During the year the flow of migrant and asylum seekers to the country from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia continued, albeit in much lower numbers than in the two previous years. The March 2016 EU-Turkey Statement, combined with the closing of the northern borders, turned the country into a host country for migrant and refugee populations. As of October 31, UNHCR figures indicated 46,462 migrants and asylum seekers were residing throughout the country.
Refoulement: The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
On May 24, a group of eight Turkish nationals arrived through the land border with Turkey (Evros River crossing) and expressed the wish to apply for asylum. They included three minors and journalist Murat Capan, who had been sentenced in absentia by a Turkish court to 22.5 years of prison for allegedly attempting to overthrow that country’s government. According to the NGO Hellenic League for Human Rights, they were subsequently placed in a van that reportedly transferred them to a group of five armed men with masks, who silently led them back to Turkey across the river. Turkish authorities took Capan into custody, and he was sent to a prison in Turkey.
On June 23, media reported that the NGO Network for the Social Support of Refugees and Migrants denounced police officers and hooded men in Didymoticho, in northern Greece, for forcibly returning 10 Syrian nationals to Turkey, despite the fact that they had expressed the wish to apply for asylum in Greece. One member from the group reported that police had arrested them all and led them to a detention facility with 200 others, including families with children. The same witness alleged that some hours later, the 10 Syrians were ordered to enter a van that took them to a river, where armed men in uniforms forced them to get on dinghies that eventually returned them to Turkey.
The Hellenic League for Human Rights, UNHCR, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks requested a thorough investigation of reported refoulement incidents. On July 30, the minister for migration policy denied that government authorities were practicing unlawful returns.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees through an autonomous asylum service under the authority of the Ministry of Migration Policy. The law requires that applicants have access to certified interpreters and allows applicants to appeal negative decisions and remain in the country while their appeals are examined.
Authorities worked with NGOs, international organizations, and the European Asylum Support Office to inform undocumented migrants awaiting registration in the asylum system, as well as non-EU foreign national detainees, about their rights and asylum procedures and IOM-assisted voluntary return programs. UNHCR also assisted the government with briefings and distribution of multilingual leaflets and information packages on asylum and asylum procedures.
On January 26 the Supreme Court ruled against the extradition of eight Turkish Air Force officers who filed asylum applications in the country. They were accused of plotting a coup against the Turkish government. According to press reports, the court determined that the eight officers were unlikely to face a fair trial if returned to Turkey and determined that they could be subjected to torture. Turkey subsequently submitted a second extradition request to Greece, which was also denied in May on the same basis as the first ruling. As of November 30, the asylum cases were still under consideration by an appeals committee.
Human rights activists and NGOs working with asylum applicants reported long waits for asylum appeals decisions due to backlogs in the appeals process. For most of the year, appeals judges were awaiting a ruling from the Council of State on whether Turkey was considered a safe third country for rejected applicants, particularly Syrians, to which to return. On September 22, media and human rights activists reported that the Council of State plenary rejected the appeal by two Syrian asylum seekers who claimed that Turkey was not a country of safe return. The council noted that Turkey had ratified the Geneva Convention and agreed on a joint action plan with the European Union to support Syrian nationals in need of international protection. The council further noted that the two Syrians who filed the appeal had relatives in Turkey. The council rejected the applicants’ claims that their lives and freedom would be at risk in Turkey and that Greece would violate the European Convention on Human Rights by returning them to Turkey. Several experts expressed the view that this decision would affect numerous other similar cases.
Asylum applicants from countries other than Syria complained that their asylum applications were delayed while Syrians were prioritized. Many asylum seekers also complained about difficulty scheduling an appointment and then in connecting with the Asylum Service system via Skype. International organizations, NGOs, and human rights activists reiterated the previous year’s concerns about problems related to the asylum system, including the lack of adequate staff and facilities; difficulties in registering claims; questions about the expedited nature and thoroughness of the examination of initial claims and appeals; insufficient welfare, integration, counseling, legal, and interpretation services; discrimination; and detention under often inadequate and overcrowded conditions inside the Reception and Identification Centers (RICs).
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The country adheres to the Dublin III Regulation, according to which authorities may return asylum seekers to the EU member state of first entry for adjudication of asylum claims.
In March 2016 the EU and Turkey issued a joint statement on migration. According to the agreement, every undocumented migrant crossing from Turkey into the Greek islands would be confined to a RIC for up to 25 days, during which time the individual would have the opportunity to apply for asylum in Greece. Individuals opting not to apply for asylum or whose applications were deemed unfounded or inadmissible would be returned to Turkey under the terms of the agreement.
With the help of NGOs, some applicants whose applications were rejected challenged the legal validity of these decisions before the Council of State, arguing that Turkey was not a safe third country to which to return. A September 22 ruling rejected their arguments and claims.
Freedom of Movement: Undocumented migrants arriving at Greek islands after March 2016 were subjected to special border reception and registration procedures, in closed facilities for up to 25 days. After this 25-day period, undocumented migrants remaining in those facilities were generally allowed to enter and exit. Undocumented migrants were prohibited from travelling to the mainland unless they filed asylum applications deemed admissible by the asylum authorities. Once asylum applications were filed, found admissible, and in process, migrants could move to an accommodation center on the mainland. There was no restriction on movement in or out of the accommodation centers. The National Commission for Human Rights, and NGOs, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), Doctors without Borders, and the Greek Council for Refugees, expressed concerns, objecting to detention of incoming migrants and asylum seekers under the EU-Turkey statement. On October 24, 19 local and international human rights organizations sent a joint letter to Prime Minister Tsipras calling for an end to the “containment policy” of keeping asylum seekers on the islands and to the deterioration of conditions in the five RICs operating in the north Aegean islands.
