Blog post by Meena Masood (Queen Mary University of London) and forms part of a series of blog posts examining the implementation of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.
The Greek response to the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) mentions no existing or potential gaps, spaces for improvement or challenges in the implementation of laws and regulations. It states “at this stage, policy gaps and opportunities in relation to all 23 objectives are being identified”. It is surprising that after chronic systemic challenges in their migration response, Greece has yet to identify challenges despite wide-ranging media and scholarly coverage of gaps and shortfalls. Focusing specifically on Objectives 8, 15 and 21 of the GCM, the following analysis will be centred on asylum seekers’, refugees’, and migrants’ access to basic services. In addition to accusations of pushbacks and the increasingly hostile environment for NGOs and civil society organisations. Asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants face serious obstacles accessing basic services which breaches their national and international rights. Asylum seekers’ rights are further breached due to violent pushbacks. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation on the ground has resulted in the perfect storm. Ultimately, this post will demonstrate how Greece fails to adequately recognise, mention, or address critical gaps.
Access to Basic Services
Objective 15 of the GCM states “We commit to ensure that all migrants, regardless of their migration status, can exercise their human rights through safe access to basic services”. Focusing on access to accommodation and healthcare as two of the upmost basic services, this section will detail the serious obstacles faced by asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants across Greece.
Accommodation sites, commonly referred to as camps, which shelter asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants are inadequate. This is especially true for the Reception and Identification Centres in hotspots. They are inadequate primarily due to overcrowding, and the consequent shortage of facilities. For instance, on Lesvos conditions in the newly established Mavrovouni site are highly lacking, much like its predecessor site. The new site is built on an old firing range, as a result residents risk lead exposure. Human Rights Watch (HRW) detailed that “the Greek government knowingly built a migrant camp on a firing range and then turned a blind eye to the potential health risks for residents and workers there”. Beyond this, residents lack adequate facilities such as running water, electricity, or heating. The situation in other hotspots are similarly dire as sites are multiple times above their intended capacities. On the mainland, the situation is not especially better. For instance, recognised refugees face challenges accessing accommodation due to the “Exit” procedure. In 2019, the government passed a new law to reduce congestion in accommodation centres. This process, commonly referred to as the “Exit” process, requires recognised refugees to leave sites after a certain period upon receiving their positive asylum decision. Refugees recognised as “especially vulnerable” can receive extensions, nevertheless, all must vacate the sites. In light of a lack of alternative accommodation, thousands are left homeless and in dire conditions. In an open letter to the government, local and international NGOs and civil society organisations stressed that “ultimately, there is a critical absence of a long-term sustainable strategy for integration and inclusion in Greece that results in increased homelessness and destitution for many”. Access to accommodation for irregular migrants, that is people who lack formal legal status allowing residence, is especially problematic as they cannot qualify for state housing. Nor do they qualify for housing schemes provided by organisations, such as UNHCR, which are targeted towards regularised migrants.
According to Greek national laws and regulations, migrants, including asylum seekers, should have access to healthcare, especially primary healthcare. Yet there are chronic challenges hindering access to healthcare including medication. Access was especially hampered after the government’s move to limit asylum seekers access to the Greek social security number (AMKA). Instead they introduced the Provisional Insurance and Healthcare Number (PAAYPA). PAAYPA is a provisional security number with which asylum seekers can access, amongst other things, the national healthcare system. Note irregular migrants cannot access such systems, hence their access is particularly hindered and they are forced to rely on NGOs to provide them with basic healthcare. The transfer from AMKA to PAAYPA was far from smooth. From November 2019, after the government announced that asylum seekers could no longer access AMKA, till April 2020, when PAAYPA was activated, asylum seekers’ access to healthcare was extremely limited. In a notable move, in December 2019 the Greek Ombudsman called on authorities to respond to the gap in order to comply with national legal requirements. Today there continue to be issues with the implementation of PAAYPA. For instance, asylum seekers have reported that their PAAYPA appears invalid when they try to access hospitals or free medicines in pharmacies, as a result they are unable to access healthcare and medications.
Access to mental healthcare systems is also problematic. This is partly due to the aforementioned issues. Moreover, mental health services in Greece are generally limited, including for nationals. Non-Greek speakers face further obstacles due to a chronic lack of interpretation and cultural mediation services in the healthcare sector. The dire conditions in camps, especially in the hotspots, worsens mental health conditions and exacerbates pre-existing conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Accordingly, access to healthcare has been dubbed a “luxury”.
