Position statement on the refugee situation. Phase two: Challenges and weaknesses




In our last report, published one year ago, we argued that the movement of refugees and migrants towards Europe was openly dealt in terms of security; not in terms of people but in terms of borders. The result was that otherwise “non-negotiable” human rights, as regards refugees and migrants, were nothing but a piece of paper on the table of European and international policy. One year later, this assertion is once more proven to be correct, despite the fact that there have been significant shifts at legal and political level. The EU-Turkey agreement/ joint statement contributed to the further fragmentation of European law and policies, with the EU’s key common denominator being its inability to even do the basics, using a logic of creating “barricades”. A new parameter was added to the fences and the militarization of border surveillance, namely the pretext of declaring Turkey to be a “safe country”, which in turn permits the return of persons to Turkey, and which, importantly, cemented the political argument that thanks to the “EU-Turkey deal” refugee influx into Europe was stopped.  Τhis “dual-zone” refugee status, namely the difference between those in mainland Greece and those on the islands, the precarious living conditions in sites accommodating thousands of people, and the asymmetries of the resettlement program towards EU countries, all create a dystopic landscape which defines the contemporary refugee situation. In addition, the EU’s inability to directly and efficiently address, in accordance with the existing principles of the Rule of Law, the challenges of receiving refugees, reveals the growing political crisis that the EU itself is struggling with internally. Law and policy making thus impose the idea that the best way to overcome the difficulties that come with upholding refugee rights are to get rid of them. The Greek government did not resist this framework. The refusal to acknowledge the rights of refugees, apart from creating humanitarian issues, also affects the broader political project of consolidation of the European acquis of democracy and human rights. As we argued in January 2016, given the long stay of migrants and refugees in Greece, the challenges posed by the prospect of our coexistence are significant. Since then, we have time and again stressed the need for a migration policy underpinned by respect and integration. No democracy is worthy of its name if it does not provide safe conditions for refugees and does not facilitate those remaining in the country long-term to integrate in its political community. Dignity, housing, employment and education are not the challenges of tomorrow but of today.


In the current situation, a year after the implementation of the EU-Turkey ‘non-agreement’ the Hellenic League for Human Rights has the following positions/suggestions[2]:


1.       Safety for people and law, not just safe borders


The settlement of asylum seekers within the European Union requires safe passage to the European territory and delays the determination of their protection needs until their request for asylum has been examined by the Member State to which they will eventually move. A democracy (such as Greece and the EU) that respects fundamental rights, as well as itself, should not be troubled by the dilemma between the security of borders and the safety of persons. The commitment of Greek and European democracy to human rights requires that border security be a means for the security of the rule of law and of people.


2. Guarantees for Rights


Guarantees for the protection of human rights should be provided, wherever possible, during the registration and processing of asylum claims, either within the EU or in third countries. This is a prerequisite for the success of the procedure in terms of the Rule of Law. In this sense, the disbursement of funds and the EU-Turkey dialogue (e.g., the issue of visas for Turkish citizens) will need to be directly dependent on these guarantees, through which the migrant/refugee issue will be managed, and not vice versa.


3. Guarantees for rights on the islands


As a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and under EU legislation which Greece has incorporated, Greece is obliged to provide all required guarantees to potential beneficiaries of international protection, without restrictions. Following the EU-Turkey joint statement, efforts by the Greek government to reduce the chances of asylum seekers on the Greek islands being recognized as deserving international protection, which aim to increase of the number of returns to Turkey, certainly bears no relation to the Rule of Law.


4. Fragmentation of Rights


The fragmentation of rights into two zones, namely those of Northern Greece and the islands, affects the universal nature of refugee protection law. The EU-Turkey joint statement subordinates rights to international political interests, ultimately affecting the European democratic structure. There cannot be a geographical separation as regards people’s rights. Nor it is acceptable for returns to Turkey to be taking place, when safeguards for fundamental rights have been lifted, especially following the imposition of a state of emergency beginning with the failed coup attempt in July 2016 onwards. The restrictions on freedom of movement from the islands are legally problematic, and have led to an unprecedented increase in cases of trafficking in Greece.


