During the year many countries in the EU and Southeast Europe experienced an unprecedented wave of migration from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, consisting of a mix of asylum seekers/potential refugees, economic migrants, and trafficking victims, among others. For simplicity, this report will refer to these populations as “migrants and asylum seekers” if more specific information is not available.
During the year arrivals of migrants and asylum seekers from outside the region, primarily from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, increased dramatically, stretching the ability of authorities to provide protection and basic services. UNHCR estimated that, as of December 31, 851,319 migrants and asylum seekers arrived during the year, the vast majority by sea to the islands of Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Kos, and Leros. The Hellenic Coast Guard reported that it rescued more than 90,000 refugees and migrants during search and rescue operations in the Aegean Sea through November 21. Based on Hellenic Coast Guard data, UNHCR reported that 246 migrants and asylum seekers died and 149 were missing in the country’s territorial waters during the year. Observers noted that these figures included persons who died from injuries sustained at sea or hypothermia as well as those who drowned.
According to the International Organization for Migration, 4,256 migrants and asylum seekers crossed the Greek-Turkish land border through December 18. The large number of arrivals in late summer and early fall overwhelmed government resources and resulted in a lack of facilities and qualified reception personnel and interpreters. The unwillingness of many of these persons to apply for asylum in the country made identification of potential refugees and asylum seekers difficult. Greece was predominantly a transit country for migrants and asylum seekers; most sought to depart the country quickly via the northern border for destinations elsewhere in Europe.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government established a system for protecting refugees. Since 2013 the government has had an autonomous, civilian-staffed asylum service under the authority of the Ministry of Interior and Administrative Reconstruction. The system functioned concurrently with the old police-operated system, with plans to phase out the old one after the police adjudicate a backlog of cases. The law requires decisions on asylum to be issued within 90 days; under the new system; authorities asserted that they respected this timeframe. The law provides that applicants are to have access to certified interpreters, may appeal negative decisions to the appeals authority, and may be detained but not deported.
Through UNHCR-assisted briefings and distribution of multilingual leaflets and information packages, authorities, with the assistance of international organizations and NGOs, informed undocumented migrants awaiting registration as well as non-EU foreign national detainees about asylum procedures, their rights, and International Organization for Migration-assisted voluntary return programs. According to governmental and nongovernmental sources, many of those entering Greece were reluctant to file asylum claims in the country. Through December 31, the asylum service reported that 13,197 individuals applied for asylum.
NGOs and activists expressed concerns about problems related to the asylum system, including the lack of adequate staff and facilities; problems with registration of claims and examination of appeals; lack of permanent reception centers to address the increased number of potential asylum seekers entering via the maritime border; insufficient welfare, integration, counseling, legal, and interpretation services; discrimination; poor detention conditions and the continued detention of some asylum seekers who applied for asylum after having been detained. Asylum seekers of nationalities other than Syrian alleged delays in the processing of their claims due to the expedited processing of Syrian applications under a special program instituted in August 2014.
The First Reception Service, an autonomous body under the Ministry of Migration, managed four facilities: one reception center in the Evros region, one on the island of Lesvos, and two mobile units on the islands of Lesvos and Samos. The First Reception Service receives migrants and asylum seekers, as well as non-EU nationals who are arrested or detained due to illegal entry into the country. The First Reception Service provides services in cooperation with international organizations and NGOs, including identification, registration, information on rights and obligations, medical screening, sociopsychological support, and referrals for vulnerable persons such as unaccompanied minors.
Migrants and asylum seekers also sought registration and processing in order to receive the documentation that allowed them to obtain ferry tickets for the Greek mainland but were not forcibly detained in these registration facilities. NGOs and international organizations expressed concern that the migrant reception process was overwhelmed by the huge numbers of arrivals, impacting conditions for migrants and the ability to identify vulnerable individuals for referral. In October the government agreed to open five “hotspots” for refugee and migrant registration in conjunction with the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), EU Border Agency (Frontex), the EU Police Cooperation Agency (Europol), and the EU Judicial Cooperation Agency (Eurojust) to improve registration and processing. As of December 31, the hotspot in Lesvos was operating in permanent facilities, while hotspots in Chios, Samos, and Leros were operating in temporary facilities.
The government ended prolonged detention of undocumented migrants and rejected asylum seekers, implementing existing national and EU laws, which provide that such detentions should last up to six months and be used as a measure of last resort. Undocumented non-EU foreign nationals (other than Syrians, Iraqis, Eritreans, Yemenis, Sudanese, Palestinians, or Somalis, who received six-month permits) arriving in the Greek islands were given a one-month deadline to depart the country (effectively, to deport themselves) once apprehended at the border and registered. If such migrants were apprehended after these deadlines, authorities detained them and issued them deportation orders. In cases where deportation orders were postponed, they were granted a six-month extension to depart following regular appearances before police authorities. Based on media sourcing police data, approximately 1,400 migrants were in detention centers through the beginning of June compared with approximately 6,000 reported in February 2014. According to police data, a total of 20,868 migrants were deported or returned voluntarily to their home countries between January and December 31.
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.
