Debate in the EU-Parliament on the increase of the detention period in Greece to more than 18 months

17.4.14 / 09:34:30 > 10:12:11 Parliamentary debate on the:
Prolongation of detention by Member States of illegally staying third-country nationals beyond the 18-month time limit in violation of the Return Directive

Janez Potočnik, Member of the Commission.

− Mr President, I would like to answer on behalf of my colleague, Cecilia Malmström, who is unfortunately not able to attend today’s session.

The Return Directive provides very clearly that, after 18 months, administrative detention must be stopped and only lesser measures, such as residence restrictions or regular reporting can be applied. In our recent communication on EU return policy, we noted that before the Return Directive was adopted the maximum length of detention varied significantly across Member States and in at least nine there was no upper ceiling on how long returnees could be detained.

The Return Directive has contributed to a convergence and overall to the reduction of maximum detention periods across the European Union. While the legal time limits for detention have increased in eight Member States, they have decreased in 12 Member States. All Member States, including Greece, now have legislation in force which respects the maximum periods provided by the directive. The only exception is the United Kingdom, which decided not to opt into the Return Directive and which still allows unlimited detention.

However, in an opinion last month, the Greek State Legal Council concluded that, after a maximum of 18 months’ detention, it is possible to impose a further obligation on non-cooperating returnees to remain in a centre. The Commission is concerned about the practical effects of this opinion on Greek administrative practice. According to a preliminary Commission analysis, the wording of the opinion is ambiguous and it remains to be seen if it will be used by the Greek administration as a basis for practices compatible with the directive or incompatible ones.

The Return Directive does not prevent the use of measures such as residence restrictions or regular reporting obligations for returnees released from detention. The important point is the nature of these measures. Once the restrictions reach the level of deprivation of liberty, they would have to be considered as de facto detention. The Commission will ask Greece about the practical application and consider further steps once it has been clarified how the opinion is actually being applied.

As regards detention conditions in Greece more generally, the Commission is constantly monitoring the implementation of the Greek Action Plan on Asylum and Migration. In this context, the Greek authorities have already closed some of the centres mentioned in the MSF report, such as Pagani in Lesvos, Palaio Elliniko, Aspropyrgos, Tychero, Piraeus, and Venna. With the support of the European Return Fund, some modern detention centres have been opened and some other facilities have been renovated.

However, there is still room for improvement. The report by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) primarily described an alarming situation in the detention centre located in Komotini. The Commission has already sent an inquiry to the Greek authorities to know how the substantial support received by Greece under the Return Fund to improve detention conditions in the pre-removal centre has been used in practice. The Commission has regularly visited the detention centres in the region of Athens – most recently in March – and is ready to go back to Greece very soon to check the situation in the other detention centres, including Komotini.

Finally, regarding any possible infringement procedures. To ensure mutual trust between the Commission services and the Member States, a degree of confidentiality is of course essential. The Commission therefore does not comment on ongoing or planned infringement procedures but the Commission will of course not hesitate to take appropriate steps if necessary.

In conclusion, let me insist that the Commission will follow up on all shortcomings identified in our recent implementation report on the Return Directive. In the context of the overall monitoring of the implementation of the directive, and in particular in the context of the Greek Action Plan on Asylum and Migration, we will pay particular attention to those provisions of the directive which relate to the detention of returnees, safeguards and legal remedies, as well as the treatment of minors and other vulnerable persons in the return procedures.

The new Schengen evaluation mechanism will provide further opportunities to examine and assess the practices of Member States in these areas and to check whether Member States are fully complying with the directive and international human rights standards.

Franziska Keller, on behalf of the Verts/ALE Group.

– Mr President, in 2008 when the Return Directive was adopted in this House it was harshly criticised by us Greens, by many nongovernmental organisations and even by heads of government. Latin American leaders called it a directive of shame. The directive allows for excessive detention of irregular migrants. They can be put into jail for up to 1.5 years, not for a crime but for the simple offence of staying in the European Union without permission. Now we are informed that even these excessive rules are not being implemented properly by the Member States. Obviously Greece is using an illegal trick for detaining migrants even longer than the maximum of 1.5 years and this could affect several thousand people.

I would like to know from the Commission what it is going to do against this breach of European law, and whether it will take effective measures to end this. From the recently published evaluation of the Return Directive by the Commission, which, by the way, is not very informative, we also learned that other Member States are not even sticking to the low standards of the Return Directive. Several do not have criteria for the risk of absconding, which is the major reason why people are being detained. One Member States prolongs detention unlawfully. A fourth of all Member States have no mechanism for monitoring return procedures, and only one half of all Member States have special detention centres.

If I understand the evaluation report correctly, then the Commission has not started even one case of an infringement procedure. Can the Commission please explain that: what steps are you going to take against Member States that are obviously in breach of European law? The evaluation also omits very important questions. I would like to know, in particular, how long migrants are being de facto detained, and why did the Commission not provide any information on this? Lastly and finally, Parliament has always said that no one is illegal and we should also respect that in the titles of our debate.


Read the whole plenary on extended detention in Greece