The new Greek asylum system is designed to deport people rather than offer them safety and protection, warned the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) and Oxfam this week. This means that people who have fled violence and persecution have little chance of a fair asylum procedure, and even families with children are regularly detained in inhumane conditions.
In the report ‘Diminished, Derogated, Denied’, published today, the organisations show how the reformed Greek asylum law, which entered into force on 1 January 2020 and was later amended in May, exposes people to abuse and exploitation. This situation is further aggravated by the inhumane living conditions in Greece’s refugee camps where people are now at risk of a devastating health crisis should COVID-19 reach the camps.
Evelien van Roemburg, Oxfam’s Europe migration campaign manager, said:
“Greece’s new law is a blatant attack on Europe’s humanitarian commitment to protect people fleeing conflict and persecution. The European Union is complicit in this abuse, because for years it has been using Greece as a test ground for new migration policies. We are extremely worried that the EU will now use Greece’s asylum system as a blueprint for Europe’s upcoming asylum reform.”
The organisations’ analysis found that many particularly vulnerable people – such as children, pregnant women and people with disabilities – have been detained upon arrival on the ‘hotspot’ islands, without sufficient access to necessary care or protection. The asylum system also makes it extremely difficult for people seeking asylum to properly present their reasons for fleeing their home countries, like conflict or persecution, to the Greek asylum service.
“While Greece has a sovereign right to manage its borders, it must protect the fundamental principle of non-refoulement. The EU and Greece have made the political choice to jeopardise the lives and futures of people it has a responsibility to protect,” added van Roemburg.
In the EU ‘hotspot’ centre of Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos, people are crammed in a camp, which is currently at six times its capacity. They do not have sufficient access to basic healthcare, clean toilets, or handwashing facilities, and the overcrowding makes social distancing – which is critical to prevent the coronavirus from spreading – impossible.
Testimonies gathered by the Greek Council for Refugees expose these harrowing living conditions in Moria. Rawan* from Afghanistan came to Greece with her two under-age children to seek safety in Europe. A single mother with children, and a survivor of gender-based violence, she needs special support and care. Instead, she was forced to live for six months in a camping tent, in the overspill area of the Moria camp, where even basic facilities such as toilets are not always accessible.
“The situation in Moria was scary. During the pandemic, everybody was afraid that if the virus gets to us, then they will dig a mass grave to bury us. They only gave us two masks and soap. But how are we supposed to wash our hands without water? In the food line, it was so packed, we couldn’t keep a distance. We were not protected,” says Rawan.
The reformed law effectively bars many people who do not have legal support from appealing an asylum rejection. Deadlines have been shortened drastically and, in many cases, expire before people are informed of the decision. People seeking asylum are only able to submit an actual appeal through a lawyer – but in Lesbos, there is only one state-sponsored lawyer.
Spyros-Vlad Oikonomou, advocacy officer at GCR said:
“When the Greek authorities reject an asylum application, it does not necessarily mean people are not in need of international protection. It is often a consequence of the accelerated asylum procedure applied in the context of border procedures. Short deadlines increase the possibility of errors. In addition, people have neither the time nor the suitable environment which would allow them to prepare for their asylum interview, in which they can speak about the horrors they have fled.
“This puts people’s lives at risk: those rejected face being immediately detained to be deported to Turkey or their country of origin.
“The Greek government must restore a fair asylum system, which fully respects human rights. The European Commission must review Greece’s asylum practices and assess their compliance with EU law.”
While the authorities sometimes decide within days on the asylum requests of people who arrived in 2020, those who have arrived in 2019 have to wait for months or sometimes years for their first interview to take place. During that period, most are not allowed to leave the inhumane EU-sponsored camps on the Greek islands.
For many already traumatised people, the living conditions in places like Moria exposes them to further harm. Over the past months, during the COVID-19 lockdown, there has been a worrying increase in cases of sexual harassments and reports of rape, and of domestic violence in the camp.
Barlin*, a Somalian woman refugee, described the lack of protection for single women: “Men were threatening them, they took their mobiles, they came to their tents, they didn’t have any support or protection to use the toilets and the bathrooms during night, they had to defend themselves, as there weren’t any police or security.”
Oxfam and GCR call on the Greek government and the EU to immediately review the new Greek asylum law and give everyone seeking asylum in Greece access to a fair and effective asylum procedure. They also call on EU member states to honour the principle of solidarity underlying the very fabric of the EU, and share responsibility with Greece in protecting refugees and asylum seekers.
* All names of people seeking asylum have been changed to protect their identities.