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Armenia

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press.

Since the 2018 political transition, the media environment has been freer, as some outlets began to step away from the earlier practice of self-censorship; however, there were reports that some outlets avoided criticizing the authorities so as not to appear “counterrevolutionary.” In its final report on the December 2018 elections, the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Election Observation Mission stated that while most interlocutors noted improvements in media freedom and an increase in plurality of opinions since April 2018, some also noted that the postrevolutionary public discourse was not conducive to criticism of the government, in particular, the then acting prime minister. Many traditional and online media continued to lack objective reporting.

Freedom of Expression: Individuals were free to criticize the government without fear of arrest. After the 2018 “Velvet Revolution,” there were calls for legal measures to address hate speech following incidents of advocacy of violence targeting individuals’ political opinions, religious beliefs, as well as sexual and gender identity.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Broadcast and larger-circulation print media generally lacked diversity of political opinion and objective reporting. Private individuals or groups, most of whom were reportedly tied to the former authorities or the largest parliamentary opposition party, owned most broadcast media and newspapers, which tended to reflect the political leanings and financial interests of their proprietors. Broadcast media, particularly public television, remained one of the primary sources of news and information for the majority of the population. According to some media watchdogs, public television continued to present news from a progovernment standpoint, replacing one government perspective with another in the aftermath of the political transition. Nonetheless, public television was open and accessible to the opposition as well and covered more diverse topics of public interest than before.

Social media users freely expressed opinions concerning the new government and former authorities on various social media platforms. Use of false social media accounts and attempts to manipulate media, however, continued to increase dramatically during the year. According to media watchdogs, individuals used manipulation technologies, including hybrid websites, controversial bloggers, “troll factories,” and fictional Facebook groups and stories, to attack the government.

The country’s few independent media outlets, mostly online, were not self-sustainable and survived through international donations, with limited revenues from advertising.

The media advertising market did not change substantially after the 2018 “Velvet Revolution,” and key market players remained the same. According to a 2016 report by the Armenian Center for Political and International Studies, the advertising sales conglomerate Media International Services (MIS) controlled 74 percent of the country’s television advertisement gross value, with exclusive rights to sell advertising on the country’s five most-watched channels. Another company, DG Sales, was majority owned by MIS shareholders; it controlled more than one-third of the online commercial market, operating similar to MIS. Internet advertising, although a small segment of the advertising market, increased during the year.

Media company ownership was mostly nontransparent. The country’s Fourth Action Plan of Open-Government Partnership Initiative of the Republic of Armenia (2018-2020) included commitments to improve ownership disclosure. Media NGOs advocated for the media sector to be included as a priority sector in the action plan and proposed changes to the Law on Television and Radio that fostered media ownership transparency.

The government maintained a de facto monopoly on digital broadcasting multiplex, while most channels represented the views of the previous government. Some 10 regional television stations remained at risk of closure due to a drop in viewership and advertising. The stations did not receive government licenses to transmit digitally via the single state-owned multiplex following the 2016 national switch to digital broadcasting, and they continued to transmit via the unsupported analog broadcasting system. The heavy cost of starting and maintaining a private multiplex (which could ensure the continuity of those stations) resulted in three unsuccessful tenders with no applicants since the 2016 switchover. As a result, on January 31, the government decided to shut down “Shirak” Public Television, claiming that the station’s analog broadcast was unable to attract a wide audience and that the transfer of the station to a digital broadcast would require significant financial investment, which the government was unable to make. Media watchdogs criticized the decision and urged the government to change legislation to encourage the entrance of private multiplexers into the country and end the state’s monopoly on digital broadcasting.

Violence and Harassment: The local NGO Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression reported three cases of violence against reporters in the first nine months of the year. Two reporters were attacked by employees of cafes that were being dismantled by Yerevan City Hall in a crackdown against illegal buildings. No criminal charges were filed. In the third case, the bodyguard of former NSS chief Artur Vanetsyan pushed a reporter to the ground.

On February 27, the Kotayk region trial court acquitted Kotayk police department head Arsen Arzumanyan, who had been charged with abuse of office and preventing the professional activities of journalist Tirayr Muradyan in April 2018. On June 5, in answer to an appeal of the acquittal, the Criminal Appeals Court found Arzumanyan guilty and fined him 500,000 drams ($1,000).

