ATHENS, Greece — The anti-torture committee of the Council of Europe, the continent's main human rights organization, slammed the conditions under which migrants are held in some detention centers in Greece and voiced concern Thursday over persistent allegations the country illegally pushes back migrants coming from Turkey.
The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture said in a new report that Greece's "current approach towards immigration detention must change," and it urged Greek authorities to reform the immigration detention system. The report was based on a mid-March visit to Greece.
At the time of the visit, Greece had seen thousands of people attempting to enter the country after neighboring Turkey announced its borders to the European Union were open to anyone who wanted to cross. In response, the government shut Greece's borders and temporarily suspended asylum applications for new arrivals.
The committee particularly criticized conditions in detention centers in the Evros region near the border with Turkey and on the Greek island of Samos, where the country's most overcrowded camp is located. Conditions in these facilities "could amount to inhuman and degrading treatment," its report stated.
"The problem of migration into Greece is not new and will almost certainly continue given the push factors that exist in those countries from which the vast majority of migrants come," the report said.
"Therefore, Greece together with the support of the European Union, must put in place an immigration detention system which abides by European values and norms. No persons held in immigration detention in Europe should ever be subjected to treatment or conditions which amount to inhuman and degrading treatment," the committee wrote.
Asked about the report, Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas said "conditions in Greece have significantly improved recently."
Petsas noted that fewer migrants are arriving in Greece and thousands of people have been transferred from island camps to the mainland.
"We have shown we can function, despite the very great pressure, with greater effectiveness," he said. " and that is what we will continue to do."
Greece continues to be one of the most popular routes into the EU for people fleeing conflict and poverty in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The vast majority arrive on eastern Greek islands from the Turkish coast.
But the country has made clear it is trying to reduce the number of arrivals. According to the Migration Ministry, Greece saw a 90% reduction in arrivals from May to October compared to the same period last year, with 4,345 people arriving during those months in 2020, compared to 44,348 in May to October 2019.
The Council of Europe committee's report also slammed the practice of holding in protective police custody any asylum-seeking children and teenagers who arrive in Greece without parents or guardians. Hundreds of unaccompanied minors have been held in often overcrowded and squalid police holding cells, sometimes for weeks at a time.
Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi announced Wednesday that the government was abolishing the practice, and that no unaccompanied migrant child or teenager remained in police protective custody as of Nov. 14.
In a response to the report, the Greek government noted it had carried out the mass transfer of unaccompanied minors from island camps to shelters and hotels on the mainland or to other European countries as part of relocation or family reunification schemes.
The Committee for the Prevention of Torture report noted that the treatment of migrants arriving in Greece has been problematic for more than two decades.
"The CPT has emphasized time and again since its 1997 visit to Greece the need to address the structural deficiencies in Greece's immigration detention policy," the committee said, adding it has recommended practical measures to ensure decent conditions for those held in detention.
"However, the committee has been met by either inaction or a minimalist approach from the Greek authorities in addressing the very serious concerns raised," it added.
The report also notes the committee "again received consistent and credible allegations of migrants being pushed back across the Evros River border to Turkey."
Pushbacks - the practice of summarily sending someone back across a border without giving them the chance to apply for asylum - is illegal. Greek authorities vehemently deny they carry out such practices.