Greece is a constitutional republic and multiparty parliamentary democracy. Legislative authority is vested in a unicameral parliament, which approves a government headed by a prime minister. In July 2019 the country held parliamentary elections that observers considered free and fair. A government formed by the New Democracy Party headed by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis leads the country.
Police are responsible for law enforcement, border security, and the maintenance of order. They are under the authority of the Ministry of Citizen Protection. The same ministry undertook responsibility for prison facilities in 2019. The Coast Guard, responsible for law and border enforcement in territorial waters, reports to the Ministry of Shipping Affairs and Island Policy. The armed forces are under the authority of the Ministry of National Defense. Police and the armed forces share law enforcement duties in certain border areas. Border protection is coordinated by a deputy minister for national defense. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the police, Coast Guard, and armed forces, and the government had effective mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse. Members of security forces committed some abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: the existence of criminal libel laws; unsafe and unhealthy conditions for migrant and asylum-seeking populations detained in preremoval facilities or residing at the country’s six reception and identification centers, including gender-based violence against refugee women and children in reception facilities; allegations of refoulement of refugees; acts of corruption; violence targeting members of national/racial/ethnic minority groups, including some by police; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex persons.
The government regularly took steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, whether in the security forces or elsewhere in the government. There were, however, complaints from nongovernmental organizations and international organizations regarding the lack of government investigation of and accountability for allegations of forced returns of asylum seekers.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The constitution and law prohibit such practices. There were reports, however, that at times police mistreated and abused members of racial and ethnic minority groups, undocumented migrants, asylum seekers, demonstrators, and Roma (see section 2.f., Protection of Refugees, and section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups).
In April a report published by the Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (CPT) referenced cases of mistreatment by police, especially of foreign nationals and persons from the Roma community, a problem that is a frequent practice throughout the country. CPT also reported receiving a high number of credible allegations of excessive use of excessive force, of unduly tight handcuffing upon apprehension, and of physical and psychological mistreatment of criminal suspects during or in the context of police interviews. Some allegations involved the application of a plastic bag over the suspect’s head during police interviews, reportedly with the aim of obtaining a confession and a signed statement. None of the persons who alleged mistreatment was allowed to make a phone call or to contact a lawyer during their initial questioning by the police.
The CPT received a great number of allegations of verbal abuse of detained persons, including racist and xenophobic remarks by police officers. The CPT conducted ad hoc visits to detention and reception facilities around the country on March 13-17, publishing findings from these visits in a report issued on November 19. The report reiterated findings from previous visits, with a number of detained migrants alleging they had been mistreated by Hellenic Police and Coast Guard officials upon apprehension or after being brought to facilities for detention. According to the report, several migrants alleged they were slapped in the head, kicked, and hit with truncheon blows. In some cases the reports were supported by medical evidence. The report also concluded that conditions for detainees held in at least four facilities in Evros and in Samos amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment (see “Prison and Detention Center Conditions”).
The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Movement United Against Racism and the Fascist Threat (KEERFA) reported police at the Menidi police station physically abused 11 Pakistani, Palestinian, Indian, and Albanian migrant detainees after the detainees asked to contact their relatives (see section 6, “National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups”).
Impunity was not a significant problem in the security forces, although NGOs and international organizations complained there was a lack of government investigation of and accountability for violence and other alleged abuses at the border by the coast guard and border patrol forces.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention center conditions included severe overcrowding, insufficient security, lack of access to health care, inadequate access to food and sanitation, and inadequate supplies of resources. Prisoners alleged police mistreatment and physical and verbal abuse (see section 2.f., Protection of Refugees).
Physical Conditions: According to government statistics published in November, prisons exceeded capacity. Nationwide, prisons can accommodate 10,055 individuals; as of November 16, they held 11,468 inmates. Facilities in Volos, central Greece, in Komotini, Evros, and in Tripoli, Peloponnese, exceeded capacity by 219, 220, and 194 percent respectively. An April 9 CPT report referenced instances of women being placed in the same detention area with unrelated adult men, with cell doors left open during the day, thus allowing men to mix with women without adequate supervision. According to the CPT, for most prisoners, work inside prison was largely notional with a lack of organized recreational sports or vocational activities.
On July 23, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Greece violated Articles 3 (prohibition inhuman and degrading treatment) and 13 (right to an effective remedy) during the detention of two foreign nationals in overcrowded and substandard conditions in the Malandrino prison. The court awarded damages of 24,000 euros ($28,800) for both complainants and an additional 2,000 euros ($2,400) for trial expenses.
Fewer violent incidents among detainees occurred in prison facilities compared with the previous year, and there was no loss of life. The government conducted regular and extraordinary inspections for drugs and improvised weaponry. In March prison authorities reportedly conducted 639 inspections in facilities throughout the country. In April the government reported special measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the penitentiary system, including disinfecting prison facilities and government-owned vehicles, and establishing special wings in Athens and in Thessaloniki to isolate confirmed COVID-19 cases. On several occasions, inmates complained that government COVID-19 protection measures were inadequate, with over-congested conditions, insufficient testing, and a lack of access to medical and pharmaceutical care.
On November 19, the government began demolition and construction activities at the site of a former NATO base, in Aspropyrgos, in western greater Athens, where a new prison facility will be built to replace the Korydallos prison complex.
Police detained undocumented migrants and asylum seekers in overcrowded reception and identification centers (RICs) on five islands (Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros, and Kos) and one on the mainland in Evros until the individuals were identified and registered. Individuals were also held in detention facilities and preremoval centers. Following registration at the RICs, residents were allowed some freedom of movement, although it was significantly reduced as part of the government’s efforts to avoid a COVID-19 outbreak.
