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 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, which is also responsible for prison facilities. 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 credible reports of: cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of criminal suspects by police and against migrants and asylum seekers by authorities; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including criminal libel and slander laws; forced returns of asylum seekers; crimes involving violence targeting members of national/racial/ethnic minority groups; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex persons.
The government regularly took steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses or engaged in corruption, whether in the security forces or elsewhere in the government. There were, however, reports and complaints from nongovernmental organizations and international organizations regarding government failure to effectively investigate and punish police abuse and the lack of independent investigation of and accountability for widespread credible allegations of forced returns of asylum seekers.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, and the government generally respected these rights. An independent media, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for members of the media.
Freedom of Expression: The constitution and law protect freedom of expression but specifically allow restrictions on speech inciting discrimination, hatred, or violence against persons or groups based on their race, skin color, religion, descent, national or ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability, or who express ideas insulting to persons or groups on those grounds. On November 11, the parliament approved legislation that allowed prosecution for spreading “fake news.” The law may be invoked by authorities on suspicion that an individual intends to spread fake news regarding the national defense, the economy, and health. NGOs expressed concern the law could be used to penalize media that reported on government actions to repel migrants and asylum seekers.
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. A similar electronic registry is in place for regional and local press.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law provides criminal penalties for conviction of defamation, including libel and slander. Individuals convicted of crimes may not claim slander for discussion of their crimes.
On February 20, Deputy Minister of State Akis Skertsos filed a slander lawsuit against journalist Yorgos Tragas for a broadcast report alleging that the deputy minister had facilitated the sexual abuse of unaccompanied minors by the director of the National Theater. On April 23, a court of appeals reversed the slander conviction of broadcast journalist Michalis Tsokanis for reporting that two police officers in Evia had close ties to far-right Golden Dawn Party members.
Nongovernmental Impact: On April 9, two unknown perpetrators shot and killed journalist George Karaivaz outside his residence in Athens. Karaivaz was covering organized crime and corruption problems. His death, reportedly related to his reporting, was condemned by the prime minister and opposition parties, as well as by the European Commission, the Council of Europe, and media freedom NGOs. Police had made no arrests by the year’s end.
Journalists were subjected to physical attack, harassment, or intimidation due to their reporting in at least three instances. On January 10, a bomb exploded in the car of journalist George Sfakianakis outside the studios of television channel E in Athens. No injuries were reported. Police launched investigations but made no arrests. Government members and opposition parties condemned these attacks.
The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights, albeit with restrictions due to COVID-19 pandemic mitigation measures.
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 due to the COVID-19 pandemic mitigation restrictions. Internal movement was only for work, limited shopping, and doctor visits, and a curfew from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. was enforced.
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 mandated medical tests for all newly arriving migrants and asylum seekers and required 14 days of quarantine. A law passed in 2020 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. The law also established closed and partially closed facilities for the temporary reception of asylum applicants, a system NGOs and international organizations criticized as depriving asylum seekers of liberty and having become the norm for most asylum seekers.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern. Authorities also worked with the European Asylum Support Office. Undocumented individuals waiting to register in the asylum system were informed of their rights and asylum procedures. The International Organization for Migration (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. There were reports, however, of potential asylum seekers entering from Turkey being briefly detained and then forced to return to Turkey without being allowed to apply for asylum.
Access to Asylum: The law allows for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system to protect refugees through an autonomous asylum service and an appeals authority under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Migration and Asylum. The system includes procedural safeguards for protection and review, with generally no legal impediments for accessing the asylum process. The law provides for access to certified interpreters throughout the process, to legal assistance for appeals, and the right to remain in the country while a case is under appeal. Tight deadlines guide each step which, if missed, may result a negative decision and a deportation order. On September 4, the government amended legislation to make it easier to deport asylum seekers whose cases were denied, reducing the time for them to leave the country from 30 to 25 days.
