Advising asylum seekers in Athens
Piece written by Jennine Walker (far left) after her time with RLS in Summer 2018
Athens is a city scarred by the economic crisis that has engulfed Greece in the past decade, and swollen by refugees, who have arrived in large numbers, particularly since 2015, fleeing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and other African and near eastern countries. Working as an immigration lawyer here, on the other side of the European continent from London, offers new challenges and a new perspective compared to the UK.
Here, I advise people whose traumatic journeys by land or across the Mediterranean are still too vivid in their minds. Here, at their entry into Europe, they sleep in the streets, in parks, in camps, in squatted schools, hotels, or decrepit neoclassical buildings left empty long ago by Athenians who could afford to move to the more leafy suburbs, leaving whole patches of the city centre to fall into ruin, where drug users and sex workers now sell and inject openly in the streets. Here the newcomers arrive and here they wait. Many people I see have waited for months to be able to even register their claim for asylum, and then for many more before they are interviewed by the Greek authorities about their claim. They will wait for months more for a decision on whether they will be granted protection. Here, many people’s journeys are not over yet, and they wait to be able to join family members scattered across Europe, and to finally find a place where they feel they can start to make a future.
In Greece, unlike in the UK, there is no legal aid for asylum seekers to receive advice on their claims. Most people I meet have never seen a lawyer before and have little or no idea of the criteria that their cases will be judged against, or of the regulations and procedures that their lives have become entangled with. They come with hope, at times desperation, some with everything and some with nothing to lose. They have all heard rumours and stories, and some have been peddled lies by the people smugglers who made their journeys possible, while the governments of the European Union do all they can to keep them away.
Based in the Athens Solidarity Centre, the RLS legal clinic is coordinated with huge energy and commitment by Efi, a Greek law student and Ella, a British law graduate. A Greek immigration lawyer, Iliana Bompou, has recently joined, and small team of interpreters, themselves refugees, make the work we do possible. As well as providing invaluable free legal advice to asylum seekers in Athens, RLS is also, in a small but significant way, helping to build the capacity of Greek asylum lawyers, by working in partnership with Greek NGO Solidarity Now and sharing best practice, resources and case law that have developed over decades in the UK and that in Greece are still in their infancy.
In the past three weeks I have been advising clients on their claims for asylum, helping them prepare for their interviews with the Greek authorities, and preparing representations in support of their cases; and I have been advising clients on whether the Dublin Regulations, the system through which the EU determines which country should be responsible for someone’s asylum claim, give them a right to ask that their claim be transferred to a country where they have other family members. I see families who have been separated for years, a beautiful young boy bouncing cheekily around the room, whose father tells me he sometimes cries inconsolably asking for his mother, who has been recognised as a refugee in Germany. Sometimes I have to advise clients that there is little chance that they will be able to join their family. Unless the strict time limits for Greece to make the request to another EU country are complied with, that country has a discretion as to whether to accept or not. And although the principle of family unity supposedly lies at the heart of the system, the reality is that most countries are more and more concerned with keeping people out. Another family is divided by the deal that the EU negotiated with Turkey in an effort to stem the flow of new arrivals across the Aegean sea, a young Syrian woman facing deportation to Turkey simply because she has reached the age of majority while her parents and younger siblings will remain in Greece, still mourning the death of another daughter on their journey.
Here in Athens, the realities of the crisis of conflicts, borders and nation states that has become known as Europe’s ‘refugee crisis’ are more stark than they appear in the UK. But above all, what is clear is Europe’s failure to respond to these events in a humane, compassionate and coordinated way.
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