This memorandum, submitted to the United Nations Committee Against Torture (the Committee) ahead of its upcoming review of Greece, highlights areas of concern that Human Rights Watch hopes will inform the Committee’s consideration of the Greek government’s (the government) compliance with the International Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (the Convention). It contains information on Greece’s treatment of migrants and asylum seekers that is inconsistent with the Convention and proposes issues that Committee members may wish to raise with the government.

Human Rights Watch has closely monitored the human rights situation in Greece and, in particular, the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers over the past ten years. As part of this work, we have documented violations against refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants, including those with disabilities and unaccompanied migrant children, and have produced reports and other documents describing our research findings.

We welcome the opportunity to provide information to the Committee ahead of its review of Greece’s compliance with the Convention. We recommend that the Committee members ask the Greek government to provide information that demonstrates how its legal and policy reforms have contributed to concrete improvements in the treatment of migrants generally, as well as asylum seekers, unaccompanied migrant children, and other vulnerable groups.

We strongly believe that sustained monitoring and pressure on the Greek government by the UN and other rights bodies are crucial to ensure that the rights of groups that are at higher risks, such as persons with disabilities and migrants, are fully respected.

Detention of Unaccompanied Migrant Children

Asylum-seeking and migrant children who are unaccompanied are often detained while authorities search for shelter facilities for them. A lack of shelter space has led to the prolonged detention of children in police station cells, pre-removal centers, and hotspots on the island. Detained children are forced to live in unsanitary conditions, often alongside adults they do not know, and can be abused and ill-treated by police. Children are often unable to receive medical treatment, psychological counselling, education, or legal aid. Few even know why they’re detained or how long they will be behind bars and have little chance of challenging their detention.[1] Such practices are inconsistent with articles 11 and 16 of the Convention.

These practices are also inconsistent with the principle of respect for the best interests of children. Emphasizing “the harm inherent in any deprivation of liberty and the negative impact that immigration detention can have on children’s physical and mental health and on their development,” the Committee on the Rights of the Child has called in its Joint General Comment Nos. 4/23 for any deprivation of liberty based on a child’s migration status to be “prohibited by law and its abolishment ensured in policy and practice.”[2]

In two separate rulings, the first issued at the end of February 2019 and the second in June, the European Court of Human Rights condemned Greece for the abusive practice of detaining unaccompanied children in police stations. In both cases, the court ruled that the detention in police stations of the children violated their right to liberty, and that conditions there exposed them to degrading treatment.[3] We are particularly concerned with the fact that since the February 2019 ruling, incidents of such detention have increased, suggesting that the government is not taking reasonable steps to address it.[4]

The detention of unaccompanied children due to a shortage of sufficient and adequate accommodation is a chronic problem in Greece; a 2008 Human Rights Watch report called the routine detention of unaccompanied children “a fundamental dysfunction at the heart of the…Greek immigration and social welfare systems.” Human Rights Watch continued to document the detention of children in closed facilities on Greek islands in 2015 and 2016 and since then has monitored the situation closely.

According to the National Center for Social Solidarity (EKKA), the government authority responsible for managing the placement of unaccompanied children in shelters, as of May 31 there were 3,835 unaccompanied migrant children registered in Greece. According to the same data, an estimated 123 children were locked in police stations awaiting transfer. Hundreds of other unaccompanied children, EKKA reported, were held in special sections in the hotspots on the Greek islands, while over 1,000 have been reported as living in informal/insecure housing conditions such as living temporarily in apartments with others, living in squats, being homeless and moving frequently between different types of accommodation.[5]

Under a Greek law adopted in April 2016, unaccompanied children can be detained pending referral to a dedicated reception facility for a maximum of 25 days, though detention can be prolonged by a further 20 days if the child cannot be transferred to such a facility due to exceptional circumstances, such as a large number of arrivals of unaccompanied children. This law improves upon the previous framework, which provided no clear time limit, but does not provide the necessary safeguards to prevent unjustified prolonged detention.[6]

Human Rights Watch has found that children are often detained for longer than these already excessive periods.

