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Ad hoc committee of the Bureau on the situation of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Greece

Report on the visit to Athens and Lesvos (30-31 May 2016)

Progress report | Doc. 14086 Addendum III | 20 June 2016

Bureau of the Assembly
Rapporteur :
Ms Meritxell MATEU, Andorra, ALDE

1 Introduction

1 In the eyes of those who flee war in Syria and Iraq, violence and persecution in Afghanistan and Eritrea, or extreme poverty and destitution in many other countries in Africa and Asia, Europe is a beacon: it is a safe and rich haven of peace where human rights are respected and governments are accountable.
2 It takes many words to describe what migration and asylum are for Europe. Certainly they are a challenge; a bone of contention and a divisive matter; an unstoppable phenomenon that should be managed but often is not; a problem for some and an opportunity for others. The Parliamentary Assembly has already said it several times: migration and asylum should be a responsibility, and an equitably shared one.
3 For a country such as Greece which, because of its geographical position, is especially exposed to arrivals, migration and asylum have been an ongoing challenge for years. But in the past few months, the situation has become much more of a humanitarian and human rights emergency: following the closing of the border by “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”, thousands of migrants and people in need of international protection have found themselves stuck in mainland Greece and barred in their attempt to reach other European countries. This has created a completely new challenge for the Greek authorities, turning Greece from a transit into a destination country.
4 In an attempt to stop irregular migration into the European Union, on 18 March 2016, the European Union signed an agreement with Turkey. As a result, several thousands of people are stuck on the Greek islands and those who do not apply for asylum will be returned to Turkey, from where they arrived. This agreement has reduced the flow of Syrians and other migrants and refugees transiting via Turkey to the European Union by sea but has also provoked protests and even eruptions of violence amongst those who are stuck on the Greek islands.
5 The visit to Athens and Lesvos was an invaluable opportunity for members of the ad hoc committee of the Bureau to witness the situation in Greece, to appreciate the efforts which are being undertaken by the authorities and many other actors, and to familiarise ourselves with the reality of the lives of scores of migrants and refugees.
6 On 30 and 31 May, the ad hoc committee visited four camps in Athens and the surrounding areas, without any impediments or restrictions, being free to speak to residents, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and any other actors present on-site. On 31 May, only a small delegation of the ad hoc committee was authorised to visit sites in Lesvos. Although this select delegation had free access to open reception facilities on the island, for security reasons it was not allowed to visit the accommodation area of the hotspot in Moria. This was, in itself, an important indication of the level of tension.
7 I would like to thank the Greek Parliament not only for the successful organisation of a logistically complex visit but also, and above all, for having invited the delegation at a time when the situation is rapidly evolving: unofficial reception sites are being dismantled while other, official camps are being built; migrants and refugees are being transferred from the former to the latter; a new asylum law has been introduced and the institutional framework for its implementation is not yet completely up and running; the consequences and impact of the EU–Turkey Agreement are not yet clear.
8 I commend the Greek authorities for the honesty with which they have shown us what has been done and what still needs doing, without fear of being criticised and with the hope that our visit will be able to give a constructive contribution to their efforts. I also wish to thank the UNHCR, especially for having volunteered to accompany the delegation during all the visits to reception sites, offering explanations and expert advice.

2 Scope of the present report

9 The present report reflects the findings of the visit of the ad hoc committee to Greece and the discussions that were held on that occasion. It is not intended to provide an in-depth analysis of the situation of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Greece, which is the subject of the report on “Refugees at risk in Greece” (Doc. 14082) to be presented during the third part-session of 2016 by Ms Tineke Strik (Netherlands, SOC), rapporteur of the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons, who also took part in the visit. In spite of the limited scope of the report, I have drawn some conclusions and formulated recommendations which I would like to bring to the attention of the members of the Assembly.

