The Greek reception system has been long criticised as inadequate, not least in the M.S.S. v. Belgium and Greece ruling of the ECtHR. Subsequent jurisprudence of the ECtHR has also found violations of Article 3 ECHR due to the failure of national authorities to provide asylum seekers with adequate living conditions.
Since mid-2015, when Greece was facing large-scale arrivals of refugees, those shortcomings have become increasingly apparent. The imposition of border restrictions and the subsequent closure of the Western Balkan route in March 2016, resulting in trapping a number of about 50,000 third-country nationals in Greece. This created inter alia an unprecedented burden on the Greek reception system.
Since then, the number of reception places has increased mainly through temporary camps and the UNHCR accommodation scheme. Despite this increase, destitution and homelessness remain a risk, which has been affecting an increasing number of asylum seekers and refugees.
As mentioned by UNHCR in January 2019, “with steady new arrivals reaching the sea and land borders and limited legal pathways out of the country, there is an ever-increasing need for more reception places for asylum-seekers and refugees, especially children who are unaccompanied and other people with specific needs.”
Since then, throughout 2019, more than 70,000 persons arrived on the Greek islands and the mainland, amounting to a 50% increase, compared to 2018 arrivals, thus further impacting on the state’s ability to provide material reception conditions. This trend continued to apply well into the first months of 2020. For instance, by 29 February 2020, more than 38,000 persons were forced to remain in island RICs with a nominal capacity of no more than 6,178 places.
Since then, conditions of overcrowding started gradually improving, as transfers of asylum seekers took place, with the process being undoubtedly facilitated by the decreased number of arrivals on the islands, in the context of an observed general reduction of cross-border movements in the eastern Mediterranean in 2020, and particularly since March, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Greece and Europe. Yet despite the diminished instances of overcrowding by year’s end, the situation on the islands remained below acceptable standards, while the timing of diminished number of arrivals also coincides with a documented increase in reports and testimonies on pushbacks carried out at Greece’s land and sea borders, which have yet to be effectively investigated.
The Reception and Identification Service (RIS) and the Directorate for the Protection of Asylum Seekers (DPAS) within the Secretariat General of Migration Policy, Reception and Asylum under the Ministry of Citizen Protection, where relevant, are appointed as the responsible authorities for the reception of asylum seekers. Additionally, the UNHCR accommodation scheme as part of the “ESTIA” programme receives and processes relevant referrals for vulnerable asylum seekers eligible to be hosted under the scheme in 2020. As of 1 January 2021, the Greek state has undertaken responsibility of the ESTIA scheme, which will be operating under the competence of the RIS, as per the new organisation of the Ministry of Migration and Asylum.
Following the establishment of the Special Secretary for Unaccompanied Minors (SSUM) under the MoMA in February 2020, and the entry into force of L. 4756/2020 in November of the same year, the SSUM has become the competent authority for the protection of UAM, including the accommodation of UAM, while EKKA, under the supervision of the Directorate for the Protection of Children and Families of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs is inter alia responsible for the representation of UAM, including through the guardianship foreseen under L. 4554/2018, which has yet to become operational as of the time of writing.
Temporary accommodation centres
In 2016, in order to address the needs of persons remaining in Greece after the imposition of border restrictions along the so-called Western Balkan route, a number of temporary camps have been created on the mainland in order to increase accommodation capacity.
