March 15, 2010

Press Release for the rebellion in Venna detention centre

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The recent trial (05/2/2010) of the 42 migrants who had been held in the "Venna special holding facility for illegal migrants" and their conviction by the Three-Member Misdemeanours Court of Rodopi of disobedience and/or of damages "caused by the detainees during clashes" following an uproar in the above-mentioned centre brings again to the spotlight the major issue of a practice that has been going on for years now, the systemic abuse of fundamental human rights of an invisible category of persons, those held in Venna detention center and in other facilities close to the Greek borders.i

The situation at the borders is characterised by structural shortcomings: lack of screening procedures that allow the identification of persons in need of international protection or special care, lack of basic safeguards to ensure the registration of all migrants, deportation decisions which are being issued automatically and indiscriminately against all newcomers, decisions to deport and to detain that are often arbitrary and unlawful, unacceptable conditions of detention tantamount to inhuman and degrading treatment, deprivation of information, of communication with the outside world and of the right of detainees to exercise any administrative or judicial remedy in order to safeguard their fundamental rights.

Recent reports from various sources like the Hellenic League for Human Rightsii, the Group of Lawyers for the Rights of Migrants and Refugees (Athens) and the Committee for Solidarity to Refugees (Chios) were unanimous in describing the situation in Venna detention centre as one that "flagrantly violates fundamental elements of human dignity and is beyond improvement".

"Police officials and detainees state that the centre is extremely filthy, infested with mice and cockroaches and with snakes over summer. [...]We noted an absolute lack of heating. The conditions of detention, the poor light and the ventilation bring to mind medieval dungeons, while sanitary conditions are non-existent to such a degree that the physical and mental health of both detainees and staff are at risk. The thickness of the air is being aggravated by the fact that detainees burn papers in order to warm up" iii

"The conditions of detention are unacceptable. Showers and toilets as well as the chambers are filthy. [...access to the outside] does not take place on a daily basis, but every 3-4 days [... access to the phone] is possible only during the times that detainees are allowed out [...] inadequate medical care [...] There are no official translators/interpreters. [...]"

Migrants who will be deported, migrants whose expulsion cannot be executed and asylum seekers are all detained together in the centre. "Minors are held together with adults"iv

The events that took place on 3 February 2010 in Venna detention centre are undoubtedly linked to the above-described situation. The detainees apparently protested against their conditions of detention. Similar protests had led a few months earlier (October 2009) to the closure of Pagani detention centre on the island of Lesvos, a center the conditions of which the Deputy Minister of the Ministry for the Protection of the Citizen, Mr Vougias himself, had compared to "Dante's hell". v

The case of Venna detention centre, which is not "a special facility" since it is not covered by art 81 law nr 3536/2005 that regulates the function of such centres, apart from its unacceptable conditions of detention, raises once again the issue of the Greek administrative practice of depriving detainees of any form of information and contact with the outside world, of denying them access to a legal representative, of depriving them of any form of effective protection from deportation and detention procedures and of failing to provide assistance to those who wish to seek asylum. Procedural safeguards for the effective exercise of the most basic human rights are obviously not met, in violation of international, EC and national law, putting at risk the right to life, to liberty and to an effective remedy (for eg arts. 3, 5, 13 ΕCHR, arts. 7, 15a ICCPR, art 3 UN CAT, art 33 Refugee Convention). Neither are such practices in compliance with the minimum standards laid down by the applicable Directives: Directive 2008/115/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 2008 on common standards and procedures in Member States for returning illegally staying third-country nationals, in particular art 13 on providing domestic remedies against the decision to remove the migrant, art 15 on effective protection against detention and art 15 on providing legal aid. The same applies for Council Directive 2003/9 of 27 January 2003 on the minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers and Council Directive 2005/85/EC of 1 December 2005 on the minimum standards on procedures in Member States for granting and withdrawing refugee status

In three cases already the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found the Greek Government responsible for having violated Art 3 ECHR (inhuman and degrading treatment) and art 5 paras 1 and 4 ECHR (unlawful detention of migrant pending deportation/ lack of effective judicial review of detention) with respect to asylum seekers held inside similar detention centers. vi

Instead of taking measures to address this critical situation, the latest amendments in the asylum and migration legislation that the Greek Government introduced during the summer of 2009, have made the situation of detainees deteriorate and have opened the door for wider scale abuses of their already violated rights. On the one hand, the amendment introduced by law nr3772/2009 on the legal framework (law nr 3386/2005) of detention with a view to deportation, extends the maximum length of such detention from three to six months and allows at the same time for the possibility to extend the detention period up to twelve months. Safeguards for effective judicial review of the lawfulness of the detention are however provided for. On the other hand the amendment introduced by p.d.81/09 on the asylum system (p.d. 90/08), abolished the fundamental right to an administrative appeal against the first instance negative decision on the asylum application, an abolition which leaves asylum seekers exposed to a real risk of pushback and deportation.