The RICs, in addition to being overcrowded, provided generally poor housing conditions, insufficient washing and sanitation facilities, as well as poor health services and low security, according to reports by local and international organizations such as Oxfam, Human Rights Watch, the Greek Council for Refugees, and Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). Citing concerns related to COVID-19, MSF warned about the impossibility of maintaining social distancing and engaging in frequent hand washing under such overcrowded and poor conditions. MSF reiterated concerns regarding serious negative mental health impacts from overcrowding. In August and September, several cases of COVID-19 were confirmed among residents of the Vial RIC on Chios and the Moria RIC on Lesvos. On September 9, the Moria Center was destroyed by fire, leaving its more than 12,000 residents without immediate shelter.
On May 22, a female Afghan asylum seeker allegedly stabbed in the neck and killed another female conational at the Moria Center. On July 27, an Afghan resident at the Moria RIC was stabbed to death by three other residents. From January 1 through July 27, local police in Lesvos reported 18 knife attacks at the Moria Center, resulting in six deaths and 14 individuals seriously injured and hospitalized. Gender-based and domestic violence in migrant sites continued to be a major concern, especially during the COVID-19 lockdown.
To address chronic problems at the RICs exacerbated by increased migrant and refugee flows from Turkey to Greece throughout 2019, the government on January 15 issued a presidential decree reinstating a separate and independent Ministry for Migration and Asylum which took over responsibility for the RICs and the refugee sites from the Ministry of Citizen Protection. As part of the government’s measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, approximately 2,000 asylum seekers with health vulnerabilities were transferred from the RICs to the mainland by June. Other measures included placing special containers at the RICs wherefor medical doctors could examine suspected COVID-19 cases, hiring additional medical staff, establishing automated bank teller machines inside the RICs to reduce movement outside the RICs, and a temporary ban on travel to the islands. Movement restrictions outside the RICs applied for most of the year (see section 2.d., Freedom of Movement).
Police also detained in predeparture centers rejected asylum applicants scheduled to be returned to Turkey (which stopped accepting returns on March 16 due to COVID-19), migrants waiting to return home under the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Assisted Voluntary Return Program, undocumented migrants, and migrants suspected of committing a crime. Predeparture centers suffered from overcrowding, limited access to outdoor areas, unsanitary conditions, and limited access to medical treatment, psychological counseling, and legal aid.
In its November 19 report, the CPT reiterated similar findings after visiting a number of migrant detention facilities around the country. The CPT noted that conditions for detainees, including women and children held in at least four facilities in Evros and in Samos, amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment. Detainees in those facilities were allocated less than one square meter of surface per person. The CPT noted that migrants continued to be held in detention facilities with large, barred cells crammed with beds (or sometimes no beds, just filthy mattresses or blankets on the floor), poor lighting and ventilation, and broken and dilapidated toilets and washrooms, inadequate food, insufficient personal hygiene products and cleaning materials, no access to outdoor daily exercise, including for children, no interpretation services, and no access to doctors or lawyers. Often, individuals were held without having knowledge of the reason for their detention.
Administration: Independent authorities investigated credible allegations of inhuman conditions. The Ministry of Citizen Protection, through the Secretariat General for Anticrime Policy, published bimonthly detention-related statistics on the occupancy rate and the design capacity per prison.
Independent Monitoring: The government generally permitted independent authorities and nongovernmental observers to monitor prison and detention center conditions. Government officials controlled access to RICs and official migrant and asylum-seeker camps for NGOs, diplomatic missions, and foreign and domestic journalists, requiring them to submit formal access requests with advance notice for each specific site. For most of the year, special COVID-19-related restrictive measures applied to the RICs and to refugee and migrant accommodation facilities. These measures banned outside visits and limited the range and the duration of residents’ movement outside these facilities.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
f. Protection of Refugees
The government cooperated with UNHCR, IOM, and other organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.
On February 28, Turkish president Erdogan announced that the borders Turkey shares with the EU were “open,” prompting over 50,000 refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants to move to the border areas. Some local Turkish officials provided free buses to aid refugees’ mass movement to the border, according to humanitarian organizations and rights groups.
Citing national security concerns, Greece suspended receiving any asylum claims until April 3 but permitted those who had entered the country since February 28 to apply for asylum starting April 1. International and local human rights agencies and organizations, including Oxfam, the Greek Council for Refugees, and the UN special rapporteur for the rights of migrants, raised concern about the deprivation of liberties. On March 9, the European Court for Human Rights rejected an application filed by three Syrian nationals to lift the government’s suspension of reception of new asylum claims.
On March 11, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government again suspended asylum services that could not be conducted electronically or with social distancing, but required a physical presence. During this period the government extended the deadline for asylum seekers to apply for and renew residence permits. The government also extended the deadline from March 31 to May 31 for recognized refugees to remain in the cash assistance program and in government-funded housing.
On July 6, the NGO Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) reported that the public prosecutor on Lesvos pressed criminal charges for illegal entry against asylum seekers who arrived on the island during March, when the government had suspended asylum applications. HIAS reported that the lives of approximately 850 persons were impacted by the prosecutor’s decision. According to HIAS, “the criminal prosecution of asylum seekers for unauthorized entry, while the government itself had suspended submission of new asylum applications is illegal.”
During the year, the flow of migrants and asylum seekers to the country from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East continued, though in reduced numbers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and enhanced border protection surveillance. As of September 30, UNHCR figures indicated 121,100 migrants and asylum seekers resided in the country.
On January 1, a law amending asylum regulations took effect. The law was designed to speed up decision-making on asylum applications. It established extended periods of detention for asylum seekers and ties the treatment of asylum applications to the applicants’ cooperation (or lack thereof) with authorities. It altered the composition of the appeals committees to consist exclusively of judges, dropping a position held by a UNHCR designate. The law required appeals to be filed and justified through court briefs instead of standardized documents, eliminated post-traumatic stress disorder as a factor for designating whether a refugee was considered “vulnerable” and therefore ineligible to be returned to Turkey or their country of origin if their asylum application is denied, and. It codified that rejected asylum applicants should immediately return to Turkey or their country of origin. UNHCR, local and international NGOs, including the Greek National Commission for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, the Greek Council for Refugees, MSF, and other organizations argued the law emphasizes returns over protection and integration, puts an excessive burden on asylum seekers, focuses on punitive measures, and introduces requirements an asylum seeker could not reasonably be expected to fulfill.