5. Safe movement


The refusal of some EU member states to participate in the distribution of admitted refugees and to enforce refugee law fosters uncertainty with regard to legal guarantees, amid a reality of rights fragmentation.  The procedure regarding the granting of refugee status and the reunification of asylum seekers under the Dublin Regulation are uncertain and slow, resulting in refugees being pushed towards riskier but faster routes via trafficking networks. The aim should be for refugees not to be forced to make these dangerous and irregular primary and secondary transitions, both in order to enter Greece, and from there to other EU countries. Couldn’t European policy follow the example of other states, which grant visas via their embassies, thereby increasing the number of available places for resettlement?


6. Accommodation facilities


Regardless of the efforts to welcome refugees in camps, and their gradual placement in residential accommodation facilities, large deficits are being recorded in the management of the reception of refugees at the levels of financing, policy, and operations: specifically, with regard to the provision of shelter and food, medical care, special care for vulnerable groups, but also the prospects of integration through employment and permanent residence. It is time that the camps close. If they continue to operate, it must be ensured, as it is the case in every reception and accommodation facility, that they fall under common rules of operation, while managerial staff should be selected according to rules, something that still has not happened, while the self-evident principle of transparency and accountability in the financial management of the overall operation should be respected without exception. The allocation of responsibilities to third parties (international organizations, national organizations and volunteers) and the absorption of aid funds from international donors (such as the EU and UN) has highlighted the failures and mismanagement. A lot of money has been spent with little results, large sums are being spent to address the wrong needs, rational coordination is absent while, often, the priorities of organizations implementing these programs are conflicting.


7. Vulnerable people


The uniform and reliable registration of vulnerable people on the move (minors, pregnant women, victims of torture, the sick, the elderly, etc.) constitutes a necessity, in order to ensure their personal safety and social protection. It is of great importance that he systematic identification of vulnerable people be carried out using uniform and objective criteria for inclusion in special care structures, which must be further developed (more funding and qualified staff are needed). The implementation of common European policies and the protection of rights, especially regarding vulnerable groups, is also a primary concern. Utmost care should be taken to ensure that the quality of services provided to vulnerable people in accommodation facilities established for this purpose be identical for all – regardless of the facility or the body that operates it – and meet the objective needs of these populations.


8. Integration plan


It is essential that a detailed operational plan be put in place, so as to integrate those refugees who will stay in Greece, with the input and involvement of both refugees and migrants who cannot be deported for personal or other reasons. The uncertainty of legal status undermines any integration project. This operational plan cannot be imposed on local communities “from above” and,  in order for it to be effective, cooperation with local government, and, even more, the development and implementation of available local financing action plans, that mobilize municipal authorities and civil society, as well as non-governmental organizations, with a view to creating extensive multilevel collaborations (accommodation in available facilities or in tourist accommodation, the supply of food and clothing, medical and social care, including preventive services, support for families with minors, foster care programmes for families and/or minors by locals, etc.)


9. Tackling xenophobia

Currently, asylum seekers are not housed using a strategy of balanced dispersion throughout Greece. Housing refugees in small groups would facilitate their acceptance by local communities, while allowing their needs to be met. It is realistic to demand that the government operational plan should offer, apart from financial support for local action plans, the provision of development-linked offsets for communities receiving refugees. The reactions of the inhabitants of Kos and Western Thessaloniki municipalities, among others, show that preparation takes time and requires understanding. As collateral damage of the refugee issue, the victories of xenophobic reflexes are at risk of becoming consolidated and spreading out of control. This makes it imperative for anti-racist and anti-xenophobic policies to be designed and implemented, if it’s not already too late. The precious acquis of solidarity structures and practices that responded to immediate needs must be harnessed in order to respond to the new, tougher, and more demanding circumstances to come.


10. Recognized refugees

A coherent policy towards recognized refugees must be designed, because their number will greatly increase in the immediate future. First, it is necessary to ensure their livelihood, but also employment prospects, training and education. Moreover, recognized refugees, given their legal status, have legitimacy and permanence, and therefore should be addressed by social inclusion policies. Currently, many of them are looking for ways to stay in accommodation facilities.


