Implications for the Justice and Home Affairs area of the accession of Turkey to the European Union - Home Affairs Committee Contents


Annex B: Note of our visit to Greece


We visited Athens and the Greek region of Evros between 7 and 9 June 2011. We met representatives of the Greek Government, the Greek Parliament, national and regional law enforcement agencies, Frontex, a number of migration NGOs and the European Commission in Greece. In Evros, we also visited the land border between Turkey and Greece and Filakeio detention centre. A summary of the information and analysis we heard follows.

Meeting with Mr Christos Papoutsis, Minister for Citizen's Protection, Lt General Eleftherios Economou, Chief of Hellenic Police, Mr Grigorios Tasoulas, Secretary General, Ministry of Citizen's Protection

Greece remains committed to tackling irregular migration, which it views as a top priority, despite the economic problems faced by the country. Greece would find it very difficult to carry out this work without EU funding, however, and favours greater burden-sharing within the EU and the suspension of the Dublin II Convention. The EU has provided 230 million euros for the improvement of detention centres and the creation of new immigration and asylum agencies as part of the Greek National Action Plan on Migration and Asylum Reform.

Numbers and profile of irregular migrants

In 2010, more than 100,000 illegal migrants were arrested at the Greek borders, including the border with Albania. Prior to the Frontex Rapid Border Intervention Team operation at the Greek-Turkish land border, up to 300 illegal migrants were entering Greece every day by this route; the number has since fallen to 100-120. Migrants come in particular from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Africa—most recently there has been a large influx from the Maghreb because Turkey has abolished visa requirements for nationals of some of these countries. The Greek authorities are not always aware of the migrants' ultimate destination, but France, Germany, Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands are all popular. Legally, migrants cannot be held for more than six months in detention. Asylum seekers are given a card that enables them to move about freely until their case is resolved.

Readmission agreements with Turkey

Greece enjoys increasingly better cooperation with Turkey and the two countries try to face these issues together; however, despite some improvement since May 2010, enforcement of the Greek-Turkish Readmission Agreement which has been in place since 2002 is very weak. Greece is firmly in favour of Turkish accession to the EU and the swift conclusion of the EU-Turkey Readmission Agreement: Greece has already liberalised its visa regime for Turkish citizens.

Border fence

The proposed border fence to be built at the land border with Turkey in Evros is not viewed as a solution to irregular migration in itself but would send a powerful message to potential migrants, and facilitate enforcement action and joint efforts to tackle people smuggling. The Turkish authorities have reacted positively to the proposal because it addresses their complaint that the Greeks are not doing enough to tackle the problem at the border and they recognise they lack sufficient resources to control fully the flow of migrants themselves.

Meeting with Deputy Perifereiarchis of Evros, Mrs Georgia Nikolaou

Problems caused by irregular migration in Evros

Irregular migration ebbs and flows depending on world and regional events. Evros does not have the infrastructure to deal with migration on the current scale. In 2010, some 54,000 migrants were apprehended in Evros, including 33,000 who crossed the Evros river. There are two detention centres in Evros but these are at full capacity. Most of the migrants are young men but they also include vulnerable people requiring special protection. The indicative cost of providing food to migrants in detention is 2-2.5 million euros per year; a further burden is placed upon the health system, and there is a psychological cost to staff working in the detention centres. Greece is very concerned it cannot perform its humanitarian role properly.

Frontex operation

The Frontex contribution is important but is not the whole solution: their assistance mainly consists of guarding the borders, and thereby stemming the flow, but their presence also strengthens the argument being made by the Greek authorities that they are dealing with a genuine and serious problem that has implications for the whole of the EU. When a migrant crosses the border, they have to be treated by the Greek authorities in line with their human rights obligations (if migrants turn themselves in to Greek officers, they cannot be driven back); however the presence of Frontex might deter them from crossing.

83 Frontex guest officers are still in the area under Operation Poseidon Land: 45 are working on surveillance and intercept; eight to ten are positioned on the actual border crossing, eight to ten are working as interpreters, ten are responsible for determining nationality and ten are acting as de-briefers for intercepted migrants.

The Greek authorities have raised the suggestion that Frontex officers could be based in Turkey (should the Turkish authorities agree) to deal better with the flows. Increased efforts have been made recently to cooperate more with the Turkish authorities.

Meeting with General Police Director of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace, Brigadier Emmanuel Loupeidis, Police Director of Oresteiada Brigadier Salamangas and Frontex Operations Unit Director at Oresteiada Police Directorate

In the Evros region, Greece shares a 180 km river border with Turkey, and a 12.5 km land border; and a 15 km river border and 90 km land border with Bulgaria. The Greek authorities want to build a border fence because there are currently no physical obstacles at the land border with Turkey.