Unaccompanied minors were also placed under “protective custody” due to lack of space in specialized shelters. In a July 31 press statement, the ombudsman reported that from the beginning of June until July 31, 77 unaccompanied minors were placed under protective custody in Thessaloniki, with only 13 of them being eventually processed to proper facilities designated for their needs. Inquiries of the ombudsman, conducted in detention and reception facilities on July 17-19, showed that a considerable number of unaccompanied minors remained in police stations under protective custody for weeks, in the absence of adequate shelters for all.
Employment: Recognized refugees and holders of asylum-seeker papers were entitled to work, although this right was not widely publicized or consistently enforced.
Access to Basic Services: Legally, services such as shelter, health care, education, and judicial procedures were granted to asylum seekers in possession of a valid residency permit; however, staffing gaps and overcrowded migrant sites limited certain asylum seekers’ access to these services. Legal assistance was limited and was usually offered via volunteer lawyers and bar associations, NGOs, and international organizations.
There was improvement in housing conditions at reception facilities on the mainland. RICs on the islands faced problems, mostly due to lack of space, which resulted in congestion and in the use of camping tents to supplement the larger, air-conditioned, and sturdier prefabricated houses. Living conditions were more difficult during the winter and summer. In January three deaths of asylum seekers were recorded at the RIC in Moria, Lesvos, allegedly related to inadequate heating. According to a January 18 report by HRW, accommodation for individuals with disabilities at most sites was inadequate. Connections to sewage systems and electric power were at times nonexistent or problematic.
Asylum seekers were hosted in reception camps and facilities operating under state management or supervision, or administered by UNHCR, IOM, or NGOs. Vulnerable asylum-seeking individuals and relocation candidates were also eligible to be sheltered in apartments via a housing scheme implemented by UNHCR, in cooperation with some local municipalities and NGOs. On October 31, UNHCR reported that more than 36,000 asylum seekers had been accommodated in apartments, hotels, and other facilities across the country since the launch of UNHCR’s Accommodation and Services Scheme in 2016. Recognized refugees were generally not eligible for this program; however, starting on August 1, the minister of migration policy announced a program to allow 1,014 recently recognized refugees participating in UNHCR’s housing program to request six-month extensions in the program. By law refugees are eligible for public housing, but all housing programs were suspended due to government austerity measures.
The Ministry of Migration Policy with its Reception and Identification Service, assisted by the Ministry of Defense and/or some municipalities, managed a number of facilities, where new arrivals were detained without permission to leave the center for up to 25 days. Administrative and facility management staff working in these centers usually consisted of some permanent state employees, often detached from their regular services, eight-month contracted personnel under a government-run employment scheme, as well as NGO and international organization-contracted staff. Media reported cases, especially in the islands, in which the assigned staff was inadequate or improperly trained.
All residents in the country are entitled to emergency medical care regardless of legal status. Medical volunteers, medical doctors contracted by NGOs, and the Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as army medical doctors, provided basic health care in camps, with emergencies or more complex cases referred to local hospitals. A number of NGOs noted inadequate psychological care for asylum seekers and refugees, especially on the islands. Some individuals suffering from chronic diseases continued to face problems related to obtaining proper medication. There were reports of inadequate health care for pregnant women. Hospitals were often overburdened and understaffed, creating gaps in the provision of services for asylum seekers and local residents.
Following their arrival, migrants and refugees were registered by police and the Reception and Identification Service. Authorities recorded the asylum-seeker’s personal data, took fingerprints, and verified his or her identity. International organizations and NGOs provided basic information on the asylum process, assisted voluntary return and international protection, and conducted medical screenings to identify vulnerable individuals. Doctors without Borders criticized the authorities for failing to identify asylum seekers with nonvisible vulnerabilities, such as victims of torture. Doctors without Borders and other NGOs also criticized gaps in the vulnerability assessment, which they alleged exacerbated health and mental health problems and deprived some individuals eligible for transfer to the mainland of their chance to leave the congested living conditions in the RICs. Segregation of vulnerable groups was not always feasible at some sites. Credible observers reported several violent incidents involving asylum seekers, including fistfights, stabbings, and gender-based violence (see section 2.d., Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons).
Durable Solutions: The government participated in the 2015 EU relocation scheme, and, as of September 27, the European Commission reported the relocation of 20,323 asylum seekers from Greece to other EU member states. Asylum seekers were eligible for relocation under this scheme only if they arrived before the implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement on March 20, 2016, and if they held nationality from a country that would receive international protection recognition in 75 percent of member states. The IOM offered voluntary returns to rejected asylum seekers or for those who renounced their asylum claims. The government reported approximately 5,000 voluntary returns by November 22. The government cooperated with international organizations and NGOs to facilitate enrollment of all migrant children on the mainland in schools.
Temporary Protection: As of June 30, the government provided temporary protection to approximately 305 individuals who may not qualify as refugees.