Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these rights. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.
Freedom of Expression: The constitution and law protect freedom of expression but specifically allow restrictions on speech inciting discrimination, hatred, or violence against persons or groups based on their race, 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. On March 11, local media reported a court sentenced a blogger in Veroia, northern Greece, to 18 months in prison and a fine of 5,500 euros ($6,325) for inciting hatred toward Syrian refugees residing in a local reception camp. In 2016 the blogger had falsely claimed, “Illegal migrants buried a small church inside the camp so as not to be insulted [by seeing it].”
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists were subjected to physical attack, harassment, or intimidation due to their reporting in at least seven instances. Several attacks were led by members of far-right groups. In some instances, police arrested the perpetrators.
On June 19, a group of ultrarightists attacked a photojournalist in Athens, according to the Journalists’ Union of the Athens Daily Newspapers (ESHEA). Unidentified perpetrators also stole his camera equipment. ESHEA claimed police present at the scene did not attempt to prevent the attack or to arrest the attackers.
On June 1, a Chios court sentenced a local Golden Dawn party member to six months in prison and a 2,000 euros ($2,300) fine for attacking a journalist in September 2017. The attack took place while the journalist was covering a protest rally against refugees and migrants on the island. In a separate case, a court sentenced the same perpetrator to 18 months in prison for instigating racially motivated violence against refugees.
A bomb caused extensive damage to private television station SKAI in Athens early December 17, but no injuries. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras immediately condemned the bombing, calling it “an attack by cowardly and dark forces against democracy itself;” however, SKAI Media Group President Yannis Alafouzos blamed the government coalition for inspiring the attack through threats and boycotts. Police launched an investigation, but had not made any arrests as of December 18.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government did not censor media. The government maintains an online register of local websites’ legal status, number of employees, detailed shareholder information, and the tax office they fall under. Once registered, these websites are accredited to accept funding through state advertising, to cover official events, and to benefit from research and training programs of the National Center of Audiovisual Works. All registered websites had to display their certification on their homepage. Although registering was an open and nonobligatory process, outlets failing to do so could be excluded from the accreditation benefits.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law provides criminal penalties for defamation. On February 26, police arrested and briefly detained journalist and publisher Kostas Vaxevanis following a lawsuit filed by former prime minister Antonis Samaras, who accused Vaxevanis of defamation. A week earlier the journalist had accused Samaras on social media of lying about his alleged involvement in a scandal concerning Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis’s alleged bribes to medical doctors and politicians.
On September 22, police detained three journalists after Minister of Defense Panos Kammenos accused them of defamation. The journalists had published an article accusing Kammenos of large-scale mismanagement of European Union migration funds. The following morning the public prosecutor ordered a preliminary investigation into the incident and the immediate release of the three journalists. No further information on the case was available as of November 30.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private citizens’ online communications without appropriate legal authority.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events. In February, two Orthodox Metropolitans filed separate lawsuits requesting the theatrical performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar” be banned for blasphemy. The theater company continued to stage performances despite daily and at times violent demonstrations outside the theater by individuals opposed to the production. Actors and staff criticized authorities for failing to adequately protect their lives and property, reporting that protestors threatened “to burn down the theater,” assaulted actors and audience members, and threw paint on staff cars and the theater, but no arrests were made.
The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
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). Such associations, despite the lack of legal recognition, continued to operate.
On July 12, the Thrace appeals court rejected a request from the unofficial “Turkish Union of Xanthi” to reinstate its legal status. The association submitted this petition following a European Court of Human Rights ruling that the Greek court’s decision violated the right of association as protected by the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and a 2017 law allowing the reexamination of such previously rejected requests.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The government cooperated with UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: According to a wide range of credible sources, including international organizations and NGOs, authorities did not always provide adequate security or physical protection to migrants and asylum seekers, particularly those residing in RICs. The RVRN recorded 34 incidents involving racially motivated verbal and physical violence against refugees and migrants in 2017. (See also section 6, “National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities.”)
