on the world: a view on human rights
The year 2015 saw a record 65 million people displaced worldwide. Other records were broken as over one million people fled to Europe by sea, coupled with a high of 3771 deaths during sea crossings. For the minority seeking shelter in Europe, safety and refuge have not been forthcoming.
April 2015 was a particularly deadly month, in which almost 1000 people drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. The European response was the creation of a European Agenda on Migration focused on deterrence at all costs, greater militarisation of border control, and cooperation with third countries outside of Europe. The new agenda was set up to fail the most vulnerable.
Under the Agenda, a Hotspot approach was adopted to deal with large influxes, whereby Europe-wide agencies “will work on the ground with frontline Member States to swiftly identify, register and fingerprint incoming migrants.” Eleven hotspots were due to be setup in Italy and Greece by the end of 2015. The VIAL hotspot, a disused aluminium plant on the island of Chios, opened in February 2016. Hastily put together, builders were at work as it opened.
From November 2015 onwards, another part of the Agenda was implemented through the negotiation of a deal between the EU and Turkey: in return for trade and diplomatic concessions, and a €3 billion facilitation payment, Turkey would curb the flow of irregular migrants into Europe via its borders and take back a large number of migrants. This deal would also see NATO enter the fray in an already highly militarised zone.
The deal was signed on 18 March 2016 and went live on 20 March. Lacking safeguards to protect human rights, the UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) refused to endorse it and pulled out of operations at hotspots. MSF said: “It’s obvious that this deal is designed with the single aim of stopping the arrival of people into the EU. The rights and well-being of people themselves are not a primary consideration. The logic of stopping the boats, turning people back, and outsourcing “management” to Turkey is unacceptable.”
Temporary reception to arbitrary detention
Officially known as Reception and Identification Centres, hotspots were set up for “the reception, identification and processing of asylum seekers and migrants”, essentially “a crude instrument to separate out a minority of ‘good’ refugees from what EU ministers want to convince us are a majority of ‘bad’ economic migrants, and to dispatch the latter rapidly and efficiently.” Nominally run by the Greek (or Italian) authorities, two EU agencies –Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) – play a visible role in the asylum and registration procedure.
Fraught with problems from the outset, such as a lack of definition, adequate staff and facilities, these centres were intended to accelerate the process with arrivals passing through and not spending more than 24 hours there before moving on.
Shortly before 20 March that changed. All new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey are supposed to be sent back there. Part of the deal involves a resettlement or “swapping” of asylum seekers that leaves many, particularly of certain nationalities, at risk of refoulement (forced return) to Turkey and then possibly onwards (chain refoulement) to their country of origin, in breach of international law.
Greek asylum laws were changed urgently to allow the indefinite detention of those arriving at hotspots, effectively depriving them of their liberty and ability to leave the island they are on without permission from the authorities. The hotspots have turned into mass open air prisons for anyone arriving after 20 March. They are unable to go back or forward. By 1 April, the UNHCR reported there were over 1700 people at VIAL, a facility built to provide temporary accommodation for 1100 people. By June, there were almost 3000 people on Chios, at VIAL and two other unofficial facilities.
By June, 462 people had been returned to Turkey who had not applied for asylum, compared to more than twice that number in the previous quarter. European states have failed to provide adequate personnel to help the deal operate (for example, only 43 interpreters have been provided out of the 400 requested), leaving asylum seekers and migrants detained without access to basic facilities, such as shelter, legal and medical services, and basic information about their situation.
Chaos in Chios
Sitting and waiting is not an option for the thousands of men, women and children stuck in limbo and held arbitrarily. Many have fled conflict, violence and instability in their own countries only to be confronted with the same situation in Europe. Fighting broke out at VIAL on the night of 31 March/1 April, which resulted in two stabbings and many being seriously injured. Thereafter, hundreds of people stormed out of the centre and headed to the port. The Greek police, who are responsible for security, have been reluctant to deal with fights. In June, an Egyptian man was killed in a fight by another Egyptian at the unofficial Souda camp on Chios.
The discriminatory nature of the hotspot approach, where nationalities are separated and treated differently, and the EU-Turkey deal which includes the resettlement of Syrian refugees elsewhere in Europe (511 by June) but recognises many other nationalities only as migrants, has led to tensions and fights particularly between Afghans and Syrians, as the former feel the latter receive preferential treatment. A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) of its visit to several Greek hotspots in mid-May 2016 reported on this violence and failure by the police to protect people held at the centres.
HRW described the hotspots it visited as “severely overcrowded, with significant shortages of basic shelter and filthy, unhygienic conditions. Long lines for poor quality food, mismanagement, and lack of information contribute to the chaotic and volatile atmosphere in the three hotspots.” Amnesty International raised similar concerns during a visit in April.
Enough is enough
On 23 to 29 May, French refugee lawyer Eve Shahshahani visited the VIAL and Souda centres on Chios on behalf of the French NGO Gisti, which provides information and support to immigrants. Following her visit, Gisti made an urgent application on 16 June under Article 39 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) for interim measures to be taken to compel the Greek government to end the inhumane and degrading conditions and lack of liberty of the 51 people it is representing, due to the risk of serious and irreparable damage to their physical and mental safety.
