UN Human Rights office discusses policy change in Greece

A three-day mission to Greece (30 March – 1 April) provided Jan Jařab, Regional Representative for Europe of the UN Human Rights office, with opportunities to hold talks on key human rights challenges with several Ministers of the new Greek Government, the President of the Parliament, the Ombudsperson, the National Committee for Human Rights and civil society partners. The mission took place while negotiations were ongoing between Greece and its EU partners on dramatic financial issues. Representatives of the Greek Government and Parliament explained to UN Human Rights some of the negative consequences of previous austerity policies on vulnerable groups of the population. They also outlined new policies designed to address some of the most urgent problems.

Jan Jařab, Regional Representative for Europe at the inter-cultural school at Keramikos, Athens. © OHCHR"I find it particularly troubling that the European Commission has been insisting that Greece should close psychiatric hospitals before the end of 2015 while at the same prescribing budget cuts to precisely those community-based services that could have replaced the institutional ones," said Jan Jařab in his final press conference on 1 April. Of course, our Office is in favor of moving from institutional to community-based services, in line with article 19 of the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which speaks of independent living and inclusion in the community. But the community-based alternatives must be well prepared and of high quality - it is unthinkable to both close hospitals and cut community-based services, basically leaving the most vulnerable persons in the streets.

The Regional Representative said he was encouraged by Minister of Health Panagiotis Kouroublis’s public statement that the Government does not intend to close the hospitals, and that it wants to work further on the creation of community-based alternatives that would build on the well-reputed Psychargos programme. Jařab said: „Our Office is ready to support Greece in its efforts to ensure that EU funding remains available for this reform. To insist that Greece can no longer finance inclusion of persons with psychosocial disabilities from the EU funds, as the previous European Commission has done, is incompatible with the CRPD.” As Jan Jařab pointed out, the EU has ratified the CRPD and will undergo its first-ever review by a UN Treaty Body, the CRPD Committee, later this year.

Migration policy was the focus of many of the Regional Representative’s meetings. The UN Human Rights Office has publicly welcomed the Government’s intention to move away from the previous policy, which was based on deterrence and detention, but has made it clear that there is still a long way to go. After visiting the detention center in Amygdaleza, Jan Jařab pointed out that although conditions appear to have improved due to the release of the majority of detainees, the facility still had all the characteristics of a prison. "Resources are still being spent on maintaining such vast prison compounds where migrants are being detained for up to 18 months, and sometimes even longer, without having been convicted of any crime," said Jan Jařab, who noted that the Amygdaleza detention center had been built with the financial support of the EU. He also echoed the comments of Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, who has pointed out that the detention of so many people who cannot be returned to their countries of origin serves no meaningful purpose. "Not only should Greece move away from detention, but it should invest the resources differently, into addressing the urgent needs of refugees and migrants who are arriving to Greek islands, often after harrowing journeys over the seas. These persons should not be left destitute and without access to social services, and helping them cannot be left only to the admirable efforts of volunteers."

While encouraging Greece to carry out more far-reaching reforms of its migration policy, the Regional Representative also publicly acknowledged the need for more solidarity on part of the EU’s institutions and other member states.

24 April 2015

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