Migrant arrests and profile

Within the whole of the Evros region, there were 47,088 arrests of migrants in 2010 and 12,394 in the first five months of 2011. This included 35,950 arrests (up from 3,521 in 2009) in Orestiada, where 3,181 have been apprehended in the first five months of 2011. Here the pattern of crossing has changed from 2010, when 26,000 were arrested at the Turkish land border compared with 5,203 at the river border ; this year only 535 have been arrested at the land border compared to 2,600 at the river border.

The majority of migrants who are not arrested at the border crossings still present themselves to the police. In 2009, the highest proportion of migrants were (self-declared as) Pakistani (37%) and Iraqi (26%) In 2010, the highest numbers were Afghani (50%), Algerian (17%) and Somali (10%). There has been a recent rise in the number of nationals from Maghreb countries since Turkey abolished visa controls for some countries.

Once migrants are apprehended, they are transported to a detention centre for screening, fingerprinting, photographing, medical examination and de-briefing, for example finding out their nationality, how they arrived in Greece, who helped them and so forth.

None of the migrants stay in Evros; they tend to move on to Athens. Their onward destinations are often the UK, Germany, France, Holland and Scandinavia. States with land borders to the rest of the EU are preferable, with Germany the most popular destination. The number of migrants claiming asylum in Greece is low but has risen this year, because of the increased risk of deportation caused by the increased Greek focus on dealing with the problem.

People smugglers

In terms of people smugglers, out of 93 facilitators identified in 2009, the highest proportion were Bulgarian (30), Greek (19) or Turkish (15). In 2010, there were 28 Turkish facilitators out of a total of 73. The overall reduction in the number of people smugglers arrested in 2010 was partly because the modus operandi of the traffickers has changed. In 2010, the Evros authorities observed the development of a new route of irregular migration, whereby migrants make use of cheap flights from North Africa to Istanbul, then travel on to Greece. Also, as of 2010, people smugglers have tended to remain behind the border and send migrants over on their own either on foot or by boat. Up until 2009, people smugglers tended to supply migrants with fake passports, but they have largely discontinued this practice.

Migrants pay smugglers 1500-4000 euros to cross into Greece via the land border and cheap flights from North Africa cost 300-600 Euros.

Readmission agreement

The number of migrants readmitted to Turkey from Greece are very low because Turkey usually disputes that migrants have crossed from their territory unless they come from countries who share Turkish borders and with whom Turkey has a readmission agreement—Iran, Iraq, Syria and Georgia.

Frontex operation

Since November 2010, there has been a marked improvement in interventions from the Turkish authorities before migrants cross the border. The Frontex operation is not doing anything significantly different from the role performed by the Greek authorities, apart from providing increased personnel and provision of technical assistance in the form of cameras, helicopters and so forth. However, its presence has put pressure on Turkey to act. The Greek authorities have noticed a military presence on the Turkish border which was not there prior to the Frontex operation, Turkish border stations are now manned continuously, and new informal cooperation has started between the Greek and Turkish military. They have also noticed a reduction in corrupt dealings between Turkish officers and people smugglers.

Frontex is currently operating with 50% of the resources supplied to the RABIT operation. 3.25 million euros were provided to the Frontex operation initially, followed by an additional 1.5 million euros. In October 2010, 5,935 migrants were apprehended; following the commencement of the Frontex operation, 2,600 were apprehended in November 2010 and there has been a gradual reduction to 531 in February 2011. Frontex is putting a lot of effort into cooperation with Turkey but the working arrangement has still not been signed. Once this is done, it will be possible to invite Turkish observers into Greece and send Member State personnel into Turkey. There are encouraging signs for the future of Greek-Turkish cooperation, facilitated by Frontex. Frontex are sharing intelligence with Europol and from July 2011 expect a mobile team from Europol to be present in the region.

Filakeio migrants' detention centre

The detention centre was very overcrowded and migrants complained in particular about poor sanitation. We spoke to a number of male and female detainees from countries including Iran, Somalia and the Dominican Republic about how they had got to Greece, how much they had paid to people smugglers and the ultimate EU destinations they hoped to reach.

Meeting with Members of the Greek Parliament's Home Affairs Committee

Greek parliamentarians are grateful to the EU for sending Frontex to Greece, to the UKBA for their assistance and to the UK Government for halting the readmission of migrants to Greece. They see a need for action at EU level including a revision of Dublin II taking into account the GDP and population size of countries accepting migrants.

They are disappointed that Turkey has indicated it will not sign a Turkey-EU readmission agreement because they want negotiations on visa liberalisation. As well as signing a readmission agreement with Turkey, the EU should sign agreements with the source countries.

Three levels of cooperation are desirable: regional action around the coast, including initiatives for health, child protection and so forth; initiatives to help migrants to go back home; and cooperation at Embassy level. The proposed border fence should make things a little better but will not solve the problem by itself.

