Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
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 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.
Both the constitution and the law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and give any person the right to challenge the lawfulness of an arrest or detention in court. The government generally observed these requirements. The ombudsman, through the National Preventive Mechanism for the Investigation of Arbitrary Incidents, received 208 complaints in 2019, most of which related to police. The CPT noted that the system for investigating allegations of mistreatment was not effective, as only a few cases resulted in disciplinary sanctions or criminal sentences.
NGOs reported incidents of security forces committing racially and hate-motivated violence. In a July 16 report, the Racist Violence Recording Network (RVRN), a group of NGOs coordinated by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the National Commission for Human Rights reported that law enforcement officials committed or were involved in 11 of the 100 incidents of racist violence recorded in 2019. Victims in these incidents included, among others, refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers, including unaccompanied minors, a same-sex couple, and a transgender woman. The victims alleged inappropriate behavior by law enforcement officials during police checks and operations in public spaces, inside police departments in Athens, and in reception or detention centers. The report included 282 cases of racist violence reported to police in 2019, of which 19 were allegedly committed by police.
NGOs, universities, international organizations, and service academies trained police on safeguarding human rights and combating hate crimes and human trafficking.
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and requires judicial warrants for arrests, except during the commission of a crime. The law requires police to bring detainees before a magistrate, who then must issue a detention warrant or order the detainee’s release within 24 hours. Detainees are promptly informed of the charges against them. Pretrial detention may last up to 18 months, depending on the severity of the crime, or up to 30 months in exceptional circumstances. A panel of judges may release detainees pending trial. Individuals are entitled to state compensation if found to have been unlawfully detained. There were no reports that police violated these laws.
Detainees may contact a close relative or third party, consult with a lawyer of their choice, and obtain medical services. Police are required to bring detainees before an examining magistrate within 24 hours of detention, but detainees may be granted additional time to present an adequate defense. The CPT reported complaints from individuals who said they were not allowed while in custody to promptly notify a close relative or a lawyer during the initial period of detention, particularly before or during questioning by police, when the risk of intimidation and mistreatment is greatest. The law typically provides such guarantees only after a person is formally accused of a criminal offense rather than from the outset of custody. Regarding access to a lawyer, the CPT noted that individuals who lacked financial means often met a lawyer only during their bail hearing for bail. The CPT reiterated such findings in its November 19 report.
Rights activists and media reported instances in which foreign detainees had limited access to court-provided interpretation or were unaware of their right to legal assistance. The CPT reported receiving many complaints from foreign detainees that they had not been informed of their rights in a language they understood or had signed documents in Greek without knowing their content and without assistance from an interpreter. The CPT reported these findings in November. Indigent defendants facing felony charges received legal representation from the bar association. NGOs and international organizations provided limited legal aid to detained migrants and asylum seekers. On May 26, parliament amended the law regarding free legal assistance. The new law allows more experienced lawyers to undertake penal cases as part of a free legal assistance program and expands the program during the stages prior to trial.
On April 28, the Greek Helsinki Monitor, as part of its Racist Crime Watch program, filed a report to the police department tasked with combatting racist violence accusing a police officer at a police station in Agia Paraskevi, in Athens, of legal violations against undocumented foreign nationals by using racist language and making insults each time the inmates asked for food or hygiene products while detained for months in the station’s holding cells.
Arbitrary Arrest: The government placed some unaccompanied minors into what it called protective custody at local police stations, due to a lack of other suitable housing. The CPT found during a visit to the Omonia police station in Athens that three unaccompanied minors, including a 14-year-old boy, waiting for a medical screening, were kept under protective custody in a cell with unrelated adult men for between one and five days (see section 1, Prison and Detention Center Conditions, Physical Conditions). On November 18, the Ministry for Migration and Asylum reported that no unaccompanied minors were in protective custody, ending the practice that had been criticized by human rights organizations. All unaccompanied minors are to be housed in suitable long-term and short-term facilities.