On March 10, the government passed legislation reducing free shelter and cash assistance benefits to asylum seekers to one month (down from six months) after receiving refugee status, with the exception of unaccompanied minors. On May 12, the government amended the asylum law so asylum seekers deemed vulnerable are not prioritized. The new law establishes a secretariat in charge of unaccompanied minors under the Ministry for Migration and Asylum instead of under the National Center for Social Solidarity. The law sets tighter deadlines for issuing decisions on claims filed by asylum seekers in detention from 20 to 10 days. The law precipitates the process for the issuance of decisions after appeals were filed; unifies the registration process at the RICs and the Asylum Service into one step; and introduces sign language, as appropriate, as well as the official language of a country as an acceptable alternative to the language requested by applicants for interpretation.
If authorities decide to halt an asylum case, the applicant can, within nine months, either request that the process be restarted or file a new claim. In such cases, until there is a final decision, the asylum applicant cannot be deported or returned. Under the same law, if an appeal is rejected, applicants (except unaccompanied minors), must be detained at a predeparture center until they are returned. The filing of a subsequent application or a request for annulment of a decision does not automatically end the detention.
On January 3, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Citizen Protection issued a joint decree naming 12 countries of origin of asylum seekers that the government considers safe: Ghana, Senegal, Togo, Gambia, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Albania, Georgia, Ukraine, India, and Armenia. Applicants from “safe” countries of origin undergo a fast-track process for reviewing their asylum claim and are required to demonstrate why their country is not safe for their return.
Human rights activists and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community argued that the vast majority of asylum applicants from these countries were either persecuted due to their sexual orientation and gender identity or faced serious threats to their lives, many due to their LGBTI status. On July 7, the Greek NGO Diotima reported on a Moroccan female transgender asylum seeker whose application and appeal had been rejected and who faced deportation. Diotima asked that she be granted international protection, arguing that her life would be at risk due to her sexual orientation if she returned to Morocco. On October 14, the court accepted her claim, annulling the deportation order on the grounds that she would face arrest, imprisonment, and abuse if sent back to her country (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Discrimination and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Authorities did not always provide adequate security or physical protection to asylum seekers, particularly those residing in the overcrowded RICs.
Local and international media, human rights NGOs, and international organizations reported that asylum seekers personally testified that at the Greece-Turkey land border they were physically abused and deprived of their personal belongings, including their money and cell phones, prior to being returned to Turkey.
On March 4, a man was shot and killed while trying to cross the border from Turkey to Greece amid violent clashes at the Evros border (see section 2.f., Refoulement). Some NGOs reported he was shot by Greek security forces, likely by accident. On May 12, more than 100 members of the European Parliament addressed a letter to the head of the European Commission, calling for a formal investigation into the death. A government spokesman on March 10 “explicitly denied” that Greek security forces were involved in the incident.
The CPT reported receiving “credible allegations of migrants being pushed back across the Evros land border to Turkey.” The CPT also raised concerns over the Coast Guard preventing migrants’ boats from reaching the country’s islands or pushing back migrants who had arrived within the country’s territory.
In many instances, newly arrived migrants and asylum seekers on the islands, including pregnant women and children, stayed for days in the open air, without shelter, food, and other care, waiting to be temporarily transferred to a quarantine facility and processed for registration to the RICs. The separation and protection of vulnerable groups was not implemented at some sites due to overcrowding, lack of alternative housing, and restrictions in movement due to the pandemic.
NGOs, including Diotima, stated the COVID-19 lockdown and restriction measures employed at the RICs for most of the year resulted in more gender-based violence but with fewer of these incidents being reported. Refugee and migrant women who are victims of gender-based violence are legally eligible for temporary shelter in government-run homes and for legal and psychosocial assistance, but few reported abuse, according to aid organizations. Some NGO representatives reiterated findings from previous years that even after reporting rapes to the authorities, some victims continued residing in the same camp as the perpetrators.
Authorities recorded numerous other violent incidents, including clashes among residents of various nationalities occurring mostly in the RICs, often resulting in injuries and deaths. The RVRN recorded 51 incidents involving racially motivated verbal and physical violence against refugees and migrants in 2019 (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).
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.
Several international media reported on allegations of pushbacks. A New York Times article on August 14 claimed the country illegally pushed back at least 1,072 asylum seekers and migrants who arrived in Greek territory, citing at least 31 incidents in which groups were sent back to Turkey. In a public statement on June 11, the IOM in Geneva expressed concern about “persistent reports of pushbacks and collective expulsions of migrants, in some cases violent, at the EU border between Greece and Turkey.” The IOM called on authorities to investigate the alleged incidents, for all states to avoid militarizing border patrols, and to continue “ensuring protection-sensitive border management, aligned with international law.” The following day, June 12, UNHCR issued a statement stating “the present allegations go against Greece’s international obligations and can expose people to grave danger.” Several respected media outlets published investigative reports between May and July saying security forces pushed refugees back into Turkey. The methods reportedly include disabling (sometimes by assailants covered head-to-toe in black) the engines of boats full of asylum seekers so the boats drift back to Turkey, putting the migrants on tent-like life rafts which have a motor but cannot be steered and were pointed toward Turkey, or simply towing the boats into Turkish waters and cutting the line.
