Greek authorities are arbitrarily detaining nearly 2,000 migrants and asylum seekers in unacceptable conditions, and denying them the right to lodge asylum claims, in two recently established detention sites on mainland Greece, Human Rights Watch said. Authorities claim they are holding the new arrivals, including children, persons with disabilities, older people, and pregnant women, in quarantine due to COVID-19, but the absence of even basic health precautions is likely to help the virus spread.
“If the government is serious about preventing COVID-19 transmission and illness among migrants and asylum seekers, it needs to scale up testing, provide more tents, and give people enough toilets, water, and soap, and put in place prevention interventions,” said Belkis Wille, senior Crisis and Conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Forcing people, some of whom are at high risk of severe disease or death, to live in dirty and unsanitary conditions, cramped together in close quarters, is a recipe for spreading the virus, not to mention is degrading and inhumane.”
Governments can lawfully impose a quarantine to separate people who may have been exposed to or are showing symptoms of an infectious disease. A lawful quarantine should be necessary and fit to serve the purpose of protecting public health. It should be imposed in a non-arbitrary and nondiscriminatory manner.
Greece, however, is detaining migrants because of their immigration status and not providing them with appropriate health protections as expressed in the International Health Regulations or current World Health Organization guidance.
Women, men, and children are being detained in unsanitary and cramped conditions, regardless of whether the country they have arrived from is considered high COVID-19 risk, with no indication that they will be released if found to be virus-free. The authorities do not appear to have tested the detainees for the virus, besides taking their temperature upon arrival. Nor will they be released after the 14-day WHO-recommended isolation period.
Instead, they face continued immigration detention, even though Greece most likely cannot readmit them to Turkey as a transit country or return them to their countries of origin in the foreseeable future. In such circumstances, there is no legal justification for their prolonged detention.
On March 25 and 26, Human Rights Watch remotely interviewed four men who said they had been held in the Malakassa detention site since March 14. Each of them said the roughly 450 detainees with them had severely limited access to water, electricity, hygiene products, clothing, and blankets. They said that detainees were sleeping in cramped tents with up to ten people, often from different families. Two of the men, who had young children, said they didn’t have enough milk and diapers for their kids. They said the authorities had not taken any measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The four men and a lawyer at the Legal Centre Lesvos all said that the police guarding the sites were not allowing anyone inside to leave, except for medical emergencies.
On March 26, the Greek parliament ratified a March 1, 2020 government decree suspending access to asylum for 30 days for people who irregularly entered the country. The March 1 decision, taken before any measures to address the COVID-19 outbreak in Greece, calls for new arrivals to be immediately deported “where possible, to their countries of origin” or transit countries, such as Turkey, without registering them. Greece’s decree made no reference to preventing coronavirus infection but rather was a reaction to Turkey’s announcement that it would open its EU borders to migrants and asylum seekers who wanted to leave.
Since then, however, no deportations have occurred because Turkey has refused to accept any deportees from Greece. Instead, following the decision, Greek authorities rounded up at least 1,974 people who arrived in Greece as of March 1, and transferred them to two recently established detention sites outside of the town of Serres, 350 kilometers north of Athens, and on a plot of military-owned land outside the town of Malakassa, 20 kilometers north of Athens. Other new arrivals continue to be detained in ports and at arrival sites.
On March 14, a Greek naval vessel transferred 436 migrants, including women, men, and children, to the detention site in Malakassa. The government has continued to transfer groups of new arrivals there, according to people being held inside. On March 20, authorities transferred at least another 603 people by vessel from Lesbos and other Greek islands to the detention site in Serres. According to aid workers monitoring the transfers and the people inside, police are guarding both sites. On March 17, the government justified the transfers by stating it was part of its response to the COVID-19 virus.
The lawyer at the Legal Centre Lesvos who has been in contact with some of the people since their arrival in Lesbos and Chios, and their transfer to Malakassa and Serres, said the police gave the people she spoke to a 3-day detention order in early March, pending deportation. Right before transporting them from Lesbos to the mainland on March 14, police gave them a deportation order for their “immediate readmission to Turkey.” Human Rights Watch reviewed copies of both documents.
According to the lawyer, the Greek government has openly said that it wishes to deport these individuals without giving them an opportunity to lodge their asylum claims. It is unclear what the government will do after the 30-day suspension period ends. The asylum service is closed until at least April 10 due to COVID-19, so will likely not provide further information in the near future.
The Unions of Police Personnel of Athens, North-East Attica, and Western Attica said in a March 26 statement that hygiene measures in Malakassa were “non-existent,” adding that in the face of COVID-19, the situation was “mathematically evolving into a slow fire bomb as basic sanitary protections are lacking (toilets, cleanliness, masks, gloves, number of people residing in tents, etc.).”
Human Rights Watch tried to reach three people who were reportedly being held in Serres, but the facility has no electricity and their phones were switched off. Researchers interviewed a man detained in Malakassa who said he had spoken with a friend upon her arrival in Serres, and another lawyer who had spoken with three others upon their arrival at Serres. According to this man and the lawyer, the conditions in the facility were as crowded and unsanitary as the conditions in Malakassa.
Similarly, the Union of Police Personnel of Serres stated on March 23 that the detention site was “completely inappropriate” and would “create conditions of suffocation for the inhabitants there.” Detainees were housed 10 to a tent that had the capacity for five, the union said, adding that they did not think the tents could withstand extreme weather. The weather in Serres is currently cold, with temperatures dropping to 4 degrees Celsius at night.
Greece should not extend its March 1 decision to suspend access to asylum for 30 days for people who irregularly entered the country, Human Rights Watch said. It should ensure that all measures it undertakes to combat COVID-19 are applied in a nondiscriminatory manner.
EU member states have deployed their national border guards through Frontex to work within the operational command of Greek border-control authorities and are engaged in apprehending would-be asylum seekers. EU member states should suspend any participation in Frontex operations that fail to adhere to binding international human rights standards.
The European Commission should urge Greece to reinstate asylum procedures for people irregularly entering Greece in line with EU and international law and press the Greek authorities to ensure that new arrivals are not detained arbitrarily. It should tie its support for border management to Greece to its commitment to guarantee the right to seek asylum.
The European Commission should specifically monitor the situation faced by asylum seekers in the Malakassa and Serres facilities and raise with the Greek authorities concerns on the denial of access to asylum, inadequate conditions, lack of access to legal support, and the risks that those people face arbitrary detention and refoulement. It should also open legal proceedings against Greece if the authorities fail to effectively resume access to asylum and fail to meet binding EU standards on reception conditions for people seeking international protection.
Migrant women, men, and children should be housed in facilities with adequate security, sanitation, and hygienic conditions and should be allowed to apply for asylum. Any healthcare needs should be promptly addressed.
“International human rights bodies and health experts have been calling globally for authorities to reduce the number of people in detention to limit the spread of the virus,” Wille said. “Inexplicably, Greece seems to be doing the opposite and putting people at grave risk.”