The law provides a legal basis for the establishment of different accommodation facilities. In addition to Reception and Identification Centres, the Ministry of Economy and the Ministry of Internal Affairs may, by joint decision, establish open Temporary Reception Facilities for Asylum Seekers (Δομές Προσωρινής Υποδοχής Αιτούντων Διεθνή Προστασία), as well as open Temporary Accommodation Facilities (Δομές Προσωρινής Φιλοξενίας) for persons subject to return procedures or whose return has been suspended. As of 17 December 2019, the sites for the construction of controlled, open and closed facilities, as well as all facilities, including those intended for the accommodation of unaccompanied minors, throughout the Greek territory, is approved by the newly constituted position of the National Coordinator for the response to and management of the migration-refugee issue (Εθνικός Συντονιστής για την αντιμετώπιση και διαχείριση του μεταναστευτικού – προσφυγικού ζητήματος), following recommendations of the competent services. Following a further amendment in February 2020, the specific competency of the National Coordinator was revoked and replaced with the authority for “organising, directing, coordinating and controlling the Unified Border Surveillance Body (“Ενιαίο Φορέα Επιτήρησης Συνόρων” or ΕΝ.Φ.ΕΣ). Lastly, and amongst others, as per the amendments brought forth by L. 4686/2020, the Ministers of Finance, of Citizen Protection and of Migration & Asylum can decide on the establishment of Closed Temporary Reception Centers and Closed-Controlled Island Centers for asylum applicants subject to a detention order and for applicants or persons subject to a return procedure or whose removal has been suspended, provided that restrictive conditions have been imposed on them. As per the same amendment, Reception and Identification Centers (RICs), Closed Temporary Reception Structures, Pre-Removal Detention Centers (PRDCs), as well as separate areas with appropriate specifications for the accommodation of third country nationals or stateless persons belonging to vulnerable groups can operate within the aforementioned Closed Temporary Reception Centers and Closed-Controlled Island Centers.
As of 24 March 2020, following the issuance of a relevant Joint Ministerial Decision of the Ministers of Finance and of Migration & Asylum, all temporary accommodation centers (i.e. mainland camps) and emergency facilities (i.e. hotels) have been regulated. Before that, the only three facilities officially established on the mainland were Elaionas, Schisto and Diavata, with the rest operating without an official manager, through Site Management & Support. As of May 2020, following a decision issued by the Minister of Migration and Asylum, Directors have also been assigned for a period of a year, which is renewable for up to an additional 2 years, to all of the island RICs and the temporary mainland accommodation centers. In the same month, as per Joint Ministerial Decisions issued by the Ministers of Environment and Energy, of Internal Affairs and of Migration and Asylum, the locations and the construction of the new island RICs on Leros (“Ormos Lakki” location, with a surface area of 25,514.09 m2), Samos (“Zervou” location, with a surface area of 244,789.34 m2) and Kos (“Mesovouni” location, with a surface area of 25,514.09 m2) were decided.
The referral pathway for placement in these camps entails the engagement of multiple actors, amongst which the RIS, the DPAS, SMS agencies and UNHCR. For instance, applicants identified as homeless and/or living in precarious conditions on the mainland are initially referred to DPAS which, following the assessment of their vulnerability, proceeds with further referring them to UNHCR, for placement in the ESTIA accommodation scheme (high vulnerability), or to the RIS (low vulnerability), which is to then further examine the possibility of their accommodation in a camp.
During 2019, 950 requests from homeless or under precarious living conditions asylum seekers on the mainland were sent from the Directorate for the Protection of Asylum Seekers (DPAS) to the Reception and Identification Service (RIS), for a place in an open accommodation facility on the mainland. Only 55 applicants were finally offered an accommodation place in a facility (5.7%). Relevant data for 2020 have not been provided.
Though still publicly unavailable, official data on the capacity and occupancy of these accommodation sites, as of 31 December 2020, can be seen in the following table. They are complemented by data on nationalities, ages and genders, which are issued by IOM:
|Occupancy of temporary accommodation centres: December 2020|
|Facility||Population||Capacity||Occupancy (rounded)||Nationality (%)||Age / Gender|
|Grevena (SMS Hotels)||730||742||98%||20.33||56.59||12.09||11||28%||26%||46%|
|Klidi – Sintiki||344||1,500||23%||32.27||9.59||1.45||56.69||59%||25%||16%|
|Pirgos SMS facilities||81||80||101%||55||40||2.50||2.50||–||49%||51%|
|Volvi – Nea Apolonia||1,021||1,011||101%||30.91||35.23||8.15||25.71||30%||28%||42%|
Source: Ministry of Migration and Asylum; IOM
UNHCR accommodation scheme
UNHCR started implementing an accommodation scheme dedicated to relocation candidates (“Accommodation for Relocation”) through its own funds in November 2015. Following a Delegation Agreement signed between the European Commission and UNHCR in December 2015, the project was continued and UNHCR committed to gradually establishing 20,000 places in open accommodation, funded by the European Commission and primarily dedicated to applicants for international protection eligible for relocation.