3 Findings of the visits in Attica

3.1 Informal sites

3.1.1 Elliniko

10 On 30 May 2016, the ad hoc committee visited the emergency reception sites of Elliniko. These are three facilities located in an urban coastal area in the southern part of Athens which were previously used as the arrival terminal at the disused airport (Elliniko I), a hockey stadium (Elliniko II) and a baseball stadium (Elliniko III). Elliniko II was the first one to accommodate migrants and refugees in September 2015. Following the closure of the border with “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”, people also started to be sheltered in the other two facilities.
11 The sites are managed by the Ministry of Migration Policy. NGOs operate on the sites and UNHCR staff visit them regularly. The three sites accommodate respectively 1 318, 1 397 and 967 people (that is to say a total of 3 682 people), but numbers are changing constantly. The majority of the residents (90%) are from Afghanistan, while very few are from Syria, Iraq and Iran. 40% of residents are men, 35% women and 25% children. The choice to separate nationalities is made by the authorities, with a view to preventing tensions arising between different communities.
12 The living conditions we witnessed are unacceptable. The sites lack space to ensure privacy for families and women. Tents are overcrowded, too close to each other, some are inside the buildings – including the basement, which is dark and without ventilation –, others outside, exposed to the weather. There is no medical care, and access to water and sanitation is limited and insufficient. There are no child-friendly area or toys, no education or recreational activity is organised on-site and there is no special shelter for unaccompanied minors/separated children.

3.1.2 Piraeus

13 The situation is similar – if not worse – in the other informal site we visited, the port of Piraeus, where around 2100 people are accommodated, the majority of whom are from Syria (60%), Afghanistan (25%) and Iraq (15%). 35% of them are men, 35% women and 30% children.
14 Also here tents are placed very close together, mostly outdoors. The delegation was met by the representatives of the Coast Guard, which ensured the management of the site. They are not, however, directly involved in any assistance activity to refugees.
15 As in Elliniko, food is distributed three times a day. It is already cooked and most of the time the meal is cold. The issue of food came up several times during the visit: while many refugees complained to us about the quality of food, the authorities underlined that they are proud to be able to meet such a basic need for all those who are either in formal or informal camps. An issue that came to my mind is that, being unable to cook their own food, families are deprived of an important aspect of normality. The lack of hot water and adequate sanitation is a major problem. There are 50 toilets and 33 showers for the overall population of the site, with no separate area for women.
16 In Piraeus, volunteers and NGOs strive to meet the residents’ most basic needs, and there is a lack of everything. There is no common area for social activities; there are neither child-friendly areas nor toys; no educational or recreational activity is organised on-site and there is no special accommodation for unaccompanied minors/separated children. Access to information, including legal advice, is a daunting problem. The UNHCR does not have a permanent presence.

3.2 Official camps

3.2.1 Eleonas

17 It was through the Eleonas reception centre that, in April this year, Ibrahim Al-Hussein carried the Olympic flame as part of the torch relay for the upcoming 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. It was a highly symbolic gesture given that this Syrian refugee and athlete had suffered the amputation of a leg as a result of a bombshell.
18 The ad hoc committee visited Eleonas on 31 May. The site marked a sharp difference to the unofficial camps, being well organised and providing good reception conditions. It had been set up by the Greek Army in August 2015 and is managed by the First Reception Service. It hosts 1 802 people, mostly from Afghanistan (50%) and Syria (40%). 40% of the population of the camps are women, 33% children and 27% men.
19 The site is located in a non-residential area – a port facility near Athens. Accommodation is provided in 184 containers/isoboxes, each of them with air conditioning; a bathroom with a shower, a toilet and hot water; and a very basic kitchen without a fridge or an oven.
20 Food is distributed to 100% of the population of the camp. There is a health facility on-site and a referral system for hospitalisation. The ad hoc committee visited a prefabricated building where children were attending a French language class. Information on the asylum and relocation procedures is provided as well as on access to other services. Numerous Greek and international NGOs are present, as well as the UNHCR.

3.2.2 Skaramangas

21 In April 2016, Skaramangas was set up at great speed by the Greek army as an emergency site to decongest the port of Piraeus which at the time hosted around 6 000 people. It consists of three camps, one of which is still under construction.
22 Accommodation consists of 218 containers/isoboxes, each of them with air conditioning, a bathroom and a small kitchen. While we visited the camps, we saw people queuing to receive bed linen and other items; at another container, children were being given drinks; other people were waiting outside the health centre, where there are staff and volunteers of the International Red Cross, the Greek Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières.
23 There is a food distribution point. There are no problems as regards hot water and electricity. Life on the camp seems to be well-organised, with the UNHCR and NGOs having a stable base and providing information and other assistance. Although there is no school, educational courses for children are provided by the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and a variety of NGOs, including Save the Children and SOS Children’s Villages.
24 At the moment, the population of Skaramangas totals 2 889, even if the number will certainly increase as the reception capacity of the site expands. Currently there are 689 women, 755 men and 1 455 children. Syrians represent 75% of the population, Iraqis and Yazidis respectively 10%, and Afghans 5%. We were told that, in general, Syrian families have at least three children and include members of extended families; there are also many single-headed households with five or six children. We were also told that the number of registered asylum seekers in the camps is steadily increasing.

