According to the European Court of Human Rights, all is well in the Greek hotspots

Migration and Asylum, Statement

Read in:  French 

The European Court of Human Rights has rejected for the most part the request made on 16 June 2016 by 51 persons (including many minors) from Afghanistan, Syria and Palestine, who were forcibly maintained in a situation of extreme distress in the hotspot of Chios, Greece [1].

The 51 applicants, supported by our organisations, were identified during an observation mission led by the Gisti in the Greek hotspots in May 2016 [2]. These persons were deprived of their freedom and detained on the island of Chios, which had become an open prison since the implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement of 20 March 2016, just like the neighbouring islands of Lesbos, Leros, Samos and Kos. The requestees invoked the violation of several provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights [3].

In their request, they abundantly and accurately documented the insufficiency and unsuitability of food, the sometimes very dangerous material conditions (poorly fixed tents, snakes, heat, promiscuity, etc.), the great difficulties they meet in accessing healthcare, and the lack of care for the most vulnerable people – including pregnant women, young children and isolated minors. They also documented how these circumstances were aggravated by the context of deprivation of freedom, which characterises the situation in the hotspots, but also by the administrative arbitrariness, which is particularly anxiety-inducing because of the permanent threat of being returned to Turkey.

The only violation that the Court identifies concerns the impossibility for the applicants to lodge an effective appeal against the decisions ordering their deportation or detention, because of the lack of available information regarding the right of appeal, and there is no court able to receive such an appeal on the island of Chios.

Regarding the other points, it took more than three years for the European Court of Human Rights to rule that the complaint of the 51 of Chios was unfounded. Its argument comes in several parts :

  • as regards the treatment of minors, the Court echoes the discourse and denial of the Greek government, and states that it is “not convinced that the authorities have not done all that could reasonably be expected of them in order to meet their obligation in terms of care and protection”
  • the Court acknowledges that there may have been problems regarding access to medical care, the poor quality of food and water and the lack of information regarding rights and legal assistance, but it minimises the issue by stating that “the massive influx of migrants created organisational, logistical and structural difficulties for the Greek authorities” and it notes that, since the request did not feature individualised details (for each applicant), the Court “could not conclude that the conditions of detention of the applicants [who have stayed there] constituted inhuman and degrading treatment” ;
  • with regard to overcrowding and promiscuity, the Court does not rule them out – while pointing out that the applicants have “not indicated the number of square meters in the containers”- but tempers its appreciation of the risks entailed by specifying that the duration of “strict” detention did not exceed thirty days, a period over which “the threshold of gravity required for [this detention] to be described as inhuman or degrading treatment has not been achieved”.

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The Court’s assessment of the deprivation of freedom about which the applicants complained is at the heart of its decision, since it uses it to minimise all the rights violations described in the request. Thus, without challenging that the material conditions in the Vial camp (Chios) are very poor, the Court dismisses the situation by stating that it is “a semi-open structure, which allowed the occupants to leave the center all day and come back only at night”. Similarly, “even if there was at one time or another a problem of overcrowding” in the Souda camp, the Court argues that “this camp has always been an open structure, which is likely to greatly reduce the possible nuisance linked to overcrowding” [4].

In other words, it does not matter, for the ECtHR, that people are forced to live in subhuman conditions in the unhealthy camps of the Chios hotspot, since they can spend some time away from them. And, since they are not officially “detained”, it does not matter either that, in practice, they have no choice but to return to these camps. What does it matter, since, as in the rest of the “archipelago of camps” of the Aegean Sea [5], they have no right to leave the whole island of Chios, which therefore becomes their jail.

By reproducing, in its decision, the formal façade that the Greek authorities and the European Union use to hide the situation in the hotspots, the ECtHR has thus decided to abandon the victims and to reinforce the hypocrisy of an inhuman policy which encloses displaced people when it should welcome them.

Context

For the past three years, tens of thousands of people have been detained in the five hotspots of the Aegean Sea by the European Union, which is funding Greece to play the role of Europe’s border guard.

As soon as the hotspots were created, Greek associations and NGOs, as well as European and international bodies such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights of the United Nations, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture, and the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, have repeatedly warned of the numerous rights violations committed in the Greek hotspots. These include reception conditions marked by overcrowding, insecurity, insalubrity and a lack of hygiene, as well as sexual violence, repeated abuse of children’s rights, failure to take into account situations of vulnerability, a limited or non-existent access to information and rights, and the denial of the right of asylum. Countless testimonies, reports and investigations confirm the reality and the actuality of the dramatic situations caused by these violations, which are periodically echoed by the press.