a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these rights. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.
Freedom of Expression: The constitution and law protect freedom of expression but specifically allow restrictions on speech inciting discrimination, hatred, or violence against persons or groups based on their race, skin color, religion, descent, national or ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability, or who express ideas insulting to persons or groups on those grounds.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. On June 10, the government passed legislation requiring vendors who sell print media to stock and display all Greek newspapers and magazines. Penalties for those intentionally breaking the law range from one year’s imprisonment to a fine from 5,000 to 50,000 euros ($5,500 to $55,000). For repeated offenders, the penalty can increase to two years or more in prison.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists were subjected to physical attack, harassment, or intimidation due to their reporting in at least 10 instances. On April 7, a riot police officer in Idomeni, near the border with North Macedonia, kicked a photojournalist covering a migrant protest and later struck the photojournalist in the face and head with his shield. The government and journalist unions condemned the attacks. Seven attacks were led by members of far-right groups who targeted reporters and photojournalists covering rallies protesting the Prespa Agreement between Greece and North Macedonia. Anarchists led other attacks, once torching a journalist’s car at her residence and on December 5, pelting a television crew stationed near the Athens University of Economics and Business with paint. There were no reports of police detentions in these incidents.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government did not censor media. The government maintains an online register with the legal status of local websites, their number of employees, detailed shareholder information, and the tax office they fall under. Once registered, these websites are accredited to accept funding through state advertising, to cover official events, and to benefit from research and training programs of the National Center of Audiovisual Works. All registered websites had to display their certification on their homepage. Although registering was an open and nonobligatory process, outlets failing to do so could be excluded from the accreditation benefits. On April 15, the government launched a similar electronic registry for regional and local press.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law provides criminal penalties for defamation. A law passed February 26 clarifies that individuals convicted of crimes cannot claim slander for discussion of those crimes. This law also removes the provision requiring journalists to appear immediately before a court, or wait in jail until the court opened, in the case they were accused of libel, a provision that had been abused by politicians to intimidate journalists. On February 13, a court convicted then alternate health minister Pavlos Polakis for slander against a deceased reporter whom he had accused of taking bribes from the Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The court ordered the alternate health minister to pay financial damages to the journalist’s family. The government abolished blasphemy laws, effective on July 1.
f. Protection of Refugees
During the year the flow of migrants and asylum seekers to the country from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East continued. As of December 16, UNHCR figures indicated 109,000 migrants and asylum seekers resided throughout the country.
On November 1, parliament amended the asylum legislation. The new rules are designed to speed up decision making on asylum applications and to increase the number of rejected applicants returned to Turkey or to their country of origin. The law, which will take effect on January 1, 2020, establishes extended periods of detention for asylum seekers; ties the treatment of asylum applications to the applicants’ cooperation (or lack thereof) with authorities; alters the appeals committees so they consist exclusively of judges, dropping a position held by a UNHCR designate; requires appeals to be filed and justified through court briefs instead of standardized documents; eliminates “post-traumatic stress disorder” as a factor that would make a refugee considered “vulnerable” and therefore ineligible to be returned to Turkey if their asylum application is denied; and codifies that rejected asylum applicants should immediately return to Turkey or their country of origin. UNHCR, as well as local and international NGOs, including the Greek National Commission for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR), the MSF, and many others, argued the law emphasized returns over protection and integration, put an excessive burden on asylum seekers, focused on punitive measures, and introduced tough requirements an asylum seeker could not reasonably be expected to fulfill.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: According to a wide range of credible sources, including international organizations and NGOs, authorities did not always provide adequate security or physical protection to asylum seekers, particularly those residing in RICs. The RVRN recorded 51 incidents involving racially motivated verbal and physical violence against refugees and migrants in 2018 (Also see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities.)
The separation and protection of vulnerable groups was not implemented at some sites. On February 9, the MSF reported that a 20-year-old male Yazidi refugee at the RIC in Fylakio, Evros, was living in a container with his visually impaired sister, his female cousin suffering from mental health problems, and three unrelated men. Media reported incidences of violence involving asylum seekers, including gender-based violence. On January 8, local and international media reported Oxfam’s findings that asylum-seeking and refugee women were wearing diapers at night for fear of leaving their tents to go to the bathroom. In its report for the rights of “children on the move” in Greece, issued on June 14, the ombudsman noted that children at the RIC in Lesvos were at risk of sexual abuse and exploitation, rape, and assault. The report stated many parents of children, especially single parents, were reluctant to queue for hours for food because they were afraid to expose their children to the risk of violence and sexual abuse. Cases of trading food in exchange for sex were also reported to the ombudsman. On April 11, PACE expressed serious concern regarding the humanitarian situation and the poor security of asylum seekers at RICs on the Greek islands as well as in centers on the mainland.