The government stated border protection operations were carried out in cooperation with the European Union Agency Frontex. Prime Minister Mitsotakis publicly affirmed the country operated according to international law. On November 12, Frontex stated that a preliminary internal investigation found no evidence of direct or indirect involvement by Frontex or EU member-state officials in refugee pushbacks at the Greece-Turkey border. Media and NGO reports continued to allege that pushbacks were a standard practice. The Frontex Management Board agreed to organize a subgroup under its authority to carry out an investigation on the matter.
Prime Minister Mitsotakis and other government officials, including the ministers for migration and asylum, for citizen protection and for shipping affairs and island policy, denied any wrongdoing, affirmed the country’s commitment to international law, and blamed the reports on Turkish disinformation campaigns. In public remarks on March 3, after border guards repelled attempts over several days by thousands of apparent refugees to cross the land border with Turkey at Evros, Mitsotakis said the issue was “no longer a refugee problem” and called Turkey a “safe country.” He charged that Turkey was instead using “desperate people to promote its geopolitical agenda and to divert attention from the horrible situation in Syria. The tens of thousands of people who tried to enter Greece over the past few days did not come from Idlib. They have been living safely in Turkey for a long period of time; most of them speak Turkish fluently.” Other officials similarly have argued that the country is protecting its borders in response to Turkish efforts designed to pressure the country and the EU. They described Turkey as a “safe country,” meaning that returning asylum seekers to Turkey is not refoulement.
On March 31, the president of the Council of State agreed to temporarily halt the extradition of two Afghan women on vulnerability grounds. The applicants had filed a petition for the suspension of the order that temporarily barred asylum applications. The order would have forced their deportation without allowing them to seek protection through asylum. The president denied a similar request by a third Afghan female plaintiff.
Access to Asylum: The law establishes procedures for granting 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 and Asylum. 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 IOM-assisted voluntary return programs. UNHCR assisted the government with briefings and the distribution of multilingual leaflets and information packages on asylum and asylum procedures.
The Asylum Service, including regional asylum offices and autonomous asylum units, suspended in-person services between March 13 and May 15 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During that period, applications for international protection and appeals at second instance were not registered by the authorities and interviews were not conducted. With the exception of asylum applicants at the centers on Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Leros, and Kos, the government renewed for an additional six months asylum seekers’ residence permits that would have expired between March 13 and May 31. The Asylum Service resumed operations on May 18, with many administrative procedures (such as changes to addresses, telephone numbers, personal data, the separation of files, the procurement of copies from the personal file, the rescheduling and the prioritization of hearings, the provision of legal aid etc.) able to be completed online.
Starting March 22, authorities restricted movement and generally did not allow visitors at the RICs and several reception facilities. In a July 4 ministerial decree, these measures were expanded to all reception facilities around the country. Residents were required to stay within the perimeter of the reception center, and movement outside the camps was permitted only from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., with no more than 150 residents allowed to exit every hour, and only in groups no larger than 10 persons. All visits or activities inside the RICs were banned unless they related to accommodation, food provision, or medical care, or were authorized by the management of the center or camp. Access to legal services was also subject to management authorization. Human rights groups criticized those restrictions as being more severe than those applied to the general population.
On May 19, human rights activists and NGOs working with asylum applicants, including Oxfam and the Greek Council for Refugees, expressed concerns about what they called “a practice by the authorities of issuing mass rejections,” arguing that the mass rejections undermined individuals’ right to a fair asylum procedure. In their statement both organizations estimated that only a fraction of those whose initial applications were rejected were able to access legal support granted by the state, due to restrictions in movement, the tight 10-day deadline for submitting an appeal, and the overall structural difficulties for navigating the highly complex asylum procedure. On April 27, the Greek Council for Refugees reported that in 2019 only 33 percent of the asylum seekers who had lodged an appeal at second instance had benefitted from free legal assistance. The Greek Council for Refugees called this “an administrative practice incompatible with the EU law,” albeit quasi-standardized and generalized.
Access to the asylum process for persons detained in predeparture centers remained a concern. According to the Asylum Information Database annual report, updated by the Greek Council for Refugees on June 23, the average processing time in 2019 for asylum applications exceeded 10 months. Out of 87,461 applications pending at the end of 2019, the personal interview had not yet taken place in 71,396 (approximately 82 percent) of them. For nearly 48,000 of the applications pending at the end of 2019, the interview was scheduled for the second half of 2020 or even after. Fast-track Syria Unit applicants received interview appointments for 2021, while applicants from Iraq and from African countries were scheduled to be interviewed in late 2023. Interview dates for applicants from Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan were set as far ahead as 2024.
In his annual report for 2019, the ombudsman confirmed, while sourcing the Asylum Service regional offices in Athens and in Thessaloniki, that the average waiting time for the examination of asylum applications by nationals with high recognition rates (from Turkey, Afghanistan, and Iran) exceeded three years. On November 12, the Ministry of Migration and Asylum presented data indicating that the number of asylum decisions increased by 73 percent compared with 2019, and the number of pending asylum decisions decreased by 37 percent. According to the ministry, as of October 30, 82,646 initial decisions were pending and 4,976 more decisions were pending at the Appeals Authority.
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 EU-Turkey statement, every undocumented migrant crossing from Turkey to 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 section 2.d., Freedom of Movement). Citing the COVID-19 pandemic, on March 16 Turkey suspended all returns of rejected asylum applicants from the five island centers until further notice. From the beginning of the year until then, a total of 139 rejected asylum seekers were returned to Turkey.
Employment: Recognized refugees and holders of asylum-seeker papers were entitled to work, although this right was not widely publicized or consistently enforced. There were limited options for employment, made scarcer by the pandemic.
Access to Basic Services: Legally, services such as shelter, health care, education, and judicial procedures are granted to asylum seekers with a valid residency permit. However, asylum seekers had limited access to these services due to overcrowding in reception sites, overburdened hospitals and health units, restrictions in movement, and staffing gaps due to the pandemic.