Libel/Slander Laws: Media experts raised concerns regarding the unprecedented number of libel and defamation cases launched against media outlets by lawmakers, former officials, and others during the year. According to the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression, 83 cases were filed with the courts during the first nine months of the year, placing a significant financial burden on media outlets.

National Security: According to media experts there was a dramatic increase in false news stories and the spread of disinformation regarding social networks and media during the year. The government claimed that former government representatives, who reportedly owned most media–including television stations with nationwide coverage–used media outlets to manipulate public opinion against authorities.

On April 4, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan ordered the NSS to crack down on anyone using mass media or social media to “manipulate public opinion.” Media experts, including some who said there was a need to address fake news and hate speech, criticized the prime minister’s instructions as an attempt to silence free speech. On April 9, the NSS reported the arrest of a person who administered a Facebook page that falsely presented itself as associated with the prime minister’s Civil Contract Party. The page spread fake news stories and incited violence, including against members of religious minorities. Although the NSS had investigated the Facebook account on charges of incitement of religious hatred since fall 2018, an arrest was made on this charge only after the prime minister’s April 4 instructions.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: There were reports of nonsystemic discrimination in the acceptance of applications and in detention of asylum seekers based on the country of origin, race, or religion of the asylum seeker, as well as difficulties with integration. Civil society contacts reported discriminatory attitudes and suspicion directed towards foreign migrants seeking employment.

In the first nine months of the year, 15 foreigners were arrested for illegal entry after crossing the border via land or air, a decrease from 28 in the first nine months of 2018. Despite a provision in the law exempting asylum seekers from criminal liability for illegal border crossing, authorities required them to remain in detention pending the outcome of their asylum applications or to serve the remainder of their sentences.

Authorities cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The law accounts for specific needs of children, persons with mental disabilities and trauma survivors and allows detention centers to receive asylum applications. Three years of legal residence in the country is required for naturalization of refugees who are not ethnic Armenians.

Shortcomings in asylum procedures included limited state funding for interpreters and deficiencies in capacity of eligibility officers. Enhanced capacity of the judiciary resulted in an increased number of overruled State Migration Service (SMS) decisions on asylum applications. Following a 2018 administrative court judgment overruling an SMS denial of refugee status to a family from Iraq, the applicants were required to start the asylum process again. In general the courts drew more attention to the merit of asylum applications and used country of origin information more systematically than before 2018.

Authorities continued to offer ethnic Armenians from Syria who remained in the country a choice of protection options, including expedited naturalization, a residence permit, or refugee status. Quick naturalization gave persons displaced from Syria the same legal right to health care and most other social services as other citizens. Many of the countrywide reforms such as provision of increased social services, higher pensions, and more accessible health care also benefited naturalized refugees.

While the overall quality of procedures and decision making for determination of refugee status improved over the last decade, concerns remained regarding adjudication of cases of asylum seekers of certain religious and gender profiles with non-Apostolic Christian and non-Armenian backgrounds.

Access to Basic Services: Many refugees were unable to work or receive an education while their cases worked their way through the legal system, despite legal provisions protecting these rights.

Housing allocated to refugees was in limited supply, in poor condition, and remained, along with employment, refugees’ greatest concern. Many displaced families relied on a rental subsidy program supported by UNHCR and diaspora organizations. Authorities operated an integration house with places for 29 refugees and offered refugees accommodation free of charge during the first months after they acquired refugee status. Language differences created barriers to employment, education, and access to services provided for by law.

Durable Solutions: The government accepted refugees for resettlement and offered naturalization to refugees residing on its territory. The SMS also offered integration programs to returnees from Western European countries who either voluntarily returned or were deported by the host country. On November 21, the government allocated 1.5 billion drams ($3.2 million) for permanent housing to 112 refugee families who fled from Azerbaijan in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Bolivia

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the Morales government and its allies carried out reprisals against media outlets that expressed dissenting opinions. The Morales administration’s actions to curb criticism created a climate of hostility towards independent journalists and media and resulted in self-censorship of many news sources. Some media outlets reported the government pressured and intimidated them to report favorably regarding its policies, particularly by withholding government advertising and imposing steep taxes.

