Leaders from Brussels travel to Athens for talks on the migrant crisis at the EU’s borders
Jennifer Rankin in Brussels
Ylva Johansson, pictured, said she wanted to discuss a detention centre where asylum seekers were reported to have been captured and beaten. Photograph: John Thys/Getty
The Greek government has been warned by the EU executive that it must uphold the right to asylum, as leaders from Brussels travel to Athens for talks on the migrant crisis at the EU’s borders.
Ylva Johansson, EU commissioner for home affairs, said she wanted to discuss a detention centre where asylum seekers were reported to have been captured and beaten, before being expelled from Greece without the chance to speak to a lawyer or claim asylum.
The New York Times reported on Tuesday of “a black site” in north eastern Greece where migrants are held without legal recourse before being expelled to Turkey.
Johansson, a Swedish social democrat who took charge of EU migration policy a little more than 100 days ago, said she would raise the issue of the detention centre with Greek government ministers on Thursday. “These kind of temporary detentions that they have set up – is one of the things I would like to know more about … Of course you can have detention for some period of people that have come, but of course you can’t beat them,” she said.
The commission has been accused of failing to uphold EU law since Greece announced earlier this month it was suspending asylum applications for one month, a move at odds with European law and the Geneva convention.
While the UN agency for refugees has said the Greek decision has no legal basis, the commission has said it needs time to assess the situation.
Sidestepping whether Greece’s decision was illegal, Johansson said: “We are going to discuss actually what they are doing, but they have to let people apply for asylum.”
She also said the commission did not plan to suspend the right to asylum by invoking a little-known clause of the EU treaty that allows Brussels to propose “provisional measures”, to help a member state facing an emergency because of large numbers of migrant arrivals.
Greece’s prime minister Kyriákos Mitsotákis announced he was involving article 78.3 earlier this month when he said all asylum applications would be suspended. That measure requires a proposal from the commission that is agreed by EU member states.
Johansson said the commission would not propose suspending the right to asylum. “Individuals in the European Union have the right to apply for asylum. This is in the treaty, this is in international law. This we can’t suspend.”
The Swedish commissioner will be accompanied on the visit to Greece by the European commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who drew criticism from the left when she described Greece as Europe’s “shield”.
Speaking in the European parliament this week, the leader of the Socialists and Democrats, Iratxe García Pérez, said: “Shields are used to protect ourselves against weapons, but we are talking about the lives of vulnerable people, of human beings.” The Spanish socialist also accused the commission of ignoring the Geneva convention.
Tensions erupted earlier this month when Turkey opened its borders and began sending migrants towards the EU, creating a stand-off that adds to pressure on Greece, where thousands of refugees and migrants are living in squalid camps on the islands.
The Swedish commissioner has pledged to revive a long-blocked reform of the EU asylum system. A 2016 attempt to overhaul European asylum law foundered in the wake of fierce opposition from Hungary, Poland and others opposed to mandatory quotas of refugees.
Johansson said she favoured “a mandatory solidarity mechanism” but details of what that meant had still to be finalised. Previous attempts to find a compromise suggested that countries opposed to refugee quotas could pay money or offer equipment to states in need, but none failed to break the deadlock.
The commissioner said she felt positive about finding a compromise. “Everybody realises that [there is] a lack of a common European migration and asylum policy – we are paying a price for that and it shows right now with the crisis in Greece.”