Parliamentarians are aware of the poor conditions in the detention centres. The authorities are obliged to release the detainees and this just relocates the problem: it is particularly acute in Athens. They are planning to build 14 new centres in Greece. Greek society is not racist but the number of migrants arriving is so great that Greece cannot integrate them into society. The severe financial crisis in Greece is making the problem worse. There is a part of the historic quarter in Athens where migrants congregate and make life difficult for residents.

Meeting with Alternate Foreign Minister, Ms Mariliza Xenogiannakopoulou

The increase in North African migrants began before the current unrest because of Turkish visa liberalisation. Italy, Cyprus and Malta are all now affected by this crisis; a pan-European approach is required. However, the current debate about Schengen should not undermine the principle of free movement. Since the arrival of Frontex, there has been a decrease of 30% in the numbers of migrants apprehended. Frontex sent a strong message to Turkey and to the migrants.

Greece is making a strong effort to protect its borders and to modernise its asylum system but this will take time. The border fence would include electronic devices and would force migrants to cross at the river, which is more difficult. Visa liberalisation could be offered as a "carrot" to Turkey to improve its response to the problem of irregular migration into the EU and would in the first instance lead them to sign the readmission agreement. Greece had been happy to offer this to increase tourism to the country but appreciated this is a difficult decision for other EU countries.

Meeting with Mr Grigorios Apostolou, Frontex, and Captain Ioannis Karageorgopoulos, Hellenic Coastguard

Frontex presence in Greece

Frontex has been operating in Greece for four years in the form of Poseidon Sea, the Rapid Border Intervention Team and Poseidon Land. The aim was for Member States to provide 100 members of staff for Poseidon Land but they have only provided 80% of these personnel. The process for allocating resources is for Frontex to carry out a risk analysis, negotiate with the host country and then make a request to Member States: but the Member States decide how much resource to give ultimately. 20 countries are providing personnel to Frontex, with Austria, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania important contributors. Other countries could do more. There are currently no UK personnel in Greece, but a debriefer and an interpreter are expected (it is more difficult for the UK to participate in Frontex operations because the European Court rejected the UK's proposal to become a full member of the agency by virtue of being outside Schengen; however they do contribute expertise in other ways). Frontex considers cooperation with third countries, including Turkey, as very important.

Progress made to tackle migration at the sea border

Only 80 illegal migrants have been arrested arriving by boat from the Turkish coastline in the first five months of 2011, representing a 97% reduction compared to the equivalent period in 2010. This is a result of systematic cooperation between the Hellenic Coastguard and Frontex personnel—rigorous border patrolling and debriefing. Cooperation between Frontex and Greece began in 2006 but was fairly limited until May 2008, when joint operations became permanent and stopped more boats coming from Turkey.

There is now regular contact between the Greek and Turkish Coastguards—they have noticed more frequent patrolling of potential Turkish exit points since it began, which has also contributed to a reduction in flows. They are a long way from joint operations though—this would probably be dependent upon EU membership.

The Greek authorities tend to prosecute people smugglers rather than the migrants themselves: it is possible for the courts to give life sentences to smugglers. As a result, smugglers now tend not to accompany migrants on the boats. The Greek authorities aim to improve their use of intelligence to tackle organised immigration crime. Any useful information arising out of the daily Frontex debriefings is passed to the Greek authorities.

Meeting with Daniel Esdras, International Organisation for Migration, Giorgos Tsarbopoulos, UNHCR, Mrs Angeliki Chryssohoidou-Argyropoulou, Greek Council for Refugees, Prof Vassilios Karydis, Greek Ombudsman, and Francesca Nastri, Belgian secondee to the European Asylum Support Office

Voluntary returns

The International Organisation for Migration was aware of at least 3,000 migrants willing to return home from Athens but have only received funding to repatriate 500. The European Commission will allocate 25 million euros to the Voluntary Returns Fund and 40 million euros to the Border Management Fund this year, but Greece will have trouble co-financing these funds, which means that the money will not be forthcoming because of the legal basis the EU has agreed for fund allocation. The NGO representatives are critical of the way in which funding is allocated and UNHCR is currently entirely self-funded. While UNHCR does not generally advocate voluntary returns, the organisation believes that this is the only way of solving the current crisis of the large number of migrants present in Greece.

Detention

The point of detaining those migrants with no realistic chance of repatriation is debatable, considering they have to be released within six months. Detention was initially used as a deterrent but has been proven not to work.

Asylum applicants

The migrants applying for asylum in Greece tend to be those who are not genuine refugees: genuine refugees tend not to apply because they do not trust the system or because they would prefer to apply elsewhere in the EU; economic migrants apply in order for them to extend their stay while their case is pending.



 
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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 1 August 2011