COVID-19: The Perfect Storm
In reference to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the Greek response to the GCM details that authorities have “taken all the necessary steps in order to safeguard the rights of third country citizens, legally residing in Greece, by extending the validity of respective residence titles […] or residency permit”. The extension of residency documentation has been a necessary though small step. More generally, the pandemic has highlighted and worsened asylum seekers’ and refugees’ limited access to essential services. As mentioned, accommodation sites are severely overcrowded and lack adequate facilities. Consequently, there are fears that sites are the perfect ground for the spread of the virus. Yet, instead of addressing the multitude of issues, such as the lack of proper hygiene facilities, the authorities have implemented discriminatory restrictions. Lockdowns in sites have lasted much longer than in the general population despite a lack of coronavirus cases and deaths in sites. Greece has failed to follow requirements outlined by national health authorities and the World Health Organisation. This is recognised by HRW who detailed that “Greek authorities have not done enough […] to limit the spread of Covid-19 in camps”. Furthermore, the vaccination roll out for asylum seekers and migrants has been challenging. Until recently, they were not included in the roll out plan. Vaccinations have now started, though months after the national roll out.
The pandemic, and the consequent restrictions, have also hindered access to other basic services such as education. All asylum-seeking children are legally required by Greek national law to attend public school, both primary and secondary school, within three months from their registration. Yet practically, asylum seeking children in Greece do not have adequate access to the public-school system. Instead many rely on NGOs for educational activities, especially in the hotspots. An open letter addressed to Greek and EU authorities, detailed that “for the past six years it has not been possible to guarantee smooth and unimpeded access to education for asylum seeking children. As a result, the majority of these children have been deprived of one of their fundamental rights”. This is due to multiple issues, such as the, at times, discriminatory lockdowns, a lack of facilities and technologies to support online learning, in addition to challenges in certain localities such as a lack of transportation, understaffing in schools, xenophobic sentiments from locals and school administrators which have prevented children from registering and attending school. Crucially, children faced chronic and systematic challenges accessing public education long before the pandemic.
According to Objectives 8 and 21 of the GCM, Greece commits to “Develop procedures and agreements on search and rescue of migrants, with the primary objective of protecting migrants’ right to life, that uphold the prohibition of collective expulsion, guarantee due process and individual assessments” and “to facilitate and cooperate for safe and dignified return”. This is in stark contrast to the accusations of pushback against the Greek state and authorities which have not been addressed at all. Greece does, however, stress that they will “intensify efforts towards a more effective response to migrant smuggling” while emphasising the “management of our national border, which are also the European Union’s external borders, in an integrated, secure, and coordinated manner”. The details of this are unclear. What is clear, however, are the allegations and accusations of illegal pushback on land and sea by Greek authorities from Greece to Turkey. This includes, at times, from deep within Greek territory, for instance in Thessaloniki, located 400 kilometres from the border with Turkey.
In a new report, Amnesty International documents violent pushbacks in the Evros region, in northern Greece. The report details that “the use of pushbacks by Greece cannot be considered as a response to exceptional events or the actions of rogue actors. Rather it is a de facto policy of border management that relies on the coordinated efforts of multiple authorities”. Similarly, a recent lawsuit filed by the NGO Legal Centre Lesvos at the European Court of Human Rights alleges the Greek state took part in coordinated illegal and violent pushbacks. The lawsuit is centred on an incident in October 2020 which involved a fishing boat headed to Italy from Turkey carrying approximately 200 people. After the boat came into distress during a storm near the Greek island of Crete, assistance was requested from Greek authorities. It is alleged that the fishing boat was boarded by the Greek coastguard and men wearing balaclavas. People on board were searched and their belongings confiscated before some were beaten up. Consequently, they were forcibly placed on motor-less small life rafts, taken to Turkish waters and left behind without food or water, or any other form of assistance. The group were eventually picked up by the Turkish coastguard. The whole incident lasted over 24 hours. The evidence put forward includes numerous testimonies from survivors, GPS locations, photographs and video footage.
Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, has also been embroiled in accusations of pushbacks. In February 2021 the European Parliament launched an inquiry into Frontex’s role in pushbacks. Recent research from HRW concluded that “In Greece, evidence has come to light since October 2020 that Frontex played an active role in concealing and supporting pushbacks of migrants at the land and maritime borders with Turkey”. As a result of mounting evidence, several organisations such as HRW, the International Organisation for Migration, and UNHCR, to name a few, have reported on the accusations and called on Greek and European authorities to conduct investigations. Accusations of pushbacks are not new, in 2015 HRW, amongst others, reported pushbacks involving Greek authorities on land and sea. Yet pushbacks are not mentioned at all in the Greek response, instead focus is placed on securing the border.
Pushbacks are being reported across the EU’s external border, with UNHCR stating that “pushbacks are carried out in a violent and apparently systemic way”. Recently, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants reported that “the practice of ‘pushbacks’ is widespread and exists along most migration routes”. He detailed that they had received several allegations of pushbacks against the Greek authorities. A new report details that between January – April 2021, over 2,000 people were illegally prevented from seeking international protection. Concerningly, “more than a third of the documented pushbacks involved rights violations such as denial of access to asylum procedure, physical abuse and assault, theft, extortion and destruction of property, at the hands of national border police and law enforcement officials”. Other blogs in this series have pointed to this, for instance, in Croatia. These accusations and allegations from across Europe and the lack of adequate response “raise important questions to the weight of the principle of non-refoulment”.
