(Athens) – Greek authorities have denied at least 625 people who arrived on the island of Lesbos between March 1 and 18, 2020 the right to seek asylum, Human Rights Watch said today.
The authorities are detaining 189 new arrivals on the island of Lesbos in unacceptable conditions. The other 436 were transported to a closed center in Malakassa, north of Athens, in conditions that are as yet unknown. On March 1, the Greek government suspended access to asylum for 30 days for people irregularly entering the country.
“For up to two weeks, the authorities have been holding women, men, and children – many of them fleeing war and persecution – in the open in cold temperatures, denying their right to seek asylum and preventing them from getting the humanitarian and legal assistance they need and are entitled to,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Greece may be facing challenges on many fronts, from the coronavirus to a surge in arrivals, but it does not mean it can suspend fundamental rights or humane treatment.”
The authorities have been holding the migrants and asylum seekers in three locations in northern Lesbos and at Mytilene harbor, and have prevented journalists from speaking with them. The March 1 decision calls for immediately deporting new arrivals “where possible, to their countries of origin” or to transit countries, such as Turkey, without registering them.
On March 17 the government, ostensibly as part of its response to the COVID-19 virus, announced that they are planning to transfer those detained and others who arrived on the islands after March 1 to closed facilities on Greece’s mainland. On March 14, a Greek naval vessel transferred 436 migrants to a closed camp in Malakassa, north of Athens, pending their return to Turkey, local media reported.
On February 27, the Turkish government announced that Turkey would no longer stop asylum seekers and migrants from leaving Turkish territory to reach the European Union. As thousands began congregating on Turkey’s border with Greece seeking to enter the EU, Greece’s National Security Council announced the March 1 decision. Aid workers at two organizations on Lesbos confirmed that the authorities have not allowed anyone who has arrived since March 1 to apply for asylum. The authorities plan to transfer the new arrivals on Lesbos by boat to the mainland on March 20, local media reported. In addition to the 189 new arrivals on Lesbos, asylum seekers have also arrived on other Aegean Islands like Chios, Leros, Samos, Kos, and Kea.
Since their arrival the Greek Coast Guard and police have restricted the movement of new migrants and kept guard over them in de facto detention in inhumane conditions. Five witnesses and an aid worker said that a group of 42 people, including at least 15 children, arrived by boat to Lesbos on March 5 in an area called Aghios Dimitrios. As of March 19, the Greek Coast Guard and police were still detaining them there, in the garden of a nearby chapel. One witness saw the group as they arrived on the beach, “They were cold and wet, standing together by the road, frightened and holding onto their children,” he said. Witnesses said that authorities provided the new arrivals with two large tents, but that there was not enough room for the whole group to sleep inside. The witnesses did not see any toilets, showers, or even access to running water. UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, and the authorities appeared to be providing them with food, water, and blankets. The aid worker said that as far as she knew, the migrants did not have access to medical screening or any other medical assistance.
The witnesses described seeing the arrival of two other groups, who were also given this limited assistance. Two saw a group of 24 arrive by boat near the town of Molyvos on March 12. Three witnesses and the aid worker said that on March 13, another 24 people including at least three children, also arrived by boat in Cape Korakas, near the village of Klio. They saw the new arrivals camped behind a small chapel in the village, where the Coast Guard and police were still guarding them as of March 19.
The witnesses said that on the various days they visited the areas, they saw the Greek Coast Guard and police guarding the area, preventing the migrants from moving elsewhere. The witnesses said most of the migrants appeared to be Afghan or Syrian. With the exception of some interviews with the first group on March 5, the police prevented journalists from interviewing the migrants, the witnesses said.
Four witnesses and an aid worker said that a group of 99 migrants, including a girl using a wheelchair and a boy who was unable to walk without support, arrived in other areas of the island and are being held at Mytilene Harbor. The witnesses saw them living in two public transport buses, with minimal hygiene facilities. One witness saw an older man asking a police officer if he could go to a hospital, but did not know if the request was granted. Two lawyers who had obtained information about the groups at Mytilene Harbor and in the north said they understood that one person was on dialysis, some women were pregnant, and there were several unaccompanied children.
Greece has the right to control its borders and manage crossings into the country but is bound by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which guarantees the right to seek asylum. Denying people access to asylum is inhumane and illegal. It may violate the fundamental principle of non-refoulement, the prohibition on returning refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they are liable to face persecution or serious violations of their rights.
Arbitrary detention is prohibited under international and European human rights law as well as in Greek law. While irregular migrants may be detained for limited periods pending lawful removal, decisions on removal have to be made following individualized determinations, and not blanket application of policy. On March 13, the EU commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson, said that people who arrived in Greece in March should have the right to apply for asylum and should not be returned without an individual decision and that Greece should respect the principle of non-refoulement.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, international human rights law requires any restrictions on rights for reasons of public health or national emergency to be lawful, necessary, and proportionate as well as nondiscriminatory.
Greece should immediately reverse its March 1 decision to suspend access to asylum for a month for people irregularly entering the country and to deport them. The European Commission should urge Greece to reinstate asylum procedures for people irregularly entering Greece in line with EU and international law and press the Greek authorities to ensure that new arrivals are not detained arbitrarily. It should tie its support for border management to Greece to its commitment to guarantee the right to seek asylum. It should ensure that all measures it undertakes to combat COVID-19 are applied in a nondiscriminatory manner.
Migrant women, men, and children should be housed in facilities with adequate and hygienic conditions and allowed to apply for asylum. Any healthcare needs should be promptly addressed.
“People will continue to arrive on the Greek islands and the authorities should not keep them in the open in poor and unhygienic conditions, barred from the asylum system,” Wille said. “Such policies are abusive and illegal.”