Everyone in the country is entitled to emergency medical care, regardless of legal status. Medical volunteers, NGO-contracted doctors, the National Organization for Public Health, and army medical doctors provided basic health care in reception centers and referred emergencies and complex cases to local hospitals, which were often overburdened and understaffed. MSF was forced to close a medical clinic on Lesvos after protesters threw rocks at volunteers. Their press release noted a rise in “aggressive behavior towards asylum seekers and refugees, as well as humanitarian organizations and volunteers.”
Some individuals suffering from chronic diseases encountered problems obtaining proper medication. Asylum seekers lacking a permanent or provisional social security number faced particular difficulty in accessing medical, mental health, and pharmaceutical care, with those suffering from chronic diseases being left without treatment for a considerable amount of time.
On October 11, Migration and Asylum Minister Notis Mitarachis announced that asylum seekers would receive a bank account, taxpayer identification number, and social security number upon completing their initial registration, allowing asylum seekers to rent an apartment, get a job, and receive medical care.
Once granted asylum, new refugees were provided one month in subsidized housing. It remained difficult in that time span to receive documents required to apply for a job, rent a house, or receive the health booklet needed for some medical services. Passports to leave the country temporarily were easily obtainable.
The government operated facilities staffed with basic medical personnel outside the RICs and reception facilities in the mainland for the examination and isolation of possible COVID-19 cases. Media and NGOs, including MSF, reported funding gaps which delayed or disrupted the operation of these facilities. They also underscored the difficulty in practicing social distancing in congested environments that lacked washing facilities, antiseptics, and sufficient masks.
The government enforced a different protocol for the management of COVID-19 outbreaks in reception camps than for other enclosed population groups. The government protocol, known as the Agnodiki Plan, requires facilities to be quarantined and all cases (confirmed and suspected) to be isolated. If outbreaks occur at other enclosed population groups (such as nursing homes), vulnerable individuals are to be immediately moved from the site to safe accommodations, while all confirmed and suspected cases are isolated off-site in a separate facility.
RICs on islands and in the Evros region continued to be overcrowded despite intense government efforts to decongest them. Shelter, health care, wash facilities, and sewer connections were inadequate, often raising security and health concerns. Housing conditions at reception facilities elsewhere on the mainland were generally better, although at times overcrowding and remoteness from urban centers hindered access to services.
Many vulnerable asylum seekers were eligible to be sheltered in apartments via the ESTIA housing program implemented by UNHCR in cooperation with some NGOs and local municipalities. Conditions in the apartments were significantly better than in reception facilities. IOM implemented a program for sheltering asylum seekers in short-term facilities such as hotels. Throughout July media reported on several cases of recognized refugees staying in the streets after they had to leave EU- and government-sponsored accommodation. An unknown number of homeless refugees were temporarily accommodated in big tents at reception camps around Attica (Elaionas, Skaramangas, Schisto, Malakasa.)
Unaccompanied minors living in “protective custody” in police stations had limited or no access to health care or medical services. As of October 15, according to the country’s National Center for Social Solidarity, 176 unaccompanied children were in protective custody (see section 1.c., Prison and Detention Center Conditions, Physical Conditions). On November 18, the Ministry for Migration and Asylum reported that all 170 unaccompanied minors who had been in protective custody were transferred to suitable facilities.
Durable Solutions: Refugees may apply for naturalization after seven years of residence in the country as a recognized refugee per a change in the law that took effect March 11. The previous requirement was three years. The government processed 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, offering in some cases 2,000 euros ($2,400) as an inducement.
Temporary Protection: As of February 29, the government provided temporary protection to approximately 599 individuals who may not qualify as refugees.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were often cooperative and responsive to their views. COVID-19 restrictions, however, impeded access to reception and detention facilities for migrants on the islands and–in certain circumstances–to official camps on the mainland.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Ombudsman, a state body considered independent and effective, investigated complaints of human rights abuses by individuals. Five deputy ombudsmen dealt with human rights, children’s rights, citizen-state relations, health and social welfare, and quality of life problems, respectively. The office received adequate resources to perform its functions. In its 2019 annual report, the office reported receiving 16,976 complaints, of which 73 percent were satisfactorily resolved.
The autonomous, state-funded National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) advised the government on protection of human rights. The NCHR was considered independent, effective, and adequately resourced.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: Under a law that took effect in 2019, rape, including spousal rape, is a crime punishable by 10 years’ up to life imprisonment in cases with multiple perpetrators or if the rape results in the victim’s death. The previous limit was five to 20 years. Attempted sexual intercourse without consent is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Charges may be pressed ex officio, without the need of a complaint. If the victim does not wish to seek prosecution, the prosecutor may decide to drop charges. The law applies equally to all survivors, regardless of gender.
In 2019 media reported research showing that only 200 of an estimated average of 4,500 rape incidents per year were officially reported (approximately one out of 22). On May 5, media reported statistics from the Secretariat General for Family Planning and Gender Equality indicating an increase in violent incidents, including domestic violence, during the general lockdown in March and in April for COVID-19. The secretariat’s hotline received 1,070 calls reporting violent incidents in April, of which 648 referred to domestic violence, compared with 325 and 166, respectively, in March. Seven out of 10 incidents were reported by the victims themselves, mostly spouses and life partners (61 percent), children (10 percent), ex-spouses and former life partners (8 percent), and parents and siblings (9 percent). The data prompted the secretariat to conduct a wide campaign, involving television, internet and radio spots, to inform victims of domestic violence about their available options to escape from abusive behavior. Experts from the secretariat’s counselling services noted in parliament during September sessions of the special interparliamentary committee on gender equality that victims were reluctant to file complaints during the lockdown but after restrictions were lifted, complaints tripled and sometimes quadrupled.
