In November 2015, IDC Europe visited Greece and Turkey to disseminate the findings of our revised research, There are Alternatives, to our members and key stakeholders.
Another purpose of our visit was to receive briefings from our local members and other experts about how the current ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe is impacting on their countries’ detention practices amidst this acute migrationary pressure.
Both Greece and Turkey have been key locations where Europe’s ‘refugee crisis’ has played out. The media has been full of images of thousands of unseaworthy boats leaving the shores of Turkey carrying traumatised asylum seekers and migrants, and of them landing on the islands of Greece.
By all accounts, the Greek government’s surprise announcement in February this year that it would end its use of immigration detention has created a radically different detention landscape.
We were briefed that the numbers of those in detention has gone down to around 600 to 800, a significant reduction from last year when thousands were in held in conditions denounced by many international and domestic observers.
Anxiety remains over the sustainability of this situation, however, which has been largely driven by the political will of the newly elected progressive Syriza government. There is a general sense of political fragility, due to the political turmoil instigated by the austerity measures leading to two elections in quick succession over the last 12 months.
Almost everyone was puzzled by the fact that, despite the political commitment to end immigration detention, there has been no repeal of the Ministerial Decision endorsing the Opinion of the Legal Council of the State (No 44/2014), allowing immigration detention beyond the maximum time limit of 18 months set by the EU Returns Directive. We were briefed that, in practice, many are released from detention after six months anyway, making the Ministerial Decision redundant although some were held even beyond this 18 months threshold.
Greece has received over 720,000 arrivals this year alone, from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Iran, many of whom have endured a dangerous sea crossing from Turkey, and many of our members have been busy responding to this emergency situation.
Correspondingly, pressure from the EU to secure its external border is intense: Greece is one of the countries where the multi-agency ‘hotspots’ span> will operate while Europe as a whole remains divided over how to deal with the current refugee crisis in practice.
Many of the stakeholders were anxious how ‘hotspots’ would operate and whether this would bring back mass detention for those new arrivals deemed not to be in need of international protection.
In sharing our revised There Are Alternatives report and case studies of community-based alternatives to detention, there was a fruitful conversation particularly in relation to those individuals who experience long-term detention in Greece. Why would it not be possible for them to be supported in the community, while their cases are being resolved?
We also spoke to the three NGOs – METAction, AITIMA and Greek Council for Refugees – who have received funding from EPIM to carry out strategic work on immigration detention. Two of these projects are on alternatives to detention; there is a global surge of interest in practical suggestions for governments to move away from detention. Combined with the UNHCR’s Beyond Detention – Global Strategy, we are certain these efforts will galvanise more civil society organisations and others to explore the idea of alternatives to detention.
Our final visit in Athens was to the Society for the Care of the Minors, which is supporting 17 unaccompanied minors in a small residential unit in downtown Athens. The centre has a positive family atmosphere and is very much supported by the local community and volunteers, which establish a crucial link between young people and the community. Detention of children is a global concern, and many governments around the world are keen to learn from such examples of good practice from other states.
We would like to thank all stakeholders who took time to meet us. In particular, we would like to thank UNHCR Greece for generously hosting our presentation session in Athens and providing relevant detention information prior to our visit.
In our brief visit to Turkey, we met with our new Regional Representative, Oktay Durukan of Refugee Rights Turkey, and other key stakeholders.
Turkey introduced its first ever comprehensive law on migration in 2014 (Law on Foreigners and International Protection) and established a dedicated department tasked to deal with migration issues, the Directorate General of Migration Management (DGMM).
This process of modernisation coincided with an unprecedented level of arrivals of Syrians escaping escalating violence. We were informed that much of DGMM’s resources and time have been used in responding to this surge, which is estimated to be now over 2.2 million people.
In the meantime, Turkey has recently published its Strategic Document and National Action Plan on Irregular Migration.
We were pleased to learn that the Directorate General of Migration Management is planning to produce a research report on alternatives to detention, which could lead to a pilot programme in 2017 / 2018.
IOM Turkey and IDC are listed as cooperating institutions for this alternatives to detention work in the National Action Plan, and we look forward to providing assistance to this important piece of work.
In the same National Action Plan, it is noted that the Directorate General for Migration Management is developing ‘mechanisms for and regular monitoring of removal centres by independent institutions and organisations operating in the field of human rights’.
Monitoring places of immigration detention can be a crucial mechanism for ensuring human rights and dignity of those who are detained are protected. We welcome this development in Turkey and hope to share our Monitoring Manual and our learning from the monitoring workshop we conducted earlier this year with civil society organisations and other stakeholders in Turkey.
One of the key challenges of detention monitoring in Turkey is likely to be its large number of detention centres spread across a geographically vast area. According to the National Action Plan, Turkey currently has a detention capacity of just over 4,500, including a newly opened centre in Erzurum-Askale, with a capacity of 750, funded by the European Union Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance as part of EU harmonisation efforts. In the pipeline are 10 new detention centres, with capacity of 3,400. It is vital that enough resources and expertise are made available for effective monitoring of these over 40 detention centres, with capacity of nearly 8,000.
Soon after we left Turkey, the Valletta Migration Summit took place, followed by the EU-Turkey summit. Throughout, messages from the European Union remained a mixture of ‘providing protection’ and ‘facilitating returns’, neither of its operations clearly and practically articulated.
Our visit to Greece and Turkey confirmed our view that there is a risk that Europe’s detention practice can worsen overnight in this ever-changing migration policy environment in Europe, and we need be vigilant in providing alternative solutions to detention.