Court exposes appalling detention conditions in Greece

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Belgium has been sentenced by the European Court for Human Rights for sending back to Athens an asylum seeker who entered the EU from Greece. The court ruled that Greece did not comply with minimum standards on the treatment of asylum seekers.

The Strasbourg-based European Court for Human Rights, a specialised body under the Council of Europe, ruled on 21 January in favour of the applicant, an Afghan national whose identity was not divulged.

The plaintiff had left Kabul early in 2008 and entered the European Union through Greece after travelling via Iran and Turkey.

On 10 February 2009, he arrived in Belgium, where he applied for asylum. By virtue of the EU's 'Dublin II' Regulation, the Belgian authorities submitted a request for the Greek authorities to take charge of the asylum application.

But the applicant objected, arguing that he ran the risk of being detained in Greece in appalling conditions and that there were deficiencies in the asylum system in Greece.

He ultimately feared being sent back to Afghanistan without any examination of the reasons why he had fled that country, where he claimed he had escaped a murder attempt by the Taliban in reprisal for having worked as an interpreter for air force troops stationed in Kabul.

Detention conditions

On 15 June 2009, the applicant was nonetheless transferred to Greece, the Aliens Office considering that Belgium was not the country responsible for examining his asylum application under the Dublin II Regulation and that there was no reason to suspect that the Greek authorities would fail to honour their obligations in asylum matters under Community law and the Geneva Convention on refugee status.

On arriving at Athens airport, the applicant was immediately placed in detention in an adjacent building, which he said was overcrowded and insalubrious. Following his release on 18 June 2009, he lived on the streets with no means of sustenance.

The applicant alleges that by sending him back to Greece, the Belgian authorities exposed him to a risk of inhuman and degrading treatment there. He claims that he was indeed subsequently subjected to such treatment. He also complains that he was sent back to Greece despite the risk that the authorities there would order his expulsion to Afghanistan without examining the reasons why he felt forced to flee that country.

The plaintiff further contends that he had no effective remedy in Belgium against the expulsion order, and no real guarantee that his asylum application would follow its normal course in Greece, particularly due to deficiencies in the Greek asylum system. He relies on Articles 2 (right to life), 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment) and 13 (right to an effective remedy) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

EU reaction

Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström stated following the ruling that the decision by the Strasbourg court clearly shows the EU's need to urgently establish a Common European Asylum System and to support member countries in meeting their obligations to provide adequate international protection.

"The EU's commitment to continue its humanitarian tradition in providing shelter to those in need of international protection can only be fulfilled if all its member states contribute and take their responsibilities. I invite Greece to continue working to enhance the humanitarian situation of migrants and asylum-seekers," Malmström said.

Belgian Immigration Minister Melchior Wathelet said his country had confirmed its decision, taken on 20 October 2010 at the request of the European Court for Human Rights, to stop all asylum-seeker transfers to Greece. Several EU countries have taken a similar decision.

Greece is under considerable strain, with an increase in the number of immigrants crossing its frontier from Turkey. Turkey has recently established a visa-free regime with countries such as Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia. It remains unclear what consequences Turkey's opening up to its region will have on Ankara's bid to have EU visa requirements lifted for its nationals.

Greece is under considerable strain, with an increase in the number of immigrants crossing its frontier from Turkey.

Since border controls with Spain, Italy and Malta were introduced in the Mediterranean Sea, the main flows of illegal people trafficking have been concentrated on the Turkey-Greece land border.

Last year, former EU Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot described illegal immigration via Turkey as "a risk to Greek democracy" and called on Ankara to do more to combat people traffickers.

Barrot also accused Turkey of turning a blind eye to trafficking of illegal migrants to Greece.

Ankara says the migrants come from countries such as Iraq and Pakistan and it should not have to handle those that cross Turkey to reach the wealthy EU.

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