25th Sep 2023

Greece faces possible court over 'prison-like' EU-funded migration centres

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A European Commission threat to take Greece to court over asylum violations may involve EU-funded centres.

Although details of the individual cases remains under wraps, Greek media is reporting that the violations deal with detention at those centres, as well as access to social benefits for recognised refugees.

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  • Margaritis Schinas, third left, cutting the ribbon at the EU-funded "closed control access centre" in Kos (Photo: European Union, 2021)

The European Commission declined to provide any insights into the cases, when pressed.

But five of the centres are located on the Greek islands, while another three are on the Greek mainland, including one near the Evros land border with Turkey.

"The island facilities are funded by the EU and Greece also receives funding for the rest of it indeed," said Minos Mouzourakis, legal officer at the Greek-based NGO, Refugee Support Aegean.

EU law says detention should only be used as a last resort. But Greek authorities are said to be de-facto detaining asylum seekers at the centres while carrying out medical checks, fingerprints, among other things.

Evelien van Roemburg, Oxfam EU head of office, described them as prison-like.

"There's so many ways in which those centres are really a problem. And that's an understatement," she said.

Van Roemburg is referring to EU-funded closed control access centres, which are surrounded by barb-wire fences, surveillance cameras, and fingerprint scanning at gates.

The EU-financed five of them for €276m, spread out on the Greek islands of Leros, Lesvos, Kos, Chios and Samos. The first such centre opened on the Greek island of Samos and was billed by both European and Greek authorities as safe and dignified.

Margaritis Schinas, the European Commissioner in charge of "Promoting our European Way of Life", had described the Kos facility opening in 2021 as historic.

"What's really adding insult to injury is that these are all funded by EU funds," said Van Roemburg. "So in that sense, the commission is also complicit in this, which makes all of this quite difficult, right?," she said.

Van Roemburg says they, along with other NGOs, have for years been pressing the European Commission to launch infringements against Greece.

The European Commission last week appears to have listened and threatened two cases against Greece for violations. Greece has until until 27 March to reply to the questions raised by the Commission.

The first deals with possible violations of the EU the reception conditions law and reportedly the de-facto detention at EU-funded facilities. The second deals with possible violations of the EU's qualification law.

Secondary movements

Greek media report that case concerns granting recognised refugees access to social welfare.

EU law requires member states to guarantee access to social welfare under the same condition as nationals. But refugees in Greece require a minimum residence period of five years for some benefits and up to 12 years for others.

It means recently recognised refugees would be excluded from such benefits. The lack of access may force some to then seek help in other EU states.

Once found out, they sometimes cannot be sent back to Greece.

Court rulings in Germany and The Netherlands, for instance, have faulted Greek standards for refugees when it comes to integration and access to rights.

A handful of EU states have since been complaining about so-called secondary movements from Greece, whereby asylum seekers and refugees leave the country to settle elsewhere in Europe.

Among them are ministers from Germany, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

All six had in 2021, in a joint letter to the European Commission, complained about "a rapid increase" in the number of people "travelling with their Greek travel documents for refugees."

Earlier this week, European Commission president Von der Leyen said that there is an increasing number of secondary movement.

She also noted that efforts to curtail to secondary movements requires more solidarity from the EU states.

In operational terms, it means EU states need to relocate asylum seekers from so-called frontline countries like Greece and Italy.

But such efforts have been given short shrift, with the EU leaders preferring instead to shore up external borders with more walls and surveillance.

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