Between 26 and 30 June 2019 a team of lawyers and legal professionals, coordinated by ASGI in the context of project Sciabaca, went to Patras in order to carry out a legal observation of the local situation concerning readmissions of foreign citizens and asylum seekers from the Italian Adriatic ports to Greece based on summary procedures.
For a large number of foreign citizens Patras is indeed the only route to leave the Greek peninsula and reach Italy or continental Europe.
According to the Italian Government, all returns from Adriatic ports to Greece fall within the scope of application of the bilateral readmission agreement between Italy and Greece adopted in 1999. Pursuant to this agreement, the parties are required to accept the return of migrants lacking documents who have irregularly moved from one country to another. In accordance with Articles 6(d) and 23, an exception to readmission can be made in order to ensure compliance with international treaties on human rights and on the right to asylum (such as the 1951 Geneva Convention).
According to the agreement entered into force in 2001, although readmission must follow formal procedures – as described in the Executive Protocol – and requires a case-by-case assessment (e.g. application of the Dublin regulation to asylum seekers or exceptions to readmission under Articles 6 and 23), most returns of foreign citizens from Adriatic ports to Greece seem to follow very informal procedures, thus violating the applicable legal framework.
On October 21, 2014, in fact, the ECHR, in the case “Sharifi and others against Italy and Greece” case, convicted Italy for indiscriminately rejecting a group of asylum seekers to an “unsafe” country.
By rejecting with no prior examination of the foreign citizens’ request for individual international protection towards Greece – a Member State just entered into the EU, repeatedly convicted for serious structural deficiencies of its asylum and reception system – Italy has infringed three provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR): art. 4, Protocol 4 (prohibition of collective expulsions of foreigners); Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment); Article 13 (right to an effective remedy), in conjunction with Article 3 ECHR and Article 4, Protocol 4.
In this context, Greece has also been convicted for breaching Article 13 ECHR in conjunction with Article 3 ECHR for failing to guarantee access to the national asylum procedure to foreign citizens who had been rejected by Italy or, as a result, that they would not be further returned to their own countries of origin or transit, which in turn are not safe.
Despite the Court’s ruling, Italy continues to reject foreign citizens based on summary procedures without any individual assessment of the conditions of readmitted foreigners. For its part, Greece allows readmissions from Italy.
The purpose of this inspection is to monitor the conditions of migrants and asylum seekers in Patras, with particular focus on foreigners subject to readmission by Italy.
Asylum application procedures
In Patras you can apply for asylum at the Asylum Service. A “skype call” is used to submit the application.
The Asylum Service of Patras is responsible for the assessment of asylum applications from the entire Western Greece area (Western Greece Office). The Asylum Service reports that the Patras office handles applications from 5 reception centres in Western Greece.
Interviews are conducted directly at the Patras office, with interpreters on the phone from Athens. Finding interpreters can present difficulties, thus often meetings can be postponed several times. This can make the procedure much longer – it can take up to two years.
Asylum seekers met during the inspection reported that the interview for the assessment of the application is very short – about 10/15 minutes. The interview is carried out by the case worker of the Asylum Service, there is no kind of presence/support by EASO and UNHRC.
The criteria for assessing vulnerability are quite limited. In fact, although there is concern for serious health issues or for single women with children, there is no particularly detailed analysis of psychological distress. Furthermore, it is not clear whether or not an assessment of potential victims of trafficking is carried out.
If the person does not show up for an interview with the case worker at the Asylum Service, he or she must provide specific reason therefor (e.g. a medical certificate). If no reason for the absence is provided, based on what we have been reported the application for asylum has lapsed. In order to continue the procedure, a new (repeated) application must therefore be submitted and an assessment of eligibility is then carried out. In the assessment of eligibility of the repeated application, reference can also be made to vulnerabilities in accordance with the same criteria as described above. Unless therefore vulnerability is identified, it appears that the applicant making a repeated application is required to follow accelerated procedures.
Welcome and informal fields
In Patras there are no more reception services, other than a children’s centre of the IoM (which hosts less than 20 MSNAs, a number not suitable to satisfy the actual presence of minors in the territory, representing a large group of foreigners) and some families housed in apartments (project initially funded by UNHCR and later – until now – managed by the municipality of Patras through social services).
Local associations report that the decision of the Greek authorities not to have reception services in Patras is a strategic choice, aimed at avoiding that migrants, asylum seekers and refugees try to cross the sea to reach the Italian coast.
In any case, as a strategic point for reaching Italy and northern Europe, Patras has been in recent years a focal point for migration routes. In fact, there are many informal camps, where migrants wait before crossing the sea.
In 2018, the Greek authorities addressed the humanitarian crisis in the migrants’ informal camps by means of a police action that dismantled more than 500 people living in camps near the port.
To date, we have news of at least two informal camps in Patras – namely two abandoned factories next to the port. In a factory there are between 40 and 50 people – and in a smaller one less than 10 people, whose number varies based on alternative routes.
Migrants living in informal camps are mostly asylum seekers and they hide waiting to try crossing the sea.
The two factories are often supervised by the police, who cyclically evacuate people and move them away from Patras. We have been reported that police authorities apply punitive measures against migrants who stay in Patras – without belonging to a reception project or having a regular rental contract – by removing them from the city. If they are asylum seekers, they are taken to Athens and left on the street (we have been told that they are left in Victoria Square). If they are irregular migrants, they are taken to the identification and expulsion centre in Corinth.
For this reason, the associations dealing with migrants’ protection go directly to the factories to provide basic services: health, food, clothing.