Greek authorities continue to deny accusations, in March of this year Minister for Migration and Asylum Notis Mitarachi stated “We strongly deny that the Greek coastguard has ever been involved in pushbacks” adding that accusations were “fake news” spread by smuggling networks who are losing out due to Greece’s crackdown on smuggling. This is while reports claim that “with no credible reason, Greek police obstructed the work of reporters covering pushbacks”. In a positive, though highly delayed, move for the first time the Greek Supreme Court Prosecutor’s Office has ordered an investigation into the allegations of illegal land and sea pushbacks dated from March 2020. Presently, there is no evidence to suggest that the numerous other cases will be investigated.
Crackdown on NGOs
The GCM states that signatories must adopt a “whole-of society approach” which “promotes broad multi-stakeholder partnerships […] by including migrants, diasporas, local communities, civil society, academia, the private sector, parliamentarians, trade unions, national human rights institutions, the media and other relevant stakeholders in migration governance”. Accordingly, Greece details that they “aim to increase the linkages between migration and policy development in the framework of a whole-of-government approach and to involve all relevant stakeholders in a well-organised whole-of-society approach”. However, on the ground there have been serious concerns regarding the criminalisation of solidarity and humanitarian work, in addition to the restriction of NGO work in Greece more generally, all of which has created a hostile environment. For example, in one case two humanitarians working with a Greek search and rescue NGO, spent over 100 days in pretrial detention having been accused of a variety of serious crimes including espionage and being part of a criminal organisation. A number of NGOs and organisations, including Amnesty International, and members of the European parliament supported the two humanitarians, with HRW detailing how the accusations “appear no more than an effort to criminalise humanitarian activism”. The prosecution of individuals, including ordinary citizens and volunteers, on the grounds of facilitating illegal entry of migrants has increased not just in Greece but also in France and Italy. This is partly due to “gaps within the EU legal framework [which] seem to contribute to the increasing criminalisation of NGOs and volunteer[s] helping migrants”.
Furthermore, in April 2020, Greek authorities institutionalised an updated registration and certification procedure which introduced new administrative requirements for NGOs, including voluntary organisations, in an effort to ostensibly increase “transparency and accountability”. Numerous NGOs and civil society organisations have detailed their concerns that the changes create “disproportional barriers on the work of NGOs and impedes freedom of association”. There are several new requirements which hinder NGOs, especially smaller grassroots ones as the registration procedure is lengthy and costly. Importantly, the new requirements target organisations working with asylum seekers without any justification. Other NGOs are required to register; however, the requirements are less burdensome. Failure to comply effectively dissolves an NGO as they are no longer allowed to operate. This is highly concerning considering the situation on the ground in Greece. As mentioned, asylum seekers, refugees and migrants rely on NGOs for critical support, including medical support. Thus, the new requirements also threaten them albeit indirectly. The new requirements “risk undermining their [NGOs’] independence and further shrink[s] the space for civil society, particularly for organizations that act to defend the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers”. This is in line with the increasingly hostile environment for asylum seekers, refugees and migrants, and NGOs across Europe, including Greece.
On paper there are national and international laws and regulations to ensure asylum seekers and migrants access to essential services, in addition to protecting them against illegal and violent pushbacks. For instance, the EU’s Reception Conditions Directive ensures these groups’ access to basic services. Hence, in their response to the GCM, Greece states “migration policy, which is already fully harmonized with relevant EU acquis, is also aligned with the guiding principles of the GCM”. However, these laws and regulations are rarely being implemented in practice or their implementation has proved challenging due to various issues. This reality is not addressed in the response to the GCM. It is telling that Greece chose to remain silent on these issues when evidently there are large and systemic problems. These issues, though worsened by the pandemic, are chronic shortfalls.
It is doubtful that the next response to the GCM will meaningfully detail and address the aforementioned issues and the numerous other problems related to Greece’s migration response. Considering the lack of enforcement powers of the GCM and the fact that it is not legally binding, this is not surprising. Human rights laws which the GCM is founded upon are legally binding, nevertheless, the problems and breaches of asylum seekers’, refugees’ and migrants’ rights continue. The GCM and Greece’s response pay lip service to pre-existing human rights laws. This is evident when the GCM is compared to the European Pact on Migration and Asylum. The Pact “risks exacerbating the focus on externalisation, deterrence, containment and return” as it “focus[es] mainly on border management rather than the rights of people in need of international protection”. In light of the Pact, it is intriguing how signatories of the GCM, such as Greece, will reconcile a commitment to “reduce the risks and vulnerabilities [of] migrants […] by respecting, protecting and fulfilling their human rights and providing them with care and assistance” with the Pact. The latter of which stresses “sealing borders and boosting returns” and tries to make “detention the norm and relies on deterrence, containment in camps and cooperation with abusive governments”.
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