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A Syrian man reads inside his tent at a makeshift camp outside Moria on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, May 5, 2018. © 2019 AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris

(Athens) – Greece’s recently announced border control plans for the Aegean islands should not come at the expense of asylum seeker and migrant rights, Human Rights Watch said today. The government has said it will relocate 20,000 asylum seekers from overcrowded reception centers on the islands to the mainland by early 2020, but then transform the island reception facilities into detention centers.

“The government’s pledge to transfer thousands of people quickly out of overcrowded and inhumane conditions on the islands is right, but locking up everyone else is not,” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Greece should ensure adequate conditions in open reception facilities on the islands and a fair, efficient process for regular transfer to avoid chaotic, unsafe overcrowding.”

The situation on the Greek islands is at its worst since the government in 2016 forced almost all asylum seekers arriving from Turkey to remain on the islands. By November 24, 2019, camps on 5 Aegean islands (Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Kos, and Leros) with an official capacity of 6,178 people were housing 35,590. Thousands of women, men, and children sleep in makeshift shelters in and around official facilities in conditions that are inhumane and degrading, often without adequate water, access to health care, and sanitation.

During a visit to Lesbos in mid-October, Human Rights Watch found asylum seekers and migrants living in tents in Moria camp’s open areas, including pregnant women and families with small children, some of whom had been there for over three weeks. Women said that toilets are unsanitary, unsafe, and far away. People interviewed also said that they often wait in line for hours for each meal, and were then sometimes told there was no more food.

Human Rights Watch found hundreds of unaccompanied children and many single women, including pregnant women and women with medical conditions, sleeping on the ground without shelter and exposed to inhumane living conditions, including overcrowding, lack of sanitation, and frequent incidents of violence due to lack of space in dedicated sections. They have little or no access to health care, protection, or specialized services.

Children said they had no information about their situation, what would happen to them, whether they had an appointed guardian as required by law, or any information about the asylum process. Even within the camp’s boundaries, women and girls told us they feel restricted in their movements and access to toilets, bathing facilities, and food distribution, and do not feel safe due to sexual harassment and outbreaks of violence.

The plan to convert the Aegean islands’ camps into detention facilities raises serious concerns, Human Rights Watch said. Under the plan, announced on November 20, the camps on all five islands would become detention centers for identification, processing, and deportation. The Lesbos, Chios, and Samos centers would have a capacity of at least 5,000 people each. Asylum seekers would remain deprived of their liberty until they are admitted to the regular asylum process or granted protection, and transferred to the mainland, or their claim is rejected and they are returned to Turkey or to their country of origin.

The blanket detention of all asylum seekers and migrants arriving on the Greek islands in closed facilities would be unjustified given the possibility of less restrictive options and the lack of individual assessment of the need for detention, and would amount to arbitrary detention, Human Rights Watch said.

Detaining asylum seekers in relatively remote locations would also be detrimental to their ability to pursue their asylum claims, including access to legal advice and representation. On Samos, for instance, the current camp is near the town of Vathy, where nongovernmental groups provide legal support, but the authorities reportedly plan to relocate the detention center to a remote site that includes a former slaughterhouse.

In 2016, when the European Union (EU) - Turkey deal to facilitate the return to Turkey of people arriving by boat to the Greek islands came into force, camps on the islands were turned into closed facilities where asylum seekers were detained in deplorable conditions. Vulnerable people who were detained, such as children, pregnant women, and people with disabilities, faced particular hardships. The detention centers were converted into open camps where people were free to enter and leave a few months later.

These measures are part of a broader package that includes plans to increase border surveillance, speed processing of asylum claims, and increased returns of migrants to their countries of origin or transit. Since the EU - Turkey deal came into force in 2016, Greece has returned 1,806 people to Turkey. 

In October, Greece’s parliament approved tougher asylum rules, making it easier to detain asylum seekers for longer periods, scrapping important protections for vulnerable people, including unaccompanied children, and introducing numerous procedural changes that impede access to a fair asylum process and compromise the right of appeal. These rules will enter into force on January 1, 2020.

According to a report by the European Court of Auditors, Greece has received 2.2 billion Euros from the EU to support the reception and processing of asylum seekers and migrants since 2015.

The Greek government should move swiftly to transfer people from the islands to adequate, open facilities on the mainland. In the meantime, the authorities should urgently address the insecurity, lack of sanitation, and gaps in health care and in specific protection measures for children and women traveling alone in the camps.

Instead of automatically detaining people for potentially unjustifiable periods, the Greek authorities should ensure humane living conditions, in line with international and EU standards for reception, protection, security, health, and sanitation, in the open camps.

The European Commission should remind Greece that asylum seekers should not be detained without evidence that detention is necessary for each detained individual and for a legitimate purpose or reason set out in law, that detention should be as short as possible, and that children should never be detained for immigration-related purposes. The European Commission should ensure that none of its support for migration and border management finances closed facilities and arbitrary detention on the Greek islands.

“With winter fast approaching, and thousands of people living in extremely unsafe conditions, transfers to the mainland could be a matter of life or death,” Cossé said. “Those kept on the islands should be treated with dignity and given access to essential services and support for asylum seekers and migrants, not treated as prisoners.”

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