Rights groups press European Commission to investigate violations of EU law in Greece over treatment of migrants

Published: 22nd September 2020

The European Commission should trigger an infringement procedure against Greece for its systematic breach of EU law in its treatment of people seeking asylum in Europe, a coalition of human rights groups said in a legal complaint filed today, just a day before the Commission will release a new European pact on asylum and migration.

The European Commission is the guardian of EU law, and it should uphold and protect the fundamental rights of all people across Europe. What happened two weeks ago in Moria camp demonstrates Europe’s collective failure to do so.

Marissa Ryan
Head of Oxfam’s EU office

The organizations said that the Greek government has failed to investigate and address well-documented allegations of rights violations, including continued violent pushbacks of people seeking asylum towards Turkey and the blatant disregard for asylum safeguards. The complaint was submitted by international law firm De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek, who worked pro bono on behalf of WeMove Europe and Oxfam. The organizations now insist that the European Commission intervenes.

The groups warned the EU against replicating the failures of its current migration policies in the new pact and highlighted the need for increased solidarity and responsibility sharing between European countries, particularly following the fire that destroyed the notorious Moria refugee camp.

Marissa Ryan, Head of Oxfam’s EU office, said:

“The European Commission is the guardian of EU law, and it should uphold and protect the fundamental rights of all people across Europe. What happened two weeks ago in Moria camp demonstrates Europe’s collective failure to do so. The Commission should urgently assess whether the Greek authorities respect EU law and otherwise trigger legal proceedings against Greece for exposing people seeking asylum on its territory to suffering and abuse.”

“If the European Commission wants to show that the new pact on asylum and migration is meant to improve Europe’s asylum system, it should also demonstrate the resolve needed to ensure that all EU member states respect human rights and people’s dignity.”

In their complaint, the organisations stressed that the reform of the Greek asylum law, which entered into force on 1 January 2020 and was further amended in May 2020, and the manner in which asylum seekers are treated by the Greek authorities, do not comply with EU law. Rather than offering people in search of safety the protection they are legally entitled to Greece has reduced safeguards for asylum seekers against deportation and offers little chance of a fair asylum procedure.

In practice, the new asylum law and its implementation effectively bar many people who do not have legal support from appealing an asylum rejection. The new rules drastically shortened the time limit to file an appeal, so that in many cases deadlines expire before people are informed of the decision or before they can provide full grounds for appeal.

Also, people seeking asylum can effectively only submit an appeal with legal assistance. But on Lesbos island, which hosts almost 13,000 migrants, the vast majority of whom are seeking asylum, there is only one state-sponsored lawyer. It is therefore practically impossible for asylum seekers to have access to an effective remedy, a fundamental pillar of EU law.

Giulio Carini, senior campaigner at WeMove Europe, said:

“This is more than just the story of Greece. These are Europe’s refugee camps. We know the Commission is aware of what is happening. In March, EU leaders visited the Greek-Turkey border and backed Greece in their response. So, this is about how Europe manages migration. And right now, that is by backing policies that have only led to incredible suffering. Europe’s asylum system must respect basic rights, and offer a fair opportunity to seek asylum, to those who are fleeing conflict and persecution, while making sure every person is safe from harm.”

The complaint details other well-documented, longstanding violations of EU law. For years, Greek law enforcement officers have summarily returned people seeking asylum at the borders with Turkey without due process. Everyone seeking international protection has a right to apply for asylum and should be given that opportunity. Collective and arbitrary expulsions strip people fleeing conflict and persecution from any chance of requesting asylum and are illegal in international law under the principle of non-refoulement.

Over the past months, almost 100,000 Europeans signed an online petition, asking EU institutions to protect the fundamental right to seek asylum and calling on Greece to immediately stop any form of violence against asylum seekers.

Maikel van Wissen, resident partner at De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek in Brussels, said:

“As lawyers, it alarms us when the law is not applied and, as a result, injustice is done, particularly when it concerns the rights of people in a vulnerable position, whose voices are not being heard. In such case, it is important that all of us work together to uphold adherence to the rule of law and to protect the fundamental rights of those who need it most. We therefore felt compelled to assist WeMove Europe and Oxfam in engaging with the European Commission to investigate the situation in Greece and take all necessary steps to ensure that EU asylum law is applied in full by Greece and the that fundamental rights of asylum seekers are guaranteed.”

Notes to editors

  • Spokespeople for interviews on the complaint and the new EU pact an asylum and migration are available in Brussels and the Netherlands. Spokespeople for interviews on the situation of people seeking asylum in Greece are available in Athens and Lesbos.
  • Download the legal complaint filed to the Commission on Tuesday, 22 September 2020.
  • Read the latest monthly update by Oxfam and the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) on the situation in the infamous Moria refugee camp in Lesbos (before it burned down).
  • Read the July 2020 report ‘Diminished, Derogated, Denied’ that details how the new Greek asylum system is designed to deport people rather than offer them safety and protection.
  • Oxfam started to work with refugees and other migrants in Greece in October 2015 as the humanitarian situation for people arriving irregularly from Turkey rapidly worsened. Currently, Oxfam works with the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR), which is providing free legal aid and social support to people seeking asylum and that operates an online help desk with a particular focus on the COVD-19 pandemic, as well as with the Bashira women’s day centre in Lesbos.


Contact information

Florian Oel | Oxfam | florian.oel@oxfam.org | office +32 2 234 11 15 | mobile +32 473 56 22 60

For updates, please follow @Oxfam and @OxfamEU