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Greece: Excessive Use of Detention, Shortcomings in Asylum Procedures, Food Crisis Develops as Assistance to Refugees and Asylum Seekers Halted

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A new report outlines excessive use of administrative detention under dire conditions by Greek authorities. The Greek government has retreated on an announcement that asylum registration would be restricted to island hotspots, as report reveals an average delay of 14 months for applications on the mainland, Crete and Rhodes. NGOs warn of a food crisis as the result of the government's decision to cease support for asylum applicants once they are granted protection and the halt of cash assistance to asylum seekers.

ECRE member Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) and Oxfam have released a report titled Detention as the Default, outlining: "How Greece, with the support of the EU, is generalizing administrative detention of migrants". In 2019, Greece expanded the grounds for administrative detention of asylum seekers, limited the examination of alternatives to detention, and extended the duration of detention to up to 3 years. According to the organisations, this constitutes a "clear violation of European and Greek law". In the first half of 2021, Greek authorities issued 9,575 decisions for administrative detention including 7,247 concerning returns, 1,980 concerning deportations, and 348 concerning asylum law. As of July 2021, 3,000 migrants were in administrative detention (detained without criminal charges). 46% of those detained had been detained for more than six months. The report points out that seven out of ten irregular migrants are "put in administrative detention with the majority remaining detained when applying for asylum". One in five "are detained for a long period of time in police cells which are designed to only hold people for just a few hours". Further: "Pregnant women, children and people with vulnerabilities are being placed in detention without the appropriate access to health care and legal aid". Reportedly, almost 2,400 people of the detainees in Greece are in pre-removal detention, often under miserable conditions that have been heavily criticised, including by the Council of Europe's anti-torture committee, the CPT. Legal expert at GCR Vasilis Papastergiou deems administrative detention "just another tool to stop people from seeking safety in Europe". He points out that: "Europe's hands are also not clean as the EU funds the new 'closed and controlled' quasi-detention centres, places where migrants are left to be forgotten".

In September, Greek authorities began the transfer of asylum seekers a new facility on Samos This is the first of five new EU-funded "closed controlled" facilities to be established on Leros, Lesbos, Kos, Chios as well as Samos. The facility is located in a remote valley, surrounded with barbed wire fencing, and features surveillance cameras, x-ray scanners and magnetic doors. Detainees of the camp began protests on 18 November after Greek authorities announced the confinement of anyone without valid ID cards including new arrivals and people with a second rejection to their asylum application. NGOs have also urged the government to suspend measures that have restricted the movement of approximately half the camp population. In testimonies, people in centre describe "imprisonment".

On 22 November the Greek authorities issued a circular establishing that asylum applications can only be submitted in the Reception and Identification Centres (RIC) on the Aegean island hotspots of Samos, Chios, Lesvos, Leros and in the Evros region. Following strong opposition in the parliament however, the government retreated and clarified that applicants will not be transferred from the mainland to the islands. Rather, the island centres will exclusively process the cases of people arriving by sea. The Mobile Info Team has released a report revealing delays of 14 months on average for asylum registration on mainland Greece, Crete and Rhodes where the only route to asylum is via Skype. The analysis is based on more than 1,100 case files and in-depth interviews with asylum applicants. Director of Mobile Info Team, Michael Kientzle, states: "Our research evidences that the Skype pre-registration system remains the most pervasive obstacle to asylum in Greece, with the effects of the lottery-like procedure being devastating for many".

27 NGOs, including ECRE members GCR and Solidarity Now, warn that: "A halt to cash assistance for asylum seekers, and the denial of food support to recognised refugees and rejected asylum seekers is creating a hunger crisis in Greece". In October 2021 the Greek government stopped providing services to asylum applications once they had been granted protection. According to the organisations: "For nearly two months, up to 60 per cent of current residents of the Greek refugee camps on the mainland have not had access to sufficient food". After handing over the accommodation component of the Emergency Support to Integration and Accommodation (ESTIA) programme to the Greek government in May, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) handed over the cash assistance component of the scheme to Greek authorities in the beginning of October. Since then, the ESTIA programme has quickly unravelled. According to the 27 organisations as a result: "34,000 asylum seekers have gone for two months without cash assistance that had previously enabled them to buy food, clothing and other essential items". Refugee Support Aegean quote an Afghan mother living in ESTIA housing: "My children were going to school for almost 2 years in Greece. Since we were transferred to another flat in Athens 6 months ago, they are out of school again. There are no places in schools there, I was told".

ECRE member the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI) has issued a statement concerning an incident on 6 November when a group of four Italian citizens from the organisation were taken into custody: "by a mixed patrol of Greek policemen, border police and Frontex agents during a technical-legal visit at the Greek-Macedonian border near Idomeni, in Greece". The group were brought back to the border crossing point and forced to return on foot to Macedonian territory. ASGI denounces the removal "from the territory of the European Union without justification, in an illegitimate manner and with informal procedures". The organisation has sent letters to the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) as well as EU institutions regarding the incident.

On 21 November, one man died and four were injured -- one is in serious condition -- after a shipwreck off Crete. Reportedly, the response by the Hellenic Coast Guard was delayed. 70 Syrian survivors were able to disembark after being rescued by a cargo ship and a boat from port authorities. In the night of 19 November, seven people lost their life and eight were injured during a police chase of a suspected human smuggler in Xanthi in north-eastern Greece.