Freedom of Expression: Prior to the resignation of then president Morales on November 10, the Morales government continued to denounce press critics and independent media sources. In February 2018 Marcelo Miralles Iporre, president of the National Press Association, told the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that the country suffered from “censorship caused by state publicity, law, the financial asphyxiation of the media, and intolerance of those with critical points of view.” He said these factors put at risk “freedom of the press and expression, and democracy.”

On September 11, multiple news sources reported that under the Morales administration, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) threatened to sanction the Higher University of San Andres (UMSA) and a civil society group, Jubileo Foundation, for publishing what it deemed an “invalid” opinion poll that showed President Evo Morales much weaker than previously believed ahead of the October 20 general election. The TSE made technical and legal observations of the survey and used this argument to prohibit the dissemination of the opinion poll. Civil society groups and UMSA, however, argued all legal, technical, and operational requirements to conduct the national survey were followed. Despite this argument, the TSE stated the study could not be disseminated.

In a May report, UNITAS, a local organization dedicated to human rights, identified 88 violations of the freedom of expression from March 2018 to February. The violations included self-censorship, “stigmatization” of journalists, false accusations of criminal conduct against journalists, restrictions on access to public information, discrimination by the government, and censorship.

On November 14, Minister of Communication Roxana Lizarraga publicly warned “she will act according to law” against “journalists or pseudo-journalists who are committing sedition.” National journalists and the IACHR criticized Lizarraga’s statement as a threat against journalistic freedom and freedom of the press.

On December 10, under the transitional government, famed cartoonist Al Azar resigned from the local daily newspaper La Razon. Commentators described Al Azar’s resignation as “part of a systematic harassment of press freedom” due to online harassment from undisclosed origins that led to what they described as “self-censorship.” La Razon announced the cartoonist had communicated to the newspaper’s leadership that “due to the siege he had experienced in the last few weeks due to his political cartoons…he could not continue his creative work in our editorial pages.”

Press and Media, Including Online Media: According to the Inter American Press Association, prior to the resignation of then president Morales on November 10, the Morales administration regularly attempted to disqualify the independent press by claiming it acted on behalf of the political opposition and spread “fake news” to generate social tension. According to Supreme Decree 181, the government should provide goods and services to all media outlets in a nondiscriminatory manner, but it did not purchase advertisements in media outlets considered adversarial.

Journalists faced threats to their work. In November 2018 the National Press Association of Bolivia (ANP) expressed concern regarding reports of police surveillance of journalists’ online activity, noting such surveillance put journalists at risk and severely limited their ability to investigate and report the news freely and accurately.

Prior to the resignation of then president Morales on November 10, media outlets alleged his government pressured news organizations to report favorably on government policies and retaliated against news organizations that did not comply. The ANP and several journalists alleged the government’s retaliatory tactics included withdrawing advertisements and conducting excessive tax audits, which forced companies to spend significant time and resources to defend themselves. Government entities such as the National Tax Service, National Delivery Service, Business Authority, Telecommunications and Transport Regulation and Control Authority, Gaming Control Authority, Departmental Labor Directorates, and Vice Ministry for Communication Policies, which is responsible for monitoring free advertising, carried out inspections and applied fines many observers claimed were unwarranted. The ANP expressed concern that the government attacked independent news outlets and attempted to “economically suffocate” media entities that did not cater to the government. The allocation of official advertising often excluded media that questioned the actions of government, to the extent that some media fired investigative journalists due to fear of losing official advertising.

Violence and Harassment: As of September the ANP identified 92 cases of restrictions on freedom of the press, 61 of which were perpetrated by the Morales administration or targeted media critical of the Morales government. On October 31, the ANP reported 15 direct attacks against journalists immediately following the presidential election on October 20.

There were attacks and intimidation by local populace against reporters and media perceived critical of the Morales administration. On August 19, journalists were attacked by a group of persons in Cochabamba who were angry with the “unflattering” coverage the journalists gave to the Morales administration. In response to reports that groups loyal to the Morales government outside of city centers were attacking and harassing journalists, the ANP called for rural populations to “respect the work of journalists.”