In July 2017, as announced by the European Commission, the accommodation scheme was included in the Emergency Support to Integration and Accommodation (ESTIA) programme funded by DG ECHO, aiming to provide urban accommodation and cash assistance, aiming at hosting up to 30,000 people by the end of 2017. As stated by the UNHCR Representative in Greece in February 2018, the European Commission has provided assurances that funding for the accommodation programme of asylum seekers in apartments will also continue in 2019, probably by DG HOME. The takeover of activities by AMIF, managed by DG HOME, was confirmed in February 2019.
A year and a half later, in July 2020, the Commission’s commitment to the continuation and expansion of the programme was re-affirmed by the Ministry of Migration and Asylum, during the ceremonial tripartite agreement between the EC, UNHCR and the Ministry, for the gradual handover of the renewed ESTIA II programme to the Greek state. As per the Ministry’s announcement, a total of €91.5 million, through AMIF funds, was approved for the programme’s continuation, with the Ministry’s aim being to increase the number of accommodation places to 40,000 by 2021. As inter alia noted, at the time, by the former UNHCR representative in Greece, “[e]nsuring the viability, efficiency and quality of this exemplary programme, should be our common goal, as it has proven to enable a successful ‘living together’ between refugees and local communities across Greece”. In November 2020, another €91.5 million were approved for the programme’s continuation in 2021.
By the end of December 2020, 28,148 places were provided in the accommodation scheme as part of the ESTIA II programme, amounting to a 9% increase when compared to the same period during 2019 (total of 25,766 places). Of these, 16,596 were operating under the Ministry of Migration and Asylum, and the rest under UNHCR, pending the conclusion of the scheme’s handover, which was accomplished by 1 January 2021, as per information provided by the RIS. Accommodation places were provided in these were in 4,409 apartments and 21 buildings, in 16 cities and 7 islands across Greece:
|UNHCR accommodation scheme: 28 December 2020|
|Type of accommodation||Capacity|
|Total number of places in Greece||28,504|
Source: UNHCR, ESTIA Accommodation Capacity Weekly Update (as of 28 December 2020), 29 December 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3aIloVw.
Out of the total of 28,504 places on 28 December 2020, 1,869 were located on the islands.
In total, since November 2015, close to 73,000 individuals have benefitted from the accommodation scheme. By the end of December 2020, 20,356 people were accommodated under the scheme, 6,199 of whom were recognised refugees and 14,157 asylum seekers.
Nearly 52% of the residents are children. The clear majority of those accommodated continued being families with children, with an average family size of four people. More than one in four residents have at least one of the vulnerabilities that make them eligible for the accommodation scheme. Moreover, close to 88% of individuals in the accommodation scheme are Syrians (34%), Afghans (31%), Iraqis (15%), Iranians (2%) and from DRC (2%).
The islands and accommodation in the hotspots
Immediately after the launch of the EU-Turkey Statement on 20 March 2016, Reception and Identification Centres (RIC) –the so-called “hotspot” facilities– were transformed into closed detention facilities due to a practice of blanket detention of all newly arrived persons. Following criticism by national and international organisations and actors, as well as due to the limited capacity to maintain and run closed facilities on the islands with a large population, this practice has largely been abandoned. As a result, RIC on the islands are used mainly as open reception centres, albeit similar to mainland camps, since March 2020 their residents have been subject to ongoing and disproportionate restriction of their freedom of movement in the context of measures aimed at restricting the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following a controversial press briefing of the Government’s operational plan for responding to the refugee issue, on 20 November 2019, it was announced that the island RICs would be transformed into Closed Reception and Identification Centres that would simultaneously function as Pre-Removal Detention Centres and which would have a capacity of at least 18,000 places. The announcements inter alia raised serious concerns and/or were condemned by a wide array of actors, including members of the European Parliament, which addressed an open letter to the Justice and Home Affairs Council, the CoE Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as GCR and other civil society actors, and local communities in Greece, who have on several occasions continued to display their opposition to the creation of new centres on the islands.
