OPINION

Releasing migrants from detention centers not enough, says UN rights watchdog

The Greek government’s shift on immigration is “the beginning of what will no doubt be a difficult process,” according to Jan Jarab, regional representative for Europe of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. In an interview with Kathimerini ahead of his visit to Greece on Monday for a meeting with Greek ministers and an inspection of the Amygdaleza facility, Jarab says that releasing migrants from detention centers is not enough. He also urges authorities to protect children’s rights regardless of their parents’ migratory status.

You have said that you were satisfied with the government’s pledges on immigration, such as the decision to abolish the police’s Xenios Zeus sweep operations, to shut down migrant detention centers (or at least turn them into reception facilities) starting with the Amygladeza unit, and to grant citizenship to migrants’ children born in Greece. Are there any more measures that the government needs to introduce for Greece to be fully compliant with international legislation on migrant and refugee protection?

Indeed, our Office has welcomed the government’s first announcements concerning a new orientation of migration policies. During my visit to Greece I would like to learn more about the envisaged policy changes. Our Office is ready to be a constructive partner of the government in these reforms.

Of course, we understand that this is just the beginning of what will no doubt be a difficult process. As the UN special rapporteur on the rights of migrants stated in his 2013 report, Greece should improve the human rights training of all persons working in the area of migration – including judges, lawyers, police officers, border guards and staff in existing detention facilities. He also urged the government to support civil society organizations that are able to provide alternatives to detention, but without placing all the responsibility on these NGOs. It is worth mentioning that Greek civil society has actually created a lot of initiatives in solidarity with people in need, including migrants.

Rights of the child are also a major priority for us: The best interests of the child should always be the primary consideration, regardless of the child’s migration status. There is a growing consensus that children should never be detained on the basis of their or their parents’ migratory status, and they should be able to access education and healthcare services without fear of being reported to immigration authorities.

And perhaps most importantly: As we say to many states, irregular entry to the territory should not be a criminal offense. Criminalization of irregular migration is a disproportionate measure and leads to unnecessary detention as well as increasing the vulnerability of migrants to other abuse.

Do you have any concerns concerning the deportation procedure followed by Greek authorities? What is your opinion on the anti-immigrant fence at the Evros border in northern Greece? Are you concerned that the barrier also prevents potential asylum-seekers from entering the country?

I am aware of the concerns expressed by independent experts that there is no automatic judicial review of deportation orders and that access to interpreters and lawyers is not always guaranteed. This can lead to forced returns of persons to countries where they risk persecution or other serious human rights violations.

Our Office also shares the concerns of Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks about the practice of detaining migrants “for deportation purposes” even in cases when they clearly cannot be returned – for instance because they come from a country affected by armed conflict. Such detention of persons who cannot be returned serves no practical purpose and just traumatizes the migrant.

I have not seen the fence at the Evros border and I will not be going to that the area during my visit, which will be limited to the Athens area. Nevertheless, it seems clear that a fence may represent a barrier also for persons with international protection needs. Moreover, it is possible that this strengthening of the land border has led to more migrants being compelled to choose the more dangerous sea route, with resulting loss of life.

There have been numerous allegations concerning poor living conditions at Greece’s immigrant detention facilities. Would you say that things have improved?

There have been also several judgments of the European Court of Human Rights on this issue. As I have not yet visited any of these facilities, I can only say that there seems to be consensus that some efforts at improvement have been made – but the overall conditions remain largely substandard. And, above all, detention is deprivation of liberty. Therefore, the envisaged move toward alternatives to detention is more than welcome.

But we have to be clear: Reforming the whole system will be a major challenge. It cannot be “solved” just by releasing migrants out of detention centers and leaving them destitute, homeless, without access to food, healthcare and social services.

You have said that the challenges facing Greece regarding the protection of migrants’ human rights long been a source of concern for the UN OHCHR. How would you describe your cooperation with Greek authorities over the previous years?

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has been in frequent dialogue with Greek authorities both at the level of its Geneva headquarters and during my 2013 visit to Greece – and I would like to emphasize, not only regarding the rights of migrants. We also discussed the impact of the economic crisis and austerity measures which have challenged the enjoyment of economic and social rights for many people in Greece, with particular impact on the most vulnerable. One of them has been the situation of the Roma minority – reported racial profiling of Roma by the police, forced evictions and social marginalization.

On the other hand, our Office has long been impressed by reforms which had been developed already since the 1990s – since the case of Leros – in the area of transition from closed institutions to community-based care for persons with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities (mental illness). The “Psychargos” program had in fact become a model for many other countries involved in such a transition. Sadly, more recently these achievements have been undermined by dramatic budget cuts in the area of community-based services. In this context, I would also like to express admiration and support for the Greek Ombudsman’s work in monitoring the often very problematic conditions in care institutions for children with disabilities, such as the one in Lechaina.

When it comes to migrants, the Greek authorities have been well aware of the concerns expressed by several international and European human rights bodies. However, the National Action Plan on Asylum and Migration Management identified the building of new detention centers as a “strong signal to third-country nationals willing to illegally enter Greece…” in order to warn them that they “will be arrested, detained and returned to the countries of origin.” Hopefully this will now change.

The Farmakonisi case, where 11 migrants died during a controversial coast guard operation in January last year, ended with the conviction of a Syrian to 145 years while the coast guard escaped unscathed. Meanwhile, the owner of the Manolada strawberry farm where mostly Bangladeshi migrants were shot in 2013 was cleared of any wrongdoing along with one of his foremen. What was your reaction to these developments?

Of course it is difficult to comment on decisions of independent national courts. Still, I must say that I was astonished when I read about the 145-year sentence for the young Syrian. Wasn’t the boat under the control of the coast guard when it sank? Moreover, this does not seem to be an isolated case, but an example of a draconian approach to alleged smugglers. As the UN special rapporteur on rights of migrants noted in his 2013 report, there are concerns about the prosecution of minors as young as 15 as “smugglers.”

As for the Manolada case, I do not wish to speculate on the shooting itself nor on the serious labor exploitation that preceded it. I would, however, like to point out that employers of irregular migrants must be prosecuted under the EU’s Employers Sanctions Directive. So I cannot understand how the owner could have escaped with impunity even if no exploitation and no shooting had taken place.

Greece is one of a few countries that have not established a cohabitation agreement for same-sex couples. What is your take on the issue?

Our Office is very committed to combating discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. It has been included within our Office’s thematic priorities since 2010 and it became the subject of our ongoing Free & Equal campaign.

Although there is no binding requirement under international law to recognize same-sex unions, our Office has welcomed developments toward marriage or civil unions in various EU member-states. We recommend that Greece also recognizes same-sex unions because it is an important step toward full equality.