COE Human Rights Commissioner Expresses Concern to ECtHR Over Greece’s Treatment of Asylum Seekers

Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg has made public the third party intervention he submitted to the European Court of Human Rights on 10 March.  The intervention was made at the invitation of the ECtHR pursuant to Article 36, paragraph 2 of the ECHR, and is the first such submission of its kind by the Commissioner.

The intervention was submitted in case 26494/09 AHMED ALI v. the Netherlands and Greece, and thirteen related cases.  The cases all deal with the return of asylum seekers from the Netherlands to Greece pursuant to the EC Dublin Regulation.

The Commissioner’s Office notes in a Press Statement that “[w]ith the entry into force of Protocol No. 14 to the [ECHR], the Commissioner will [now] have the right to intervene proprio motu as third party in the Court’s proceedings.”

Excerpts from the Commissioner’s intervention before the ECtHR:

“Introduction – [***]

3. The protection of the human rights of asylum seekers and refugees is a priority theme of the Commissioner’s present work concerning all Council of Europe member states. The Commissioner has repeatedly stressed the importance of guaranteeing the individual right to seek and enjoy asylum and has addressed a number of relevant recommendations to member states. [***]

I. Observations on the current framework of refugee protection in Greece

6. The Commissioner is fully cognisant of the considerable, mixed migration (immigrants and asylum seekers) flow pressures that have been exerted on Greece, as is the case for other Mediterranean Council of Europe member states, for many years. The increase of irregular migration into Greece that has occurred particularly in the last five years has further strained this country’s resources. Nonetheless, the complex international phenomenon of migration should be dealt with by Greece and all other Council of Europe member states concerned in a manner which is not only efficient but also effectively respectful of the Council of Europe human rights standards.

7. Greece received the sixth largest number of refugee applicants in the EU during the first half of 2009 (9 800 applications).

8. In 2009, a total of 15 928 asylum applications were lodged in Greece; there were 11 recognitions of Convention refugee status and 18 grants of humanitarian status or subsidiary protection. The Commissioner has noted with concern that in 2009 the recognition rate at first instance was 0,04% for Convention refugee status and 0,06% for the other two statuses. The pending applications at first instance in 2009 reached 3 122. As regards asylum appeals in 2009, there were 12 095 appeals, 25 recognitions of Convention refugee status and 11 grants of humanitarian or subsidiary protection. The respective recognition rates on appeal were 2,87% and 1,26%. On 10 February 2010 the Commissioner was informed by the Minister of Citizen Protection of the fact that the total of pending asylum claims in early February 2010 was as high as 44 560, and found this to be worrying.

9. The Commissioner noted that during the first ten months of 2009 Greece received 7 857 applications from other EU member states to receive back refugee applicants under the Dublin Regulation. Of these applications, 2 770 were accepted and 106 rejected. The final transfers to Greece during that period totalled 995. [***]

II. Major issues concerning the asylum procedure in Greece and human rights safeguards

Legal framework  [***]

Asylum seekers’ access to domestic and international remedies

23. The Commissioner recalls his Recommendation concerning the rights of aliens wishing to enter a Council of Europe member State and the enforcement of expulsion orders, where he stresses the need for the right of judicial remedy within the meaning of Article 13 of the Convention not only to be guaranteed in law but also to be granted in practice when a person alleges that the competent authorities have contravened or are likely to contravene a right guaranteed by the Convention. [***]

27. In view of the above, the Commissioner is worried that asylum seekers in Greece face a serious, real risk of being deprived of their right to an effective remedy in respect of the violations of the Convention of which they allege to be victims, which is guaranteed under Article 13 of the Convention and Article 39 of the Directive 2005/85/EC. The notion of an effective remedy under Article 13 requires a scope of review conducted by a domestic court able to address the key elements of whether there has been a violation of the Convention.

