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Greece: Chios: NGO complaints about the treatment of refugees to the European Commission and its response

- "After considering your response, we found your assessment of the current situation to be at considerable odds with the factual situation we daily witness on the ground"

6.2.18
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NGOs on Chios complained to the European Commission about the treatment and conditions of refugees on the island: Complaints to the Commission signed by 11 NGOs (dated: 6 November 2017, pdf):

"We, the undersigned voluntary organisations, have been providing humanitarian aid on the Greek island of Chios for more than two years. We are writing to express our deepest concerns with regard to the situation of refugees on the island. Whilst the inhumane conditions on Chios for refugees is not a new issue, the situation has reached tipping point in recent weeks with an increase in arrivals, the withdrawal of most NGOs, and the closure of Souda camp in the city, which has left the EU hotspot Vial as the sole facility that accommodates refugees on the island. (...) [emphasis added throughout]

"In particular, we would like to draw your attention to the following issues:

Lack of accommodation: There are currently more than 1800 people in Vial, which by far exceeds the official capacity of the camp."

Note: The official capacity of the Vial hotspot is 894 (Greek Ministry: 31/1/18) and the number of refugees needing accommodation is 1,956.

"The camp fails to provide dignified shelter and sanitation, and cover even the most basic human needs. More than 20 UNHCR tents have been set up in a nearby field to provide some form of rudimentary shelter to hundreds of recently arrived, traumatised refugees – including many children, pregnant women, and people suffering various health problems. All tents are currently over capacity, with 9 to 12 people in each. Conditions are atrocious - there is no electricity, no toilets, no sanitation, no running water."

"Lack of medical care: there continues to be a lack of medical support for the population residing in Vial. During the day, there are currently only two doctors available for the entire camp population. Between 5-9pm there is only one nurse onsite. There is no medical staff operating beyond 9pm inside the camp and medical emergencies rest on the response of the understaffed and underfunded hospital that only has one ambulance.

Inadequate provision of food
: we are receiving complaints daily from children and adults that the queuing time for the food distribution in Vial can take up to three hours. Moreover, due to the lack of planning there are often not enough portions for all. This is particularly concerning, as vulnerable persons, such as unaccompanied minors, are potentially not receiving food during the day.

Delay of asylum procedure: due to the high number of arrivals, refugees who arrive on Chios often wait more than two months for their interview with the Greek Asylum Service or the European Asylum Support Office (EASO). This is alarming given the inhumane conditions the refugees are staying in. Vial hotspot."

"The situation on Chios is critical and, with weather rapidly conditions deteriorating and severe rain forecast this week, demands an immediate response from local, national and European authorities. We hereby add our voice to a recent call by more than 100 grassroots civil society organisations and leading international NGOs to promptly close the hotspots and decongest the islands by ending restrictions on the freedom of movement of asylum-seekers arriving on the Greek islands and provide them with adequate reception on the mainland outside of detention facilities."

Questions directed at the Commission:

"How long will it take for the European Commission to assume its shared responsibility for the inhumane and degrading conditions in the hotspots, established and funded by the EU, in the Aegean Sea?

How long will the European Commission continue to hail the "success" of the EU-Turkey deal in spite of the widely documented fundamental rights violations of the thousands of refugees trapped on these islands that we witness daily?

What concrete and immediate actions will the European Commission undertake to guarantee the protection of fundamental rights of refugees in these hotspots?

We look forward to your reply and to see prompt and adequate action taken to relieve the suffering on Chios and the other affected Greek islands."

The Commission's response

The Commission's response on 22 November 2017 (pdf) cites the "dodgy" EU-Turkey deal of March 2016 as having a "stabilising effect" on the Greek islands including Chios:

"When looking at the situation of migrants in Greece including the hotspot islands such as Chios, it is important to first recall the stabilising effect brought about by the activation of the EU-Turkey statement in March 2016."

And emphasises EU funding to Greece which made it possible to:

"upgrade the hotspots and ensure necessary services such as washing, cleaning, catering and food provision, housing, transportation, legal aid, medical services and educational activities which are essential for a dignified treatment all migrants must enjoy."

It is precisely the failure during 2015, 2016 and 2017 to provide legal aid, medical services, washing and cleaning, food and suitable accommodation that the NGOs complain of. The Commission blames the "recent increase in arrivals from Turkey since summer 2017" on the present situation - seemingly blaming the refugees who have arrived.

Specifically on the island of Chios the Commission says:

"Vial is the only camp left, this means concretely that the overcrowded population in that site will be reduced to a target of not more than 1350 persons. To achieve this reduction and increase the existing capacity of Vial to the targeted size, works have already started (...) "

The Commission's response on the provision of proper accommodation, food and services is that this is underway:

"The Hellenic Army will also undertake the necessary cleaning and repair works and ensure the distribution of non-food items. With a more stable target population, food provision will be accelerated and medical care and sanitation ensured through the Hellenic Centre for Disease Control & Prevention (HCDCP) doctors and medical teams."

