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Migrants that crossed the land border between Greece and Turkey are seen at the Pre-Removal Detention Center in the village of Fylakio, Northern Greece, February 24, 2017. © 2017 Alexandros Avramidis /Reuters

(Athens) – Thousands of migrants and asylum seekers in northern Greece have been subject to appalling reception and detention conditions, with at-risk groups lacking necessary protection, Human Rights Watch said today. Greece has failed to ensure minimum standards for pregnant women, new mothers, and others arriving via the land-border with Turkey in the Evros region, many of whom are fleeing violence or repression in countries including Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

During visits to three government-run centers holding asylum-seekers and migrants in May 2018, Human Rights Watch found living conditions that do not meet international standards. All three facilities lacked adequate access to health care, including mental health care, and support for at-risk people, including women traveling alone, pregnant women, new mothers, and survivors of sexual violence. The lack of interpreters hindered essential communication. Asylum seekers and migrants said they did not know why they were being held. Interviewees reported verbal abuse by police, and two said they witnessed police physically abusing others.

“People told us they were being treated so poorly in these facilities that they felt less than human,” said Hillary Margolis, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Greece has a responsibility to uphold basic standards of care for everyone in its custody, regardless of their immigration status.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 49 asylum seekers and migrants in the three facilities, as well as Greek authorities and facility personnel. Conditions were especially poor at the Fylakio pre-removal detention center, where Human Rights Watch researchers witnessed asylum seekers being held in dark, dank cells, with overpowering odors in the corridors. Female asylum seekers and migrants were being held with unrelated males at both the pre-removal center and the reception and identification center at

Fylakio, where housing failed to meet such basic standards as having toilets and locking doors. People working at both centers in Fylakio confirmed in late July conditions remain the same. At the time of Human Rights Watch’s visit to the Diavata open camp, asylum seekers and migrant families were housed together in crowded rooms, and some in tents, including pregnant women and new mothers.

A surge in arrivals over Greece’s northern land border with Turkey in the spring of 2018, peaking in April, slowed reception and identification procedures, leading to overcrowding and lengthier stays in detention facilities. However, this does not absolve the Greek government of obligations to uphold the rights of all asylum seekers and migrants, including by providing decent living standards and health care.

Pending completion of reception and identification procedures, Greek authorities hold newly arrived irregular migrants and those seeking international protection in northern Greece in one or more of the following facilities: border police stations in the Evros region; the Fylakio pre-removal detention center, run by the Hellenic Police; and the Fylakio reception and identification center, run by the Ministry for Migration Policy. Some are then transferred to open camps, including the Diavata camp in Thessaloniki, run by the Migration Policy Ministry, and others to accommodations supported by the UN refugee agency. Some remain in detention pending examination of asylum claims, deportation, or voluntary return.

Human Rights Watch wrote to the Hellenic Police and the Migration Policy Ministry in June to seek comment on the findings. The head of the Hellenic Police replied on July 4 acknowledging increased arrivals had put pressure on facilities, but said conditions were improving. The Migration Ministry had not responded at time of writing.

Government reception and identification procedures are supposed to include medical checks and screening for vulnerable people including pregnant women and new mothers, people with medical or mental health conditions, people with disabilities, and unaccompanied or separated children. However, Human Rights Watch found these procedures are not conducted systematically. Most asylum seekers and migrants interviewed said they had not been screened by medical personnel or asked about vulnerabilities, including pregnancy or health conditions.

Four pregnant women said they had not been able to get adequate prenatal care even after requesting it. A 31-year-old woman from Iraq who was four months pregnant said she had not been screened in the four days since she had arrived at the reception center.

“I am very afraid because I don’t feel the baby moving,” she said, adding that she had severe leg pain. Her husband, 40, said he had explained his wife’s situation to staff and requested a doctor. “But there’s no doctor here,” he said. “They said we can see a doctor when we go to Thessaloniki after release from the reception center.”