As for migrants’ nationalities, they are mainly Afghans, but also Iranians, Iraqis, Kurds and, with respect to a minority of them, Pakistanis and Bengalis.
Migrants who stop in the factories in Patras, do so hoping to reach Italy through one of the ferries that reach the ports of Bari, Brindisi and Ancona.
Some of them try to get into the ferries by hiding in the trucks, while others pass the checkpoints with false documents.
Greece and Italy have a readmission agreement for irregular foreigners. However, such agreement would not apply to asylum seekers (i.e. persons who are already registered as asylum seekers in Greece and apply again for asylum in Italy) and to irregular foreigners who show – once intercepted – their willingness to apply for asylum.
The port security authorities have implemented various controls to prevent foreign nationals from attempting to pass through and enter the ferries leaving for Italy.
When vehicles are boarded, the port police carry out checks on each truck – using officers who inspect the aircraft, dogs who can sniff out the presence of humans and if the truck is full through a scanner that allows you to view its contents.
Asylum seekers reported that the check with dogs are carried out again when the vehicles enter the ferry – while the authorities report that the checks stop at boarding.
With respect to transit with false documents, the check is carried out at a different place (passenger entry) by the police (not by the border police, as it happens for vehicle checks). We understood that the first screening is carried out exclusively on the basis of ethnic profiling.
If a foreigner is found hidden or tries to hide in a ferry, or to pass the checks with false documents – he or she is initially taken by the port police to a building – inside the port – where he or she is detained for a short time in order to carry out checks. If he or she is an asylum seeker or a refugee, he is taken by the police to Athens and left on the street.
If he is an irregular foreigner, he is taken to an administrative detention centre. We have been told about two detention centers – one of which is called Corinth. We have no precise information about the detention time. Our sources told us that usually after a few months the foreigner is released, because there are not enough slots and in order to avoid overpopulation foreigners are “simply” released on the territory. We have also been confirmed that foreign citizens can apply for asylum while detained, but it is not clear who is responsible for assessing the application if they leave the detention centre.
If minors are involved (both asylum-seekers/refugees and irregular) – after initial detention and identification at the premises of the port police, they should be taken to specific centres for minors. However, due to the lack of spots in the MSNA centres, they are often detained “to avoid leaving them on the street without protection”. However, we have been told that the same treatment (as described above) also applies to minors due to overpopulation in detention centres.
In the event that a foreigner is found inside a vehicle (usually a truck), the driver is immediately stopped and an investigation is opened to find out if there is complicity on his or her part.
For this reason, it is the truck drivers themselves who make sure that there are no foreigners hiding in their vehicles.
As for migrants who manage to gen into the ferry, when they are intercepted and the ship has already left, they are placed in a detention room in the ferry directly by the ship crew. The border police report that the Captain makes a communication in this respect to the Italian police. Once in Italy, the police get on the ship, identify foreign citizens, and if they are irregular (i.e. do not meet the conditions for entry or stay in the territory – Article 5 Bilateral Agreement) they are rejected – thus they remain on the same ship that brings them back to Greece.
The Greek police report that the Italian police issue migrants with a report of rejection, while the border police report that nothing is released to migrants. We have also been told that the captain of the ship, once the ship has left, informs the Greek port police about the situation – and the Greek police waits for the migrant upon arrival of the ship at the port of Patras and implements the same procedures as described above (detention at the port, document control, transfer to Athens or detention in a special facility).
Some of the associations interviewed told us that once in Italy, foreign citizens are dropped off, and are later rejected and returned to the ship. They also reported that migrants are not issued with any documents proving what happened to them.
Apparently, there is no connection between the two police forces – Italian and Greek. The ship’s captain is in charge of communications with both the Italian police and the Greek police, which is responsible for their readmission process.
During the mission, we met asylum seekers – hidden in the “factories” – most of whom were Afghans. It was difficult to get in direct contact with them, either because of a linguistic issue or because within these informal detention camps there are also people working with traffickers – and they have not made it possible for us to conduct in-depth interviews. Nevertheless, we found 2 cases of migrants declaring that they arrived in Italy on a ferry from Patras and were sent back to Greece by the Italian police – who did not consider their status (asylum seekers) and their willingness to seek international protection.
The situation of ports in Italy
The already mentioned decision of the ECHR “Sharifi and others against Italy and Greece”, condemned Italy for indiscriminately rejecting a group of Afghan and Sudanese asylum seekers and an Eritrean to Greece, considered a “not safe” country.
Following this decision, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe continued to monitor its effective and correct implementation. During the meeting of June 2017, the Committee of Ministers asked the Italian Government to provide new information on the current organization and operation of reception systems for migrants in Adriatic ports and on the procedures followed upon arrival at ports, in order to assess the revision of previously implemented illegal practices.
In the Sharifi case, the applicants were handed over by the border authorities to the ferry captains without access to legal information, language mediation and legal assistance regarding their right to apply for asylum and the relevant procedures. Although there is a clear decrease in the number of applicants in transit on the Adriatic route, since 2018, of 23,370 people that arrived by sea in Italy, 12% came from Turkey and 5% from Greece (from Patras and Corfu).
In addition, port reception services, aimed at providing legal and linguistic assistance to applicants, are discontinuous and not always present at the arrivals in a stable manner, operating with the “on-call” method. The absence of individuals responsible for guaranteeing correct access to asylum procedures inevitably entails an increased risk of illegitimate readmission of foreigners, of which obviously no trace remains, confirming what was reported during our inspection in Patras.
Photo by Diletta Agresta