The response begs the question of why was this work was not undertaken months and months ago. It is thus hardly very assuring to be told:

"In Chios as well as on all other islands, the European Commission, together with the EU Agencies, is following very closely the situation on the ground. We are in permanent contact with the Greek authorities and we will continue to provide all assistance and support required. We also work closely with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and (International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to ensure that on the Greek islands all migrants, including unaccompanied minors and vulnerable persons, will be accommodated in adequate and up-to-standard conditions."

The NGOs respond

The NGOs wrote back to the Commission: NGOs' reply 24.1.18 (pdf):

"After considering your response, we found your assessment of the current situation to be at considerable odds with the factual situation we daily witness on the ground, and therefore wish to draw your attention to the following issues:

Living conditions in the EU hotspots remain inhumane and in violation of basic human and fundamental rights

"We welcome that the systematic detention scheme is no longer applied. However, asylum seekers remain subject to a geographical restriction which limits their freedom of movement to the respective island. In practice, this means that asylum seekers are forced to stay in the chronically overcrowded EU hotspot Vial, i.e. a bit less than 2,400 people are currently staying in Vial, which has a capacity of 894 places according to the EU Fundamental Rights Agency. Therefore, speaking of a “stabilising effect” of the EU Turkey Statement for the situation on Chios is at the very least bizarre.(...)

"It is clear that funding made available to Greece has failed to rectify fundamental defects concerning reception conditions on Chios. The effect of such severity of conditions on the islands cannot be negated by the ‘stabilising’ effect you recall in your letter.(...)

Despite repeated promises and announcements by the European Commission in its regular reports on the implementation of the EU-Turkey statement, the humanitarian conditions on the island have still not improved substantially and must still be considered as inhumane, as many NGO-reports show."

These conditions combined with the geographical restriction implemented due to EU Turkey Statement lead to an overall inhumane situation, that EU institutions are responsible for!

"You mention that one of the reason for “severe overcrowding” on most of the islands, including Chios” are the “limited returns to Turkey”. As you must be well aware, returning applicants for international protection from Greece to Turkey is only possible if Turkey can be considered as safe third country or first country of asylum according to Art. 35, 38 Asylum Procedures Directive. Despite the doubts on the question, whether Turkey can be considered as such, we would like to point out that the limited returns to Turkey are due to asylum procedures based on the rule of law.

(...)

...the serious overcrowding of the EU Hotspot facilities on the Greek Aegean islands and in particular of the camp Vial on Chios could have been avoided if the EU Hotspots had been used as tools to relocate applicants for international protection to other EU member states - as foreseen originally. It is contradictory to on one hand lament the serious overcrowding of the EU hotspots, and on the other to pursue the policy to not apply the EU Relocation Program. (...)

You rightly mention that in order to reduce the population in Vial, works have been started to provide additional containers. These works however have been stopped by a legal order of a local Court. The works now continue but the process is very slow and it is not clear if and when they are finished with installing new containers. We assume that you are aware of this recent development."

Asylum procedures – still in violation of Greek and European Asylum Law

"Greek Law provides a right to free legal aid during the asylum procedure. On Chios, a small number of lawyers sponsored by NGOs such as the Greek Council for Refugees, Metadrasi and RSA struggle to operate a limited legal aid programme. The number of lawyers cannot take on the task compared to the high number of refugees. Currently over 2,000 asylum seekers are subject to asylum procedures on Chios alone. (...)

Registration

During registration, applicants for international protection experience structural discrimination. Many errors occur during registration, including incorrect recording of key information such as the name and nationality of applicants. Such errors result in considerable delays to the asylum procedure, and in some cases means applicants for protection are allocated to the wrong procedure entirely. (...)

The role of EASO

With regard to the Asylum Support Teams deployed on the ground, we would like to draw your attention to the fact that first, EASO is exceeding its competences while “assisting” the Greek Asylum Service. The current practice of EASO, conducting interviews and submitting a “legal opinion” based on which the Greek Asylum Service issues its decision without ever having heard or seen the asylum seeker."

Recommendations

1) Reception conditions must be brought in line with European asylum law and Human Rights standards.

2) Free, quality legal aid must be available for applicants for international protection at all stages of the asylum procedure.

3) The EU Commission should urgently review its designation of Turkey as a safe third country and/or safe country of asylum, in light of widely available information on fundamental flaws with the Turkish asylum system and a lack of crucial judicial safeguards.

4) A review should be conducted into serious operational concerns regarding the role of EASO in the border procedure, noting in particular the lack of requisite training and
expertise held by officers whose decisions immeasurably affect the lives of vulnerable refugees.

Contrary to the views expressed in your letter, the EU hotspots constitute a failure both in terms of their human rights implications as well as in their alleged “stabilising effect”. Consequently, we urge the EU to urgently consider the closure of the hotspots on Chios and other Greek islands. In addition, we urge that the European Commission must immediately provide and implement a plan for ensuring access to the rights – in particular the right to medical care, housing, education and free legal aid - every refugee has when arriving to the European Union."

Tony Bunyan, Statewatch Director, comments:

"The failure of the EU to respond to the realities on the ground is a classic example of its institutional failure from the top to the bottom in Chios and other Greek islands - Samos, Lesvos and Kos - time and again since 2015.

And again it is not their failure but the refugees who are the problem."

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