European Court of Human Rights: Another pregnant woman takes action against the living conditions in the Samos “hotspot.”

On 5th March 2021, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) informed the representative of the applicant in F.A. v. Greece that the Greek government had rejected a friendly settlement and that the case would enter the contentious phase of the proceedings at the Court. The application of Ms. F.A. involves yet another case of a female asylum-seeker who was forced to live in the inhumane conditions in the “hotspot” on Samos during the last months of her pregnancy and after with her newborn child. Similar cases of pregnant women are pending at the ECHR, and another application has been settled in January by payment of 5,000 Euros.

Ms. F.A. is a Syrian national, who arrived in Samos with her husband in September 2019 to apply for asylum. Despite being in the fifth month of her pregnancy, the authorities neglected to provide the applicant with any material assistance. She was therefore forced to reside in a makeshift shelter in the forest (so-called “jungle”) surrounding the official reception facility. The applicant was not provided with a mattress, tent or sleeping bag. At the time, over 7,000 asylum-seekers were living in the reception facility on Samos. This facility was only designed to host 650 people. There were no adequate sanitary facilities, and asylum-seekers had to queue for several hours to receive food of very poor quality. The conditions in the camp on Samos were well-known and well-documented.

Only after intervention by the ECHR in December 2020, was the applicant offered a place inside a container. Refugee Law Clinic Berlin e.V. (RLC Berlin) had filed a request for an interim measure under Rule 39 of the Rules of the Court on behalf of Ms. F.A. The ECHR granted the request and ordered the Greek government to guarantee her living conditions appropriate to her state of health. Moving into a container, however, did not turn out to provide any meaningful improvement. The container hosted five families in two rooms. During the last months of her pregnancy, Ms. F.A. and her husband shared a room of approximately 8 square meters with another family of three and a newborn baby. They shared one mattress. There was no privacy, no heating or any other protection against the chilling temperatures in winter months. The sanitary facility inside the container, which was used by hundreds of people every week, was overloaded and dirty.

In March 2020, Ms. F.A. gave birth at the local hospital on Samos. After she was sent back to the container in the camp with her newborn child, the ECHR intervened a second time, reiterating the interim measure decision of December 2020 and extending it to her newborn child. The Court’s order, however, was ignored by the authorities. She continued to live in the overcrowded facility until being granted refugee status in July 2020. The situation has since deteriorated further.

Shortly after giving birth, the COVID-19 pandemic reached Greece. The authorities did not take any meaningful measures to protect Ms. F.A. and the other inhabitants in the overcrowded camp against an outbreak. Instead, restrictions on movement were imposed. The entirely inadequate and discriminatory response to the pandemic was met with strong criticism from many actors – including RLC Berlin. Nevertheless, the ECHR refused to order the evacuation of the applicant and her three-week-old baby, They instead trusted “that the Government continue their efforts to find solutions to reduce overcrowding in the R.I.C.” This was still a distant hope when the inevitable outbreak of COVID-19 occurred in September 2020.

In addition to the pandemic, several fires destroyed large parts of the camp on Samos on 26th and 27th April 2020. These fires forced Ms. F.A. to flee with her family. For two weeks, they lived on the streets of Samos with no support whatsoever from the authorities. Due to the emotional shock and exhaustion of the applicant, her milk stopped and she was unable to breastfeed her baby. She summarized her feelings in these words: “I would have preferred to die quickly in Syria than slowly in Greece.”

In May 2020, the young family returned to the camp. Their container had been partially destroyed by the fire. There was no electricity or running water, and they now shared the small room with a total of eight adults and one baby. Ms F.A.’s husband described the conditions: “I had more personal space when I was detained back in Syria.”

After 10 months on Samos, Ms. F.A. was finally granted international protection under the Geneva Convention in July 2020. As a consequence, she had to leave the reception facility on Samos. Ms. F.A. and her family were not provided with any support from the authorities, and found themselves once more without shelter. For four weeks, they lived on the streets of Samos and Athens until they managed to find a room on their own in September 2020 – almost one year after they had first arrived in Greece.

In the legal proceedings before the ECHR, Ms. F.A. alleges that Greece violated Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, namely the prohibition of inhumane and degrading treatment under. Further, it is alleged that the Government’s failure to comply with the interim measure constituted a violation of Article 34 of the Convention. Following the rejection of a friendly settlement of the case by the Greek government in October 2020, the parties will now submit their written observations to the ECHR. The ECHR will therefore have another opportunity to decide whether the living conditions in the “hotspot” on Samos are compatible with the European Convention of Human Rights.

Stavroula Kalea, lawyer of the legal information project of the RLCB on Samos explains: “The case of Ms. F.A. is emblematic for what people have to go through when they arrive to the Greek islands: inhumane living conditions, fire incidents destroying their homes, exposure to severe health risks, the lack of health care and protection against the pandemic, the complete ignorance of their needs and vulnerabilities by authorities, homelessness after recognition as refugee… there is no reasonable justification for these conditions and the treatment of migrants by the Greek state – we hope the European Court of Human Rights agrees with this. Nevertheless, we should not forget that the main responsibility lies with the other European states and the European Union, who continue to leave the countries at the external borders like Greece, Italy or Spain entirely alone with the situation.”

Refugee Law Clinic Berlin e.V., Greta Wessing, (German/English), presse@rlc-berlin.org, +4915771097272

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