By Laura Keen
A core tenet of Refugee Rights Europe’s work is to bring the voices of refugees and displaced people to the corridors of power. One way in which we do this is by submitting evidence from our first-hand field research to bodies like the United Nations, demonstrating the ways in which European states are failing to uphold human rights in their migration and asylum policies. In advance of Greece’s periodic review as a party to the Convention against Torture[i], Refugee Rights Europe, along with partner organisations, submitted evidence to the Committee on the situation for asylum seekers and refugees in Greece. [ii] It included detailed accounts from 12 other aid groups and NGOs working on the frontlines of the humanitarian crisis on mainland Greece and the Islands. These organisations are familiar with the reality of life within the labyrinthine and often inhumane asylum system in place there. Ensuring the Committee heard testimony from them and the vulnerable individuals they serve was of critical importance to us.
Last week, we traveled to Geneva to present to the Committee members in person and to observe the questioning and response of the Greek delegation. Our trip began with a private meeting with Committee members and five other civil society organizations. To the group of experts on torture we raised concerns about alarming reports of ill-treatment by the police in detention centres – ill-treatment that often goes un-investigated, leaving victims with little redress. We also drew attention to the alarming rate of gender-based violence against refugee and asylum-seeking women and girls occurring in Greece, and in particular on the islands. Finally, we sounded the alarm about reports by multiple groups of the practice of placing children in so-called protective custody in unsuitable conditions in police stations and police detention facilities for long periods.
The Rapporteurs asked several questions to the NGO’s and civil society organisations attending the session. In particular, they raised the length of time that individuals are kept in detention, and the criminalization of solidarity occurring against those saving lives at sea in Greece. In response to further questions and an expression of interest by the Rapporteurs, RRE submitted further detailed evidence on the criminalization of humanitarian aid, raising the imprisonment of Sarah Mardini and Sean Binder and several other high-profile cases.[iii]
On day two, Committee members spent three hours questioning the Greek delegation on reports and evidence of breach of the Convention. Citing information provided by RRE and our partner organisations, members asked about accounts of police violence, the systematic detention of asylum seekers, illegal forcible removals (push-backs) of foreign nations from Greece into Turkey, in particular at the Evros border,[iv] and dangerous and overcrowded conditions in reception and identification centres and detention centres that, among other grave concerns, exacerbate sexual violence against women and girls. The Committee furthermore responded to our additional submission, and asked the Greek delegation to respond to the concerns about the criminalization of solidarity.
On the final day of the review, the Greek delegation, led by the Secretary General for Justice and Human Rights from the Ministry of Justice and comprised of representatives from seven Greek Ministries, responded to the Committee’s inquiry. In response to accusations of torture within its asylum system, members of the delegation cited the disproportionate migratory pressure it faces. The Greek government is obligated to upholding the rights enshrined in the Convention Against Torture regardless of the pressures it is facing – and has moreover received significant EU funding to support it in this regard. Reacting to accounts of gender-based violence, the delegation affirmed that refugee women benefitted from first-line services, including psycho-social support, legal counselling and accommodation, despite evidence submitted to the Committee suggesting otherwise: RRE was disappointed to learn that, according to the delegation, as of July 2019, only 612 refugee women had been able to access counselling services.[v] The delegation shared that Greece is in the process of building more accommodation centres, especially for children, and stated that fair and impartial treatment was guaranteed for all asylum seekers. However, despite a court ruling finding that Greece had violated Article 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child,[vi] the practice of detaining unaccompanied children in unsuitable places of detention continues.
Both RRE and members of the Committee were dissatisfied with many elements of the Greek response, which is contradicted by our first-hand reporting and the evidence of the 12 frontline organisations contained within our submission. In the short time allocated for their response, Members of the Committee reiterated that conditions on the Greek Islands could immediately be improved, for example, through small improvements like better lighting and segregated bathrooms, to prevent gender-based violence. They also pointed out several gaps in the Greek government’s response and urged them to submit further information.
The Committee is now in the process of concluding its review, at which time it will propose three urgent recommendations; Greece will have one year to submit a report on its compliance.
Our own recommendations for the follow-up procedure are as follows:
- Immigration detention: Arbitrary detention on the islands is ended, while human rights are upheld within detention facilities.
- Police violence: The Greek government takes urgent action to address reports of police violence on the mainland, e.g. at the Evros border, and police are provided with additional training on international human rights obligations, as well as the use of force by officers in line with national legislation with an emphasis on adopting a non-violent approach.
- Violence against women: The Greek government drastically improves access to sexual and reproductive healthcare and deploys additional specialist social workers and psychologists to address the alarming rate of gender-based violence occurring against women and girls, and LGBTQI+ persons in displacement. By the end of 2019, the Greek government takes steps to address failings in camp design that contribute to heightened risk of sexual abuse.
- Unaccompanied minors: The Greek government ends the detention of children in all circumstances. Children must be provided with adequate accommodation, separate from adults, care and support at all stages of the asylum process in line with the best interests of the child, national and international law.
- Living conditions and access to healthcare: By the end of 2019, the requirements of the EU Directive on reception conditions for asylum seekers, and any subsequent directives, are fully implemented on all of the Greek islands. In order to facilitate the transfer of asylum seekers off the islands, conditions on the mainland must be vastly improved to meet the requirements of the EU Directive on reception conditions for asylum seekers, and any subsequent directives.
- The containment policy: The Greek containment policy is lifted, ending the practice of restricting the freedom of movement of asylum seekers to certain geographic areas.
We urge the Greek government to immediately implement our recommendations in order to fulfill its stated commitment to the elimination of torture and ill-treatment and ensure that rights of refugees and asylum seekers in Greece are upheld.
[i] As parties to the Convention against Torture, states must undergo periodic reviews to demonstrate that they uphold human rights and do not engage in torture. To learn more, visit the U.N.’s page on the Committee against Torture: https://www.ohchr.org/en/hrbodies/cat/pages/catindex.aspx.
[ii] Read our full submission here: https://refugeerights.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/ghm-et-al-to-cat-2019-appendix-2.pdf