During the Morales administration, the websites of the newspapers Sol de Pando, Agencia de Noticias Fides, La Razon, and Pagina Siete, which sometimes published articles critical of the Morales administration, were rendered unavailable by cyberattacks executed by unknown actors.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Prior to the resignation of then president Morales on November 10, his government censored journalists, and journalists practiced self-censorship due to fear of losing their jobs or losing access to government sources, in addition to fear of prosecution and harassment. Human rights organizations reported many reporters were dismissed for reporting on controversial topics that conflicted with the Morales administration.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but prior to the resignation of then president Morales on November 10, civil society groups, in particular but not limited to those critical of the government, faced harassment from Morales government officials.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

In-country Movement: The law prohibits travel on election days and on census days and restricts foreign and domestic travel for up to three months as a penalty for persons who do not vote. A number of politicians opposed to the Morales administration with legal cases against them were prohibited from leaving the country and were required to turn in their passports.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: On March 17, police and immigration officials detained 14 Venezuelan migrants (three women and 11 men) from a migrant shelter in La Paz for having participated in a peaceful demonstration against human rights violations in Venezuela on March 15. According to migrant advocates and media reports, the officers took the migrants to the immigration office and accused them of “conspiracy” and “political activities in exchange for money.” On that same day, five of the migrants were deported; the remaining nine, who had requested asylum, were released. Five of the remaining migrants subsequently fled to Peru due to fear of further abuse. According to Amnesty International, those released feared more repression and arbitrary deportation.

Prior to the resignation of then president Morales on November 10, the Morales administration did not cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern. On December 13, under the transitional government, Foreign Minister Karen Longaric announced the country would provide refugee status to Venezuelan migrants. She explained the majority of Venezuelans were in Bolivia under an irregular status or with temporary permits due to the Morales administration’s regulations. With the financial backing of UNHCR, she announced the status of Venezuelans in the country would be changed to refugee status and future Venezuelan migrants would be admitted as refugees.

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 the National Commission on Refugees. The country has a legal structure and framework to accommodate those seeking refuge and has a registry of refugees and stateless persons. Despite these provisions, as of October the Morales administration had not given Venezuelan migrants asylum or refugee status. According to human rights and migrant advocates, no humanitarian visas were given to Venezuelan migrants from January to November. On December 13, the transitional government announced it would begin granting refugee status to Venezuelan migrants.

Employment: Refugees have the right to work once authorities grant their residency status but not while waiting on pending applications.

Durable Solutions: By law refugees have a path to naturalization, and the government assumes 90 percent of the fees associated with this process. The Morales government did not recognize Venezuelans as refugees or acknowledge the refugee crisis. As a result, as of November no Venezuelans had been granted access to the benefits of this process.

Greece

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these rights. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.

Freedom of Expression: The constitution and law protect freedom of expression but specifically allow restrictions on speech inciting discrimination, hatred, or violence against persons or groups based on their race, skin color, religion, descent, national or ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability, or who express ideas insulting to persons or groups on those grounds.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. On June 10, the government passed legislation requiring vendors who sell print media to stock and display all Greek newspapers and magazines. Penalties for those intentionally breaking the law range from one year’s imprisonment to a fine from 5,000 to 50,000 euros ($5,500 to $55,000). For repeated offenders, the penalty can increase to two years or more in prison.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists were subjected to physical attack, harassment, or intimidation due to their reporting in at least 10 instances. On April 7, a riot police officer in Idomeni, near the border with North Macedonia, kicked a photojournalist covering a migrant protest and later struck the photojournalist in the face and head with his shield. The government and journalist unions condemned the attacks. Seven attacks were led by members of far-right groups who targeted reporters and photojournalists covering rallies protesting the Prespa Agreement between Greece and North Macedonia. Anarchists led other attacks, once torching a journalist’s car at her residence and on December 5, pelting a television crew stationed near the Athens University of Economics and Business with paint. There were no reports of police detentions in these incidents.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government did not censor media. The government maintains an online register with the legal status of local websites, their number of employees, detailed shareholder information, and the tax office they fall under. Once registered, these websites are accredited to accept funding through state advertising, to cover official events, and to benefit from research and training programs of the National Center of Audiovisual Works. All registered websites had to display their certification on their homepage. Although registering was an open and nonobligatory process, outlets failing to do so could be excluded from the accreditation benefits. On April 15, the government launched a similar electronic registry for regional and local press.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law provides criminal penalties for defamation. A law passed February 26 clarifies that individuals convicted of crimes cannot claim slander for discussion of those crimes. This law also removes the provision requiring journalists to appear immediately before a court, or wait in jail until the court opened, in the case they were accused of libel, a provision that had been abused by politicians to intimidate journalists. On February 13, a court convicted then alternate health minister Pavlos Polakis for slander against a deceased reporter whom he had accused of taking bribes from the Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The court ordered the alternate health minister to pay financial damages to the journalist’s family. The government abolished blasphemy laws, effective on July 1.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