11. Movements towards and from Europe

The relocation mechanism to European countries without common criteria for selection (eg. vulnerability of beneficiaries) is already causing cracks in the rule of law. At the other end of this process, it is quite problematic that some states refuse to comply with the principle that dictates burden sharing between Member States. Furthermore, processes are lengthy and time consuming, completely missing the time limits established by decisions of the EU Council, resulting in a system that is neither fit for purpose nor is it considered trustworthy by the applicants themselves. Reactivating Dublin Regulation III (from 15 March 2017) for returns to Greece will certainly exacerbate the problems beyond imagination.


12. Government Obligations


For those who have pre-registered, for asylum seekers who remain in Greece and for recognized refugees living in Greece, the competent Ministries are legally obliged to:


1.       Create long-term sustainable accommodation facilities, especially for vulnerable groups, something for which the Greek government receives European funding.

2.        Proceed to immediately and fully record all asylum applications, in compliance with Art. 36 L. 4375/2016, which incorporates 2013/32 / EU Directive.

3.       Integrate asylum seekers and recognized refugees into the labour market, education and social protection programs.

4.       Guarantee a minimum income to recognized refugees.

5.       Ensure the integration of children in education structures, especially those children expected to remain in Greece in the long term, in regular schools.


13. Education


The education of children must be redesigned and applied universally, methodically, and by taking into account the legal status of children, not randomly. Integration into the education system must move forward by taking into account the errors of the first pilot project for education of migrant children. The difference between education for children in camps (a partial education, by definition) and education for children in residential accommodation (integration into mainstream education with remedial teaching of Greek) is already generating a fragmentation that is not consistent with the educational needs of the children. Education should be provided in regular schools. On the other hand, the legal status and the prospects of these children should be taken into account, whether, for example, they are going to be relocated to another country (and thus the identification of other language needs, with the cooperation of future host countries).


14. Invisible people


It is certain that the increase in the number of “undocumented” migrants will test the procedures which have failed in Greece in recent years (i.e., a number of ECHR decisions on the legality of detention and on living conditions, but also on the rights of specific groups, such as minors). The “undocumented non-refugees” must be dealt with using constitutional criteria, so that they can lawfully be returned to their country of origin (see:  detention facilities and periods of detention, unfeasible return, work exploitation, legality) or remain in Greece under a special status (e.g. exceptional reasons for the granting of a residence permit). In this spirit, policies of harsh exclusion must be relaxed, as must the going back and forth in the definitions of “legitimate” and “illegal”. In addition, the fact that a “we will make their lives unbearable” approach  is not uncommon in parts of the administration and police, must also be appropriately tackled.


15. One step towards “’visibility”


For those who have been arrested and released under the regime of suspension of return, the Greek state is obliged by law, during time spent in custody, to ensure that they enjoy minimum conditions of decent temporary accommodation in public facilities or facilities of public interest, to cover their immediate living needs and their access to healthcare and education. If the state is unable to meet this obligation then, by law, it is obliged to grant work permits and to guarantee insurance coverage.


16. Detention as deterrence


It is a primary obligation of the Greek Republic to uphold, at all costs, the acquis of avoiding the establishment of closed police detention facilities, where people are held under abysmal conditions, indefinitely, and under the guise of their alleged removal. The practice of horizontal enforcement of administrative detention for entire groups of people, without an individual assessment – or even worse, selectively applied to certain ethnic groups (ethnic profiling), as it appears to be happening to those from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria,  seriously endanger the rule of law, transforming detention from a last resort administrative measure to a commonly applied measure of a migration policy of deterrence, the goal of which is intimidation.


* * *


The fragmentation of refugee law and the retraction of guarantees contributes to insecurity and legal uncertainty. No democracy is worthy of its name if it does not ensure the protection of all people and does not allow citizenship to be granted to people who remain in the country  for long periods, and who have been integrated in its social life. Keeping certain people endlessly in the marginalized situation of the foreigner is an attribute of societies in which slavery exists.


[1] This position paper was composed by an HLHR working group during the period December 2016-March 2017.

[2] The material for some of the positions was drawn from material provided by the HLHR’s legal advisory teams active in Dion camp (until January 2017), and Softex & Scaramanga camps, under the Rights for Refugees Programme (http://www.rights4refugees.gr/).


Supporting Evidence document on HLHR’s position on the refugee situation 03/2017 – read full text here




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