PARIS — While Frontex, the European Union border agency, has sent a special force to close the Greek-Turkish land border to illegal immigration, a human rights group visiting the area said on Monday that they had found more than 800 migrants being held in “inhumane” conditions in Greece, with 120 minors including 9 girls locked up in one overcrowded facility containing 450 people.
Greece’s northeastern land border has become a big crossing point for economic migrants and refugees trying to enter the European Union now that sea routes to Italy and Malta have been closed. In October, Greece requested help from Frontex, which on Nov. 2 sent 175 agents, a helicopter and detector equipment to the region to halt the arrivals.
Gil Arias Fernández, deputy executive director of Warsaw-based Frontex, said in Athens last week that migrant numbers had dropped by 44 percent since the operation began, with 4,720 people intercepted in November compared with 7,586 the previous month; 13 smugglers had been arrested, too.
But members of Human Rights Watch, a Washington-based rights body, issued a statement in Brussels on Monday saying that they had found Afghans, Eritreans, Iraqis, Algerians, Syrians, Iranians and Moroccans in “degrading” conditions at four of the five detention centers along the border, and that Frontex could not “turn a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis for migrants in the Greek border region.”
Responding to those remarks, Mr. Fernández denied that Frontex was turning a blind eye, and said he had raised the issue with the police in Orestiada last week. “We have also made the European Commission aware of the situation, in order to seek possible support from the E.C. to tackle this problem,” he said.
But he stressed that Frontex’s mandate did not include detention, and that its role on the Greek-Turkish frontier was to strengthen border control in a mission his office expects will be extended to March.
Christos Papoutsis, the Greek minister of citizen protection, said that Greece was doing its best to handle the situation with full respect for human rights. He added that the Greek government had expressed “strong political will to radically change the situation,” and was in the process of reshaping the way it handled irregular migration, from reception to asylum claims.
Simone Troller, a Human Rights Watch researcher, on Monday detailed some of what she observed. “In Feres, Soufli and Tichero, I couldn’t even walk into the cells all the way, or I would have stepped on people lying on the ground,” said Ms. Troller, who also visited centers at Venna and Filakio.
Men held in the center in Tichero, an old railway warehouse, showed her a corner of a hall that they used to urinate, while at another, migrants had to be escorted by guards into nearby fields to defecate. Three of the detention centers were filled to three times their capacity, she said; women and children were crammed into cells with men.
“These conditions clearly risk the health and safety of detainees, and constitute inhuman and degrading treatment, in violation of binding international law,” the rights group said.
Ms. Troller said she was particularly concerned about 120 minors, including 9 girls from Eritrea and Iraq, held in Filakio, which the police told her had been damaged by rioting the day before.
“They had already been in custody for periods ranging from weeks to months,” Ms. Troller said, “sharing mattresses with fellow detainees. Some were held jointly with adults and were rarely allowed to go outside into the courtyard.”
At least 450 people were being held in Filakio though it was built for 350, according to the rights group. Several cells were flooded with sewerage from broken toilets; a 14-year-old Afghan boy had been held there for 43 days.
Greece has come under repeated criticism from the U.N. refugee agency, the European Court of Human Rights and rights advocates for its detention conditions and failure to implement a functioning asylum system. It has also been criticized for its lack of support for migrant children; under international conventions governing the rights of the child, minors should not be detained.
Frontex says 33,000 people had been intercepted crossing the Greek-Turkish land border without authorization since June, nearly half of whom were Afghans.
U.N. refugee agency statistics show that asylum seekers have almost no chance of being accorded refugee status in Greece. It says that at least 44 people have died crossing the Evros river between Turkey and Greece this year.