Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Breakdown of the Rule of Law in Greece: Violence in detention centres, pushbacks at land and sea, humanitarians on trial 


Spyros-Vlad Oikonomou
Cornelia Ernst


Time to read

7 Minutes

Guest post by MEP Cornelia Ernst (Die Linke) and Spyros-Vlad Oikonomou from the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR). Cornelia Ernst is a German politician from Die Linke. Ernst was involved in regional politics in Saxony for more than ten years, where she was a member of the Saxon state parliament. Since the 2009 European elections, she has been a Member of the European Parliament as part of the Left group in the European Parliament. She is a a long standing Member of LIBE Committee, where she works on migration and asylum policies, but also data protection policies, artificial intelligence and police  cooperation. Spyros-Vlad Oikonomou is advocacy & communications officer at the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR), where he has been working since 2017, following an internship at UNHCR’s Protection Unit. Since then, he has worked extensively, including through research, on a broad range of themes in the field of refugee protection, including access to asylum and the territory and the shrinking space for human rights defenders. A shorter version of this blog post had been previously published by euronews.


In January 2024, a new report from Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) documented vicious punishment beatings of people held in Greek refugee camps and detention centres. The majority of people reported being beaten indiscriminately. Even when respondents claimed they were beaten in response to complaints, their only ‘crime’ was to raise their voices against inhumane conditions in Greece’s archipelago of “Closed Controlled Access Centres” (CCACs) - EU-funded detention camps, whose “detention-like nature” has been noted by the EU Ombudsman during an own-initiative investigation launched in 2022. When they complained, they reported being dragged into ISO containers and physically assaulted.  

In Pre-Removal Detention Centres on the mainland, the people BVMN spoke to reported being held in isolation rooms, shocked with Electric Discharge Weapons and subjected to racist verbal abuse and beatings. One respondent said: “If you fight, if the police see you on the cameras, they come, they take you away, they beat you and detain you for 1-2 days, then they put you back in your cell.” 

photo of a viewing tower

Such violence should make headlines across the continent and trigger impartial and effective investigations into all allegations, to ensure accountability where this is required. Unfortunately, impunity seems to have become normalised in a policy field, where deterring refugees from arriving to the EU seems to have become the all-encompassing goal, irrespective of the costs in terms of human life and dignity. 

In the same week the BVMN report was published, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found Greece in violation of the right to life over an incident in which Greek coastguard personnels shot at asylum seekers in the Aegean Sea, resulting in the injury and later passing away of a Syrian refugee, after months of hospitalisation. The decision also comes less than 2 years after the ECtHR yet again found Greece in violation of the right to life, due to serious omissions in protecting human lives and in preventing the tragic 2014 shipwreck that took place near Farmakonisi island, which cost the lives of 8 children and 3 women.  

Against this context, the devastating circumstances of the fatal Pylos shipwreck are still looming.  Forensic Architecture investigators recently released another update in their database on Greece’s systematic and illegal campaign of violence and ‘driftbacks’ in the Aegean Sea, in what the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrants has deemed a “de facto general policy” of pushbacks at Greece’s land and sea borders. The damning list includes dozens of cases where people were reportedly thrown into the sea by the Hellenic Coast Guard or masked men without lifejackets, and in three instances respondents reported being handcuffed. Meanwhile, during the past 2 years, the ECtHR has granted dozens of interim measures in cases where hundreds of refugees have complained of being pushed back at Greece’s land borders, in several of which violent treatment was also reported. 

We stress that all of these reported incidents and complaints under no circumstances refute the crucial life-saving work carried out by the Greek Coast Guard or other competent authorities in the past decade. On the contrary, the Greek state’s failure to promptly and effectively address such complaints and allegations serves only as an insult to this very life-saving work, often carried out under great personal risk.  

Yet whilst the Hellenic Coast Guard were yet again revealed to be complicit in a plethora of rights violations in the Aegean and putting lives at risk, humanitarians who had done nothing more than save lives were tried in a Greek court on absurd charges including espionage. Though they were acquitted, this does little to address the reputational damage done in the context of ongoing smear campaigns and criminalisation of human rights defenders in Greece, which has been noted on several occasions by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, or to alleviate the burdens of a six-year long legal procedure against people providing assistance.  