Refoulement: The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
Refugee Abuse: There were unconfirmed reports that the Hellenic Coast Guard was involved in disabling or turning back boats with migrants and asylum seekers aboard. In one mid-November incident in which its personnel were alleged to have purposefully punctured a dinghy carrying migrants and asylum seekers, the Hellenic Coast Guard issued a statement categorically denying that allegation, stating that a Hellenic Coast Guard vessel had been engaged, with a Turkish Coast Guard vessel, in a rescue operation of a boat carrying migrants and asylum seekers.
Several human rights groups alleged that police abused asylum seekers arriving by land from Turkey. In one example reported by HRW, on October 7, police allegedly kicked and hit members of a group of 20-25 Iraqis, including children, and forced them across the border into Turkey after they had been expelled from Bulgaria, allegedly stealing cell phones and more than $20,000 in cash. In mid-October a Thessaloniki prosecutor ordered a probe by the police internal affairs department in northern Greece to establish whether there had been instances of abuse of power, breach of duty, robbery, or any other offenses in up to 20 separate cases where border guards in Evros allegedly robbed undocumented migrants and refugees and sent them back to Turkey. In several cases, police authorities opened investigations into allegations of physical abuse of migrants by law enforcement authorities, in some instances suspending those involved.
Amnesty International reported that in early September its staff witnessed a group of 15-25 persons brandishing bats physically attack refugees and threaten activists on the island of Kos, while shouting “go back to your countries” and other slurs.
During the year HRW, other NGOs, and the media, including CBS News, reported allegations of unidentified armed individuals in black masks (balaclavas) bearing no insignia and operating in unmarked vessels, who attacked, disabled, punctured, or towed often overcrowded inflated rubber dinghies carrying migrants and asylum seekers away from Eastern Aegean islands on multiple occasions during the second half of the year. On October 22, HRW released a report, Greece: Attacks on Boats Risk Migrant Lives, which documented eight such incidents, including four on one day in early October, based on alleged eyewitness accounts or survivor testimonies. Government authorities investigated these reports but did not identify or arrest perpetrators of the alleged attacks. Authorities also reported that they did not find any credible evidence or confirmation to link any official Greek government organization with these alleged activities. In at least one instance, migrants and asylum seekers reported that the Hellenic Coast Guard intervened to prevent such an attack.
NGOs and independent experts noted a number of specific deficiencies related to undocumented migrants, including at times overcrowding in registration facilities and hotspots, and the prolonged detention of unaccompanied minors, often with adults, due to lack of space in specialized shelters and inability to transport minors to such shelters appropriately. Unaccompanied minors were not always properly registered, at times lacked safe accommodations or legal guardians, and were vulnerable to homelessness, and labor and sexual exploitation. According to National Social Solidarity Center (EKKA) data, the agency dealt with 831 referrals of unaccompanied minors needing shelter between January and June.
In August on the island of Kos, media and NGOs reported that migrants and asylum seekers remained on Kos for three weeks or longer as they awaited processing. In one incident on August 11, approximately 2,000 migrants and asylum seekers, including women and children, reportedly were locked in a stadium overnight on Kos without access to hygiene facilities, shade, or shelter. Doctors without Borders denounced the treatment by authorities in a press release.
Employment: Discrimination against noncitizens in the labor market, lack of sufficient legal protections against exploitation, and abusive working conditions persisted.
In a February 24 report, European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) noted that irregular migrants, if not detained, were left to fend for themselves without any social protection or right to work. On November 25, a joint ministerial decision by the ministers of interior and administrative reconstruction; finance; development and tourism; and labor, social insurance, and social solidarity provides for the granting of six-month work permits to non-EU foreign nationals whose deportation orders had been temporarily revoked or revoked on humanitarian grounds.
Access to Basic Services: Services such as health care, education, and housing were granted to asylum seekers in possession of a valid residency permit. According to EKKA data, authorities satisfied approximately 89 percent of shelter requests from asylum seekers between January and June. UNHCR noted the shelters lacked standard operating procedures and monitoring and evaluation mechanisms.
NGOs and independent experts described conditions in which authorities processed undocumented migrants and asylum seekers in temporary registration facilities upon arrival in the country as deplorable and poor, specifically criticizing unsuitable and overcrowded facilities, lack of adequate food, unsanitary conditions, lack of potable water, and limited access to medical care and treatment. In its August 25 report, HRW noted that the reception centers for processing migrants and refugees fell significantly below international standards and could amount to inhuman or degrading treatment. Children frequently were held with adults in severely overcrowded and dirty conditions. In one example, HRW reported that, during a visit in May, nearly all persons it interviewed on the island of Kos asserted that authorities provided little food and some said they had not eaten in days.
Following the greatly increased numbers of migrants and asylum seekers arriving in the country during the late summer and fall, the government increased processing capacity by allocating additional resources and police staff to improve conditions in the registration centers and reduce wait times for registration. In addition, they began construction of five migrant and refugee processing “hotspots” operated in conjunction with EU agencies, along with the provision of additional reception spaces in which migrants and asylum seekers could shelter. The government participated in a European Commission-funded UNHCR rental subsidy program launched on December 14 to increase reception capacity. NGOs and local government officials reported that some irregular migrants continued to shelter in public spaces and in derelict building in Athens.
Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees and provided it to approximately 167 persons as of November 30.