The Malakasa tent camp was quarantined after a man tested positive for COVID-19 on April 5, 2020 | Photo: picture-alliance/Ayhan Mehmet/AA
The Malakasa tent camp was quarantined after a man tested positive for COVID-19 on April 5, 2020 | Photo: picture-alliance/Ayhan Mehmet/AA

In Greece, hundreds of people who were detained and denied access to asylum under an emergency law in March remain stuck in two mainland migrant facilities. The migrants were supposed to be sent straight back to Turkey. Their fate now is uncertain.

In March, Greece passed an emergency decree preventing undocumented migrants who arrived in the country from seeking asylum. The temporary ruling was a response to Turkey’s announcement that the door to Europe was ‘open’ – which led to close to 3,000 people crossing land- and sea-borders into Greece in the month of March.

Under the controversial decree, the migrants were automatically detained in Greece without access to the asylum procedure and shipped to closed detention centers on the mainland. From there they were to be deported to their countries of origin or returned to Turkey. 

So far, however, no one has been deported. More than a month after the emergency decree was lifted, the migrants – including pregnant women, small children and unaccompanied minors – remain in the two mainland facilities.Children wait in the bus before being taking to the new migrant facility in Serres | Photo: picture-alliancePrecarious conditions

At Serres near the land border with Turkey and Malakasa, just north of Athens, police unions representing the guards at the migrant facilities as well as rights groups have raised serious concerns about the living conditions. “We’ve had reports (from Malakasa) … of up to 10 people staying in one tent, sleeping on the floor, on gym mattresses or sleeping bags,” Minos Mouzourakis from Refugee Support Aegean (RSA), a non-profit legal organization, told InfoMigrants.

For periods of March and April, there were also worries about supplies of water and electricity in Malakasa, as well as limited availability of health care. “In light of the health considerations that should be taken into account for the prevention of the spread of COVID, it’s quite clear that these places are not suitable at all,” said Mouzourakis.

These people have stayed in detention under very precarious conditions with absolutely no justification.
_ Minos Mouzourakis, Refugee Support Aegean

Closed and open centers

RSA has followed the cases of some of the migrants transferred to the Malakasa facility. Mouzourakis explains that the authorities have issued confusing and sometimes contradictory directives.

Initially, none of the migrants was allowed to have their intention to seek asylum recorded. Then, when the legal effects of the emergency decree wore off at the end of March, the authorities said that people detained in the two facilities would be allowed to access the asylum procedure. They were told that they were no longer detained – though the government had said it planned to keep both facilities operating as closed centers – and that they should go to the asylum service and register their application. However, asylum services were completely suspended throughout the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic until May 15.

Moreover, despite the detention order having being lifted, the migrants were still prevented from leaving the camp. “Nobody was allowed to go in or out, so de facto this was a state of confinement and detention continuing,” said Mouzourakis. That finally changed last week, when people started being allowed to come and go for certain periods during the day.

A child is photographed at the new migrant facility in Serres | Photo: picture-allianceAcutely vulnerable detained

In the Malakasa facility are two unaccompanied minors from Syria. Along with several hundred other migrants, they were initially held in a fenced area of the Port of Mytilene on Lesbos and later detained in the Rhodes Greek navy ship before being shipped to the mainland center.

Two women, both in advanced pregnancy, were in the same group and are also still in the Malakasa facility. One of the women has given birth and been returned to the center. According to Mouzourakis “she was transferred to the hospital, and then a couple of days later she was returned to Malakasa with her newborn child.”

Legal challenges

RSA attempted to challenge the legality of the detention, but according to the Greek court, the detention conditions were appropriate even for the two pregnant women. The court made no assessment of whether detention itself was justified, says Mouzourakis. “In our view, there was really no reason to detain these people because they had expressed the intention to enter the asylum procedure, but also there was no prospect of removing them to Turkey anyway.”

Migrants arriving in Lesbos were detained on a Greek navy ship, March 15, 2020 | Photo: picture-alliance/abaca/D. AntoineUncertain future

Since March there have been no returns to Turkey – readmission procedures have been suspended “indefinitely”, a move understood to be a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Greek authorities say they will try to restart returns “as soon as possible,” however, as the migrants in the two mainland facilities have now been allowed to enter the asylum procedure, they can now only be deported once they have been through the asylum process and found not to be in need of international protection.

In the near term, the migrants accommodated in the two mainland facilities are expected to be transferred to alternative accommodation. The Greek migration ministry did not respond to InfoMigrants' request for information about if and when this would happen.


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