The 51 people, including children, are all Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi nationals seeking asylum. They told Shahshahani: “This is not a camp. This is a jail. The whole island is a jail.” Detainees who have tried to escape the island have been arrested and returned to the centres. Citing a number of potential breaches of the ECHR, particularly Articles 2 (right to life) and 3 (prohibition on torture), Gisti detailed the conditions detainees have endured for over three months. Key aspects are:
Food: three inadequate meals are provided daily at VIAL. People often have to queue for hours to get food, which is sometimes rotten or contains maggots. All the detainees at VIAL report that they are always hungry.
At Souda, no food is provided at all by the authorities. Meals are instead provided by small NGOs such as The People’s Street Kitchen of Chios. Such organisations do not always have access to the camps or funds. Children, babies and nursing mothers are particularly affected. Malnutrition is now a serious threat. In recent weeks there has been a crackdown by the local authorities, supported by larger NGOs working with Frontex and EASO, to remove grassroots humanitarians and organisations.
Medical care: there is inadequate provision for the physical and mental healthcare of detainees, most of whom have suffered the physical and psychological trauma of war. Medical care is provided by NGOs. There are two doctors at Souda for over 1200 people. War wounds are left untreated. Bandages are not replaced. Some people have lost limbs and there have been fatalities.
Accommodation: the camps are overpopulated with more than half of all detainees sleeping outside on the hard ground regardless of weather conditions. There are not enough toilets or showers, and no hot water. Sewage overflows from the sanitation facilities and contain leeches. Snakes are also present in the camps. There are not enough blankets or covers and unrelated men and women have to sleep in the same areas. All the women expressed fears of sexual threats and harassment. In late March, a 12-year old girl was raped at VIAL. There is no education or facilities required for children. Some detainees have gone on hunger strike. For others, suicide is seen as the only way out.
In spite of the clear suffering of the 51 applicants set out in detail with handwritten and photographic evidence, and a lack of possible legal relief in Greece, on 24 June, the ECtHR decided not to demand the Greek government takes urgent action to remedy the catastrophic situation without giving any reason. Instead, Gisti has until 22 July to file a full application to the court under ordinary conditions.
In a press release, Gisti stated that the EU and its agencies operating at hotspots have been, since 20 March, “complicit on a daily basis in multiple violations of international law, the provisions of its Charter of Fundamental Rights provided by the European Convention on Human Rights. […] By deciding not to process the claims of 51 migrants on Chios as a matter of urgency, the European Court of Human Rights is supporting impunity for EU Member States.”
Another case was brought in April before the ECtHR by three Afghans who arrived at Chios on 20 March and have been detained at VIAL ever since. They claim the conditions of their arbitrary detention are in breach of Articles 3 (prohibition on torture) and 5 (right to liberty and security) of the ECHR. They claim they have not been informed of the reasons for their detention, information has not been provided in their own language and they are detained without arrest. They also cite the inhumane living conditions, supported by reports by human rights NGOs. One of the applicants has attempted suicide twice.
While lengthy proceedings before the ECtHR may buy the EU time over considerations of the legality of its shady deal with Turkey, a legal challenge brought before the EU’s European Court of Justice is already ruffling feathers among EU leaders. Two Pakistanis and one Afghan migrant in Greece not detained at hotspots are seeking to have the EU-Turkey deal annulled altogether for illegality. According to information leaked to Statewatch, concerns have been expressed about the consequences this case could have on proposed plans to amend border regulations across Europe, whose legality is also questionable.
In spite of legal challenges, European states are forging ahead with their joint plans. In mid-June, the European Commission issued its second recommendation on specific measures Greece needs to take to restore the return of asylum seekers to Greece under the Dublin Regulation (return of asylum seekers to the country in which they entered the EU to apply for asylum there). Such transfers were suspended in 2011 following an ECtHR ruling.
Nor has the clear failure of the EU-Turkey deal deterred the EU from undertaking negotiations on similar deals with a dozen other states in Africa and the Middle East, leading MSF to refuse funding from the EU. MSF stated in its press release, “This instrumentalisation of humanitarian aid is unacceptable.” The EU and its agencies have used the refugee crisis worldwide as a means of making political and financial capital out of human suffering they have in large part contributed to creating.
The EU could not be unaware of the consequences of its deal with Turkey or the resulting conditions in refugee and migrant camps in Europe. Concerns were raised almost immediately after the European Agenda on Migration was tabled in May 2015 and there were forewarnings of the current chaos.
The situation is not without precedent: it echoes the Australian response to asylum on its refugee prison islands of Nauru and Manus. Australia also demonstrated recently that the lawfulness of its actions are irrelevant to it, when it dismissed a ruling by the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court that detention on Manus Island is illegal and ordered the end of the arbitrary detention regime there.
Australia and European states rely on the almost blanket lack of awareness of the situation to breach domestic and international human rights obligations and laws to serve their own political, financial and financial ends.
For European states, the supranational nature of the EU provides cover for the failings of their own domestic asylum regimes. Asylum seekers are also at risk of refoulement in EU states. As in Athens, the pavements of London and Paris are home to many destitute refugees and asylum seekers. Others find themselves in immigration detention centres. For those who make it to the other side, safety is not guaranteed elsewhere in Europe.