Wrong on Rights: Greece Expands Violations with New Refugee Policies

Elisabeth Brennen
Vol. 41 Associate Editor

In September of this year, Greece announced a new series of measures aimed at dealing with the tens of thousands of refugees living in island camps. In particular, the government stated that it will return 10,000 migrants to Turkey by the end of 2020[1] and that it will redistribute migrants and refugees across 13 regional authorities in the country (superseding the 2016 EU-Turkey deal that prohibited new arrivals from leaving specific Greek islands until their asylum claims were processed)[2]. The government will also bar asylum-seekers from accessing the public health system and is considering turning some island camps into detention centers.[3] These proposed changes are unlawful with respect to refugees, who are entitled to specific rights under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.[4]

The government’s proposed policy has multiple bases. In part, it is an attempt by the newly elected government to establish themselves in contrast to the prior ruling party, which returned only 1,805 migrants over 4.5 years.[5] Furthermore, it is a reaction to the growing concern that re-escalating tension in Turkey and Syria will prompt a repeat of 2015 migrant flows[6], when more than one million refugees and migrants arrived in Greece.[7] Finally, there was escalating pressure on the government from migrant and refugee advocacy groups due to a deadly fire in an island refugee camp, which prompted protests just the day before the policy was announced.[8]

As a party to the 1951 Geneva Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees[9], Greece is bound to recognize refugees under the Convention’s Article 1 definition and grant refugees the rights they are entitled to under Arts. 2-34[10]. These rights are acquired by refugees in stages based on levels of attachment to the receiving state[11]. Refugees acquire some rights – such as the right to non-refoulement[12] – before being formally recognized by a state party as a refugee and acquire more Convention rights as their attachment to the receiving state increases[13]. Once the rights are acquired, they may not be rescinded (including by removal to another country).[14] When a refugee has applied to have their status recognized by a state, they are considered to be “lawfully present” in the state while their claim is assessed[15]. At the point of being lawfully present in a state – which the refugees on Greek islands are – refugees are entitled to the benefit of many rights. The most salient with respect to Greece are non-refoulement, freedom of internal movement, and freedom from arbitrary detention.[16]

Greece has arguably already been violating refugees’ rights by holding them arbitrarily in island camps per the EU-Turkey deal[17], and their policy proposal does not remedy the situation.  Relocating refugees to the mainland may facilitate more active societal integration and is certainly a step up from life in an island detention camp. However, mandating which municipality refugees will be relocated to still does not honor their freedom of movement. This freedom of internal movement includes the right to choose where to live, and Greece’s plan does not respect this right. The proposed bar on public healthcare access for asylum-seekers also flies in the face of Greece’s duty to honor refugees’ rights to access welfare and social security frameworks on par with “nationals” of the host country.[18] The United Nations’ refugee agency, the UNHCR, said the law “will endanger people who need international protection,” particularly with respect to the risk of refoulement.[19]  The Greek government has defended the policy – claiming that faster procedures will allow refugees to more smoothly integrate into Greek society and accelerate the return of those whose asylum claims are rejected.[20]

The plan to send 10,000 migrants back to Turkey is also concerning. Turkey’s asylum system is similarly overburdened – they do not have a good record of giving asylum-seekers proper access to asylum procedures, and lack strong mechanisms for ensuring the protection of refugee rights in the country.[21] This puts asylum-seekers at a greater risk for refoulement. Greece is thus exposed to the possibility of violating the 1951 Convention and their duty to ensure that other acquired refugee rights are respected in the countries they relocate them to. While some reports state that the migrants being sent back will only be those whose asylum claims have been rejected[22], other reports use mixed terms and are unclear as to how Greece will determine which migrants to send home.[23] Human rights groups have also voiced concern that these emergency measures and the lack of clarity  regarding their application will increase violations of refugees’ rights under the 1951 Convention and international human rights law.[24]

The confusion regarding the policy’s application and likely effects is unacceptable – the Greek government must ensure that policy changes include safeguards to protect refugee rights. Rather than deporting migrants and refugees en masse, disregarding the risk of refoulement, Greece must advocate for better responsibility-sharing within Europe. Human rights organizations have urged Greece to prioritize resolving the “deeply flawed” Turkey deal and its pernicious effects to ensure fair and efficient asylum procedures.[25] Greece no doubt faces unique challenges within Europe: nearly half of refugee and migrant arrivals to Europe have been through Greece, its camps are overcrowded and dangerous, and the government fears new migrant waves will effectively “break” their systems[26]. However, to remedy their problems, Greece has simply proposed new, more administratively convenient ways to violate refugees’ rights.