We urge the Committee to call on the Greek government to:

  • End any practice of automatic detention of unaccompanied children as well as the deprivation of children’s liberty based solely on their migration status;
  • Make individual assessments of the needs of each child based on their best interests to determine arrangements for their care and protection;
  • Increase the number of spaces in existing long-term care facilities for unaccompanied children, create new facilities to the level required to ensure placements for all unaccompanied children in the country, while implementing the new national, government-run foster family system;
  • Ensure, while moving expeditiously to increase capacity in long-term care facilities and the foster family system, any period of “protective custody” in detention facilities is employed only in truly exceptional circumstances. In particular:
    • amend legislation to shorten significantly the maximum amount of time unaccompanied children may be detained in protective custody, and ensure that children are never detained in excess of the time permitted under law;
    • amend legislation to allow children to challenge the lawfulness of their detention with the assistance of a legal aid lawyer;
    • urgently improve detention conditions in police-run facilities and ensure that children in detention have access to interpretation services, information about the purpose of their detention, counseling, legal aid, and educational and recreational materials.

Treatment of Asylum Seekers in Northern Greece

During visits to three government-run centers holding asylum-seekers and migrants in Thessaloniki (Diavata) and at the land-border with Turkey in the Evros region (the Fylakio pre-removal detention center and the Fylakio Reception and Identification Center), in May 2018, Human Rights Watch found reception and detention conditions that we believe are inconsistent with Convention articles 10, 11, 12, 13 and 16.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 49 asylum seekers and migrants in the three facilities, as well as Greek authorities and facility personnel. 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.[7]

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.

Twelve women and two girls interviewed said they had been locked in cells or enclosures for weeks, and in one case for nearly five months, with men and boys they did not know. Four said they were the sole females confined with dozens of men, in some cases with at least one male partner or relative. Five women said they had severe psychological distress as a result, including two who had suicidal thoughts. Other women and girls said they experienced sleeplessness, anxiety, and other emotional and psychological distress, in part due to fear of confinement with unrelated men.[8]

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.[9]

Human Rights Watch researchers heard police at both facilities make derogatory comments about asylum seekers and migrants and address them aggressively.[10]  

We urge the Committee to:

  • Request specific information on the number of disciplinary and/or criminal investigations into law enforcement officials for allegations of ill-treatment of migrants in 2017, 2018 and 2019 across the country, as well as in the Evros region, and the number of cases in which sanctions have been imposed as well as the nature of these sanctions;
  • Call on the Greek government immediately to improve detention conditions at the Fylakio pre-removal detention center, and the Fylakio Reception and Identification Center (RIC), including by taking immediate steps to ensure:
    • sanitary, hygienic conditions and access to medical care, including reproductive and maternal health care;
    • the security and protection of women and children. Women traveling alone and unaccompanied children should have separate, secure sleeping areas, and families should be provided with secure sleeping, toilet, and bathing facilities separate from those for single men;
    • availability of trained male and female interpreters to allow for communication between facility staff and migrants and asylum seekers, including regarding health and protection concerns.
  • Take measures to mitigate risks for female migrants and asylum seekers in police-run facilities at the Evros region and at the Fylakio RIC, including providing separate, secure shelter and bathroom facilities, for those traveling without adult male family members, making female staff and female interpreters available.

Collective Expulsions

Since the Committee’s last review of Greece in 2012 and its recommendations to the Greek government to ensure full protection from refoulement, there has been mounting evidence documented by nongovernmental organizations that Greek border guards engage in collective expulsions and “pushbacks” of migrants and asylum seekers at the borders with Turkey, in some cases involving ill-treatment. Such practices are inconsistent with articles 3, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 16 of the Convention.

Increasing numbers of migrants, including asylum seekers from Turkey, have attempted to cross the Evros River, which forms a natural border between Greece and Turkey, since April 2018. A total of 18,014 people crossed through Evros in 2018, compared to 6,592 in 2017. Between January 1 and June 23, 2019, a total of 5,307 people had crossed the border via the Evros river, according to UNHCR data.[11]

Human Rights Watch interviewed 26 asylum seekers and other migrants in Greece in May 2018, and in Turkey in October and November 2018. They are from Afghanistan, Iraq, Morocco, Pakistan, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen, and include families traveling with children. They described 24 incidents of pushbacks across the Evros River from Greece to Turkey.[12]

The 24 incidents described demonstrate a pattern that points to an established and well-coordinated practice of pushbacks. Most of the incidents share three key features: initial capture by local police patrols, detention in police stations or informal locations close to the border with Turkey, and handover from identifiable law enforcement bodies to unidentifiable paramilitaries who would carry out the pushback to Turkey across the Evros River, at times violently.