In-country Movement: Undocumented migrants arriving at Greek islands were subjected to special border reception and registration procedures and were not allowed to leave registration centers for up to 25 days. After this period, undocumented migrants remaining in those facilities were generally allowed to enter and exit but were prohibited from travelling to the mainland unless they filed asylum applications deemed admissible by the asylum authorities or were identified as “vulnerable.” This group included unaccompanied minors; persons with disabilities; the elderly; pregnant women or those who recently gave birth; single parents with young children; victims of torture, shipwrecks, and other trauma; and victims of human trafficking. Once asylum applications were filed, found admissible, and in process, migrants could move to an accommodation center on the mainland, space permitting. There was no restriction on movement in or out of the mainland accommodation centers. As of September, however, no facilities were available on the mainland even though approximately 7,000 migrants had been deemed vulnerable. The government made efforts to increase placements in the mainland and decongest the island reception and registration facilities, but a steady flow of arrivals, which accelerated during the summer and fall, caused severe overcrowding.

Some local and international NGOs reiterated criticism of the government’s practice of confining asylum seekers to the islands for initial processing exceeding 25 days.

Unaccompanied minors were placed under “protective custody” due to lack of space in specialized shelters (see section 1, Prison and Detention Center Conditions, Physical Conditions).

f. Protection of Refugees

During the year the flow of migrants and asylum seekers to the country from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East continued. As of December 16, UNHCR figures indicated 109,000 migrants and asylum seekers resided throughout the country.

On November 1, parliament amended the asylum legislation. The new rules are designed to speed up decision making on asylum applications and to increase the number of rejected applicants returned to Turkey or to their country of origin. The law, which will take effect on January 1, 2020, establishes extended periods of detention for asylum seekers; ties the treatment of asylum applications to the applicants’ cooperation (or lack thereof) with authorities; alters the appeals committees so they consist exclusively of judges, dropping a position held by a UNHCR designate; requires appeals to be filed and justified through court briefs instead of standardized documents; eliminates “post-traumatic stress disorder” as a factor that would make a refugee considered “vulnerable” and therefore ineligible to be returned to Turkey if their asylum application is denied; and codifies that rejected asylum applicants should immediately return to Turkey or their country of origin. UNHCR, as well as local and international NGOs, including the Greek National Commission for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR), the MSF, and many others, argued the law emphasized returns over protection and integration, put an excessive burden on asylum seekers, focused on punitive measures, and introduced tough requirements an asylum seeker could not reasonably be expected to fulfill.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: According to a wide range of credible sources, including international organizations and NGOs, authorities did not always provide adequate security or physical protection to asylum seekers, particularly those residing in RICs. The RVRN recorded 51 incidents involving racially motivated verbal and physical violence against refugees and migrants in 2018 (Also see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities.)

The separation and protection of vulnerable groups was not implemented at some sites. On February 9, the MSF reported that a 20-year-old male Yazidi refugee at the RIC in Fylakio, Evros, was living in a container with his visually impaired sister, his female cousin suffering from mental health problems, and three unrelated men. Media reported incidences of violence involving asylum seekers, including gender-based violence. On January 8, local and international media reported Oxfam’s findings that asylum-seeking and refugee women were wearing diapers at night for fear of leaving their tents to go to the bathroom. In its report for the rights of “children on the move” in Greece, issued on June 14, the ombudsman noted that children at the RIC in Lesvos were at risk of sexual abuse and exploitation, rape, and assault. The report stated many parents of children, especially single parents, were reluctant to queue for hours for food because they were afraid to expose their children to the risk of violence and sexual abuse. Cases of trading food in exchange for sex were also reported to the ombudsman. On April 11, PACE expressed serious concern regarding the humanitarian situation and the poor security of asylum seekers at RICs on the Greek islands as well as in centers on the mainland.