Asylum seekers and migrants said lack of medical personnel, poor treatment by available personnel, long waits, and lack of interpreters hindered access to physical and mental health care. The lack of female doctors and interpreters creates additional barriers for women and girls.

Ten people said police verbally abused or otherwise mistreated them in the Fylakio centers. Three said police refer to them as “malaka,” a Greek insult meaning cowardly, worthless, or stupid. Two said they saw police hit other asylum seekers with plastic batons. Human Rights Watch researchers heard police at both facilities make derogatory comments about asylum seekers and migrants and address them aggressively.   

National and European law and international standards require treating asylum seekers and migrants with dignity and providing them with decent living conditions, including timely access to health care. Greek authorities should take immediate steps to ensure migrant reception and detention facilities comply with international and national law.

“A decent standard of living and humane treatment for asylum seekers and migrants are not optional extras,” Margolis said. “Regardless of the number of arrivals, the Greek government can’t shirk its legal obligation to prevent abusive conditions and help those most at-risk.”

Please note, all names of migrants and asylum seekers have been changed to protect their privacy.

Accounts by Asylum Seekers, Migrants

Living Conditions

Human Rights Watch found substandard conditions at all three facilities: the Fylakio pre-removal detention center, the Fylakio reception and identification center, and the Diavata open camp in Thessaloniki. Conditions at the Fylakio pre-removal detention center could amount to inhuman and degrading treatment.

The surge of arrivals over northern Greece’s land border with Turkey strained reception and identification processing in the Evros region, but when Human Rights Watch visited in late May, authorities said both centers in Fylakio were under capacity. On May 19, authorities at the pre-removal detention center, with a capacity of 374, said it was housing 172 people. On May 21, authorities at the reception and identification center, which has a capacity of 240, said it was housing 196. Diavata camp was housing over 1,000 people with an official capacity of around 900.

Nadir, 21, from Syria, said he and his 6-year-old niece were held at the pre-removal center for four days in a cell with about 40 young men. “The toilet had no light and no running water,” he said. “I was afraid for my family. There were people from other nationalities [in the cell] – they were strangers…. We didn’t have any bedsheets or pillows. There was a bed and a sponge mattress but no covers.… [W]e didn’t shower for four days, and we used the sink to drink water…. The toilets had no locks; even the walls between the toilets were not totally closed off.”

Muhammed, 18, from Afghanistan, said police had not allowed him outside for two days, although international standards require daily time outdoors. “Sometimes [the police] let us out in the morning and in the afternoon, but sometimes we might not go out at all for two to three days,” Muhammed said. “Last time I went out was two days ago, and today they let us out only for five minutes in the corridor.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 15 asylum seekers in Diavata open camp, including three pregnant women. Four Afghan and four Syrian families were housed on a building’s second floor in a large room with broken windows, accessed via another room housing at least 10 additional families. People slept on blankets on the floor, and the rooms were extremely hot.

Others were housed in tents in open areas, which authorities said was due to overcrowding following increased arrivals. Some, including pregnant women and mothers with infants, said they had been living in tents for up to 20 days. According to the latest available site management report, the population of Diavata reached nearly 1,500 in June, with 500 people accommodated in tents.

At all three facilities, women and girls said they felt unsafe using toilets and showers, which are difficult to reach and lack privacy. “There are four showers for all the women in this camp,” said Farida, from Afghanistan, in Diavata. “If you go to take a shower at 9 a.m., your turn may come at 1 p.m. They’re far away and if you want to go there at night, you can’t. For a woman to feel safe, a man needs to accompany her.”

Halah, 27, from Syria and seven months pregnant, said distances to toilets posed particular difficulties for pregnant women. The June site management report states the number of separate toilets and showers for women are “insufficient.”

Rasha, 15, from Syria, had been in the Fylakio reception and identification center with her 18-year-old sister for three weeks, living in a pre-fabricated container in a fenced-in, enclosed section with unrelated men and boys. “Our container is the only one with no toilet,” she said. “We have to go inside a container with people I don’t know, so I worry that someone can come inside and see me. There is no lock in the bathroom. I don’t feel very safe here because many people come and go and there are many boys.”