Pretrial Detention: Prolonged pretrial detention resulting from overburdened and understaffed courts remained a problem. By law pretrial detention should be authorized only if house arrest with electronic monitoring is deemed insufficient. Judicial authorities may impose limitations on freedom, including bail; require regular appearances at the local police station; and ban a suspect from exiting the country when there are strong indications the defendant is guilty of a crime punishable by at least three months in prison. In the case of final acquittal, the affected individual may seek compensation for time spent in pretrial detention. Compensation procedures, however, were time consuming, and the amounts offered were relatively low–nine to 10 euros ($11.00 to $12.00) per day of imprisonment. Ministry of Justice statistics show that as of January approximately 26 percent of those with pending cases were in pretrial detention.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality. Observers reported the judiciary was at times inefficient and sometimes subject to influence. Authorities respected court orders. Observers continued to track the case of Andreas Georgiou, who was the head of the Hellenic Statistical Authority during the Greek financial crisis. The Council of Appeals has cleared Georgiou three times of a criminal charge that he falsified 2009 budget data to justify Greece’s first international bailout. At year’s end the government had made no public statements whether the criminal cases against him were officially closed. Separately, a former government official filed a civil suit in 2014 as a private citizen against Georgiou. The former official said he was slandered by a press release issued from Georgiou’s office. Georgiou was convicted of simple slander in 2017. Georgiou appealed that ruling, and at year’s end the court had not yet delivered a verdict.
The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. The law grants defendants a presumption of innocence, and defendants have the right to be informed promptly and thoroughly of all charges. According to legislative amendments passed in 2019, a suspect or defendant has the right to seek compensation for damages resulting from public officials disrespecting the individual’s presumed innocence at any time during legal proceedings. According to the same legislation, the burden of proof of guilt lies with the court and the defendant benefits from any doubt. Delays in trials occurred mostly due to backlogs of pending cases, understaffing, and the lockdown imposed due to COVID-19. Trials are public in most instances.
Defendants have the right to communicate and consult with an attorney of their choice in a fair, timely, and public manner, and they are not compelled to testify or confess guilt. Lawyers, whether chosen by the defendant or appointed by the state, are provided adequate time and space inside prison facilities to consult with their clients and to prepare a defense. The government provides attorneys to indigent defendants facing felony charges. Defendants may be present at trial, present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf, and question prosecution witnesses. Defendants have the right to appeal. Defendants who do not speak Greek have the right to free interpretation through a court-appointed interpreter, although some NGOs criticized the quality and lack of availability of interpretation.
A law enacted in 2019 limited the use of sharia (Islamic law) to only family and civil cases in which all parties actively consent to its use.
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
The judiciary was generally independent and impartial in civil matters. The law provides citizens with the ability to sue the government for compensation for alleged violations of rights. Individuals and organizations may appeal adverse domestic decisions to regional human rights bodies, including the European Court of Human Rights.
The law addresses property restitution, and many Holocaust-era property claims have been resolved, but several issues remained open. The Jewish community of Thessaloniki had a pending case against the Russian government calling for the return of the community’s prewar archives. On several occasions throughout the year, Alternate Foreign Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis publicly urged the return of these archives. Additionally, the Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw held religious artifacts allegedly stolen from the Jewish community of Thessaloniki in 1941; the community continues to request their return. The Organization for the Relief and Rehabilitation of Jews in Greece (OPAIE) claimed more than 100 properties owned by Jews before the war are now occupied as government facilities. In 2018 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of OPAIE regarding one of the properties. Following the ruling, a committee of government appointees and representatives of the Central Jewish Council was established in 2019 to negotiate the fate of the remaining properties. At the end of the year, negotiations were ongoing.
The Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act report to Congress, released publicly on July 29, 2020, can be found on the Department’s website: https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution and law prohibit such actions, and there were no reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions.
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 Speech: 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.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. Minority media owners in Thrace, northern Greece, where members of the country’s recognized Muslim minority reside, complained that unlike numerous other media owners throughout the country, they did not receive government funding to promote the widespread Menoume spiti (We stay at home) campaign during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019 the government passed legislation requiring vendors who sell print media to stock and display all Greek newspapers and magazines.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists were subjected to physical attack, harassment, or intimidation due to their reporting in at least 12 instances. On January 19, unidentified perpetrators, allegedly far-right supporters, attacked and injured a Deutsche Welle journalist, Tomas Jacobs, who was covering a rally against migrants and refugees. According to the journalist, who is also one of the scriptwriters of a documentary about the Golden Dawn neo-Nazi movement in the country, the perpetrators confirmed his identity before the attack. The victim also claimed that police in the area did not come to his rescue. The government, mainstream political opposition, and the Foreign Press Association denounced the attack.
On March 1, angry residents in Lesvos verbally and physically attacked three foreign journalists covering their attempts to stop a dinghy carrying migrants and asylum seekers from landing at a small port. On July 27, unknown perpetrators shot Stefanos Chios, journalist and publisher of the ultra-sensationalist news site Makeleio, injuring him severely. Anarchists spray-painted the walls of media outlets on January 16, wrote insults targeting a journalist outside his residence on February 6 and on March 24 claimed responsibility for setting fire to the entryways to two journalists’ residences. On February 3, unknown perpetrators exploded the publisher’s parked car.