Most incidents took place between April and November 2018. All of those interviewed reported hostile or violent behavior by Greek police and unidentified forces wearing uniforms and masks without recognizable insignia. Twelve said police or members of the unidentified forces accompanying the police stripped them of their possessions, including their money and personal identification, which were often destroyed. Seven said police or unidentified forces took their clothes or shoes and forced them back to Turkey in their underwear, sometimes at night in freezing temperatures.

Abuse included beatings with hands and batons, kicking, and, in one case, the use of what appeared to be a stun gun. In another case, a Moroccan man said a masked man dragged him by his hair, forced him to kneel on the ground, held a knife to his throat, and subjected him to a mock execution. Others pushed back include a pregnant 19-year-old woman from Afrin, Syria, and a woman from Afghanistan who said Greek authorities took away her two young children’s shoes.

Accounts gathered by Human Rights Watch are consistent with the findings of other nongovernmental groups, intergovernmental agencies, and media reports.[13] UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, has raised similar concerns.[14] In a June 2018 report, the Council of Europe’s (CoE) Committee for the Prevention of Torture said it has received “several consistent and credible allegations of pushbacks by boat from Greece to Turkey at the Evros River border by masked Greek police and border guards or (para-)military commandos.”[15] In November, the CoE human rights commissioner called on Greece to investigate allegations, in light of information pointing to “an established practice.”[16]

We urge the Committee to:

  • Request information on disciplinary and criminal investigations by Greek authorities into all recorded incidents of collective expulsions, pushbacks, ill-treatment on Greece’s land borders with Turkey, as well as about steps taken to end and prevent the recurrence of such incidents and ensure that all measures to identify irregular migrants at Greece’s land and sea borders with Turkey are conducted in full compliance with human rights and refugee law.

Asylum Seekers Trapped on the Aegean Islands

Since 2015, Human Rights Watch has conducted numerous research missions on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros, the locations where most asylum seekers enter Greece. We have consistently found that thousands of migrants and asylum seekers contained on the Aegean islands, most of them living in the so-called refugee “hotspots” (Reception and Identification Centers or RICs), face appalling reception conditions inconsistent with article 16 of the Convention.

Under a containment policy in place since the March 2016 EU-Turkey agreement, Greek authorities confine asylum seekers on the Aegean islands until their asylum claims are adjudicated, a process that can take months or even years. Members of vulnerable groups—including pregnant women, older people, unaccompanied children, single parents with children, victims of torture or sexual or gender-based violence, and people with disabilities—and people eligible to be reunited with family members already in the EU are supposed to be exempt from the policy, but delays in vulnerability assessment procedure and the lack of accommodation on the mainland mean thousands of eligible individuals and families remain trapped on the island for months.

In addition, Human Rights Watch has previously documented that many vulnerable groups fall through the cracks in the identification process, and that the lack of prompt transfers put vulnerable people, including people with invisible disabilities and children, at higher risk of abuse and violation of their rights.[17]

According to government data, by June 18, 2019 there were 16,840 asylum seekers on all five Aegean islands, with 13,253 living in the hotspot facilities designed to host at a maximum 6,438 people. At present, the situation is particularly critical in the hotspots on Samos and Lesbos, where as of June 18 a total of more than 8,843 people are living in facilities intended for just 3,748.[18] 

Human Rights Watch research has found hotspot facilities to be severely overcrowded most of the time, with significant shortages of basic shelter and unsanitary, unhygienic conditions. People with disabilities were often unable to access basic services, such as water, sanitation and hygiene facilities. Long lines for poor quality food, mismanagement, and lack of information contribute to a chaotic and volatile atmosphere.[19]

Human Rights Watch has also heard consistent accounts from residents in the hotspots of the police’s routine failure to protect people during frequent incidents of violence. Camp residents have said that fights occur daily, particularly in the food lines, with no police intervention.