Notwithstanding this, it should be mentioned that throughout 2019 people residing in the RICs continued being subjected to a “geographical restriction”, based on which they are under an obligation not to leave the island and to reside in the RIC facility (see Freedom of Movement). Moreover, as mentioned, since March 2020, asylum seekers residing in RICs and mainland camps remain subject to a further and disproportionate restriction of their movement, in the context of measures aimed at countering the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. As per the latest relevant Joint Ministerial Decisions as of the time of writing, which repeats the wording of previous such Decisions, exit from the facilities is only allowed between 7am-7pm, only for one family member or representative of a group, and only in order “to meet essential needs”.
As noted by FRA in November 2020: “Greece never lifted all the restrictions on refugee camps and reception facilities adopted at the outset of the pandemic. These included restricting residents’ movement within the limits of the camps and banning or restricting visitors, which affected the provision of social services”.
A total of 23 Joint Ministerial Decisions, inter alia imposing and/or renewing or amending restrictions in the RICs and camps were issued between March and December 2020. Additionally, full lockdowns were imposed on several occasions on the island RICs, and namely: the RIC of Lesvos, between 2-15 September 2020, the RIC of Leros between 15 September-12 October 2020, the RIC of Samos, between 15 September-25 October 2020, and the RIC of Chios, between 13-25 August, and again between 14 October and 11 November 2020, based on relevant Ministerial Decisions.
Beyond the hotspots, each island has an additional, though limited, number of facilities, inter alia operating under the ESTIA II accommodation scheme or NGOs for the temporary accommodation of vulnerable groups, including unaccompanied children. Albeit, following the Ministry of Migration and Asylum decisions to shut down dignified accommodation alternatives, and namely PIKPA Lesvos and PIKPA Leros in November 2020, as well as the municipal Kara Tepe camp in Lesvos in April 2021, PIKPA Lesvos, and the announced plan to terminate the ESTIA accommodation scheme on the islands by November 2021, these are expected to give way to the new Closed-Controlled island facilities in 2021, as the exclusive form of first-line reception starting 2021.
As of 31 December 2020, 17,005 persons remained on the Eastern Aegean islands, of which 397 were in detention in police cells and the Pre-Removal Detention Centre (PRDC) of Kos. The nominal capacity of reception facilities, including RICs, the temporary Mavrovouni camp and other accommodation facilities, was at 16,710 places. The nominal capacity of the RIC facilities (hotspots) was of 3,338, while 7,093 persons were residing there. Another 7,172 persons were residing in the temporary Mavrovouni camp, which had a nominal capacity of 10,000 places.
More precisely, the figures reported by the National Coordination Centre for Border Control, Immigration and Asylum, as issued by the General Secretariat for Information and Communication, were as follows:
|Accommodation on the Eastern Aegean islands: 31 December 2020|
|Island||RIC||UNHCR scheme||EKKA||Other facilities|
|Nominal capacity||Occupancy (rounded)||Nominal capacity||Occupancy||Nominal capacity||Occupancy||Nominal capacity||Occupancy|
Source: General Secretariat for Information and Communication, National Situational Picture Regarding the Islands at Eastern Aegean Sea (31/12/2020), 1 January 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3nApkx6. The term “other facilities” refers to Kara Tepe on Lesvos. *In the case of Kos, data provided by the RIS on 26 February 2021, mention occupancy of 612 persons as of 31 December 2020.
 ECtHR, F.H. v. Greece, Application No 78456/11, Judgment of 31 July 2014; Al.K. v. Greece, Application
No 63542/11, Judgment of 11 March 2015; Amadou v. Greece, Application No 37991/11, Judgment of 4 February 2016; S.G. v. Greece, Application No 46558/12, Judgment of 18 May 2017.