Human Rights Watch also documented inadequate toilet and bathing facilities for women in cells with unrelated men at the Fylakio pre-removal detention center, and women said they had been harassed while using the facilities.

In the letter to Human Rights Watch, Hellenic Police Director Georgios Kossioris said, due to strain on the reception and identification center following the surge in asylum seekers and migrants arriving over the Greece-Turkey border, authorities held some people at the pre-removal center before completing reception and identification proceedings. He said this was to meet basic needs for food, health care, housing, and sanitation, even if gaps remained in meeting these needs. He also said living conditions at the center had improved following a reduction in arrivals and “measures taken,” but did not specify these measures.

Regardless of the number of arrivals, the Greek government has a responsibility to comply with international, national and European law, and international standards for treatment and detention of asylum seekers and migrants. They require a decent standard of living and necessary physical and mental health care during completion of procedures. Authorities have an obligation to inform those held in reception and identification facilities about their status and circumstances in a language they understand.

The authorities are also obligated to protect women and children and to identify and support people with “vulnerabilities,” including pregnant women, new mothers, and sexual violence survivors. The European Union should support Greece’s government in ensuring humane treatment for all arrivals.

Identifying At-Risk People

Under Greek law, third country nationals or stateless people who arrive irregularly should undergo procedures in a reception and identification center, including medical screening and identification of at-risk (“vulnerable”) people. This includes pregnant women and new mothers, unaccompanied children, single parents with children, people with disabilities, and victims of torture, rape, or other significant physical, psychological, or sexual violence. Reception and identification center staff should, by law, refer those identified as vulnerable to services and prioritize them for asylum processes. Those needing medical care should be referred for treatment.

When Human Rights Watch visited, no doctor was on staff at the Fylakio reception center. Authorities there said nurses screen new arrivals and border police often signal known vulnerabilities to staff, but there appeared to be no systematic process for identifying vulnerabilities. Many of the asylum seekers and migrants interviewed said they had not seen medical personnel or been asked about potential vulnerabilities. The nongovernmental organization Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF) is reportedly considering providing some services provision at the reception and identification center but would not be authorized to screen for vulnerability. Greek policy requires screening by government agencies.

Human Rights Watch interviewed women with recognizable vulnerabilities – including some who were obviously pregnant or mothers of infants – who said they had not received any assistance. People with hidden vulnerabilities, such as mental health conditions, psychosocial disabilities, or who have experienced sexual violence are less likely to be identified or assisted. The Ministry of Migration did not respond to a request for information about vulnerability screening at the Fylakio reception and identification center.

Staff at all stages – including in border police stations and pre-removal centers – have a duty under Greek law to ensure appropriate care for people with identifiable vulnerabilities, as well as access to essential physical and mental health care and decent living conditions. The deputy commander at the Fylakio pre-removal detention center said staff give vulnerable people priority for transfer to the reception and identification center, but both he and the doctor acknowledged not all arrivals see medical staff or the psychologist.  

Access to Medical Care

Asylum seekers and migrants at all three facilities said they had difficulty getting medical and mental health care, citing long waits, poor or no response by personnel, and a lack of interpreters.

Nurses are at the reception and identification center daily from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., but, the deputy commander and a nurse said, they cannot examine patients or provide medication and must transfer people to facilities 30 to 45 minutes away for treatment. They said the lack of an on-site doctor was a critical gap. “I can’t do anything,” the nurse said. “I can’t give any medicine. People have to suffer and wait.”

Maysa, 18, from Iraq, who had been at the reception center with her husband and in-laws for close to three weeks, said she sought medical care for her 8-month-old daughter. “Her mouth has looked like it’s rotten and white for a week now,” she said. “Nobody took us to the doctor. I asked, but the nurse brought cotton and chamomile tea to clean the baby’s mouth – that’s the medicine she gave us.”