On November 25, a survey ordered by the Ministry of Citizen Protection and its official think tank, the Center for Security Research, showed that more than three out of 10 women were abused during the spring lockdown. The survey, conducted from July to October, collected responses from 750 women. Of respondents, 36 percent reported suffering an abuse, with most of the victims being women ages 38 to 39, married, and with an average of two children. Eight in 10 of the perpetrators were men with a median age of 45, and four in 10 were college graduates, worked at full-time jobs, and had no history of violence.
Penalties for domestic violence range from one to three years’ imprisonment, depending on the severity of the violence. The previous range was two to 10 years. The court may impose longer prison sentences for crimes against pregnant or minor victims. Authorities generally enforced the law effectively when the violence was reported; however, some NGOs and international organizations criticized law enforcement in migrant sites for not responding appropriately to victims reporting domestic violence. Experts estimated only 10 percent of rape and domestic violence cases reached the courtroom, noting that despite an adequate legislative framework, judges’ personal biases and social norms that blame the victim were major obstacles. In 2019 police recorded 229 reported rape incidents, 62 of which were attempted rapes. Police reported identifying the perpetrators in 161 cases of rape and attempted rape. The number of identified perpetrators was 227.
The government and NGOs made medical, psychological, social, and legal support available to rape survivors.
Two popular television hosts were suspended for five days and fined 150,000 euros ($180,000) in January for comments they made in November 2019 making light of an incident in which a woman said a man sexually assaulted her in a public space at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law requires mandatory prison sentences for persons who coerce or force female individuals to undergo genital mutilation.
Despite anecdotal reports that migrant and refugee women residing in the country underwent FGM/C prior to their arrival in Greece, there was no evidence FGM/C was practiced in the country. In 2019 the European Institute for Gender Equality issued a study estimating that 25 to 42 percent of migrant and refugee girls living in the country but originating from states in which FGM/C is practiced were at risk of FGM/C.
Sexual Harassment: Under the new penal code, enforced since 2019, penalties may be as high as three years in prison for sexual harassment, with longer terms applied to perpetrators who take advantage of their position of authority or the victim’s need for employment. The previous penalty ranged from two months to five years. On November 24, NGO ActionAid reported that 85 percent of women in Greece were subjected to sexual harassment. The research took place from July to September based on a sample of 1,001 women from across the country and an additional 376 women working in tourism and catering. Based on the same research, only 6 percent officially denounced these incidents. In his 2019 annual report, the ombudsman reported his office received 335 complaints pertinent to gender equality, without specifying how many were related to sexual harassment, noting, however, that complaints on gender equality grounds were among the highest in numbers for calendar year 2019 (335 of 16,976). This trend was also reflected in the ombudsman’s special report on nondiscrimination and equal treatment for 2019. Of the 1,176 complaints received in 2019, 44 percent cited discrimination on gender equality grounds. In these reports, as well as in previous years, the ombudsman noted the absence of a policy against sexual harassment in most private and public workplaces, oftentimes combined with inadequate investigation of reported incidents.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children, and to manage their reproductive health with access to the information and the means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. Some pregnant women and new mothers, particularly those residing in the five reception and identification centers for asylum seekers on the North Aegean islands during the COVID-19 pandemic, reportedly faced obstacles in accessing proper health care. There were no legal, social, and cultural barriers to access to contraceptives. The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Discrimination: The constitution provides for the same legal status between women and men. The government effectively enforced the laws promoting gender equality, although discrimination occurred, especially in the private sector. Muslim minority persons in Thrace can request the use of sharia with notarized consent of both parties (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups).
Legislation passed in 2019 established a National Council on Gender Equality and created a certification for companies that comply with maternity leave laws, provide equal pay for male and female employees, and demonstrate gender equality in managerial posts.
A widespread perception still exists among private businesses that a pregnant employee is a burden, according to the 2019 annual antidiscrimination report from the ombudsman.
Trafficking in Persons
Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups
While the constitution and law prohibit discrimination against members of minority groups, Roma and members of other minority groups continued to face discrimination.
On May 18, a citizen residing in Heraklion, Crete, reported local police physically abused him as he headed home from work, assuming he was a migrant. According to the victim’s complaint, police told him to stop for an inspection, saying, “Hey Pakistani, pull aside.” He reported that police then punched, kicked, and threatened him with retaliation if he filed a complaint. On May 20, police announced the launch of an investigation into the incident. No outcome of this investigation had been made public by the year’s end.
On June 6, the NGO Movement United against Racism and the Fascist Threat denounced police attacks on individuals before or during their detention. According to the NGO, during the June 4 Eid al-Fitr celebration, police officers at the Menidi police station, in the Athens region, physically abused 11 Pakistani, Palestinian, Indian, and Albanian migrant detainees after the detainees asked to contact their relatives.
On December 26, according to media sources, a group of about 10 men armed with sticks, knives, and iron bars shouted racist slogans and attempted to enter a shelter for unaccompanied minors in Oreokastro, northern Greece, operated by the Church of Greece for refugee children between the ages of eight and 15. Four minors who were attacked in the yard of the facility were transferred to a hospital for treatment. One of them experienced severe respiratory problems after being beaten on the chest. Numerous political parties condemned the attack, and a lawyer representing the facility filed a formal complaint. On December 27, police arrested two persons, a 38-year-old father and his 13-year-old son, for participating in the attack. At the end of the year, the investigation was ongoing.
On October 14, media reported that a court in Athens ruled in favor of 47 female migrant cleaning workers whose contracts with the municipality of Athens were terminated because they could not certify knowledge of the Greek language, as per a new Ministry of Interior regulation. The court said all 47 women should be given their jobs back.
