The Greek government’s move on April 20, 2018, overturning a binding court ruling ordering it to end its abusive policy of trapping asylum seekers on Greece’s islands raises rule of law concerns, 21 human rights and humanitarian organizations said today.

Nearly three years after the migrant crisis flooded the Mediterranean countries on the EU’s southern flank with hundreds of thousands of mostly Middle Eastern and African refugees, a top Greek court ruled on April 17 that the migrants who have been stranded on several Greek islands should no longer be held there while asylum claims are assessed and must be allowed into mainland Greece.

Greece’s highest court overturned the Greek Asylum Service’s decision to impose geographical restrictions on asylum-seekers arriving on the Greek islands of Lesvos, Rhodes, Samos, Kos, Leros, and Chios -a move that has alarmed the European Union institutions in Brussels, with one EU official describing the ruling as a “major concern”.

Nevertheless, rather than carrying out the April 17 ruling by the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, the government issued an administrative decision reinstating the policy, known as the “containment policy.” It also introduced a bill on April 19 to clear the way to restore the policy in Greek law. Parliament members should oppose such changes and press the government to respect the ruling.

The organisation Human Rights Watch writes today:

Greece’s abusive containment policy was put in place in March 2016, with the support of the European Union and its member states. By the latest government count, more than 15,400 asylum seekers are on the Greek islands. Many are living in crowded and filthy processing centers, and many spent the winter in lightweight tents or even sleeping outside on the ground. The Greek government contends that the containment policy is necessary to carry out its commitment under the March 2016 EU-Turkey migration deal, under which asylum seekers must be returned to Turkey to have their asylum claims processed there, although the text makes no reference to such a policy.

The case was brought before the Council of State by the Greek Council for Refugees, a non-governmental organization providing legal support to asylum seekers. Nongovernmental groups began a campaign to #OpenTheIslands in December 2017, calling on Greece and its EU partners to transfer asylum seekers to the mainland before winter and end the containment policy.

In seeking to justify the containment policy, the Greek government, EU institutions, and governments point to increasing numbers of migrants and asylum seekers crossing the Aegean Sea, some fleeing intensified conflict in Syria. Yet there is no evidence that lifting the containment policy would be a pull factor, as Greece and others claim, especially given the largely closed borders along the Western Balkan migration route into Western Europe.

Parliament began discussing the draft law on April 24. But the government has preempted the debate on the bill, including the issue of the containment policy by reinstating it. On April 20, the new director of the asylum service reissued an administrative order setting down the reasons for the containment policy. Among grounds given to justify the restrictions imposed by the policy are the need to implement an EU-Turkey deal on migration and a broader public interest claim. But the decision goes against the Council of State ruling and Greece’s responsibilities under international, EU and Greek law, as it offers insufficient justification for the restrictions, the groups said.The Council of State’s April 17 ruling said that Greece’s containment policy had no legal basis and that there were no imperative reasons under EU and Greek law justifying the restrictions to the freedom of movement of asylum seekers. It ordered the annulment of the administrative decision imposing the restrictions and permitted the free movement of asylum seekers arriving on the islands following the ruling’s publication. The ruling also highlighted that the disproportionate distribution of asylum seekers has overburdened the islands. The ruling is limited, however, applying only to new arrivals.