A male doctor is on-site weekdays at the Fylakio pre-removal detention center. “Ideally, everyone should be examined,” he said of new arrivals. However, he said he medically screens “most” new arrivals and tries to identify serious cases for transfer to a hospital. The doctor said he lacks necessary equipment and services, including medications and interpreters.

Nurses are on-site daily at the Fylakio pre-removal center, but the doctor said, as at the reception and identification center, they cannot examine or treat patients without a doctor’s orders. When an asylum seeker fell ill during the Human Rights Watch visit on a Sunday, a nurse said she could only give emergency first aid. She did not approach, touch, or communicate directly with the young woman, who had vomited, complained of severe headache, and appeared too weak to sit up.

Eight people interviewed said they had difficulty getting medical care at the pre-removal center.

Suha, 20, from Morocco, said she sought help because she had not menstruated in two months. “It took five days of begging the doctor [at the center] to go to the hospital,” she said. She said that after a negative pregnancy test, the doctor gave her tablets he said would induce her period. She said she had severe abdominal pain and vomiting after taking them. “I was crying all night from the pain,” she said. “When I told the doctor he just said to hold on – ‘in two days you will have your period.’”

Ten days later, she said her period had not started and she had ongoing pain “like knives” in her abdomen, which led her to cut her inner forearms with a broken mirror; she showed the interviewers the scars. She said that when the doctor returned on Monday she would plead for more tests to determine her condition.

Muhammed said he developed a skin condition at the Fylakio pre-removal center but was unable to get treatment. “I’ve asked to see a doctor, but [the police] curse at me,” he said. “I’m very itchy during the night and I’ve asked many times to see a doctor, but they haven’t allowed me to see one.” Six other people described itching or rashes they believed were caused or exacerbated by unsanitary conditions in the center.

People at Diavata, including pregnant women, said they were often unable to get care. “There is still one doctor in the whole camp,” said Bashira, 26, from Afghanistan, who gave birth to her second son during her two years there. “You have to sit waiting from morning to night to see the doctor.”

Authorities, medical personnel, and asylum seekers and migrants said a lack of female doctors creates additional barriers for women. “Most of the doctors are men,” said Bashira. “It is hard [for a woman] to tell them how you are feeling.”

The reply from the Hellenic Police director states “primary health care is provided for everyone without exceptions” at the pre-removal center, including necessary medical care and referrals to hospitals or other appropriate facilities. The Ministry of Migration did not respond to Human Rights Watch regarding provision of health care at the RIC and at Diavata camp.

Access to Psychological Support

Many of the asylum seekers and migrants interviewed said they were experiencing symptoms of emotional or psychological distress but had not received psychosocial support.

No psychological support was available on-site at the reception and identification center when Human Rights Watch visited. People requiring mental health care were being referred to a medical center about 20 minutes away by car. A nurse at the center said the wait for an appointment is usually about a week. A Greek nongovernmental organization has since reportedly begun providing psychosocial and legal support, as well as recreational activities, for children, giving priority to unaccompanied children. However, no on-site psychosocial support is available for adults.

The nurse and deputy commander at the reception and identification center said it needs an on-site mental health care specialist. Eight asylum seekers and migrants interviewed there said they or a family member were experiencing symptoms such as sleeplessness, anxiety, crying bouts, and hair loss.

Suraya, in her twenties (nationality withheld), had been there for five months. She said she did not receive help she requested after another asylum seeker sexually assaulted her. “I’m losing my hair and I want to see a doctor,” Suraya said. “From the very first month [here] I asked for a psychologist, but they never brought one.”

Nadir, at the center with his 6-year-old niece, Abra, said they both have skin conditions and Abra is unable to sleep or eat. When asked whether she had received psychological support, Nadir said, “We haven’t even seen a doctor for our skin. I don’t think we’ll see a psychologist.”

