Asylum seekers and migrants face inhumane conditions in Greece, according to an Amnesty International report released Thursday. The report says that authorities are too slow in processing asylum claims, resulting in long waits in overcrowded facilities. In addition, they often become victims of the rising wave of xenophobia sweeping Greece.
"Greece's failure to respect the rights of migrants and asylum-seekers is taking on the proportions of a humanitarian crisis," said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Program Director at Amnesty International on a statement released Thursday. "Against a backdrop of sustained migratory pressure, profound economic crisis and rising xenophobic sentiment, Greece is proving itself incapable of providing even the most basic requirements of safety and shelter to the thousands of asylum seekers and migrants arriving each year."
The group writes that the country's financial crisis is no excuse for neglecting the problem and cites an Greek agency that was set up last year to review asylum applications. It has yet to hear a single case because of staffing shortages. In addition, only about 20 asylum seekers are able to register their claims at the Attika Aliens Police Directorate in Athens on the one day a week that it is open. Lines form days in advance, says the report, and stretch down the street.
Those who aren't successful in registering their claims often face a Catch 22 situation and become victims of mass raids or end up in unhygienic detention facilities for a year or more. The group claims Greece is using the poor conditions of facilities as a deterrent to prevent more refugees from entering the country.
In one case an asylum seeker of African origin had tried for months to apply for asylum status, but ended up being arrested in a sweep operation and detained in August. Though his claim was finally registered in October, he is still being held.
In a report released in September 2011, the group Human Rights Watch wrote that 97 detainees were being held at a police station in Feres, though the official capacity is 30 people. The report quotes a Georgian woman saying, "you cannot imagine how dirty and difficult it is for me here.... It's not appropriate to be with these men. I don't sleep at night. I just sit on a mattress."
Amenesty International said the plight of children is especially awful, with many refugee children being released on the street due to lack of space. In a facility in Fylakio, Human Rights Watch discovered that children were mixed in with unrelated adults in a facility where sewage covered the floor.
'Tip of the Iceberg'
While non-governmental organizations have been documenting Greece's problems with migrants for years, the situation has reached a new extreme as xenophobic attacks become more common amidst dire economic conditions. Between January and September 2012, the Racist Violence Recording Network documented 87 incidents of racist violence against refugees and migrants, 83 of which were in public spaces. The group, part of the United Nations Refugee Agency, found 50 cases of severe bodily injury. Those targeted included people from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, New Guinea, Pakistan and Somalia.
The group also links many of these attacks to Golden Dawn, a right-wing extremist political party that won 18 seats in Greek Parliament in June. The report says that the documented violence is "just the tip of the iceberg" and finds the results "exceptionally alarming."
Amnesty International reports police are often complicit in racist violence. The group documents a case in September where two men dressed in black destroyed a barbershop run by Pakistani nationals and stabbed a Greek customer. Police came to investigate the incident, but then arrested and detained the Pakistani nationals because they lacked proper documents.
Excaberating the problem is the fact that refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria are now coming to Greece by the thousands. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 200,000 people had fled the country and many are trying to reach Europe through Turkey and then to Greece. But according to Amnesty International they are being stymied by Greek authorities in direct violation of European human rights laws. In June 2012, Greek police pushed an inflatable dinghy in the middle of a river on the border back towards Turkey and used a knife to stab the boat, forcing the refugees to swim back to the Turkish shore.
In February the country began building a fence on the border with Turkey to keep out refugees crossing into Europe.
Unworthy of Nobel Prize
In October, Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias unveiled a draft presidential decree to set up a specialized unit within the Greek police force to deal with racist violence. But Amnesty International says that the decree doesn't go far enough in ensuring that crimes in which victims fear police arrest and detention are also properly investigated and prosecuted.
Though European Union policy requires asylum seekers to return to the EU country where they first arrived, because of conditions of Greek facilities EU countries have stopped doing so. The European Court of Human Rights found in a case last year that because Greek detention practices violate the European Convention on Human Rights, Belgium, which had sent an asylum seeker back to Greece had also violated the Convention.
"The current situation in Greece is totally unworthy of the ... European Union and so far below international human rights standards as to make a mockery of them," Dalhuisen said in a statement. "Greece needs help but it must also accept its own responsibilities."