Separation and protection of vulnerable groups was not implemented at some sites. Credible reports described several incidents of violence involving asylum seekers, including fistfights, stabbings, and gender-based violence. The International Rescue Committee assessed that more than 70 individuals were sexually abused at the RIC in Moria from March to October. Several incidents of gender-based violence, including domestic violence, sexual harassment, and rape, were also recorded in organized facilities on the mainland. Doctors without Borders reported that two victims of sexual abuse in the Moria RIC were under five years of age.
Media reported on April 28 that police arrested a refugee residing at a reception facility in Serres, northern Greece, after his 15-year-old daughter accused him of repeated rape.
On November 9, authorities arrested a male refugee in Agia Eleni camp in northern Greece on charges of sexually abusing a three-year-old boy inside the camp.
Refugee and migrant women who were victims of gender-based violence were legally eligible for temporary shelter in government-run homes and for legal and psychosocial assistance but few of them reported the abuse. Some NGO representatives said that even after victims reported rapes to the authorities, some victims continued residing in the same camp with the perpetrators.
NGOs noted inadequate psychological care for refugees and asylum seekers, especially in the six RICs. Doctors without Borders reported that 25 percent of the children they worked with in Moria RIC on Lesvos island from February to June had either self-harmed, attempted suicide, or had thought about committing suicide.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
During the year the flow of migrants and asylum seekers to the country from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East continued. As of October 31, UNHCR figures indicated 67,100 migrants and asylum seekers resided throughout the country.
Refoulement: The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of refugees 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. In February the NGO Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) published a compilation of testimonies of migrants and refugees who claimed they had been forcibly returned to Turkey despite their desire to claim asylum. On February 25, a GCR lawyer and coordinator of the GCR legal team who had previously served as secretary general for migration argued in an opinion article in a local newspaper that allegations of refoulement were not being properly investigated despite appeals by UNHCR, the Council of Europe human rights commissioner, and other organizations. On May 3, GCR accused the government “of a systematic tactic of irregular forced returns in the Evros region, in violation of international law.” Government officials denied any authorized unlawful returns.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing legal protection to refugees through an autonomous asylum service under the authority of the Ministry of Migration Policy. The law requires that applicants have access to certified interpreters and allows applicants to appeal negative decisions and remain in the country while their appeals are examined.
Authorities worked with NGOs, international organizations, and the European Asylum Support Office to inform undocumented migrants awaiting registration in the asylum system, as well as non-EU foreign national detainees, about their rights and asylum procedures and IOM-assisted voluntary return programs. UNHCR also assisted the government with briefings and distribution of multilingual leaflets and information packages on asylum and asylum procedures.
On July 18, media reported the case of a Guinean national who was deported prior to having the chance to appeal the initial denial of asylum. His attorneys claimed that even though they communicated the applicant’s intent to file an appeal, authorities deported the applicant without prior notification. The government did not issue a public response.
Human rights activists and NGOs working with asylum applicants reported long waits for asylum appeals decisions due to time-consuming processes, gaps in the payment of certified interpreters, backlogs in the appeals process, and a limited number of appeals committees. On May 22, parliament passed new legislation to accelerate the examination of asylum requests by reducing gaps in interpreter payments and introducing additional and more flexible means of communication between applicants and authorities. Despite changes in the law, structural problems in the asylum process continued to exist.
Asylum applicants from countries other than Syria complained that their asylum applications were delayed while Syrian applications were prioritized. Many asylum seekers also complained about difficulty scheduling an appointment and connecting with the Asylum Service system via Skype. NGOs, international organizations, and human rights activists reiterated concerns related to the asylum system, including the lack of adequate staff and facilities; difficulties in registering claims; questions about the expedited nature and thoroughness of the examination of initial claims and appeals; insufficient welfare, integration, counseling, legal, and interpretation services; discrimination; and detention under often inadequate and overcrowded conditions inside the RICs.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The country adheres to the Dublin III Regulation, according to which authorities may return asylum seekers to the EU member state of first entry for adjudication of asylum claims.