On November 11, NGOs Media Freedom Rapid Response and Reporters Without Borders sent a letter to the chief of police and to the minister of interior protesting the eight-hour-long October 19 “arbitrary detention” of a four-member German media crew on Samos for the production of a film on climate-induced migration. During their detention, they claimed they were subjected to questioning and harassment, and were denied food by officers who were not wearing protective masks. The police reportedly suspected them of espionage because they had used a drone to take camera shots from a beach next to a military site but the crew members firmly denied they were filming the site in question.
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 their tax office. 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 must 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. In 2019 the government launched a similar electronic registry for regional and local press.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law provides criminal penalties for defamation and libel. A law passed in 2019 clarified that individuals convicted of crimes cannot claim slander for discussion of those crimes. The same 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 September 14, media reported that a court awarded 160,000 euros ($192,000) to a Greek correspondent in the United States, Thanos Dimadis, for being slandered by a former minister. The court cited “personal and professional damage” against Dimadis, ruling he had been wrongly accused by the minister and his associates of spying on them during their visit to New York in September 2016. Members of the ministerial delegation had stated in public that the correspondent had been arrested by police in New York for his behavior, an allegation the journalist denied and proved to the court to be slanderous.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private citizens’ online communications without appropriate legal authority.
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events. Government restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic forced some cultural and artistic events between March and November to be rescheduled or cancelled.
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, albeit with restrictions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Due to COVID-19, the government banned gatherings of more than nine or 10 individuals during the lockdowns. On July 10, the parliament separately passed non-COVID-related legislation on public open-air gatherings. The law requires prior and timely announcement–in writing or via email–of the gatherings to the competent police or coast guard authorities and makes protest organizers accountable in case of bodily harm or property damage if they have not followed requirements for notification and precautionary measures. Some parliament members and analysts called the law anticonstitutional and antidemocratic, arguing it infringes the right of assembly.
Although the constitution and law provide for freedom of association, the government continued to place legal restrictions on the names of associations of nationals who self-identified as ethnic Macedonian or associations that included the term “Turkish” as indicative of a collective ethnic identity (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities). Such associations, despite the lack of legal recognition, continued to operate unobstructed.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. Some of these freedoms were partially suspended as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, although the restrictions were put in place by region and did not target specific groups. The government enforced restriction measures at all six RICs, including a ban on movement outside nearby towns from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., with movement otherwise allowed only in small groups of up to 10 persons. Visitors were generally banned from RICs. Similar measures also applied to migrant and refugee accommodation centers. Human rights groups criticized the restrictions as being more severe than those on the general population.
In-country Movement: Prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, undocumented migrants and asylum seekers arriving at Greek islands were subject to special border reception and registration procedures and were not allowed to leave registration centers for up to 25 days. After this 25-day period, undocumented migrants remaining in those facilities were generally allowed to enter and exit but were prohibited from travelling to the mainland unless they successfully filed asylum applications.
To prevent the spread of COVID-19, border reception and registration procedures were adapted to provide medical tests to all newly arriving migrants and asylum seekers and require 14 days of quarantine in a special facility. A law passed May 12 states that asylum seekers deemed “vulnerable” are not eligible to receive expedited examination of their asylum claims or to be transferred to the mainland on vulnerability grounds alone. Once asylum applicants were granted refugee status, they could move off the islands. Those with admissible cases and likely to receive refugee status could also be transferred to the mainland, space permitting. The government also allowed some asylum seekers in poor health to transfer from congested island registration and reception facilities to less-congested facilities in the mainland as a precautionary measure against COVID-19.
Despite government efforts to increase placements in the mainland and decongest the north Aegean islands, local residents and authorities strongly resisted receiving asylum seekers, even in privately owned facilities such as hotels. Restrictions on movements also applied to mainland accommodation centers as a result of the pandemic.
Local and international NGOs reiterated criticism of the government’s practice of confining asylum seekers to the islands and employing “protective custody” for unaccompanied minors (see section 1.c., Prison and Detention Center Conditions, Physical Conditions). Local and international organizations expressed criticism and concern over a law passed on May 12 establishing closed and semi-closed facilities for the temporary reception of asylum applicants, arguing that deprivation of liberty would become the norm for most asylum seekers. NGOs such as MSF criticized the government’s decision to apply increased movement restrictions on residents of all six RICs and other reception facilities around the mainland due to COVID-19. MSF called the measure “discriminatory.”
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.