OHCHR team undertakes mission to Greece, including island of Lesbos

A joint team of Regional Office for Europe and the OHCHR headquarters, led by Regional Representative for Europe Jan Jařab, carried out a mission to Greece on 8 to 11 November. The mission was facilitated by the Secretary-General for Human Rights of the Ministry of Justice.

OHCHR team and Mr. Papaioannou discuss with Greek Orthodox Church humanitarian worker from Agalia, first from left, at the improvised volunteer-operated point at the landing at Skala Sikamnias. © OHCHRDuring two days on the island of Lesbos, the team visited centers where migrants and refugees are registering as well as Skala Sikamnias, the site where the greatest number of new arrivals disembark. The team witnessed the disembarkation of an overloaded boat, interviewed refugees and migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, and met with the authorities, international and civil society organizations, as well as with volunteers who provide first humanitarian assistance. “We welcome the assurances of the Greek Coast Guards that pushbacks are no longer taking place and that there are efforts to coordinate with civil society actors on the ground,” said the Regional Representative. “Now, in the light of the growing risks of approaching winter, we believe it is essential to step up such coordination and ensure that the urgent humanitarian needs of the newly arriving migrants and refugees are met.” The risks were underscored by the tragic deaths of 14 persons (7 adults and 7 children) shipwrecked on the way to Lesbos during the team’s mission stay in Greece, in addition to 61 casualties from previous weeks – for whom, as the OHCHR team learned, a burial ground has not yet been found.

The OHCHR team recognized the enormous difficulties faced by the authorities in a municipality through which some 400,000 people have transited in 2015 and acknowledged obvious improvements in the situation on the island. However, on the basis of interviews with stakeholders and of its own observations, it also formulated several realistic recommendations on what could be done to reduce risks and improve protection, particularly when it comes to vulnerable groups such as unaccompanied children.

In Athens, the OHCHR team met with various branches of Government as well as with UNHCR, IOM and the Greek Forum of Refugees as well as with the media. The Regional Representative reiterated OHCHR’s concerns about new proposals presented at the EU’s Justice and Home Affairs Council – proposals which aim at the creation of “transit zones” at international borders (where States’ obligations would supposedly cease to apply) and at establishing of “processing centers” (where migrants who are not found to be refugees would be held for the purpose of return). “We fully understand and support the Greek Government’s opposition to these proposals,” stated the Regional Representative. “Human rights apply also at international borders, so the creation of a legal no-man’s land at borders would be simply unacceptable. And the processing centers, as proposed, would apparently represent a return to yesterday’s systematic detention policy under a different name.”

Jan Jařab recalled that OHCHR had publicly welcomed when, after the elections of January 2015, the new Government of Greece started turning away from the previous policy of systematic detention. “In the recent past, this policy has produced a lot of unnecessary suffering and contributed to clear human rights violations,” said the Regional Representative. “Returning to it would be a major setback for human rights in Europe.”

16 November 2015

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