According to a 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey, every undocumented migrant crossing from Turkey into the Greek islands would be confined to an RIC for up to 25 days, during which time the individual would have the opportunity to apply for asylum in Greece. Individuals opting not to apply for asylum or whose applications were deemed unfounded or inadmissible would be returned to Turkey under the terms of the agreement.
Freedom of Movement: Undocumented migrants arriving at Greek islands were subjected to special border reception and registration procedures, and were not allowed to leave accommodation centers for up to 25 days. After this period undocumented migrants remaining in those facilities were generally allowed to enter and exit but were prohibited from travelling to the mainland unless they filed asylum applications deemed admissible by the asylum authorities or were deemed “vulnerable.” Once asylum applications were filed, found admissible, and in process, migrants could move to an accommodation center on the mainland, space permitting. There was no restriction on movement in or out of the mainland accommodation centers.
On April 24, 21 local and international NGOs issued a statement condemning the government’s practice of confining migrants and asylum seekers to certain “hotspot” islands for initial processing.
Unaccompanied minors were placed under “protective custody” due to lack of space in specialized shelters. (See section 1, Prison and Detention Center Conditions, Physical Conditions.)
Employment: Recognized refugees and holders of asylum-seeker papers were entitled to work, although this right was not widely publicized or consistently enforced. In March the managing board of the Greek Manpower Organization (OAED) extended the right to register for the official unemployment to migrants and refugees residing in shelters or with no permanent address, allowing them to benefit from training programs and state allowances.
Access to Basic Services: Legally, services such as shelter, health care, education, and judicial procedures were granted to asylum seekers in possession of a valid residency permit; however, staffing gaps, lack of interpreters, and overcrowded migrant sites limited certain asylum seekers’ access to these services. Legal assistance was limited and was usually offered via NGOs, international organizations, and volunteer lawyers and bar associations.
RICs on islands and in the Evros region continued to be overcrowded with inadequate shelter, healthcare, wash facilities, and sewer connections, creating security and health concerns. Housing conditions at reception facilities elsewhere on the mainland were generally better. The general rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons visited Athens, Kavala, Drama, and Lesvos from July 10-12. The rapporteur found that in contrast to the acceptable accommodation centers in Kavala and Drama, Lesvos RIC conditions “continued to be appalling,” with persons suffering from “severely overcrowded accommodation facilities.”
Unaccompanied minors living in “protective custody” in police stations had limited or no access to health care or medical services. (See section 1, Prison and Detention Center Conditions, Physical Conditions.)
Many vulnerable asylum-seeking individuals were eligible to be sheltered in apartments via a housing framework implemented by UNHCR in cooperation with some NGOs and local municipalities. Conditions in the apartments were significantly better than in reception facilities.
Administrative and facility management staff in reception centers were usually permanent state employees, eight-month government-contracted personnel, and NGO and international organization-contracted staff. Media reported cases, especially in the islands, in which assigned staff was inadequate or improperly trained.
Everyone in the country is entitled to emergency medical care regardless of legal status. Medical volunteers, NGO-contracted doctors, the Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KEELPNO), and army medical doctors provided basic health care in reception centers, referring emergencies and complex cases to local hospitals, which were often overburdened and understaffed. Some individuals suffering from chronic diseases continued to face problems with obtaining proper medication. According to a July 27 HRW report, pregnant women in Evros reception and detention facilities had no access to proper medical and prenatal care.
Domestic and international NGOs continued to criticize authorities for failing to identify asylum seekers with nonvisible vulnerabilities, such as victims of torture. In a 2018 annual review, HRW noted that authorities’ failure to properly identify vulnerable asylum seekers for transfer to the mainland had “impeded their access to proper care and services.” HRW argued that official policies, living conditions, and the uncertainty of the slow asylum claim decision-making process contributed to deteriorating mental health for some asylum seekers and other migrants on the islands.
Durable Solutions: Recognized refugees may apply for naturalization after three years of residence in the country under this status. The government continued to process family reunification applications for asylum seekers with relatives in other countries. IOM offered voluntary returns to rejected asylum seekers and those who renounced their asylum claims.
Temporary Protection: As of June 30, the government provided temporary protection to approximately 1,102 individuals who may not qualify as refugees.