On January 23, a court in Thessaloniki sentenced a 50-year-old Iraqi man to 20 years’ imprisonment for raping his 16-year-old daughter at a reception facility in Serres.

Refugee and migrant women who were victims of gender-based violence were legally eligible for temporary shelter in government-run homes and for legal and psychosocial assistance, but few of them reported abuse. Some NGO representatives reiterated findings from previous years that even after reporting rapes to the authorities, some victims continued residing in the same camp with the perpetrators.

NGOs noted inadequate medical and psychological care for refugees and asylum seekers, especially in the six RICs, mainly attributed to the government’s inability to hire medical doctors willing to serve in such facilities. Even when the government significantly increased the salaries and reissued calls for recruitment, medical doctors expressed minimal interest.

On February 8, a Communist Party delegation visit to the reception facility in Katsikas, Epirus, noted the absence of medical care, especially for women, newborns, and children, according to media reports.

NGOs also noted inadequate psychological care for refugees and asylum seekers, especially in the six RICs. The MSF reported that 25 percent of the children they worked with in the Moria RIC on Lesvos Island from February to June had either self-harmed, attempted suicide, or had thought about committing suicide.

The government cooperated with UNHCR, the IOM, and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.

Refoulement: The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of asylum seekers to countries in which their lives or freedom would be threatened due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. On October 31, in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Iranian Sharareh Khademi should not be extradited to her country of origin as this would pose an “immediate risk to her life.” The court annulled the decision of a lower-level court that had ruled in favor of the extradition. Khademi and her daughter were victims of domestic violence by an abusive husband and father.

On June 19, the GCR announced it had filed a complaint with the Supreme Court that migrants and asylum seekers were being forced back across the border into Turkey from northeastern Evros in Greece. The GCR stated it had evidence backing the claims of several migrants and asylum seekers who said they were forced back. The GCR reported it had filed three lawsuits on behalf of six Turkish nationals, including a child, who claimed that local authorities had exercised violence to force them back into Turkey. Reportedly, one of the young women, forced back to Turkey, was arrested and taken to a Turkish prison. The GCR noted that despite the growing number of alleged pushbacks, there was no official government reaction.

On June 8, the group Racist Crimes Watch filed a complaint against Hellenic Police in Didimoticho, northern Greece, alleging local police staff beat with batons and fired plastic bullets at a 35-year-old Iraqi national and two Egyptian nationals, ages 18 and 26, prior to forcing them back to Turkey.

On May 5, media reported a letter addressed by the then minister for citizen protection Olga Gerovassili to the UNHCR representative in Greece in response to concerns about pushbacks in the Evros area by security officers. After an investigation, the then minister wrote that the alleged incidents were not proven true. She also noted the absence of any such reporting by Frontex officers who assist the Greek border police in their work. From January to April, police arrested 3,130 third-country nationals in the areas of Orestiada and Alexandroupolis.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing legal protection to refugees through an autonomous asylum service under the authority of the Ministry of Migration Policy. Following the July 7 elections, the Ministry for Migration Policy was folded into the Ministry for Citizen Protection. 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, asylum procedures, and the IOM-assisted voluntary return programs. UNHCR assisted the government with briefings and distribution of multilingual leaflets and information packages on asylum and asylum procedures.

Human rights activists and NGOs working with asylum applicants reported long waits of up to two years for decisions due to time-consuming processes, pre-existing backlogs in the appeals process, and a limited number of appeals committees. Access to the asylum process for persons detained in predeparture centers was also a concern. In its annual report for 2018, the Greek ombudsman reported his office continued to receive complaints from asylum applicants about difficulties in scheduling an appointment and connecting with the Asylum Service system via Skype, especially in Athens and in Thessaloniki. On May 6, local media reported the Greek Asylum Service had a backlog of more than 62,000 cases while an estimated 5,500 new applications were submitted yearly by new entrants.

According to the Asylum Information Database report for 2018, published by GCR on April 21, the average period between preregistration and full registration was 42 days in 2018. The average processing time at first instance was reported at approximately 8.5 months in 2018. Approximately 80 percent of the 58,793 applicants with pending applications at the end of 2018 had not had an interview with the asylum service.