Although the government recognizes an individual’s right to self-identification, many individuals who defined themselves as members of a minority group found it difficult to express their identity freely and to maintain their culture. Some citizens identified themselves as Turks, Pomaks, Vlachs, Roma, Arvanites, or Macedonians. Some unsuccessfully sought official government identification as ethnic or linguistic minorities. Courts routinely rejected registration claims filed by associations in Thrace with titles including the terms Turk and Turkish when based on ethnic grounds. Individuals may legally call themselves Turks, and associations using those terms were able to function regularly without legal status (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association). Government officials and courts have denied requests by Slavic groups to use the term Macedonian to identify themselves on the grounds that more than two million ethnically (and linguistically) Greek citizens also used the term Macedonian for self-identification.
The law recognizes a Muslim religious minority, as defined by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which consists of persons descended from Muslims residing in Thrace at the time of the treaty’s signature. These persons can be in ethnic Turkish, Pomak, and Romani communities. Some Pomaks and Roma claimed that ethnically Turkish members of the Muslim minority provided monetary incentives to encourage them to say they were ethnically Turkish.
During the 2019-20 school year, the government operated 115 primary schools and two secondary schools in the Thrace region that provided secondary bilingual education in Greek and Turkish for minority children. The government also operated two Islamic religious schools in Thrace. Some representatives of the Muslim minority said the facilities were inadequate to cover their needs, and claimed the government ignored their request to privately establish an additional minority secondary school. The same representatives noted a decreasing number of primary-level minority schools, which the government attributed to a decreasing number of students. Per the law, any facility with fewer than nine students must temporarily suspend operations, with students referred to neighboring schools. For the 2019-20 school year, authorities announced that 20 schools had suspended operations in the region of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace, five of which were minority schools. On April 28, an additional two minority schools suspended operation for the school period 2020-21 as per a ministerial decision, due to low attendance.
Roma continued to face widespread governmental and societal discrimination, social exclusion, and harassment, including ethnic profiling by police, alleged abuse while in police custody, discrimination in employment, limited access to education, and segregated schooling. The ombudsman wrote in his 2019 annual report that local authorities did not help to improve the living and social conditions of the Roma, which would gradually assist them to integrate. The lack of integration led to more complaints of tension between Roma and non-Roma. The ombudsman praised local governments that implemented integration practices.
On July 7, the NGO Racist Crimes Watch filed a complaint with police, claiming that police on motorcycles had beaten two Roma in the Athens suburb of Vrilissia because police falsely believed the Roma had conducted a robbery in the area on June 28. The NGO argued that police engaged in ethnic profiling.
Poor school attendance, illiteracy, and high dropout rates among Romani children were problems. Authorities did not enforce the mandatory education law for Romani children, and local officials often excluded Romani pupils from schools or sent them to Roma-only segregated schools.
On March 11, the government abolished legislation allowing Roma born in Greece to parents without official registration to gain Greek citizenship.
On July 10, the European Court of Human Rights accepted the request for interim measures in the case of Romani tent-dwellers residing in Aspropyrgos, in greater Athens, who were to be evicted by the local municipality. The court suspended the eviction until July 27 and asked Greek authorities to provide timely information about the legal grounds of their case, including eviction protocols and alternative housing solutions. On July 6, the UN Human Rights Committee, following a petition by the NGO Greek Helsinki Monitor, suspended the eviction of seven other Romani individuals, also residents of Aspropyrgos, until their appeal of the eviction could be heard.
On March 11, a Thessaloniki court blocked the enforcement of a board decision by the municipality of Thermaikos, in northern Greece, to evict approximately 200 Roma families residing in makeshift homes in an area called Tsairia. The court deemed that the municipality did not offer an alternative site for relocation. The local mayor, George Tsamaslis, vowed to appeal the decision, arguing that finding “a new home” for the Roma was not among the city’s responsibilities.
Local media and NGOs reported race- and hate-motivated attacks on migrants, allegedly by far-right individuals acting alone or in groups. In its annual report for 2019, the RVRN reported that, despite a decrease in incidents of organized violence since 2013, “a significant number of the attacks showed signs of a structured organization or organized group.” More than 50 percent of the incidents recorded by the RVRN in 2019 (51 of 100) targeted migrants, refugees, or asylum seekers on grounds of ethnic origin, religion, or skin color. The RVRN also noted “aggression against refugees in other aspects of daily life” as well as “a wider targeting of people of African origin, compared to previous years.”
On October 7, Greek courts determined the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party had operated as a criminal organization that systematically targeted members of ethnic and religious minorities, including Muslim and Jewish persons, with hate speech and violence. The court found 18 former members of parliament guilty of participating in a criminal enterprise, and found 16 members guilty of the 2013 murder of anti-Fascist activist Pavlos Fysass. The historic decision ended a trial which lasted more than five years, the longest in Greek history, and resulted in prison sentences of 13 years for seven leading figures of the group.
On July 2, an Athens court found Panayotis Papagiannis, a leading member of the Krypteia Fascist and nationalist group, guilty of a number of racist attacks, including arson at the headquarters of the Afghan community in Athens, and sentenced him to a five-year prison term.
In July the coordinator for refugee education at the Malakasa camp, Konstantinos Kalemis, made racist comments on social media regarding Giannis Antetokounmpo, a Greek player in the National Basketball Association. Kalemis commented on an interview in which Antetokounmpo said growing up in Greece was difficult because of the racial divide and because he constantly feared his parents would be deported. Minister of Education and Religious Affairs Niki Kerameus removed Kalemis from his post on July 24, noting that “such insulting and racist behavior has no place in the Greek educational system.”
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
While the law prohibits discrimination with respect to employment of individuals with HIV, societal discrimination against persons with HIV or AIDS remained a problem. Persons with HIV or AIDS were exempt on medical grounds from serving in the armed forces. A presidential decree authorizes the dismissal of professional military staff members if a member diagnosed with AIDS does not respond to treatment, but there were no reports of military staff dismissals under this provision.