The government did not consistently respect the law. NGOs and international organizations reported asylum cases in which authorities denied petitions without respecting the 14-day quarantine for arrivals and without allowing the presence of a lawyer during the interviews. There were reports that asylum seekers attempting to enter the country from Turkey were being repelled or detained without food and water, oftentimes ill-treated and physically abused. Many asylum seekers were reportedly forced onto rafts, which sea currents took back to Turkey.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: On June 7, a joint decree by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Migration and Asylum designated Turkey as “safe third country” for asylum seekers originating from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Somalia. The decree states that because Turkey has a functioning asylum process and does not discriminate due to a person’s race, religion, ethnicity, political beliefs, or participation in a certain social group, Turkey is a safe third country for asylum seekers. Applications for asylum filed by persons from those countries who transited Turkey before entering Greece were examined under a fast-track process and could be rejected as inadmissible. Several NGOs, including the Greek Council for Refugees and Solidarity Now, expressed concerns regarding the decree, stating that the notion of a safe third country was not compatible with the requirements set by the Geneva Convention. On August 25, the Appeals Authority in Lesvos reversed a decision by a local regional asylum office to reject the applications for international protection by an Afghan family that entered the country from Turkey and stated Turkey could not be considered a safe third country.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: There were allegations of physical abuse or violence directed at detained migrants and residents of RICs by members of the Hellenic Police and Coast Guard (see section 1.c., Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment).
Local and international media, human rights NGOs, and international organizations received testimonials from asylum seekers that they were physically abused and deprived of their personal belongings prior to being returned to Turkey. For example, in a July 15 report, the Greek National Commission for Human Rights stated it had received credible allegations regarding “individual or group pushbacks at Greek-Turkish borders as well as the use of life-threatening methods in the course of deterrence operations at sea.” Additionally, it cited violent fights among rival groups and incidents at the RIC in Samos of extortion, arson, rape of women and girls, and human trafficking.
The Racist Violence Recording Network reported incidents recorded in 2020 of abuse based on of ethnicity, religion, or skin color and against human rights activists due to their involvement in assisting migrant groups (see section 6, Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination). Authorities did not always provide adequate security or physical protection to migrants and asylum seekers, particularly those attempting to cross Greece-Turkey land and sea borders.
Freedom of Movement: Asylum seekers were not allowed to leave the island where they arrived until the asylum review procedure concludes. Human rights activists in Lesvos reported that some COVID-19 pandemic restrictions continued for asylum seekers after the restrictions were lifted for the general population.
Employment: Recognized refugees and holders of asylum seeker certification were entitled to work, although this right was not widely publicized or consistently enforced. There were limited options for employment, made scarcer by the COVID-19 pandemic and bureaucratic obstacles that included opening a bank account or obtaining a tax or social security registration number.
Access to Basic Services: The law provides for access to services such as shelter, health care, education, and the judiciary once the status of a refugee or asylum seeker or asylum seeker is official. Due to staff shortages, pandemic-related restrictions, gaps in the vulnerability assessment process, and other bureaucratic obstacles, asylum seekers had limited access to health, educational, legal, and other services.
Refugees reported difficulties in obtaining documents required to apply for a job or rent a house, and in obtaining the health booklet needed for medical services. Human rights activist reported that refugees granted asylum were only provided one month of subsidized housing. Some asylum seekers suffering from chronic diseases encountered problems obtaining proper medication. On July 21, the European Court of Human Rights issued a decision ordering the government to provide adequate health care to three asylum seekers, an adult torture survivor and two children, suffering serious medical conditions at the Kara Tepe RIC.
On March 11, the ombudsman reported that only 178 of the 2,090 children who resided at RICs were registered to attend school. The ombudsman cited as reasons the lack of staff, facilities, transportation, and resistance by local communities. On June 9, Christina Psarra, general director of the NGO Doctors Without Borders, described the RICs on Lesvos and Samos as “totally inadequate living spaces.” During the year the Ministry for Migration and Asylum had walls built around some reception facilities, citing the need for controlled access and increased security for the residents. For example, on September 18, a 3,000-person RIC was opened on Samos with “closed and controlled access.” to hold migrants and asylum seekers. Some refugee residents and human rights NGOs stated the ministry’s motive was to isolate refugees from the rest of the society.
Durable Solutions: The government accepted refugees for resettlement, offered naturalization to refugees residing on their territory, or assisted in their voluntary return to their homes. In 2020 the number of years of residence required before a recognized refugee could apply for naturalization was increased from three to seven. The government processed family reunification applications for asylum seekers with relatives in other countries. From January to September 16, 1,720 recognized refugees, 1,603 asylum seekers, and 976 unaccompanied minors were voluntarily relocated to EU member states. The IOM assisted the voluntary return of rejected asylum seekers and those who renounced their asylum claims.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary (subsidiary) protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees; no data were available on the numbers assisted.