Despite a police order that directs all police working with refugees and migrants to ensure protection and security for women and children, women and girls interviewed in November 2017 at the Moria hotspot, on Lesbos island, described pervasive sexual harassment and a persistent sense of insecurity, and said authorities are unresponsive to their complaints and do not take adequate action to ensure their safety.[20] 

Women in Moria described being sexually harassed routinely, particularly when going to and from or while using the camp bathrooms. Human Rights Watch found that bathrooms and showers do not have doors with working locks and/or adequate lighting, as per international standards on protection from and prevention of gender-based violence. Women and girls also said they feel particularly exposed to the threat of sexual violence during episodes of fighting between other migrants/asylum-seekers in the centers.[21]

Pregnant women also told Human Rights Watch about lack of medical care or support, such as appropriate shelter and extra blankets. For example, two women who were nine months pregnant were sleeping on the ground in tents. Neither woman had received comprehensive pre-natal medical care or had information about whom to contact when she went into labor or where she could deliver her baby.

These findings echo what dozens of other female asylum seekers and representatives of agencies that provide aid to migrants told Human Rights Watch about conditions in the Greek hotspots, citing harassment, the threat of gender-based violence, and health risks, during earlier visits in 2016 and 2017.

Throughout our research missions, we have also documented the deteriorating psychological and emotional wellbeing of asylum seekers and migrants—including incidents of self-harm, suicide attempts, aggression, anxiety, and depression—caused by the Greek policy of “containing” them on islands often in horrifying conditions.[22]

With severe overcrowding still persistent at this writing, there has been little or no improvement in the situation.

We urge the Committee to call on the Greek government to:

  • End the containment policy that exposes individuals to inhuman and degrading conditions, cease holding asylum seekers in camps on the Aegean Islands and transfer them to appropriate facilities or housing on the mainland, and ensure sufficient and adequate accommodation and services on the mainland;
  • Urgently improve living conditions for asylum seekers on the Aegean islands that exposes them to inhuman and degrading treatment and protect the health and safety of those who remain, including by ensuring accessible, adequate and secure shelter, safe drinking water and sanitation, an enabling environment for good hygiene, pre-natal, maternal and other necessary health care, and protection;
  • Ensure there is enough separate, secure shelter for all women and girls traveling alone, and separate, safe, secure, physically accessible, and hygienic toilets and bathing facilities that ensure privacy and dignity for men and women. Camp management should provide adequate lighting and identify and monitor high-risk areas;
  • Ensure all asylum seekers and migrants can access protection and services without discrimination;
  • Ensure that people with disabilities and other at-risk groups, including children, have equal access to assistance provided in refugee and migrant centers and camps—including water and sanitation services, food distribution, shelter, and health care including mental health and psychosocial support;
  • The Greek government should issue clear guidance to field staff on identifying and registering people with disabilities, including disabilities that are not readily identifiable, such as intellectual disabilities or mental health conditions;
  • In the long-term, the Greek authorities, with the support of the EU and the UNHCR, should end encampment for everyone and provide accommodation in the community. Living in camps can perpetuate the trauma of displacement and increase other critical protection risks, including physical and sexual violence and health concerns.

 

 

 

[1] Human Rights Watch report “Why Are You Keeping Me Here?”: Unaccompanied Children Detained in Greece, September 8, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/09/08/why-are-you-keeping-me-here/unaccompanied-children-detained-greece

[2] United Nations Committee for the Rights of the Child, Joint General Comment 4/23, para. 9 and para. 12, https://www.refworld.org/docid/5a12942a2b.html

[3] European Court of Human Rights, First Section, H.A. and Others vs. Greece, no. 19951/16, available in French at http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng?i=001-191278 (accessed on July 1, 2019), and European Court of Human Rights, First Section, SH.D. and Others vs. Greece, Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Northern Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia, no. 14165/16, available in French at http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng?i=001-193610 (accessed on July 1, 2019).

[4] Dispatch, Human Rights Watch, European Court Condemns Greece’s Migrant Kid Lockups, June 15, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/06/15/european-court-condemns-greeces-migrant-kid-lockups.

[5] National Center for Social Solidarity (E.K.K.A.), Situation Update: Unaccompanied Children (UAC) in Greece, May 31, 2019, https://data2.unhcr.org/en/documents/download/69915 (accessed on July 1, 2019).