[1] “Greek Plan to Deport 10,000 Migrants, Move Thousands to Mainland,” Al Jazeera (Sept. 30, 2019), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/09/greek-plan-deport-10000-migrants-move-thousands-mainland-190930182446507.html.

[2] Id.

[3] Daniel Howden, “Behind the Razor Wire of Greece’s Notorious Refugee Camp,” The Guardian: The Observer (Oct. 5, 2019),  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/05/the-truth-about-the-fire-in-greeces-notorious-refugee-camp.

[4] James C. Hathaway, Refugees and Asylum 190 (B. Opeskin, R. Perruchoud, J. Redpath-Cross eds., 2012)  https://repository.law.umich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1052&context=book_chapters

[5] Al Jazeera, supra note 1.

[6] Helena Smith, “Greece Sets Out Emergency Plans to Tackle Surge of Migrant Arrivals,” The Guardian, (Sept. 2, 2019), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/02/greece-sets-out-emergency-plans-to-tackle-surge-of-migrant-arrivals#img-1.

[7] UNHCR: USA, Greece, https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/greece.html (last updated June 22, 2018).

[8] Al Jazeera, supra note 1.

[9] Theresa Papademetriou, Refugee Law and Policy: Greece, Library of Congress https://www.loc.gov/law/help/refugee-law/greece.php#Introduction (last updated June 21, 2016)

[10] UNHCR, Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/3b66c2aa10

[11] Hathaway, supra note 4 at 191.

[12] The principle that the refugee cannot be returned to a country or territory where they face risk of persecution owing to a Convention ground. James C. Hathaway & Michelle Foster, The Law of Refugee Status 21 (2nd ed. 2014).

[13] Id. at 40.

[14] Id. at 41.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] See Kondylia Gogou, “The EU-Turkey Deal: Europe’s year of shame,” Amnesty International (Mar. 20, 2017), https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/03/the-eu-turkey-deal-europes-year-of-shame/; Alice Lucas, et al., No End in Sight: The mistreatment of asylum seekers in Greece, passim (Laura Keen & Marta Welander eds., 2019) http://www.statewatch.org/news/2019/aug/greece-No-End-In-Sight.pdf.

[18] See Hathaway, supra note 4 at 192

[19]Greece: Asylum Overhaul Threatens Rights,” Human Rights Watch (Oct. 29, 2019), https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/10/29/greece-asylum-overhaul-threatens-rights#.

[20] Nikolia Apostolou, “Briefing: How will Greece’s new asylum law affect refugees?” The New Humanitarian (Nov. 4, 2019), https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news/2019/11/04/Greece-new-asylum-law-refugees.

[21] Jenny Poon, EU-Turkey Deal: Violation of, or Consistency with, International Law? 1 European Papers: European Forum, Insight 3, pp. 1195-1203 (2016). http://www.europeanpapers.eu/en/europeanforum/eu-turkey-deal-violation-or-consistency-with-international-law.

[22] Karolina Tagaris, “Greece Says Turkey Can and Must Control Migrant Flows to Europe,” Reuters (Oct. 4, 2019)  https://www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-migrants-greece/greece-says-turkey-can-and-must-control-migrant-flows-to-europe-idUSKBN1WJ14Q.

[23] Smith, supra note 6.

[24] Smith, supra note 6.

[25] Human Rights Watch, supra note 19.

[26] Yiannis Baboulias, “The Next Syrian Refugee Crisis Will Break Europe’s Back,” Foreign Policy: Argument (Oct. 24, 2019) https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/10/24/syrian-refugee-crisis-europe-greece-turkey-balkans/; Smith, supra note 5.

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