3.3 The challenges faced by local and regional authorities

25 On 31 May, the ad hoc committee held exchanges of views with Ms Rena Dourou, Governor of the region of Attica, and Mr Giorgios Kaminis, Mayor of Athens, who was accompanied by Mr Lefteris Papayannikis, Deputy Mayor for migration and refugee issues, and Maria Stratigaki, Deputy Mayor for social solidarity, welfare and equality.
26 These meetings highlighted the local and regional dimension of migration, as well as the irreplaceable – but often underestimated – role of local and regional authorities in the elaboration of an adequate response to the current crisis and the design of a medium and long-term strategy.
27 The Governor of Attica recalled that, on 12 May 2016, together with the President of the region of Sicily and the President of the region of Lazio, she had written to relevant EU institutions asking them to strengthen the role of the regions and to involve them more closely in EU decision-making in the area of migration.
28 The Mayor of Athens stressed the added value of exchanging experience and good practice between cities, as had been the case, for instance, during the International Forum on the reception and integration of refugees in the European Union, hosted by the city of Barcelona on 3 May 2016.
29 At the time of our visit, the Attica region was accommodating 14 527 migrants and refugees. Amongst the most pressing challenges experienced by the authorities are:
  • the logistical effort to co-ordinate solidarity: a Logistics Centre, the first of its kind in Greece, for the management, storage and supply of relief items has been set up by the Attica region, to assist migrants and refugees while protecting them from fraud;
  • the urgent need to provide adequate housing and accommodation in different areas to avoid creating ghettos;
  • combating poverty: with a view to contributing to this objective, the city of Athens has created a Reception and Solidarity Centre (KYADA), which provides support and social facilities for combating poverty in general and for refugees;
  • guaranteeing access to education for migrant children, including unaccompanied minors/separated children: during the meeting, the Mayor of Athens informed us of his commitment to ensure that all migrant and refugee children have access to school starting from the beginning of the next school year;
  • giving migrants and refugees the means to integrate into society, including training and access to work;
  • preventing extremism and the insurgence of hostility against migrants and refugees.
30 As regards this last point, the Mayor of Athens recalled the absence of violence which had characterised the transfer of migrants and refugees from Eidomeni, underlining that this had been possible thanks to the climate of trust that the Greek population and the authorities had managed to establish with them.
31 The Greeks were sensitive to the plight of refugees and migrants. Episodes of intolerance were rare while those of generosity and solidarity abounded. Despite this, it was important to remain vigilant: for instance, in the context of housing policies, the creation of areas with a high concentration of migrants and refugees should be avoided as it could heighten social tensions and increase support for extremist groups.
32 Both Ms Dourou and Mr Kaminis stressed that migration and asylum are a collective European challenge which requires a collective response. It is a matter of credibility for the European Union to be able to adopt a long-lasting refugee and asylum policy based on a common approach, as well as on effective, equitable and fair sharing of responsibility.

4 Lesvos

33 On 31 May, the ad hoc committee split into two groups to allow a small delegation led by the President of the Assembly, Mr Pedro Agramunt, to visit reception facilities in Lesvos and hold exchanges of views with the local authorities as well as with representatives of the UNHCR, the European Union, the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union (Frontex) and NGOs. The findings of this visit, in which I did not take part, are described in detail in the addendum to the report by Ms Strik on “Refugees at risk in Greece”.
34 In this report, I would like to limit myself to mentioning two considerations, which were reported by the delegation:
  • it was not possible for the delegation to have access to the accommodation area in the closed reception site of Moria. The reason put forward by the authorities was that security could not be ensured. Tension was palpable; a demonstration took place during the visit, with residents carrying banners saying “freedom of movement”. The Moria hotspot looks like a high-security prison, with fences topped by barbed-wire. Young children were living there;
  • the delegation visited two other reception sites, Kara Tepe and the Silver Bay Hotel, which provided accommodation of a good standard. There was a calm and relaxed atmosphere and a high presence of NGOs.

