This article first appeared in ILPA monthly November 2019. Nadia O'Mara is on the Executive Committee of Refugee Legal Support.
Shrinking legal protections for refugees and asylum seekers in Greece
A series of unimaginable tragedies in the latter half of 2019, all of them avoidable, has reignited public and media interest in the plight of refugees in Greece. The crisis is a direct result of the EU’s failure to adopt a fair and humane migration policy which shares responsibility across member states. Newly introduced changes to Greek asylum law will drastically weaken protections for asylum seekers and refugees. For those seeking to reunite with family in the UK, Brexit is poised to slam shut yet another door.
A new wave of tragedy
On 29 August this year, 13 boats carrying 547 people arrived within 35 minutes of each other on the Greek island of Lesvos (1). The months that followed have seen a significant increase in arrivals across the Eastern Aegean Islands, in greater numbers than at any time since the 2015 peak (2).
The Greek authorities failed to transfer anywhere near enough people off the islands to balance out the rate of arrivals and by the time of writing in October, the population of registered asylum seekers on Lesvos exceeds 16,000 (3). The camp’s formal capacity is under 4,000.
The humanitarian situation for those trapped on the island ‘hotspots’ under the EU Turkey statement has deteriorated rapidly, with humanitarian aid organisations working in Moria declaring a state of emergency.
The desperate overcrowding has led to living conditions that are inhumane and degrading. There are also dangerous and life threatening consequences. In August, a 15-year-old boy from Afghanistan was fatally stabbed during an altercation in the desperately overcrowded ‘safe zone’ for minors (4) . The following month a blaze swept across the camp, killing a woman called Faride Tajik (5). When further tragedy seemed unimaginable, another fire ripped through Vathy camp on the island of Samos, displacing nearly all 6,000 people living there (6).
While conditions in the mainland camps are on the whole better than in the hotspots, asylum seekers face excessive delays in the processing of their claims and barriers to accessing essential services like healthcare (7). Beneficiaries of international protection face destitution and evictions. Campaigners describe refugee status in Greece as ‘on paper only’ (8).
More changes, but no solutions
In July, the New Democracy party secured a landslide victory in the Greek elections. The new government immediately announced its intention to ‘tackle’ migration to the country.
The new government has since made good on its word putting forward a controversial ‘international protection bill’ introducing sweeping changes to the Greek asylum system. Despite deep concerns raised by UNHCR, a number of Greek authorities and civil society organisations, the Greek Parliament passed the bill at the end of October (9).
The new law, which the government has explicitly tied to tightening rules and increasing returns, will drastically weaken protections for asylum seekers and refugees. Among other measures, the new law (10):
• Reduces the duration of residence permits for subsidiary protection to one year, as opposed to three.
• Introduces several provisions to expand detention measures, including an extension on the maximum duration of detention to 18 months.
• Introduces a six-month time limit before access to the labour market is granted to applicants, as opposed to the current rules on immediate access to employment.
• Makes provision for the first instance asylum interview to be conducted by authorities other than the Greek asylum service – namely the police and armed forces – in cases of large numbers of new arrivals.
• Removes the automatic right to remain in the territory during appeals, which now has to be requested in a separate procedure, and introduces a requirement that applicants state the full grounds for appealing a first instance decision for an appeal to be considered admissible.
For those who have worked with refugee communities in Greece, it seems unbelievable that things could get any worse. But with these new changes to Greek asylum law, the EU’s inertia and the displacement of Syrian Kurds following the Turkish offensive in northeast Syria, the sad reality is that people seeking safety will continue to arrive with little hope of adequate reception conditions or a fair asylum procedure.
Another door closes
For many asylum seekers trapped in Greece, the only prospect of having a safe, legal route out of the country is through family reunification under the Dublin III Regulations. As we have tragically seen in the UK recently, safe passage remains elusive to too many people and with unimaginable consequences (11). Refugee Legal Support (RLS), a group of specialist immigration lawyers, provides free legal assistance to many asylum seekers in Greece who wish to join their relatives in the UK. For many of our clients, the Dublin system is a precious lifeline and the only way to reunite with their loved ones.
