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Monday, March 10, 2014
This is the second of a two-part series on European funding enabling anti-migration operations in Greece.
- As fighting rages on throughout Syria, civilian families desperate to escape are fleeing west to Greece.
What they find here, however, is anything but a warm welcome, as massive operations to seal the borders and round up so-called “illegal immigrants” unfolds in the form of arbitrary arrests, poor conditions in detentions centres, and heavy racial profiling.
“Operation Aspis” on the northeastern Evros border region and the countrywide “Operation Xenios Zeus” involve hundreds of newly deployed forces.
Border guards spot incoming migrants and deter them from crossing into Greece. They are assisted in their duty by high tech border control equipment acquired with financial support from the European Commission (EC).
Meanwhile urban police scan the region, rounding up undocumented migrants, including refugees, and sending them to improvised detention camps around the country.
Allegations from immigrant rights groups and other international organisations regarding maltreatment of detainees as well as substandard detention conditions have circulated since the operations commenced last August.
In mid-January, during a visit to Greece, the Parliamentary Committee of the Council of Europe (PACE) urged EU members to stand in solidarity with Greece as it tackles this “migration crisis”.
PACE deplored the detaining of Syrian refugees, which is tantamount to preventing them from applying for asylum because of the lack of legal assistance, interpretation and information available to them in detention centres.
Additionally the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention undertook its first official fact-finding mission to Greece from Jan. 21-31 to assess the extent of deprivation of liberty in the country.
“The imprisonment of a migrant or an asylum seeker for up to 18 months, in conditions that are sometimes found to be even worse than in the regular prisons, could be considered a punishment imposed on a person who has not committed any crime,” Vladimir Tochilovsky, a member of the group, said at a press conference in Athens. He later told IPS that the group met with Syrians in multiple detention centres.
While some blame lies with the Greek migration authorities, other evidence suggests that complicity on the part of European officials and funding from the European Commission are the biggest culprits in this wave of rights abuses.
IPS has recently gained access to technical documents regarding the EC’s funding of these operations, which prove that the Commission considers the harsh policing of Greek borders and territory “imperative” to protecting human rights. Last December the EC made it clear that it was a priority “to continue, through the External Borders and Return Fund, financial and operational assistance to Greece in its building of an effective return and border management system” adding that the money the EC gives to Greece is “aimed at improving standards and ensuring respect of EC Law and fundamental rights”.
A revised version of the Annual Funding Programme of the European Return Fund submitted by Greek police to the European Commission outlines a nine-million-euro action to renovate or build new detention facilities that can house up to 7,200 migrants.
The project aims to “decrease allegations of human rights violations in the area of returns”.The EC has recently restructured the Return Fund – to which member states allocated 676 million euros for the period 2008-2013 — in order to accommodate the new needs that have arise from Operation Xenios Dias.
“The amendment of the implementing rules for the Return Fund was adopted in September 2012 introducing several changes extending the possibility to finance infrastructure projects such as renovation and refurbishment or, in case of specific needs, construction of detention facilities,” Michele Cercone, EC spokesperson for home affairs, told IPS.
“In addition…new guidelines were provided to Member States in July 2012 that extend funding to running costs of detention camps in order to help Member States… improve the reception conditions in detention facilities,” he added.
Until recently, the Fund did not cover running costs, but the amendment has now made it “possible for member countries to operate these detention centres”.
Another 1.9 million euros will go towards the continuation of Operation Aspis, which will be extended until June or July 2013.
Additionally the EC has planned to increase its co-financing rate of all similar actions up to 95 percent, thus taking over practically the entire cost of operations.
A proposal is already being examined by the European Parliament and the Council of Europe and will become official legislation before the end of the month.
Annette Groth, a German parliamentarian with Die Linke a and member of the PACE delegation told IPS that Europe ought to consider its responsibility for continuing to fund operations while leaving Greece to deal with what is practically a humanitarian crisis.
“Whoever makes these decisions in Brussels knows exactly what they are doing. The situation in Greece resembles nothing like the human rights we talk about in Europe, this policy of mass detention in deplorable conditions of all incoming migrants and refugees. For the latter it is equivalent to denying them the right to asylum any longer,” said Groth.
“It makes no sense blaming only Greece. We have to recognise that the European Commission is indirectly responsible for these human rights violations,” she added.
Evidence of appalling conditions for migrants is unlikely to spur a rapid change in EC policy.
According to Cercone, “Only after the completion of the whole process”, within a time frame of three years, “will it be possible to assess in detail the effective use of funds”.
But a source in a major international organisation and with interlocutor status to the EC has told IPS that the Commission not only knows but is also very concerned about the situation in Greece.
Furthermore, he said, assistance from the Return Fund is only to be dispensed for expenses relating to detention centres holding returnees, not asylum seekers. “Since Greece is detaining indiscriminately…funding might be withheld,” he told IPS.
*The full EU response to IPS’ questions can be read here.