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Minister urged to stop detention of migrants beyond 18 months

Nikos Dendias' decision is a 'clear violation' of EU directives, organisations assisting refugees say

Two migrants have already been told that if they don't agree to their 'voluntary' return by an 18-month deadline, they will remain in detention until they do

Detained migrants walk in the courtyard of Fylakio detention center in 2011 (Photo: Reuters) Detained migrants walk in the courtyard of Fylakio detention center in 2011 (Photo: Reuters) The public order minister has been urged to “immediately withdraw” a decision he signed in February that empowers the authorities to prolong the detention of migrants indefinitely, beyond the 18-month limit set down in European Union directives, if they don't agree to their "voluntary departure" from Greece.

The decision, which has been supported by the State Legal Council, refers to migrants who are being detained pending deportation. If the deportation cannot take place because the individual objects, the new rules enable the authorities to continue to detain the individual concerned until he or she agrees to the deportation.

In letters to the public order minister, Nikos Dendias, as well as to the European commissioner for home affairs, Cecilia Malmström, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, the Greek Council for Refugees and Aitima, an NGO that works with refugees and asylum seekers, said that the decision and its consequences were a matter of “grave concern” and in clear violation of EU directives.

“According to the [State Legal Council’s] legal opinion, the person will be asked, shortly before the expiry of 18 months of detention, to depart voluntarily to the country of return. If the person fails to cooperate and there is a risk of absconding, the authorities can issue a new detention order without a specified time limit. Thus, the person will be required to stay in the detention centre until the moment he or she cooperates with his or her return,” the letter from the three organisations states.

The letter refers to a police order from last month stating that if a particular individual who was in detention for 15 months did not agree to his “voluntary departure” by the 18-month deadline, he would be kept at the “pre-removal detention centre of Fylakio [near the Turkish border] or any other place of detention that will be required … until he agrees and cooperates to his removal”.

The organisations maintain that the ministerial decision, legal opinion and police orders are a “clear violation” of the EU Returns Directive, as interpreted by the Court of Justice of the European Union.

The Court’s ruling is clear and allows no exceptions to the maximum duration of detention for the purpose of removal under any circumstances. Any contrary interpretation, opinion or ministerial decision is a direct infringement of EU law and the national law transposing it,” their letter stated.

According to the State Legal Council, there are approximately 7,500 migrants detained in pre-removal centres and other detention facilities, 300 of which have already reached the 18-month period.

The organisations said that the evidence shows that Greece “is subjecting migrants to extremely long periods of detention as compared to other member states which, according to the recent [European] Commission communication on EU return policy, do not detain migrants longer than 180 days in practice.”

Last month, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) published a report that concluded that detention has devastating consequences on the health and human dignity of detainees. The report details that migrants and asylum seekers suffer from a wide range of illnesses, anxiety, depression and undertake extreme acts such as hunger strikes, self-harm and suicide attempts as a result of substandard conditions and the lack of adequate medical assistance.

The European Council on Refugees and Exiles is a pan-European alliance of 82 NGOs protecting and advancing the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons.

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