With Brexit looming, the future of family reunification to the UK is unclear and uncertain. At the time of writing, the position appears to be that in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, the UK will immediately abdicate its responsibilities under the Dublin system and leave Eurodac (12). Pending cases should still be dealt with under the old framework. In the run up to the now extended exit date of 31 October, the Greek authorities had been expediting Dublin applications to the UK to ensure as many applications as possible were submitted before the cut-off date.
More generally, once we leave the EU section 17 of the EU (Withdrawal) Act commits the UK government to ‘seek to negotiate’ an agreement with the EU to provide for a Dublin-equivalent family reunification mechanism – but only for unaccompanied asylum seeking children to join relatives in the UK (13). Until such an agreement is concluded all categories of applicants – including unaccompanied children – will no longer be able to rely on Dublin and will be left with the far less generous domestic provisions. For unaccompanied children who want their family members to join them in the UK, the only option will be entry clearance applications outside the Immigration Rules.
The House of Lords EU Home Affairs Sub-Committee has recommended the government negotiates an interim agreement with the EU to ensure people can still access Dublin family reunification routes post-Brexit. There are no suggestions however that the Government has taken any steps to do so. For all categories of people, but particularly children, it is critical that the UK keeps open safe and legal routes to sanctuary.
RLS continues to promote the rights of refugees in Greece by assisting them with their family reunification and substantive asylum claims. With Brexit threatening family reunion for those seeking to join family in the UK, our country-specific expertise and networks put us in an invaluable position to assist.
We are in desperate need of both donations to run our legal clinic in Athens and people-power in the UK and in Athens – a need now heightened by changes to Greek asylum procedure. We are currently particularly interested in receiving volunteer applications from UK immigration practitioners who have either previously volunteered with RLS or who can give a longer period of time than the minimum requirement of 2-3 weeks.For longer term volunteers there is greater flexibility in respect of background and experience. If you want to know more about how to help, please get in touch.
1) P Kingsley, ‘Migration to Greece is Rising as Erdogan Warns of Still More’ The New York Times (11 September 2019)
2) The NGO Aegean Boat Reports has recorded a 55% increase in arrivals compared to 2018
4) A Vogt, ‘Teenager killed and two injured in stabbing at notorious Lesbos refugee camp’, The Telegraph (25 August 2019)
5) D Howden and A Fotiadis, ‘Behind the razor wire of Greece’s notorious refugee camp’ The Guardian (5 October 2019)
6) C Da Silva, ‘Major Fire Breaks Out at Overcrowded Refugee Camp, Forcing Thousands to Flee’ Newsweek (15 October 2019)
7) Amnesty International Public Statement, ‘Greece Must Immediately Ensure that Asylum Seekers, Unaccompanied children and Children of Irregular Migrants Have Free Access to the Public Health System’ (14 October 2019)
8) RSA / PRO ASYL, ‘Protection for Recognised Refugees in Greece Remains in Paper’ (9 January 2019)
and A King and I Manoussaki-Adamopoulou, ‘Greek Police raid Athens squats and arrest migrants’ The Guardian (26 August 2019)
9) ECRE, ‘Greece: New Restrictions on Rights and Procedural Guarantees in International Protection Bill’ (31 October 2019)
and N Stamouli, ‘Greece toughens asylum rules as migrant arrivals rise’ Politico (31 October 2019)
10) Greek Council for Refugees, ‘GCR’s comments on the draft bill ‘On International Protection’ (23 October 2019)
11) ‘Driver arrested after 39 bodies found in lorry container in Essex’ The Guardian (23 October 2019)
12) Immigration, Nationality and Asylum (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 (SI 2019/745), paragraph 3 of schedule 1.
13) In the event that we leave the EU with a deal, the Dublin regulations will continue to apply for the duration of the transition period.