In the past month, Greek authorities have extended the discriminatory lockdown on migrant camps for a seventh time, depriving residents of Moria and Kara Tepe refugee camps in Lesvos of respite outside the camps or access to basic services – and further paving the way towards closed camps, for which the European Commission has approved €130 million funding. Illegal collective expulsions continue in the Aegean, while new arrivals are quarantined with little access to legal support or other services, and then hurried through the hostile border procedure. The ongoing harassment of non-governmental organisations continues, and administrative fines combined with the threat of criminal charges has forced Médecins Sans Frontières’ COVID-19 isolation unit outside Moria refugee camp to close. Protests, organised across the political spectrum, have increased – while police violence against migrants, and particularly migrant-led protests, goes on.
In essence, the Greek government – with the varying complicity or active support of European Union Member States – continues the violent assault on migrants, illegal and life-threatening expulsions, and the harassment of civil society organisations to further its fundamental goals: the detention, deportation and deterrence of migration from the global South to Europe.
FROM LOCKDOWN TO DETENTION
The unlawful lockdown on migrant camps, described by MSF as “toxic,” “blatant discrimination,” and “absolutely unjustified from a public health point of view”, has been extended until 31 August – despite national movement restrictions ending some three months ago, and tourists, many coming from western European countries with high numbers of COVID-19 cases, being welcomed to Greece. The increased number of visitors has been linked to a rise in COVID-19 infections – and yet the lockdown continues to apply only to migrant camps, despite the fact that MSF and others have confirmed there is no public health justification for such measures. In Lesvos, in fact, no cases have been documented in Moria refugee camp. Such flagrant discrimination violates national, regional and international law, including Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and Article 21 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.
Migrants living in Moria and Kara Tepe refugee camps still require authorities’ permission to leave the sites. Permission, granted by the Reception and Identification Services, is given to just 120 people each day – less than 1% of the Moria refugee camp’s population – and for specified purposes (such as accessing medical support). Requests must be made the day before the individual wishes to leave camp. Same-day permissions can only be granted by the Hellenic Police, for individuals with urgent medical issues.
Those found outside without authorization face fines of €150, and there has been a notable increase in police street presence and discriminatory racial profiling and conducting such checks on migrants – including outside the Legal Centre Lesvos’ offices. Rather than serving any public health objective, the prolonged lockdown ensures two things: migrants’ isolation from support services, and their removal from public view.
Moreover, the lockdown has exacerbated tensions in Moria refugee camp, where two people were fatally stabbed in July. There are currently over 17, 000 people living in and around the camp, including 6, 000 children, who – due to movement restrictions – are now deprived of any respite away from the site. The ongoing disregard for migrant lives – whether manifest in the inhumane, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in the hotspots; authorities’ failure to intervene in fatal fights, or investigate arbitrary losses of life; or the inhibition of migrants’ access to adequate healthcare facilities – further demonstrates the insincerity of any attempt to justify ongoing restrictions to the camps by reference to COVID-19 prevention.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not only being instrumentalised to detain migrants, but it also appears that the continued prolongation of the lockdown is paving the way towards the Greek government’s long and publicly-held objective of creating closed centres for migrants. Conveniently, on 3 August the European Commission approved €130 million in funding for “closed controlled centres” that will be constructed in Samos, Leros and Kos. The first, in Samos, is expected to open in late September.
QUARANTINE AND HOSTILE ASYLUM PROCEDURES
There remains a profound lack of information regarding the conditions of quarantine camps in Northern Lesvos, where new arrivals are quarantined – ostensibly for fourteen days, and to prevent the spread of COVID-19 – before being transferred to Moria refugee camp.
The quarantine camps have included at least four temporary sites on arrival beaches, where Mare Liberum report that ‘the authorities sometimes took several days to install tents and portable toilets.’ The practice of detaining people at unprepared sites adjacent to their arrival, documented in Lesvos since March, has consistently deprived new arrivals of the basic necessities for their safety and personal hygiene – again exposing the fallacy of the government’s COVID-19 response. Furthermore, many individuals have been detained in the Northern camps for over a month, without any justification. Not only does this result in unnecessary delays to the registration of their asylum claim, but it further isolates individuals and deprives them of access to legal support and other services around Mytiline and Moria refugee camp.
Several individuals have contacted Legal Centre Lesvos upon their release from quarantine, having been given a date for their personal asylum interview in just a matter of days. Under Article 12 of EU Directive 2013/32, the recast Asylum Procedures Directives (rAPD), Member States should guarantee that asylum seekers’ access to organisations providing legal aid is not inhibited – yet it is almost impossible for such new arrivals in Lesvos, who have been quarantined and are then subjected to an ongoing and discriminatory lockdown, to access such support. Denied the time or opportunity to prepare for their interviews, they are instead hurried through an accelerated, hostile and mismanaged asylum procedure.