On January 23, a court in Thessaloniki sentenced a 50-year-old Iraqi man to 20 years’ imprisonment for raping his 16-year-old daughter at a reception facility in Serres.
Refugee and migrant women who were victims of gender-based violence were legally eligible for temporary shelter in government-run homes and for legal and psychosocial assistance, but few of them reported abuse. Some NGO representatives reiterated findings from previous years that even after reporting rapes to the authorities, some victims continued residing in the same camp with the perpetrators.
NGOs noted inadequate medical and psychological care for refugees and asylum seekers, especially in the six RICs, mainly attributed to the government’s inability to hire medical doctors willing to serve in such facilities. Even when the government significantly increased the salaries and reissued calls for recruitment, medical doctors expressed minimal interest.
On February 8, a Communist Party delegation visit to the reception facility in Katsikas, Epirus, noted the absence of medical care, especially for women, newborns, and children, according to media reports.
NGOs also noted inadequate psychological care for refugees and asylum seekers, especially in the six RICs. The MSF reported that 25 percent of the children they worked with in the Moria RIC on Lesvos Island from February to June had either self-harmed, attempted suicide, or had thought about committing suicide.
The government cooperated with UNHCR, the IOM, and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.
Refoulement: The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of asylum seekers to countries in which their lives or freedom would be threatened due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. On October 31, in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Iranian Sharareh Khademi should not be extradited to her country of origin as this would pose an “immediate risk to her life.” The court annulled the decision of a lower-level court that had ruled in favor of the extradition. Khademi and her daughter were victims of domestic violence by an abusive husband and father.
On June 19, the GCR announced it had filed a complaint with the Supreme Court that migrants and asylum seekers were being forced back across the border into Turkey from northeastern Evros in Greece. The GCR stated it had evidence backing the claims of several migrants and asylum seekers who said they were forced back. The GCR reported it had filed three lawsuits on behalf of six Turkish nationals, including a child, who claimed that local authorities had exercised violence to force them back into Turkey. Reportedly, one of the young women, forced back to Turkey, was arrested and taken to a Turkish prison. The GCR noted that despite the growing number of alleged pushbacks, there was no official government reaction.
On June 8, the group Racist Crimes Watch filed a complaint against Hellenic Police in Didimoticho, northern Greece, alleging local police staff beat with batons and fired plastic bullets at a 35-year-old Iraqi national and two Egyptian nationals, ages 18 and 26, prior to forcing them back to Turkey.
On May 5, media reported a letter addressed by the then minister for citizen protection Olga Gerovassili to the UNHCR representative in Greece in response to concerns about pushbacks in the Evros area by security officers. After an investigation, the then minister wrote that the alleged incidents were not proven true. She also noted the absence of any such reporting by Frontex officers who assist the Greek border police in their work. From January to April, police arrested 3,130 third-country nationals in the areas of Orestiada and Alexandroupolis.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing legal protection to refugees through an autonomous asylum service under the authority of the Ministry of Migration Policy. Following the July 7 elections, the Ministry for Migration Policy was folded into the Ministry for Citizen Protection. The law requires that applicants have access to certified interpreters and allows applicants to appeal negative decisions and remain in the country while their appeals are examined.
Authorities worked with NGOs, international organizations, and the European Asylum Support Office to inform undocumented migrants awaiting registration in the asylum system, as well as non-EU foreign national detainees, about their rights, asylum procedures, and the IOM-assisted voluntary return programs. UNHCR assisted the government with briefings and distribution of multilingual leaflets and information packages on asylum and asylum procedures.
Human rights activists and NGOs working with asylum applicants reported long waits of up to two years for decisions due to time-consuming processes, pre-existing backlogs in the appeals process, and a limited number of appeals committees. Access to the asylum process for persons detained in predeparture centers was also a concern. In its annual report for 2018, the Greek ombudsman reported his office continued to receive complaints from asylum applicants about difficulties in scheduling an appointment and connecting with the Asylum Service system via Skype, especially in Athens and in Thessaloniki. On May 6, local media reported the Greek Asylum Service had a backlog of more than 62,000 cases while an estimated 5,500 new applications were submitted yearly by new entrants.
According to the Asylum Information Database report for 2018, published by GCR on April 21, the average period between preregistration and full registration was 42 days in 2018. The average processing time at first instance was reported at approximately 8.5 months in 2018. Approximately 80 percent of the 58,793 applicants with pending applications at the end of 2018 had not had an interview with the asylum service.