A number of reports and publications, including in the context of an OLAF-led investigation, have highlighted how the EU border agency Frontex, bound by stringent human rights law, observed hundreds of incidents in the Aegean and did nothing. In three cases, a German warship FGS was also on the scene. Despite repeated calls for Frontex to withdraw from Greece - and a recommendation to do so by the agency's own FRO - as their presence has to date clearly done nothing to discourage systemic human rights violations, they have remained. The reasons for this need to be urgently and transparently assessed, particularly at a time when the publication of their Serious Incident Report on the Pylos shipwreck, showed that far more lives could have been saved. 

Europe provides lukewarm condemnation of human rights abuses in Greece, while continuing to aid and abet them. Even after Frontex’s complicity in Greece’s maritime and land pushbacks campaign was exposed and its director forced to resign, the agency continues to bolster Greek border enforcement in the region. 

What has been happening in recent years in Greece reflects a fundamental breakdown of the rule of law, as 17 human rights and press freedom organisations said last week in a letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, demanding action.  

It is telling that EU institutions, which were all too quick to mete out brutal and damaging economic punishments to Greece during the sovereign debt crisis, refuse to hold it accountable for its systematic erosion of European human rights standards. The Parliament has recently adopted a resolution related to threats to Rule of Law in Greece, but this must also be met with action to end those threats.Europe is not, as it claims, powerless to act - and this is not merely a Greek problem. Greece’s violence takes place with the tacit consent of Europe, the privately-acknowledged price of fortifying the continent’s borders. 

The EU funds detention camps where people - many of whom have fled torture elsewhere - are beaten and abused by guards. At least 276 million euros has been pumped into Greek facilities in recent years, in what Commission officials have hailed as a success. Yet judgements at the European Court of Human Rights reveal a different story. In the last few weeks alone, the Court ruled against Greece for misregistering an unaccompanied minor as an adult and mistreating a mother and baby - both in the Samos CCAC - while ordering the Greek authorities to ensure access to dignified reception conditions for two single women and their children that were residing in completely unsuitable conditions in the Kos CCAC

photo of a hooded figure taken from behind, looking at a wall

Worse still, through the EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum, they want the Greek model to be exported across Europe. Dozens of civil society organisations warned of the risks of child detention, racial profiling, and other harms in the export of this system, but so far, their words have fallen on deaf ears. People on the move themselves have been protesting their conditions in removal centres in Greece, and yet the EU still plans to proliferate the same model across the bloc. 

Border control has had a corrosive and corrupting effect on Greek, and European, politics as a whole. It is time to ask a serious question: how many more people can go dead and missing in the Mediterranean, be mistreated on EU soil and denied their basic right to claim asylum, prosecuted for carrying out life-saving aid, or wiretapped for reporting on abuses before we collectively realise that something has gone seriously wrong? 

As well as being immoral and illegal, this approach simply has not worked to meet its supposed goal of ending irregular migration. People are still coming to Europe, with border violence only succeeding in creating a cruel and costly humanitarian crisis that need not have existed. As arrivals continue, politicians demand more of the same, producing a vicious cycle.  

And all the time, resources that could be going into the real problems Europeans face - from collapsing living standards to the climate emergency - are diverted into those who profit from building camps, weapons, and walls. Just last week, the Commission raided fresh funding from the Green Deal to aid the budget for migration control and war. In the New Pact, a novel form of ‘solidarity’ has appeared whereby Northern European Member States can finance the construction of fences and walls in the frontline Member States rather than commit to an equal distribution of new arrivals seeking protection in the bloc. 

We are in dangerous and difficult times, where European leadership is urgently needed. The EU demonstrated positive leadership during the opening days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, welcoming significant numbers of refugees by triggering the Temporary Protection Directive. None of the problems that the alarmists predicted happened; we can and should learn from that experience.  

Each day at work walking the corridors of European institutions, I pass posters and banners trumpeting our continent’s commitment to rights, freedoms, and justice. These should be values we live by, not words that we use when politically expedient. And we sacrifice them at our peril and at the peril of future generations. 


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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

S. Oikonomou and C. Ernst. (2024) Breakdown of the Rule of Law in Greece: Violence in detention centres, pushbacks at land and sea, humanitarians on trial . Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2024/05/breakdown-rule-law-greece-violence-detention-centres. Accessed on: 22/06/2024

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