Case Watch: Court Sees Rights Breach in Greek Migrant Detention

In our “Case Watch” reports, lawyers at the Open Society Justice Initiative provide quick-hit analysis of  notable court decisions and cases that relate to their work to advance human rights law around the world.

In the ongoing debate over migration in Europe, Greece and other countries cannot use the practical challenges of migration as an excuse to violate human rights. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) recognized last month in Efraimidi v. Greece that keeping migrants for months in local jails designed for short term detention of criminal suspects violates human rights.

The decision reinforces that even though Greece has received a huge volume of irregular migrants, as well as asylum seekers, the government still has a responsibility not to detain them in degrading and inhuman circumstances.

Efraimidi, a native of Georgia seeking asylum in Greece, was detained in Greece for having entered the country without a residence permit. She was detained in a police station for the full three month maximum permitted by Greek law because she was judged to be a flight risk. She had no real opportunity to contest her detention – in fact, she did not even have the means to flee Greece, as she had no travel documents.

During those three months she was not allowed to leave the cell for recreation or exercise, and instead of meals, each detainee was given 5.87 Euro per day to order food to be delivered to them. The detainees complained that this only bought two sandwiches each day; and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), which visited the police station in Thermi around the time of Efraimidi’s detention, recommended that it be supplemented by at least one hot meal per day.

These problems arose from the fact that the police station in Thermi was not an appropriate place for the type of detention experienced by Efraimidi. It was designed and built for very short term detention. It should never have been used to detain people for extended periods. The nature of detaining someone there for three months was compounded in the case of asylum seekers such as Efraimidi, as they were detained because of administrative proceedings, which should be considered differently than someone detained following a criminal conviction. Therefore, the Court concluded that detaining Efraimidi at the police station for three months amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The implication of the decision may be very broad, if it is found to apply to all or most police stations in Greece where irregular migrants are detained.  Greece has received more migrants over the last few years than any other EU country, and the EU regulations known as Dublin II require that migrants go through administrative procedures in the country that is their point of entry into the EU. As a result, Greece has used every available space, including many police stations, as detention centers.  The EU has deployed teams of border guards, through its agency Frontex, to help Greece in the detention of these migrants.  If many of those centers are inappropriate for detention of migrants, Greece, and Europe as a whole, will have to find new solutions or release thousands of detainees.

The decision echoes a pattern in recent court decisions defending the rights of detained migrants in Europe. In April, the Court of Justice of the European Union held in that Italian judges should "disapply" the jail terms contained in Italy's immigration legislation, since an migrant may only be detained if their conduct risks jeopardizing the removal process.

In another migration case, Hirsi v. Italy, the ECHR is also currently adjudicating a controversy over "push-backs," or interceptions, of migrants in the Mediterranean.

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