Temperatures at this time of the year on Greece’s northern border with Turkey regularly fall well below freezing. Currently, hundreds of men, women, and young children are facing the bitter cold in the unheated and filthy buildings used by Greece to imprison some of the tens of thousands of “irregular” migrants within its borders, many of them claiming political asylum in the European Union.
Voices across Europe are calling for humane and long-lasting measures to fix Europe’s unfair asylum system, which has turned Greece into a human warehouse for asylum seekers. The governments of other European countries have refused to act to resolve the crisis in Greece, despite condemnation by Europe’s human rights watchdogs, and court rulings that international law is being broken.
In January 2011, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture condemned the Greek Government for detaining asylum-seekers and other migrants in inhuman and degrading conditions. The Committee—part of the Council of Europe system of protection of human rights—took the unusual step of accusing the Greek Government of doing so as an apparently ‘deliberate policy’ to deter migrants without identity papers from entering Greece. The committee reported cases in which people detained were punched and kicked. It found that unrelated adults and children are detained together in cells that are grossly overcrowded. Those held are denied access to soap and hot water and sometimes to their personal effects and clothes. In one center, the Committee found 83 boys crammed into a cell of 100 cubic meters, into which sewage was flooding. Thirty-three of these boys were aged 12-14. Most had been held there for two months.
Asylum-seekers who get released in Greece, sometimes after eighteen months in detention, are unlikely to get a fair or speedy decision on their asylum claim. They join thousands of other migrants who lack the papers they need to find work, yet the Greek government denies their rights to basic food and shelter. In June 2011, the European Court of Human Rights held in its MSS v Belgium and Greece judgment that Greece’s handling of asylum-seekers constitutes inhuman and degrading treatment. Supported by Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe human rights commissioner, the Court ruled that human rights law prohibits other European countries from sending asylum-seekers to Greece under European Union procedures, because of the poor conditions there. At the end of December 2011, the Court of Justice of the European Union followed the human rights court, deciding in its its NS and ME judgment that EU law does not allow EU countries to send asylum-seekers to Greece.
This shocking treatment does not arise from a lack of funds. The EU provides the Greek Government with millions of Euros to deal with irregular migrants arriving there. The European Asylum Support Office also supports Greece. Individual Greek citizens and Greek NGOs try to help the people affected.
Despite this EU money and support, which has been provided for years, the Greek Government has completely failed to ensure a humane reception for migrants. Some of the EU’s assistance to Greece has even worsened the position for some migrants. The EU‘s joint border agency ‘Frontex’ detains asylum-seekers crossing Greece’s border so forcing them into a lengthy, inhumane detention.
The situation in Greece arises from an EU-wide agreement that each member state has responsibility for asylum-seekers who entered the Union at its borders. As member states in the North of Europe made it increasingly difficult for asylum-seekers to reach their airports, so Greece’s land borders became the entrance to the EU for 90 percent of irregular migrants. With only 3 percent of the EU’s land area, Greece cannot be expected to accommodate all these migrants until a proper decision has been made on their asylum applications. Greece is not alone in this situation; the island of Malta is also faced with applications wholly disproportionate to its size.
The solution is for all EU states to go beyond offering Greece money. They must also start accepting into their own countries their fair share of the asylum-seekers and other migrants who have entered Greece. Those EU countries would decide the cases under the same laws as in Greece—the common EU standards. As the EU Court of Justice held in NS and ME, article 80 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union means “asylum policy is governed by the principle of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility between the Member States”.
The response of the northern states has been shameful. Last year, only a few hundreds of migrants were re-located from Malta. Formal proposals from the European Commission to share responsibility have been blocked.
Meanwhile, the EU’s failure to act does not stop those migrants who can from leaving Greece for another EU country. They do so by again hiding in lorries or boats or paying more money to human smugglers for false papers. In this way, the EU’s failures only encourage more danger and illegality inside its own borders.
There are growing demands for the whole EU to act in solidarity. In June 2011, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly called for Member States to relocate asylum-seekers from Greece to other European Union countries for their claims to be decided. Last week, Cecilia Malmström, the EU home affairs commissioner, strongly criticised the EU's failure to provide asylum protection. Hugo Brady, of the Centre for European Reform, has argued that the crisis has led to Greece facing possible expulsion from the Schengen Area, the group of EU members that allow mutual free passage across their borders without passport controls.
The abuse of migrants shames not just Greece, but the whole EU. Despite sustained international criticism by international courts and human rights actors, the situation in Greece is worsening. The threat to the lives of the migrants concerned and their desperate attempts to leave Greece harm them and the rule of law. Only by a Europe-wide approach based on taking responsibility for people, not just moving money around, can the members of the European Union comply with their duties under international law to refugees, and meet the standards of common humanity to which the Union aspires.