ONGOING HARASSMENT OF CIVIL SOCIETY ORGANISATIONS WORKING WITH MIGRANTS
Following the Greek government’s administrative assault on civil society groups working with migrants earlier this year, which had the effect of de-registering or limiting the operations of several groups working with migrants in Lesvos, the harassment of non-governmental organisations working with migrants has taken a new and practical turn.
Pressure, including unannounced visits from government inspectors to several organisations, including the Legal Centre Lesvos, is rising. There has also been a regular police presence around the Legal Centre Lesvos’ offices, resulting in arrests of and fines issued to people seeking access to our services – and more broadly, intimidating clients and inhibiting them from accessing legal support, to which they have a right. The authorities’ imposition of over €35, 000 in fines and threatened criminal charges on MSF is a particularly egregious example of this harassment, and has forced the closure of the only COVID-19 isolation centre accessible to residents of Moria refugee camp. Should an outbreak happen in the camp, where simple prevention measures such as handwashing and social distancing remain inaccessible, the health infrastructure in Lesvos simply will not be able to cope.
Last week, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants released a report, which condemns the global “toxic narrative” surrounding the work of organisations in solidarity with migrants, and notes authorities’ misuse of administrative, legislative and legal tactics to inhibit such organisations’ free operation – with dangerous results.
“Where civil society organizations step back from provision of services to migrants because of fear of the legal consequences or harassment,” he wrote, the risks to migrants’ increase – and “criminal groups and traffickers step in.” The parallels to Lesvos, and the risks to migrants that this will pose, are evident.
GROWING PROTESTS, ACROSS THE POLITICAL SPECTRUM, IN LESVOS
Following the lifting of movement restrictions for the general population, the last month has seen an increase of protests across the political spectrum, by locals and migrants alike.
On July 21st, between fifty and sixty far-right supporters gathered near the power station on the road between Mytiline and Moria refugee camp – a site that was frequently used for attacks earlier this year – after online posts blamed migrants for a large forest fire several kilometres away from the camp. The identities of some drivers passing the power stations were reportedly checked, though no formal roadblocks were established.
On August 1st, a call was made by locals to gather in protest of the expansion of Moria refugee camp. Prior to the announced time of the gathering, police patrolled the road adjacent to the camp, instructing not only non-governmental organisations but also journalists to leave the area, in a clear violation of press freedom. Police buses ultimately blocked the protestors’ access to Moria refugee camp, and protestors dispersed after several hours.
POLICE VIOLENCE AGAINST MIGRANTS AND MIGRANT PROTESTORS
Police have used excessive force to disperse migrant-led protests in Moria refugee camp and in Mytiline, which were organised in response to the fatal stabbing of a teenager from the Ivory Coast, and subsequently regarding the hostile asylum procedure and ongoing confinement of migrants to Lesvos.
On July 6 and 7, the African community in Moria Camp organized protests in the aftermath of the killing of nineteen-year-old Karamoko Namori. Some 200 individuals gathered outside the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) in Moria camp, calling for safety and an end to their containment in Moria. EASO remained closed for some days, before police violently dispersed the protests, shooting volleys of tear gas, and sound and flash grenades into the crowd. At least two people had to be carried away from the protest, owing to their injuries. The mobilisation of such immense and violent resources to disperse protestors, following the police’s failure to act and prevent Karamoko’s death, thrust policing priorities in Lesvos into clear view once again.
On July 14, approximately fifteen Syrian families and several Iraqis gathered in Mytiline in protest of the systematic rejection of Syrians’ applications for asylum (based on the untenable assumption that Turkey is a safe country for them) and the containment of migrants on Lesvos. The demonstration began in the ferry port of Mytiline, but police soon resorted to physical violence to forcibly remove protestors from the area. A video circulated that shows a police officer dragging and hitting a pregnant woman. The protestors then moved through Mytiline, and were intercepted by police at various locations; they were ultimately prevented from accessing the town’s main square, and corralled by at least fifteen riot police officers onto a waiting bus.
Protestors were informed that their protest was shut down due to the lack of prior police permission (as required by a draconian bill passed by the Greek government in July 2020). However, given the sharp contrast between the police’s muted response to the aforementioned local gatherings – which took place undisturbed by references to the restrictions on protest – and the police’s violence and intimidation towards migrant protestors, it suggests that this new law will become a tool in the authorities’ arsenal of discrimination.
One of the protestors, Z, summarised the event: “We went in protest of the recent decisions by the Greek government to reject Syrians’ asylum applications…The Greek police came and assaulted the men, and beat the women, and forcibly brought us back to [Moria] camp. We are Syrians – we have only one country, which is Syria. It is not safe there, and it is not safe to deport us to Turkey. We suffered a lot in Turkey, we lost our relatives and our children in Turkey, and because of that we came to Greece, asking for international protection. These were and still are our demands: we ask the European Union to save us from a slow death in Greece.”