The concerns expressed publicly by CoE Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg are an accurate reflection of the present situation: an inhuman and ineffective system, which has collapsed since 2008, is receiving exhausted migrants in search of a better life in Greece.vii

The recent developments in Venna are one more example reflecting these fundamental shortcomings: 42 migrants, after having been subjected to the deplorable and degrading conditions of detention in Venna, were tried by the Three Member Misdemeanours Court of Rhodopi without access to a lawyer and without the necessary translation. These people, originating from countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, were sentenced to 4-8 months imprisonment and to deportation for disobedience and/or for causing damages. Their right to effective information and their right to appeal were not respected. As a result, they all risk now refoulement, including those who may fear persecution and ill-treatment in their country of origin. Until the day of the writing, their ability to contact a lawyer or outside assistance remains problematic. Access to the specific detention center by members of organisation who can provide them with assistance is still not possible. In addition, while their detention continues, they are unable to contact themselves a lawyer or the outside world, let alone pursue any remedy from inside detention.

Because respect for human dignity is a primary responsibility of the State;

Because the right to information, the right to communication with the outside world, the right to a lawyer, the right to judicial review of the detention and the right to an effective remedy are fundamental rights of every person deprived of his liberty and are safeguarded by international, EC and national law ;

We denounce the situation which prevails in Venna detention center as being in violation of fundamental human rights and as raising the Greek Government's direct accountability

We call upon all competent authorities to investigate the above-described allegations, protect those who are victims of human rights violations and allocate accountabilities.

Athens, 11 February 2010
Group of Lawyers for the Rights of Migrants and Refugees 

- Download the press release
- Visit the blog of the Initiative against the detention camps of Evros and Rodopi

i European Parliament, Report from the LIBE Committee Delegation on the Visit to Greece (Samos and Athens), Brussels, 2 July 2007, PV\675423EN.doc; European Court of Justice, Commission of the European Communities v. Hellenic Republic, 2007/C-72/06, 2007/C-96/26 και 2008/C-128/46; Amnesty International,"Greece out of the Spotlight: The Rights of Foreigners and Minorities are still a Grey Area", October 2005/EUR25/016/2005; Group of Lawyers for the Rights of Migrants and Refugees & ProAsyl, "The truth may be bitter but it must be told" Athens, November 2007; CPT Committee, News Flash / Council of Europe, "Anti-torture Committee visits Greece", 23-29/9/2008, available at:; Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, Report by Thomas Hammarberg following his visit to Greece on 8-10 December 2008, "Issue reviewed: Human rights of asylum seekers", Strasbourg, 4 February 2009; Greek Ombudsman, "Report on detention centres in the Evros region", 23-31/05/2007, 25-30/06/2007, available at:
ii Report of the Hellenic League for Human Rights (Thessaloniki group) on the conditions of detention of migrants without travel documents in Rodopi prefecture and Evros, Thessaloniki, 11.12.2009, available at
iii ibid. p11
iv Report of the Greek Group of Lawyers for the Rights of Migrants and Refugees (Athens) and Solidarity Committee for Refugees (Chios), "Visit to detention centers and border guard station in the Evros region (6/8/2009 έως 8/8/2009)", -"conditions of detention and legal assistance to migrants and asylum seekers rounded up from the Aegean islands, 10.9.2009, pp. 8-9
v Press releases: To Vima, Eleftherotypia, 23.10.2009 & 24.10.2009.
vi ECHR, Dougoz v. Greece, Appl. no. 40907/98, Judgment of 06 March 2001; S.D. v. Greece, Appl. no. 53541/07, Judgment of 11 June 2009; Thabesh v. Greece, Appl no. 8256/07, Judgment of 26 November 2009.
vii Public statements by CoE Commissioner for Human Rights T. Hammarberg, available at