Arbitrary transfers of refugees and migrants from Greece to Turkey need to be stopped amid the growing fears of human rights violations, but whether European Union leaders are heeding calls for reform isn’t at all clear.
The deportations of refugees and migrants from Greece to Turkey must be halted immediately and people wanting to seek asylum should not be kept in detention, said Oxfam, Norwegian Refugee Council and SolidarityNow in a joint intervention [15 April 2016] issued from Greece.
Refugees could be returned to Turkey without having had a proper asylum hearing or without receiving the necessary information about their legal rights, the aid agencies warned. Forced returns to Turkey were restarted after a pause last week. More than 6,300 refugees and migrants have arrived on the Greek islands since a hugely controversial EU-Turkey deal came into effect on 20 March. The displaced persons including women, children and frail survivors of the conflict in Syria are being arbitrarily held in detention camps. The majority of these new arrivals have applied for asylum. While the European Commission said on 4 April that Greece had sent 1,500 asylum case officers and police officers to the islands, there is no evidence of this additional capacity on the ground, according to the joint statement.
The Greek Asylum Service remains severely understaffed with only a handful of officials and caseworkers on the island to process cases, who are struggling to cope with the demand of asylum requests. Unless the promised additional capacity arrives, the quality of the asylum process will be severely compromised.
Compounding the pressure are new ‘emergency measures’ adopted into law by the Greek Government on 3 April, which includes an expedited ‘fast track’ asylum hearing to determine admissibility. Under these new procedures, Greek asylum officials must undertake complex asylum examinations, including decisions on whether or not Turkey is considered a safe country for return. These complex reviews that determine a person’s future take place in just one day.
Farah Karimi, Oxfam Executive Director said, “Thousands are being held in squalid detention centres on the Greek Islands – this is the state of Europe in 2016 – while the returns deal was pushed through to the detriment of these stranded suffering people by the EU which claims to be a bastion for human rights. Shame on the EU for prioritizing detention and deportation over people’s rights to safety and dignity.”
Even with the support of this promised extra staff, it will take weeks to process the asylum claims of the more than 6,300 people currently being held in overcrowded detention centres on the Greek islands.
Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council said, “It is shocking to see how Europe is mistreating men, women and children fleeing to our continent for protection from war and persecution. Asylum seekers are kept with migrants in overcrowded detention camps deprived of dignity and basic human
rights. Disgraceful conditions are placing people at risk. European politicians hold the keys to this crisis, and should immediately open the camps.”
The aid agencies report that living conditions in the detention centres are deteriorating rapidly with many people sleeping outdoors or in cramped shelters.
Epaminondas Farmakis, managing director of SolidarityNow said: “Europe can no longer look away from this inhumane situation in which people continue to risk their lives. It must ensure that the people on the move will live in open and secure structures as long as they remain in the country. It is more important, however, to immediately stop deportations to Turkey and to guarantee that these people can exercise their basic right- that of asylum.”
There remains no routine identification of vulnerable people and aid agencies report ongoing detention of children, pregnant women, people with disabilities and those with medical needs. In Lesbos and Chios, Pakistanis who perceive their treatment to be discriminatory have threatened to commit suicide.
There is, additionally, growing insecurity as a result of rising frustration and tensions. There have already been incidents of violence at night and women in particular are extremely vulnerable under such circumstances.
Aid agencies are calling on Europe to:
– Immediately halt all returns from Greece to Turkey.
– Immediately open all camps where people have expressed intention to seek asylum.
– Immediately improve security to ensure a protective environment for all people inside the closed facility.
– Maintain the integrity of the asylum claims process and ensure people have access to legal aid as a matter of urgency.
– Increase the number of staff working with the Greek Asylum Service on the islands to process these claims and ensure people are able to access their right to claim asylum before any deportation order is issued.
– Put an end to arbitrary arrests and detentions. The increasing use of detention as a restriction of the freedom of movement of asylum-seekers on the grounds of their irregular entry is a major concern.