[6] Law on the organization and operation of the Asylum Service, the Appeals Authority, the Reception and Identification Service, the establishment of the General Secretariat for Reception, the transposition into Greek legislation of the provisions of Directive 2013/32/EC, No. 4375 of 2016, http://www.refworld.org/docid/573ad4cb4.html (accessed July 1, 2019) art. 46(10)(b) (Law on Reception). Prior to the law’s enactment, in April 2016, there were no set time limits on detention of children in protective custody.

[7] Human Rights Watch report, Inhumane Conditions at Land Border: Pregnant Women, Others ‘At-Risk’ Lack Health Care, Support, July 27, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/07/27/greece-inhumane-conditions-land-border.

[8] Human Rights Watch report, Greece: Asylum-Seeking Women Detained with Men: Urgently End Dangerous Detention Conditions, June 7, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/06/07/greece-asylum-seeking-women-detained-men.

[9] Human Rights Watch report, Inhumane Conditions at Land Border: Pregnant Women, Others ‘At-Risk’ Lack Health Care, Support, July 27, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/07/27/greece-inhumane-conditions-land-border.

[10] Ibid.

[11] UNHCR, Mediterranean Situation Website, https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean/location/5179 (accessed July 1, 2019).

[12] Human Rights Watch report, Greece: Violent Pushbacks at Turkey Border: End Summary Returns, Unchecked Violence, December 18, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/12/18/greece-violent-pushbacks-turkey-border.

[13] See a few examples: Greek Council of Refugees report, The new normality: Continuous push-backs of third country nationals on the Evros river, no date, https://www.gcr.gr/en/news/press-releases-announcements/item/1028-the-new-normality-continuous-push-backs-of-third-country-nationals-on-the-evros-river (accessed July 1, 2019); The New Humanitarian, An open secret: Refugee pushbacks across the Turkey-Greece border, October 8, 2018, https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/special-report/2018/10/08/refugee-pushbacks-across-turkey-greece-border-Evros (accessed July 1, 2019).

[14] UNHCR Report, Desperate Journeys, Refugees and migrants arriving in Europe and at Europe’s borders, January – December 2018, https://www.unhcr.org/desperatejourneys/ (accessed July 1, 2019).

[15] Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture, Preliminary observations made by the delegation of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) which visited Greece from 10 to 19 April 2018, Strasbourg June 1, 2018, https://rm.coe.int/16808afaf6 (accessed July 1, 2019).

[16] Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Report of the  Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe  Dunja Mijatović Following Her Visit to Greece from 25 to 29 June 2018, Strasbourg, 6 November 2018, https://rm.coe.int/report-on-the-visit-to-greece-from-25-to-29-june-2018-by-dunja-mijatov/16808ea5bd (accessed July 1, 2019).

[17] Human Rights Watch report, EU/Greece: Pressure to Minimize Numbers of Migrants Identified As ‘Vulnerable’, June 1, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/06/01/eu/greece-pressure-minimize-numbers-migrants-identified-vulnerable.

[18] Ministry of Digital Policy, Telecommunications and Media, National Situational Picture Regarding the Islands at Easter Aegean Sea (18/06/2019), 19 June 2019 http://mindigital.gr/index.php/προσφυγικό-ζήτημα-refugee-crisis/4015-national-situational-picture-regarding-the-islands-at-eastern-aegean-sea-18-06-2019 (accessed July 1, 2019).

[19] Human Rights Watch report, Greece: Refugee “Hotspots” Unsafe, Unsanitary, Women, Children Fearful, Unprotected; Lack Basic Shelter, May 19, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/05/19/greece-refugee-hotspots-unsafe-unsanitary; Human Rights Watch report, Greece: Dire Conditions for Asylum Seekers on Lesbos, Mainland Space Shortage Bars Transfer of Vulnerable People, November 21, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/11/21/greece-dire-conditions-asylum-seekers-lesbos.

[20] Human Rights Watch report, Greece: Dire Risks for Women Asylum Seekers - In Lesbos Camp, Neglect Threatens Women’s, Girls’ Safety, Health, December 15, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/12/15/greece-dire-risks-women-asylum-seekers.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Human Rights Watch report, EU/Greece: Asylum Seekers’ Silent Mental Health Crisis - Identify Those Most at Risk; Ensure Fair Hearings, July 12, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/07/12/eu/greece-asylum-seekers-silent-mental-health-crisis.