On January 28, the NGO Positive Voice reported on a patient who was hospitalized in isolation from other inmates solely because he had HIV. Hospital personnel moved him from his original room–which he shared with other patients–and announced he would have to use a separate bathroom from others, as well as disposable plates, cups, and cutlery. Hospital personnel did not respect the patient’s privacy and dignity, the NGO said. In a public statement, the NGO noted instances in which HIV is used as a pretext by medical staff to delay or deny the provision of medical services.
Section 7. Worker Rights
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law prohibits discrimination with respect to employment and occupation based on race, religion, national origin, skin color, sex (including pregnancy), ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, HIV or AIDS status, or refugee or stateless status.
The government did not always effectively enforce these laws and regulations. Penalties for violations were commensurate with other laws related to denials of civil rights. Discrimination with respect to employment and occupation based on race, sex (including pregnancy), disability, HIV status, social status, age, sexual orientation, and gender identity occurred.
In his 2019 report on equal treatment, the ombudsman reiterated previous findings about pregnancy and maternity being treated by the employers as problems, at times resulting in dismissals from work. The ombudsman reported cases of interventions with employers in the state and private sectors in support of employees who faced discrimination on grounds of disability, sex, religion, and HIV status. The ombudsman reported on the case of a Muslim female student, practicing to becoming a nurse, who was prohibited by her superior at a public hospital from wearing a headscarf at work. The ombudsman reported that as of the end of the year the case remained open and was still under investigation. A study by ActionAid released November 24 showed that 85 percent of more than 1,300 women surveyed said they had been subjected to sexual harassment (see section 6, Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons).
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
By ministerial decree the government sets the national minimum salary for employees in the private sector and for unspecialized workers. These wages were above the poverty income level.
The maximum legal workweek is 40 hours. The law provides for at least one 24-hour rest period per week, mandates paid vacation of one month per year, and sets limits on the amount of overtime work which, based on conditions, may exceed eight hours in a week. The law regarding overtime work requires premium pay, and employers must submit information to the Ministry of Labor for authorization. Premium pay ranged from an additional 20 to 80 percent of the daily wage, based on the total number of extra hours and the day (Sundays, holidays, etc.), and whether it was night service. Employers also provided compensatory time off. These provisions were not effectively enforced in all sectors, particularly in tourism, catering services, retail businesses, agriculture, the informal economy, or for domestic or migrant workers.
In 2019 the government passed new laws making it easier to terminate an employee, abolishing provisions that a contractor or subcontractor had to provide suitable reasons for the legal termination of an employee’s contract. In 2019 the parliament passed legislation increasing the minimum hourly wage of part-time workers by 12 percent for every additional hour worked above a four-hour ceiling. Under the same legislation, the first five hours worked after a 40-hour work week are no longer considered overtime. Employers were required in such cases, however, to pay an additional 20 percent of the hourly wage.
The government did not always enforce wage and overtime laws effectively. Penalties for violations were commensurate with other similar violations. Unions and media alleged some private businesses forced their employees to return in cash part of their wages and mandatory seasonal bonuses after depositing them in the bank. Unions and media also alleged that some employers forced employees to unlawfully work while their contracts were temporarily suspended due to the pandemic during the time they were receiving subsidy allowances by the state instead of their salaries. Sometimes employees were officially registered as part-time employees but worked additional hours without being paid. Overtime work was not always registered officially or paid accordingly. In other cases employees were paid after months of delay and oftentimes with coupons, not cash. Such violations were noted mostly in the tourism, agriculture, and housekeeping sectors. On February 18, media reported that a misdemeanors court in Kalamata, Peloponnese, sentenced to eight months in prison an employer who threatened his employees with dismissal if they did not return the full amount of seasonal bonuses in cash after it was deposited to their bank accounts.
The law provides for minimum standards of occupational health and safety, placing the responsibility for identifying unsafe situations on occupational safety and health experts and not the workers. Workers have the right to file a confidential complaint with the labor inspectorate regarding hazardous working conditions and to remove themselves from such situations without jeopardizing their employment. Owners who repeatedly violate the law concerning undeclared work or safety standards could face temporary closure of their businesses. Under the same law, employers are obliged to declare in advance their employees’ overtime work or changes in their work schedules. The legislation provides for social and welfare benefits to be granted to surrogate mothers, including protection from dismissal during pregnancy and after childbirth. Courts are required to examine complaints filed by employees against their employers for delayed payment within two months of their filing, and to issue decisions within 30 days after the hearing.
The Labor Inspectorate is responsible for enforcement of labor law. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs is responsible for all concerns regarding occupational safety and health at the national level. Per the 2019 presidential decree, the Labor Inspectorate and the General Directorate for Labor Relations, Health, Safety and Inclusion at Work were both brought under the General Secretariat for Labor. The directorate is the principal authority overseeing labor conditions in both the private and public sectors, except for mining and marine shipping (which fall under the Ministry of Development and Investment and the Ministry of Shipping and Island Policy, respectively). Labor experts characterized health and safety laws as satisfactory but stated that enforcement by the Labor Inspectorate was inadequate. Penalties for violations were commensurate to those of similar crimes, but the number of labor inspectors was insufficient to enforce compliance. Inspectors have the authority to conduct unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions.
Authorities can temporarily close businesses that hire undeclared employees, and can permanently close businesses that repeatedly violate the law. Nonetheless, trade unions and media reiterated that enforcement of labor standards was inadequate in the shipping, tourism, and agriculture sectors. Enforcement was also lacking among enterprises employing 10 or fewer persons.
At least 15 workers were injured or killed as a result of work accidents, according to media reports. There was one major industrial accident which resulted in the injury of four workers on February 3. In November 2019 an Athens first instance court ruled that work-related stress falls into hazardous working conditions, vindicating the spouse and the son of a business employee who suffered a stroke due to work-related stress and lost his life. The court ordered compensation of 160,000 euros ($192,000) for both complainants to be paid by the employer.