Major delays frequently occurred in the identification of vulnerable persons on the islands, due to a significant lack of qualified staff, which also impacted the asylum procedure.
Asylum applicants from countries other than Syria complained that their asylum applications were delayed while Syrian applications were prioritized. NGOs, international organizations, and human rights activists also reiterated concerns about the lack of adequate staff and facilities; insufficient welfare, integration, counseling, legal, and interpretation services; discrimination; and detention under often inadequate and overcrowded conditions inside the RICs.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The country adheres to the Dublin III Regulation, according to which authorities may return asylum seekers to the EU member state of first entry for adjudication of asylum claims.
According to the 2016 joint EU-Turkey statement, every undocumented migrant crossing from Turkey into the Greek islands would be confined to a RIC for up to 25 days, during which time the individual would have the opportunity to apply for asylum in Greece. Individuals opting not to apply for asylum or whose applications were deemed unfounded or inadmissible would be returned to Turkey (see also section 2.d., Freedom of Movement).
Employment: Recognized refugees and holders of asylum-seeker papers were entitled to work, although this right was not widely publicized or consistently enforced. In 2018 the managing board of the Greek Manpower Organization extended the right to register for official unemployment to asylum seekers and refugees residing in shelters or with no permanent address, allowing them to benefit from training programs and state allowances.
Access to Basic Services: Legally, services such as shelter, health care, education, and judicial procedures are granted to asylum seekers in possession of a valid residency permit; however, staffing gaps, a lack of interpreters, and overcrowded reception sites limited certain asylum seekers’ access to these services. On July 13, the minister for labor and social affairs revoked a June 20 ministerial decree signed by his predecessor that simplified the process for asylum seekers to be granted a social security number (AMKA). The minister argued that the system of granting AMKAs would be re-examined, as it was abused by foreign nationals who should not have received a number. Several NGOs reported problems in securing access for asylum-seeking individuals to basic services, including treatment for chronic diseases. Legal assistance was limited and was offered via NGOs, international organizations, volunteer lawyers, and bar associations.
RICs on islands and in the Evros region continued to be overcrowded, with inadequate shelter, health care, wash facilities, and sewer connections creating security and health concerns. Housing conditions at reception facilities elsewhere on the mainland were generally better, although at times overcrowding hindered access to services. Due to a lack of space, the government in September opened temporary camps on the mainland, providing six-person tents to hundreds of migrants.
Unaccompanied minors living in “protective custody” in police stations had limited or no access to health care or medical services. As of November 30, according to the country’s National Center for Social Solidarity (EKKA), there were 257 unaccompanied children in protective custody (see section 1.c., Prison and Detention Center Conditions, Physical Conditions).
Many vulnerable asylum-seeking individuals were eligible to be sheltered in apartments via a housing framework implemented by UNHCR in cooperation with some NGOs and local municipalities. Conditions in the apartments were significantly better than in reception facilities.
Administrative and facility management staff in reception centers were usually permanent state employees, eight-month government-contracted personnel, and staff contracted by NGOs and international organizations. Media reported cases, especially on the islands, in which assigned staff were inadequate or improperly trained. On June 6, media reported that 40 employees from the Asylum Service offices in Attica, Korinthos and Patras attended a training seminar on statelessness, the Dublin Treaty, and gender-based violence to handle asylum cases more efficiently.
Everyone in the country is entitled to emergency medical care, regardless of legal status. Medical volunteers, NGO-contracted doctors, the Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and army medical doctors provided basic health care in reception centers, referring emergencies and complex cases to local hospitals, which were often overburdened and understaffed. Some individuals suffering from chronic diseases continued to encounter problems obtaining proper medication. Pregnant women in Evros reception and detention facilities continued facing problems in accessing proper medical and prenatal care.
The government failed to identify asylum seekers with nonvisible vulnerabilities, such as victims of torture and trafficking victims, due to gaps and shortages in skilled staff, including medical doctors, at the RICs, several NGOs reported. On January 1, the government officially launched a multidisciplinary national referral mechanism (NRM), which included appropriate standard operating procedures and referral forms. The NRM required first responders to inform and coordinate with the EKKA, when potential victims were identified for care and placement.
Durable Solutions: Refugees may apply for naturalization after three years of residence in the country as a recognized refugee. The government continued to process family reunification applications for asylum seekers with relatives in other countries. The IOM offered voluntary returns to rejected asylum seekers and those who renounced their asylum claims.
Temporary Protection: As of September 30, the government provided temporary protection to approximately 2,578 individuals who may not qualify as refugees.