Lack of information and interpreters means detainees are sometimes unaware of available care. Staff said a psychologist and a social worker are at the Fylakio pre-removal center on weekdays, but only two of six people who described experiencing psychological distress said they were offered assistance. Muhammed had been at the pre-removal center for 26 days. “I’m not well psychologically,” he said. “My thoughts are confused. Everything I’ve been through makes me suffer.” He did not know the facility had a psychologist or social worker.

The reply from the Hellenic Police director said medical care provided includes “necessary health care and psychosocial diagnosis and support.”

Human Rights Watch previously reported on confinement of women and girls with unknown men at the Fylakio centers, which they said caused or contributed to their psychological and emotional distress, including sleeplessness, anxiety, inability to eat, and crying. Two women at the pre-removal detention center said they had suicidal thoughts.

Pregnant Women and New Mothers

Human Rights Watch interviewed three pregnant women at Diavata camp, one who had given birth there and one with an infant, and two pregnant women and one with an infant at the reception and identification center.

International standards on detention of asylum seekers, migrants, and refugees state: “as a general rule, pregnant women and nursing mothers, who both have special needs, should not be detained,” and alternative measures should be sought. International guidelines on detention of women also call for “gender-specific health care,” and for providing pregnant and lactating women with appropriate health and dietary support. Emergency obstetric and newborn care should be accessible in humanitarian crises, in line with international standards.

Greek law calls for reception and identification procedures to screen for and give priority to vulnerable people, including pregnant women and new mothers. Farah, 31, from Iraq and four months pregnant, said she had been unable to see a doctor at either of the centers in the Fylakio center. “I asked them to provide me with a doctor, but they said, ‘When you go to the reception and identification center, you will find one,’” she said. “[At the reception center] they said the doctor is coming, but he never showed up.”

Leila, 24, from Syria and seven months pregnant, had been at Diavata camp for four weeks with her husband and 2-year-old son. “Sometimes I feel like my stomach is tough and hard,” she said. “I desperately need to go to the doctor to see how my baby is, but the doctor here said, ‘When you move to another camp, you’ll see a doctor there.’”

Leila and another pregnant woman at Diavata said a doctor checked their babies’ heartbeats but did not perform an ultrasound or explain why not. World Health Organization guidelines call for an ultrasound during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy to determine gestational age, and to aid in identifying and managing higher-risk pregnancies.

Pregnant and lactating women at Diavata also said they did not have adequate living conditions. Amina, 23, from Syria and six months pregnant, had been there for 20 days with her husband, parents, and 18-month-old son. “We are living in a tent and it’s raining all the time,” she said. “Whatever we can find – blankets and so forth – we sleep on. We have been asking various organizations [working in the camp] to help us but they say, ‘There are many pregnant women here, so you have to wait.’”

A woman from Syria had been living in a tent at Diavata for about 10 days with her husband and infant, who was less than two months old. Another woman who had given birth to her 11-month-old son at Diavata said she lived in a tent through her sixth month of pregnancy.

International humanitarian standards call for providing vulnerable people, including pregnant and lactating women, with additional bedding and clothing, as well as food or nutritional supplements in line with their needs.

Lack of Interpreters and Training

Even when care is available, lack of interpreters hinders access. There were no interpreters at the Fylakio pre-removal center at the time of Human Rights Watch’s visit. The deputy commander there said a Health Ministry program should provide interpreters, but the positions are considered undesirable and are difficult to fill. “At the moment we don’t have any interpreters and we are figuring it out with other detainees,” he said. “The lack of interpreters is a problem, especially with increased arrivals.” Someone working at the center said one Arabic interpreter has recently been employed there.

Abdullah, 21, from Afghanistan, said he had seen the doctor at the pre-removal center several times for a rash and a throat problem. “The doctor sometimes uses one of the other detainees as an interpreter, and other times I try to communicate with signs [hand gestures] when there’s no interpreter,” he said.

