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  • Rory O'Keeffe

Greece, EU, 'breaking international law' with policy of detaining refugees

Three October cases decided in refugees’ favour by the Administrative Court in Mytelline have cast doubt over the legality of Greek authorities to detain refugees.

In one case, noted here on 1 November, the court ruled that Greek police had been wrong to detain a Syrian man ‘to check his identification and details’ (not least because he had already given them his passport) and in the other two, the court ruled that it was unacceptable under Greek (it is also unacceptable under international) law to arrest and jail people solely because – as in this case – the Regional Asylum Office said they were applying for asylum only to delay or frustrate the procedure of being returned from Greece to Turkey.

Vassilis Kerasiotis, country director for HIAS Greece, which supported the refugees in taking each of the three cases, said: ‘This decision reinforces the fundamental rights of asylum seekers to challenge their detention by Greek authorities, we will continue to hold the government accountable to their legal obligations when it comes to protecting individuals feeling war and persecution.’

We should note that rulings like this are important because, while we cannot say there is a deliberate policy of jailing people simply for applying for refugee status or asylum, or indeed, simply on the grounds that they are refugees, the practice of jailing asylum seekers who seem to have committed no crime at all is common – and seems to be increasing – in all parts of Europe, Australia and other places.

At the same time, there is a clear (and often expressed) belief among the refugee community in Greece that they are being deliberately mistreated – often in ways that breaks national and international law – in order to discourage other desperate men, women and children from attempting to reach Greece, with the implication that this is how they, too, will be treated.

No direct, hard evidence has been produced to prove that this is the case. But Greece and the EU have consistently (by accident or design) mistreated refugees – including the astonishing failure to find any of them decent places to live in the first 15 months of the EU/Turkey Deal, and the failure to fail to find it for most of them even now – on the Aegean islands and Greek mainland.

Coupled with almost identical policies elsewhere in states which openly admit they want to ‘stop refugees’ from crossing their borders, and the EU’s repeated statements that refugees must be ‘discouraged from’ crossing to Europe from Turkey makes the ‘failures’ look a lot like policy:

Greek human rights and environmental protection ngo Aitma has added to the criticism, noting that despite demands from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and its own report, also issued in 2016, on ‘problems’ with administrative detention in Greece, the government has failed to make significant improvement and is:

  • detaining vulnerable groups of persons (such as unaccompanied minors, victims of torture and sick persons)

  • using prolonged detention, in spite of it being ineffective to attain its purpose, the alien’s removal

  • using inappropriate facilities for detention (Pre-Removal Aliens Detention Centre of Tavros, Police Stations)

  • providing inadequate medical-pharmaceutical care

  • failing to provide good conditions of hygiene in places of detention

  • not offering clothes and items of personal hygiene

  • not providing adequate equipment including heating/cooling devices and hot water

  • not providing interpreters

Its report ends: ‘In light of the above, we urge once more the competent authorities to use the findings and recommendations of the European Committee and of other civil society organisations as guiding tools for the harmonization of the detention conditions with the relevant legislation and international standards. Our country has absolutely no reason and no justification not to do so.’

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