28. As regards access to the European Court of Human Rights, although this is guaranteed in principle for every individual within Greece’s jurisdiction, lodging an application before the Court appears to be very difficult in practice. The same applies for requests made under Rule 39 of the Rules of the Court (interim measures): the number of such requests introduced from and against Greece seems to be quite low compared to other state parties, and can be linked to difficulties, described in other parts of the present written submission, in accessing interpretation services and lawyers, in particular for people in detention, and to the lack of proper legal information available in general.

Protection of asylum seekers from refoulement

29. During both his visits the Commissioner was informed by migrants he met and by Greek refugee lawyers about instances of non registration by the Police of asylum claims and of instances of refoulement, especially from Greece to Turkey. Such forced returns have occasionally taken place before the migrants were able to apply for asylum, but also concern ‘pink card’ holders registered as asylum seekers in Greece. Characteristically, during the Commissioner’s discussions with migrant detainees at the Feres border guard station in December 2008, one of them reported that of the group of 65 persons who were arrested in 2008, having crossed the Evros river, 50 of them were ‘immediately deported’. [***]

31. In this context, it is noted that despite the Commissioner’s recommendations, Greece has not as yet acceded to the 1963 Protocol No. 4 to the European Convention on Human Rights which, inter alia, proscribes the collective expulsion of aliens, while Turkey still adheres to the geographical limitation of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, thus excluding from refugee status persons coming from outside of Europe.

32. During his visit to Greece in February 2010 the Commissioner was informed of and concerned at another reported case of refoulement concerning a group of 43 Kurds who had arrived at the town of Chania, Crete on 18 July 2009; 17 of them applied for refugee status. According to NGO reports, on 27 July 2009 they were all transferred to the aliens’ detention centre of Venna (North East Greece) from where they were subsequently expelled to Turkey. A series of other collective expulsions of migrant groups, ranging from 30 to 120 persons, to Turkey (through the land border of the Evros department) from various eastern Aegean islands were reported by Greek refugee lawyers to have occurred in July and August 2009. The Commissioner was informed by Greek refugee lawyers of more similar collective expulsions that have reportedly occurred in December 2009, January and February 2010.

33. The Commissioner underlines that such practices are not compatible with member states’ obligations recalled by the Committee of Ministers Twenty Guidelines on Forced Returns (especially Guideline 3 – prohibition of collective expulsion) and with the states’ fundamental obligation under the Convention not to return a person to a country where they would face a real risk of being subjected to treatment contrary to Article 3, or even Article 2. The Commissioner is concerned that asylum seekers returning to Greece by virtue of the Dublin Regulation may face such risks, jeopardising the enjoyment by them of their human rights enshrined in the Convention. [***]

Conclusions

47. In conclusion, the Commissioner considers that current asylum law and practice in Greece are not in compliance with international and European human rights standards. In particular:

– access to refugee protection remains highly problematic, notably due to the non-functioning of the first instance Advisory Refugee Committees, lack of proper information on asylum procedures and legal aid that should be available to potential or actual asylum seekers, widely reported instances of refoulement or non-registration of asylum claims;

– the quality of asylum decisions at first instance is inadequate, notably because of structural deficiencies and lack of procedural safeguards, in particular concerning the provision of legal aid and interpretation;

– existing domestic remedy against negative asylum applications is not effective;

– asylum seekers, including persons transferred under the Dublin Regulation, face extremely harsh living conditions in Greece.

48. Since the beginning of his mandate, the Commissioner has been following developments relating to migration, and especially asylum, in Greece. The Commissioner is pleased to note the new Greek government’s decision and willingness, shown to him during his visit in February 2010, to overhaul the refugee protection system and overcome its current serious, chronic and structural deficiencies.

49. The Commissioner fully supports these efforts and has urged the Greek authorities to proceed and engage with determination and commitment in the necessary legislative and administrative changes that would bring the Greek asylum system in line with international and European human rights standards.”

Click here for full submission to ECtHR.

Click here for the Commissioner’s Press Statement.

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Filed under Aegean Sea, European Court of Human Rights, Greece, Judicial, Statements

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