Authorities at the reception and identification center said they have five interpreters funded by the European Asylum Support Office and the Dutch government, but this does not meet the facility’s needs, leaving staff to rely on other asylum seekers for translation. “If [an asylum seeker or migrant] speaks English, we can understand some things,” said the nurse there. “Otherwise we try to get an interpreter, or else we use someone else living in [the asylum seeker’s or migrant’s] section.” She said interpreters are often unavailable or not on-site when nurses need them.

Suraya said the lack of female interpreters compounds the problem for women and girls. “[People who speak with us at the reception and identification center] usually don't have an interpreter,” she said. “And even if you talk to them about a confidential women’s issue, the interpreter will be a man.” Samira, 18, from Syria, at the center for three weeks with her 15-year-old sister, said she had to use hand gestures to communicate she had her period and needed sanitary pads. “There was no interpreter, so I used sign language with the [medical staff],” she said.

Relying on other asylum seekers or migrants to interpret can compromise the quality of information transmitted, and violates privacy and confidentiality standards for medical and mental health care provision and for registration, identification, and processing of asylum seekers and migrants. Lack of trained interpreters – including women – can also hinder identification of survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, torture, or other abuse.

Detainees who were or had previously been held at the pre-removal center said their distress was compounded by a lack of information and communication about why they were being held and the status of their asylum process.

The reply from the Hellenic Police director said all detainees are “systematically informed” about reasons for their detention and their rights, including their right to contact representatives from external organizations. He said “relevant brochures have been posted in prominent spots” and detainees are given “information sheets,” but did not specify languages in which such documents are available.

Health professionals interviewed at both Fylakio centers said they had no specialized training in working with asylum seekers and migrants or in detention facilities, and sometimes no prior related experience. International standards call for all staff working in immigration detention to be trained in identifying symptoms of trauma or stress, as well as on sexual and gender-based violence, human rights requirements, and standards for detaining asylum seekers. The reply from the Hellenic Police director said the Health Ministry is now responsible for providing doctors, nurses, psychosocial support staff, and interpreters to facilities for migrants and asylum seekers.

Abuse and Mistreatment by Police

Ten asylum seekers and migrants said police at the Fylakio pre-removal detention center and reception and identification center mistreated them, including through verbal abuse, humiliation, and violation of privacy. Two said they witnessed police hit other people being held in the facilities.

People interviewed at both sites said police used derogatory terms and shouted and laughed at them. “Police call us ‘malaka,’” said Fatima, 24, from Algeria, about the pre-removal center. People in the reception and identification center said police there used the same insult. “One thing they always say is ‘malaka,’” said Suraya. She also said she witnessed police at the reception center beat children twice, once in front of her 9-year-old nephew. “My nephew was in front of the police when they beat the kids with kicks, slaps, and plastic batons,” she said.

Muhammed, from Afghanistan, said he had seen police at the pre-removal center hit detainees with plastic batons the previous day. He also said police treated asylum seekers and migrants of differently according to nationality. “Policemen are nice to Turks and Syrians, but not to Pakistanis and Afghans,” he said.

Four asylum seekers, including a woman, a girl, and two men with young nieces, said police at the reception and identification center regularly entered their containers unannounced. “The doors [to the containers and rooms] don’t lock,” said Nadir at the reception center with his 6-year-old niece. “Every night the police just come in to count us.”

The reply from the Hellenic Police director said his office has received no complaints of mistreatment by police and requested details of incidents reported to Human Rights Watch. The reply said authorities have “zero tolerance for human rights abuses” and impose “severe disciplinary sanctions” on those who fail to adhere to orders to protect life, respect human dignity, and prohibit torture, inhuman or degrading treatment.

International rights bodies have criticized Greece in the past for failing to address allegations of police abuse and have called for complaints mechanisms to investigate abuse allegations. Under the European Convention on Human Rights, the UN Convention against Torture, the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights, and other treaties to which Greece is a party, the government is bound by the absolute prohibition on torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, including in detention and reception facilities.

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