5 Tackling the crisis

35 During its visit to Athens, the ad hoc delegation met several government ministers and other key actors in the area of migration and asylum.
36 On 30 May 2016, it was welcomed by Mr Voutsis, President of the Hellenic Parliament, and had an exchange of views with Mr Mouzalas, Alternate Minister for Migration Policy; Mr Toksas, Alternate Minister of Citizen Protection; Mr Vitsas, Deputy Minister of National Defence; Ms Fotiou, Alternate Minister of Social Solidarity; Mr Vidalis, Rear-Admiral, Greek Coast Guard; and Mr Leclerc, UNHCR Representative in Greece.
37 On 31 May, it met Ms Stavropoulou, Director of the Asylum Service; Mr Voudouris, Secretary General for Reception; Mr Karydis, Acting Ombudsman; Mr Moschos, Deputy Ombudsman for Children’s Rights; Mr Christopoulos, Vice-President of the International Federation of Human Rights, Greece; Ms Argyropoulou-Chryssochidou, First Vice-President of the National Commission for Human Rights; and Ms Gavouneli, Chairperson of the sub-committee on international communication and co-operation of the National Commission for Human Rights.
38 Our interlocutors provided a wealth of information, which has been used by the rapporteur of the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons to enrich her report. In the following paragraphs I will limit myself to mentioning some of the key issues that emerged during the exchanges, without claiming to be exhaustive.

5.1 The magnitude of the challenge

39 I would like to relate the point of view that was expressed to us by the government representatives: they are willing to take criticism on board and do not hesitate to say that more should be done to improve the response in certain areas; however, they also feel that criticism levelled against Greece does not adequately take into account:
  • the magnitude of the challenge that the authorities had to unexpectedly face, having managed to address the basic needs of 60 000 people;
  • the fact that this has been achieved in a situation of economic austerity, without major complaints from the Greek population, without violent demonstrations from the migrant population, and without provoking loss of life or serious health emergencies;
  • that what was done to handle the emergency is just work in progress, and that the authorities will not relent their efforts; on the contrary, stage 2 of the response – building reception sites of an adequate standard – has already started, and will lead to stage 3 – integration measures – for those who remain in Greece;
  • that other European countries, by contrast, adopted a much more restrictive policy towards arrivals, closing borders, building walls or refusing to accept quotas.
40 The authorities said that, in only 20 days, following the decision by the Visegrad countries to close their borders also to Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans, Greece managed to provide shelter for 60 000 people who intended to travel to other EU member States and were “trapped” in Greece. They would not be sent back to their countries of origin because Greece respected the principle of non-refoulement. They were safe to stay in Greece, where their first and foremost right, the right to life, would be protected.

5.2 Reception conditions

41 During the exchanges of views, the Greek authorities admitted that not all the accommodation was of an adequate standard. However, they stressed that the majority of the 50 reception sites which have been set up did provide adequate accommodation and regretted that what catalysed attention were those few sites which did not, such as Eidomeni, Elliniko and the port of Piraeus.
42 The ad hoc committee was told that sites such as Eleonas and Skaramangas were being used as a model for the construction/extension of other facilities by the armed forces and that all migrants and refugees would be transferred to accommodation of adequate standard by September 2016.
43 The UNHCR also informed us that a limited number of migrants and refugees lived in flats, and that more flats would be made available for this purpose in the coming months. This solution is certainly preferable to accommodation in large reception sites, especially for those migrants and refugees who will remain in Greece.