 See also AIRE Centre and ECRE, With Greece: Recommendations for refugee protection, July 2016, 7-8.
 Refugees in Greece: Risk of Homelessness and Destitution for Thousands during Winter, Joint Announcement of 74 civils society organisations, 22 December 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3nIBofT.
 Amongst many others, ARSIS, GCR et.al, Joint Statement on push backs practices in Greece, 1 February 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/36Lez3N; RSA, Push backs and violations of human rights at sea: a timeline, 29 December 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3sWarrd and Campaign for the Access to Asylum, Illegal pushbacks, Lives at risk, NGOs under prosecution: Investigations on pushbacks at the EU level, targeting of those highlighting them in Greece, 16 March 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3e2dQ2f.
 Article 41(h) IPA. As of 15 January 2020 and the institution of the Ministry of Migration and Asylum, through P.D. 4/2020, Gov. Gazette 4/A/15.1.20, the Secretariat General of Migration Policy, Reception and Asylum, as well as the Special Secretariat of Reception have been transferred under the competence of the new Ministry.
 Article 37, para. 2(z) of P.D. 106/2020 on the Organisation of the Ministry of Migration and Asylum, Gov. Gazette 255/Α/23-12-2020.
 Article 10(1)-(2) L 4375/2016. The article has not been abolished by the IPA and remains the same.
 Article 10(4) L 4375/2016. The article has not been abolished by the IPA and remains the same.
 Article 10(5) L 4375/2016. The article has not been abolished by the IPA and remains the same.
 Article 11 (2)(d) of L. 4650/2019, on the Regulation of Issues pertaining to the Ministry of Defence and other matters.
 Article 30 (4) and (5) L. 4686/2020 amending articles 8 and 10 of L. 4375/2016 respectively.
 Article 30(4) L. 4686/2020
 JMD 2945/2020 on the “Establishment of Temporary Reception Structures for Third-Country Nationals or Stateless Persons who have applied for international protection”, Gov. Gazette 1016/Β/24-3-2020.
 JMD 3/5262, “Establishment of the Open Facility for the hospitality of asylum seekers and persons belonging to vulnerable groups in Eleonas Attica Region”, 18 September 2015, Gov. Gazette B2065/18.09.2015; JMD 3.2/6008 “Establishment of the Open Facility for the temporary reception of applicant of international protection”, 18 September 2015, Gov. Gazette B’ 1940/6.06.2017.
 JMD 3/14762, “Establishment of Open Facilities for the Temporary Hospitality of applicant for international protection”, Gov. Gazette Β’ 3720/16.11.2016.
 Ministerial decision 4512/19.05.2020 of the Minister of Migration and Asylum, Gov. Gazette Government Gazette, Volume of Special Position Employees and Administration Bodies of the Public Sector and the Broader Public Sector Agencies, no.381/23-05-2021.
 JMD 4712, 4711 and 5099, Gov. Gazette 2043/Β/30-5-2020.
 Information provided by DPAS on 14 January 2020.
 Information provided by the RIS on 11 February 2021
 European Commission, ‘European Commission and UNHCR launch scheme to provide 20,000 reception places for asylum seekers in Greece’, IP/15/6316, 14 December 2015.
 Ministry of Migration and Asylum, “European funding of 92 mil. Has been approved and a contract has been signed for the ESTIA II-2020 Programme” (“Εγκρίθηκε η Ευρωπαϊκή Χρηματοδότηση ύψους 92 εκ και υπεγράφη σύμβαση για το Πρόγραμμα ESTIA II-2020”), 15 July 2020, available in Greek at: https://bit.ly/3gG3B5c.
 Ministry of Migration and Asylum, “The ESTIA programme continues in 2021 with full European funding” (“Συνεχίζεται το 2021 το πρόγραμμα ΕΣΤΙΑ, με πλήρη Ευρωπαϊκή Χρηματοδότηση”), 30 November 2020, available in Greece at: https://bit.ly/3tWxPow.
 UNHCR, ESTIA Accommodation Capacity Weekly Update (as of 31 December 2019), 3 January 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/2FoLop2.
