migrant children, to other European Union countries, and by transferring larger numbers of them from the overcrowded hotspots on the Islands to adequate and safe facilities in mainland Greece.

“The Commission’s announcement could only be justified if Greece’s abysmal detention and reception conditions had improved since the European Court of Human Rights ruled that returning asylum seekers there would violate the prohibition on inhuman and degrading treatment,” Cossé said. “But conditions for asylum seekers in Greece are every bit as degrading now as they were six years ago.”