5.3 Access to international protection

44 Several members of the ad hoc committee reiterated the importance of giving effective access to the asylum procedure to all those who are in need of international protection, both inland and on the islands, and focused on key aspects, such as registration of the application, admissibility of the claim, possibility to appeal, availability of legal aid and advice, as well as availability of general information on how to apply for asylum and the prospects of relocation or resettlement. The issue of whether Turkey was a safe third country – for all nationalities composing the current flow of refugees and migrants – was also raised, as well as the consequences of a recent decision by a Greek court which found this not to be the case. Questions were asked about the newly introduced “pre-registration” process launched by the Asylum Service.
45 During the exchanges, the ad hoc committee learnt that, before the closure of the Western Balkan route and the EU–Turkey Agreement, between 3% and 5% of the arrivals applied for asylum in Greece whereas at the time of our visit this figure was 99%; previously, when the number of applications was considerably smaller, the average time for having an asylum application registered was two months. Tackling the workload created by the new situation required a huge commitment of administrative resources. This was not easy to accomplish in Greece’s economic context.
46 In the words of Maria Stavropoulou, the Asylum Service has four Mount Everests to climb: around 50-55 000 applications from asylum seekers who are “trapped” in Greece; the implementation of the asylum process on the islands following the EU–Turkey Agreement; the implementation of the relocation scheme; and maintaining the sustainability of the ordinary asylum procedure, also considering that there are many cases eligible for family reunion in other EU member States and that a number of asylum seekers will not be eligible for relocation.

5.4 Unaccompanied minors/separated children

47 Throughout the visit, the ad hoc committee put great emphasis on the importance of a rapid and effective screening of vulnerable cases with a view to addressing their specific needs. The situation of separated children/unaccompanied minors was mentioned as a special concern.
48 In this regard, we were told that in 2016, 1 600 unaccompanied minors/separated migrants children had been registered. The real figure may be higher. 95% of registered unaccompanied minors/separated migrant children are boys between 13 and 17. Age assessment is normally done through medical tests as well as in-depth interviews, which is the best method but it is also very-time consuming. The National Centre for Social Solidarity currently has 630 places in appropriate structures, which is insufficient to cover the needs. In the next weeks, however, an additional 250 places will be created.
49 The government has established close co-operation with the UNHCR, UNICEF and many specialised international and national NGOs in this area. The offices of the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children’s Rights play an important role in monitoring the situation of unaccompanied/separated migrant children and drawing the authorities’ attention to situations of concern, in particular as regards the issues of detention and family reunion.
50 Still, there is need for assistance and resources to help build high standard facilities and establish a platform to locate the parents and family members of these children. The Ministry of Social Solidarity is working closely with the Ministry of Education to ensure access to school for migrant and refugee children, whether accompanied or not.

6 Concluding remarks and recommendations

51 The situation that the ad hoc committee witnessed in Greece is an emergency within a pre-existing and deteriorating crisis: for years, their geographic location has exposed some European countries to large-scale arrivals of migrants and people in need of international protection; for years, the European Union has failed to secure a mechanism by which the responsibility for tackling this influx in respect of the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and other human rights obligations could be equitably shared between its member States; for years, it had been clear that the Dublin Regulation required a complete overhaul.
52 Now it is time for action. Tackling the present emergency is a collective European responsibility and a collective European response is needed.
53 I count on the members of the ad hoc committee who participated in this visit to raise awareness in their parliaments of the situation in Greece and mobilise resources in their countries to provide the material assistance which we saw to be necessary. I also urge my colleagues to exert pressure on their governments to ensure that they respect their relocation obligations, and that they make available specialised staff to help increase the administrative capacity of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and the Greek Asylum Service. Likewise, I call on them to ensure that their respective countries accelerate the processing of relocation claims and family reunification requests, especially those concerning separated children/unaccompanied minors.
54 I think that the Council of Europe is taking a step in the right direction by devoting greater attention to the migration issue, as highlighted by the establishment of the office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General on migration and asylum, and the recent intervention by the Secretary General during the World Humanitarian Forum in Istanbul.
55 I am also confident that, through the work of the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons, the Assembly will continue to have a leading role in this area and I look forward to the discussion on the migration and refugee crisis which will take place during the forthcoming European Conference of Presidents of Parliament, organised under the leadership of the President of the Assembly, Pedro Agramunt (Strasbourg, 15-16 September 2016).
56 In conclusion, I would like to reiterate the appeal which was made in June 2015, when an ad hoc committee of the Bureau visited reception centres for Syrian refugees in Turkey, close to the Syrian border. Let us refocus our discussions and decisions on what really matters: the lives, rights and future of people who need international protection; we should do everything possible to avoid losing a generation of refugees.