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Conference on the protection of human rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants

Nafplio , 

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The situation in Greece

I want to acknowledge the unique challenges that the refugee crisis has created for Greece. It is frequently referred to as ‘Europe’s refugee crisis.’ But, in reality, the burden is falling on a few shoulders. The pressures on Greece have been unprecedented, and at a time of ongoing financial hardship.

European solidarity has been lacking. The collective response has been slow. And so I want to recognise the efforts of the authorities to process the newcomers. I want to pay tribute to the many officials, volunteers and citizens who are meeting them with compassion and traditional Greek philoxenía. I want to say – again – that all Council of Europe member states have a duty to assist Greece and put in place swift and effective relocation procedures. And I want to repeat that I will continue to support the EU/Turkey deal, to help end deaths in the Aegean and ease the pressure on Greece…

…provided that sufficient human rights guarantees are in place…

…including the proper, individual assessment of asylum applications.

I have made it clear in both Brussels and Istanbul that I hope to see the terms of the deal met by both sides. And I received yesterday confirmation from Prime Minister Tsipras that he looks forward to productive cooperation with the Council of Europe on the implementation of the deal. We look forward to providing this support.

My Special Representative on migration, Mr Tomáš Boček, was in Greece in March – and I thank the authorities for facilitating his visit. Tomáš followed the route many refugees take:

From the islands, to the port of Piraeus and the larger Attica region…

…to Thessaloniki, and then to the border with “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”.

On the basis of his findings and the work of other Council of Europe monitoring bodies, we are offering our services to Greece. This has been the subject of my discussions with the President, Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and President of the Parliament this week.

As Europe’s human rights watchdog, our first objective is ensuring the dignity of all migrants either settling or stranded in Greece – including in the camps. This is not without difficulty – but it must be non-negotiable. 

I have received welcome assurances from the Government that this principle has been respected…

…during the clearance of the Idomeni camp.

I am pleased that the Council of Europe Development Bank, through its Migrant and Refugee fund, has approved grants for reception facilities for newly rescued migrants on Lesbos, Evros and Leros…

…as well as for a shelter for asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants.

In addition a 2 million Euro loan has been approved to co-finance the construction of two new accommodation centres, also on Lesbos. In my meetings this week I have also emphasised the need for special protections for refugee children. Especially unaccompanied minors, who are at particular risk of violence, exploitation and trafficking. On Wednesday I visited a centre for such children in Petralona: the result of a government and NGO partnership. It is exemplary. Aside from providing a safe and secure living environment…

…these children and young people receive psychosocial support, language training, legal advice and – crucially – a programme of educational activities.

I commend Greece for giving them the best chance to put their traumas behind them – all refugee children deserve this. I strongly hope that here and elsewhere resources will be found to replicate this model. With only 500 available places, most unaccompanied minors clearly do not have appropriate accommodation, and some are living in unacceptable conditions. In particular, we need to prevent refugee children from being placed in detention, which should be avoided in anything other than the most exceptional circumstances. I am pleased that the Government has accepted our offer to assist with new legislation to improve the system by which these children are assigned legal guardians. We will also lend our expertise to the training of future guardians, as well as civil servants and legal professionals.

A few weeks ago we launched, in Athens, a new training course for lawyers, judges and members of the Greek Appeal Committee…

…in close co-operation with the UNHCR and the Athens Bar Association…

…on the role of the European Convention of Human Rights and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights, in relation to Greece’s asylum system.

These efforts – which I hope will be expanded – are aimed at further embedding international standards into the national fabric. Finally, we are looking for ways to assist with the smooth integration of those migrants whose asylum applications are accepted. Many have a great deal to offer Greece, and Europe: doctors, teachers, engineers, entrepreneurs. The sooner their talents are recognised, the sooner they can begin giving something back. Which is why the Council of Europe is now looking at what more can be done to identify these individuals and recognise their qualifications flexibly and without delay. On all these fronts, the Council of Europe takes our duties extremely seriously. The welfare of the migrants and refugees coming to Greece is all of Europe’s responsibility.

The importance of the Convention 

And, from all of our member states, we ask that they respond to this crisis with full regard to the European Convention on Human Rights and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights.

I would like to use my remaining time to say a word about the Convention. Europe’s human rights protection systems and architecture are now increasingly challenged. And not just by extremists and xenophobic political parties, but more and more among the traditional mainstream, too. These are not easy days for defenders of international law or European co-operation. But the refugee crisis has, in my view, underlined precisely why we need the Convention system.

I’ll give you three reasons why.

First, because where politics stalls, the Convention provides a basis for shared action. It is true that the diplomatic efforts around solving this crisis have not been Europe’s finest hour. But we must beware of drawing the wrong conclusions:

It is not co-operation which has failed – our problems have arisen from a lack of it. And it is only on the basis of agreed, common standards that we are able to move ahead at all. Without them, for example, how can European governments agree what does and doesn’t constitute a safe country for an asylum seeker? This question is fundamental to having any sort of credible and well-functioning re-admission and relocation programme. But without agreed legal standards and objective and rigorous monitoring mechanisms – like those of the Council of Europe – these basic definitions become impossible to agree. I see an especially important role for the Council of Europe in this regard. And there are many other issues where common standards can oil the wheels of co-operation, even when politics cannot.

Second, where politics becomes irresponsible, the Convention safeguards hard-won freedoms. Over recent months we have seen government after government come under pressure to provide quick and popular solutions. Stem the tide of refugees. Confiscate their assets. Make it harder for families to reunite. Measures which depart from our values. Measures which play directly into the hands of xenophobes. But the European Convention on Human Rights and the case law of the Strasbourg Court…

…through the obligations they place on states…

…act as a kind of dam against such acts.

Without them we depend entirely on governments to behave responsibly – but, as we know, governments can change. Last week Western Europe came within a whisker of electing its first far-right head of state since the Second World War. An Austrian Presidential hopeful who is widely quoted as having declared gun ownership a “natural consequence” of immigration. What will happen if such political forces do eventually find themselves in power…

…without principled international treaties to bind their hands? This question is no longer simply academic.

Third, where politics becomes polarised, the Convention can be unifying. Let us be candid:

In many places, the refugee crisis has become a lightning rod for people’s frustration with politics…

…and their anger at social inequality.

This is manifesting as resentment towards newcomers – and their successful integration into our societies will need to address these concerns. Through the Convention we can diffuse tensions and foster common ground. It embodies the rights and liberties all must embrace – irrespective of culture, background or faith. It calls for equal treatment for all before the law and in dealing with the state. It is therefore not just a contract between citizens and their governments…

…but potentially a powerful source of cohesion between the different members of diverse society too.

Why do I say all this? Because there are those who wish to present the refugee crisis as the final nail in Europe’s coffin. But if we allow this experience to compound a fatalism towards Europe, and here I am talking about pan-European co-operation, not simply the EU…

…and if the big consequence of the refugee crisis is Europe’s nations drifting further from each other…

…and loosening their hold on our shared values…

…then we will all be infinitely weaker as a result.

Today, real leadership is recognising the political mistakes which have been made…

…while still standing together, reaffirming our commitment to human rights and the rule of international law.

I have been greatly heartened by the degree to which this is understood here in Greece – in the Government, in the Parliament, among civil society – despite the burden that has so far been placed on you. It is testament to the Greek spirit of solidarity…

…a spirit which, right now, all of Europe needs.

Let us work together to resurrect it.

Thank you very much.