Major delays frequently occurred in the identification of vulnerable persons on the islands, due to a significant lack of qualified staff, which also impacted the asylum procedure.

Asylum applicants from countries other than Syria complained that their asylum applications were delayed while Syrian applications were prioritized. NGOs, international organizations, and human rights activists also reiterated concerns about the lack of adequate staff and facilities; insufficient welfare, integration, counseling, legal, and interpretation services; discrimination; and detention under often inadequate and overcrowded conditions inside the 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.

According to the 2016 joint EU-Turkey statement, 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 (see also section 2.d., Freedom of Movement).

Employment: Recognized refugees and holders of asylum-seeker papers were entitled to work, although this right was not widely publicized or consistently enforced. In 2018 the managing board of the Greek Manpower Organization extended the right to register for official unemployment to asylum seekers and refugees residing in shelters or with no permanent address, allowing them to benefit from training programs and state allowances.

Access to Basic Services: Legally, services such as shelter, health care, education, and judicial procedures are granted to asylum seekers in possession of a valid residency permit; however, staffing gaps, a lack of interpreters, and overcrowded reception sites limited certain asylum seekers’ access to these services. On July 13, the minister for labor and social affairs revoked a June 20 ministerial decree signed by his predecessor that simplified the process for asylum seekers to be granted a social security number (AMKA). The minister argued that the system of granting AMKAs would be re-examined, as it was abused by foreign nationals who should not have received a number. Several NGOs reported problems in securing access for asylum-seeking individuals to basic services, including treatment for chronic diseases. Legal assistance was limited and was offered via NGOs, international organizations, volunteer lawyers, and bar associations.

RICs on islands and in the Evros region continued to be overcrowded, with inadequate shelter, health care, wash facilities, and sewer connections creating security and health concerns. Housing conditions at reception facilities elsewhere on the mainland were generally better, although at times overcrowding hindered access to services. Due to a lack of space, the government in September opened temporary camps on the mainland, providing six-person tents to hundreds of migrants.

Unaccompanied minors living in “protective custody” in police stations had limited or no access to health care or medical services. As of November 30, according to the country’s National Center for Social Solidarity (EKKA), there were 257 unaccompanied children in protective custody (see section 1.c., Prison and Detention Center Conditions, Physical Conditions).

Many vulnerable asylum-seeking individuals were eligible to be sheltered in apartments via a housing framework implemented by UNHCR in cooperation with some NGOs and local municipalities. Conditions in the apartments were significantly better than in reception facilities.

Administrative and facility management staff in reception centers were usually permanent state employees, eight-month government-contracted personnel, and staff contracted by NGOs and international organizations. Media reported cases, especially on the islands, in which assigned staff were inadequate or improperly trained. On June 6, media reported that 40 employees from the Asylum Service offices in Attica, Korinthos and Patras attended a training seminar on statelessness, the Dublin Treaty, and gender-based violence to handle asylum cases more efficiently.

Everyone in the country is entitled to emergency medical care, regardless of legal status. Medical volunteers, NGO-contracted doctors, the Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and army medical doctors provided basic health care in reception centers, referring emergencies and complex cases to local hospitals, which were often overburdened and understaffed. Some individuals suffering from chronic diseases continued to encounter problems obtaining proper medication. Pregnant women in Evros reception and detention facilities continued facing problems in accessing proper medical and prenatal care.

The government failed to identify asylum seekers with nonvisible vulnerabilities, such as victims of torture and trafficking victims, due to gaps and shortages in skilled staff, including medical doctors, at the RICs, several NGOs reported. On January 1, the government officially launched a multidisciplinary national referral mechanism (NRM), which included appropriate standard operating procedures and referral forms. The NRM required first responders to inform and coordinate with the EKKA, when potential victims were identified for care and placement.

Durable Solutions: Refugees may apply for naturalization after three years of residence in the country as a recognized refugee. The government continued to process family reunification applications for asylum seekers with relatives in other countries. The IOM offered voluntary returns to rejected asylum seekers and those who renounced their asylum claims.

Temporary Protection: As of September 30, the government provided temporary protection to approximately 2,578 individuals who may not qualify as refugees.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future