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17th Apr 2021

EU complicit in Greek abuse of migrants, watchdog says

EU border agency Frontex and member states sending staff and equipment to Greece are complicit in the degrading treatment of migrants seized on the Greek-Turkish border, Human Rights Watch has said in a fact-finding report released on Wednesday (21 September).

"The human rights abuses we have witnessed are not the sole responsibility of Greece, but also of EU and other European states - such as Norway - participating in the Frontex mission on the Greek-Turkish border," Jan Egeland from Human Rights Watch told reporters in Brussels presenting the report.

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  • Migrants kept in the Tychero detention centre asked HRW to be photographed (Photo: hrw.org)

Carried out during November 2010 and February 2011 when the EU Rapid Border Intervention Team (Rabit) was deployed to help stem an increase in irregular crossings, the HRW visits to detention centres and police stations in north-eastern Greece saw appalling conditions that migrants are kept in for weeks and months after being caught by the joint patrols.

In the town of Tychero, for instance, some three kilometres away from the Turkish border, 130 migrants were held in two storage rooms of a former train station meant to host maximum 48 persons. They were "sleeping on pieces of cardboard or directly on the concrete floor" and had to "urinate in bottles as they had no access to toilets."

One 14-year old Eritrean boy held in Fylakio, another town near the border, had already spent 26 days in detention, sharing one bed with five other people and sleeping in shifts. Water was scarce and food was only for the "strong ones," according to another detainee who noted that Greek guards "don't care if we kill each other over food." Regular beatings and racist comments are reportedly also part of the treatment meted out to migrants. "I am originally from a land of war, but I never saw suffering like I see here," said an Iraqi detainee in Tychero.

In HRW's view, Frontex and member states contributing to the mission are "equally responsible" for the abuses carried out by the Greek authorities, as they tolerate them for the sake of "securing the common border."

"Treatment of migrants and minorities are a test of how European governments are protecting fundamental rights. When 175 EU border guards come with vans, thermo-visual cameras, helicopters and help the Greeks transfer these migrants to filthy, overcrowded cells, where sewage is running on the floors and there are no beds to sleep on, it is not only Greece failing the test, but also the EU and other Schengen states," Egeland said.

EU commission spokesman Michele Cercone on Wednesday said Frontex' hands were tied, since the Greek government was the only authority deciding on where and how the migrants should be kept.

"Neither Frontex, nor officers from other member states have control over the operations in Greece. They are under Greek command and cannot be held responsible for the conditions in the Greek detention centres," he stated.

He added that the commission has repeatedly told Greek authorities to upgrade its detention centres and to build new ones or transform abandoned military bases. But Athens so far has done virtually nothing in that respect, despite millions of euros from the bloc's border assistance funds.

"We are very frustrated with the slowness of improvement of detention conditions. Commissioner Malmstrom has sent a letter and started infringement procedures for the non-respect of human rights in detention centres," Cercone noted.

The HRW report also documents the crucial role Frontex plays in determining who walks free after being captured and who has to spend weeks and even months in detention, pending an extradition request.

"Even though Frontex is not formally a decision maker, in practice it appears that guest officers deployed with Frontex were indeed making de facto decisions on the ground in Evros as they were involved in extensive activities, including the apprehension of migrants and in making nationality-determination recommendations that were, in effect, rubber- stamped by the Greek authorities," the report says.

Nationality determination is important because Greece cannot deport nationals from certain countries - Afghanistan, Somalia or Pakistan, for instance. Such people are usually released within several days and ordered to leave the country within 30 days. But those people coming from countries with whom Greece has extradition agreements must be deported and are held in police custody for up to several months.

Given the tremendous backlog in asylum claims, Greek police often advise potential refugees not to file for asylum, since it would mean an even longer detention period. A 17-year-old boy from Syria kept in Fylakio told HRW that despite persecution in his home country he would not apply for refugee status because police warned him it would prolong his detention.

Frontex chief Ilkka Leitinen declined any responsibility for the detentions in Greece. "Frontex fully respects and strives for promoting fundamental rights in its border control operations which, however, do not include organisation of, and responsibility for, detention on the territory of the member states, which remains their exclusive remit," he said in a statement.

He also warned against following the HRW recommendation to suspend the Frontex mission until Greek authorities can provide decent facilities.

"We continue to stress that at the practical level abandoning emergency support operations such as Rabit 2011 is neither responsible, nor does it do anything to help the situation of irregular migrants on the ground," he said.

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