 Information provided on 11 February 2021.
 AIDA, Country Report Greece, 2016 Update, March 2017, 100 et seq.
 UNHCR, Explanatory Memorandum to UNHCR’s Submission to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on developments in the management of asylum and reception in Greece, May 2017, 10.
 Though measures for the general population have largely fluctuated throughout the year, also depending on the epidemiological actualities of each location, residents of RICs and camps have been consistently subject to a horizontal restriction of their movement between 7pm-7am, with representatives of families or groups only allowed exit the respective facilities in order to cover essential needs, as per consecutive Joint Ministerial Decisions issued since 21 March 2020. Amongst others, see HRW, “Greece Again Extends Covid-19 Lockdown at Refugee Camps”, 12 June 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3fmYncl.
 Council of Europe, “Commissioner seeks information from the Greek government on its plans to set-up closed reception centres on the Aegean islands”, 3 December 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/38X2GX4.
 For instance, see GCR, “The Greek Authorities announcements on the refugee issue are in contrast to national and international law”, 21 November 2019, available (in Greek) at: https://bit.ly/36Q4Oyu; The Guardian, “Aid groups condemn Greece over ‘prison’ camps for migrants”, 25 November 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/2S4YXzW.
 For instance, see ekathimerini, “More protests against new island centres on the way”, 10 January 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/31fwkEp; Efsyn, “The papers say one thing and N. Mitarakis says another”, 26 April 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3t2kiuc and GCR – SCI, GREECE – ADVOCACY UPDATE: March-April 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/2SNIsw2, pp.4-5 [may change].
 Summary of information provided by the RIS on 11 February 2021.
 ECRE, “Greece: Well-run PIKPA Camp Evicted while Situation on Islands and Mainland Continue to Deteriorate”, 6 November 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3hwbbQo; Ministry of Migration and Asylum, “Termination of the temporary hosting site of PIKPA Leros” (“Τερματισμός λειτουργίας προσωρινής δομής φιλοξενίας ΠΙΚΠΑ Λέρου”), 27 November 2020, available in Greek at: https://bit.ly/2SSrMnb; Oxfam & GCR, “Closure of model camp on Greek islands amidst horrific living conditions is cause for concern”, 21 April 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/33Ns54W.
 As per the Ministry’s call for proposals for the ESTIA scheme for 2021, no new applications for the (a) Regional Unit of Lesvos, (b) Regional Units of Evros, Rodopi and Xanthi, (c) Regional Unit of Chios, (d) Regional Unit of Samos, (e) the Municipality of Leros and (f) the Municipality of Kos will be accepted under the programme. Furthermore, the remaining aprtaments operating under the scheme in Lesvos and Chios are eligible for renewed funding only up to 30 November 2021, after which they will cease to operate. Ministry of Migration and Asylum, Call for proposals for the ESTIA 2021 programme with the title “ESTIA 2021”: Accommodation scheme for international protection applicants, 30 November 2020, available in Greek at: https://bit.ly/3fm9ZfW, p.11, 13.
 Amongst others, see AMNA, “The RIC of Kara Tepe was closed – N. Mitarakis: an important step in the national effort to decongest the islands” (“Έκλεισε το ΚΥΤ του Καρά Τεπέ – Ν. Μηταράκης: Σημαντικό βήμα στην εθνική προσπάθεια αποσυμφόρησης των νησιών”), 7 May 2021, available in Greek at: https://bit.ly/3eTMM5s, and astraparis, “An end to “ESTIA” on Chios and Lesvos, all refugees in closed centers” (“Τέλος το «Εστία» σε Χίο και Λέσβο, όλοι οι πρόσφυγες στα κλειστά κέντρα”), 30 November 2020, available in Greek at: https://bit.ly/3yePnyG.
 National Coordination Center for Border Control, Immigration and Asylum (N.C.C.B.C.I.A.), National Situational Picture Regarding the Islands at Eastern Aegean Sea (31/12/2020), 1 January 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3nApkx6.