By Eirini Vlachou, lawyer, Head of Legal Service at the Athens Solidarity Center of Solidarity Now
The most important issue one thinks of when dealing theoretically or practically with the so-called refugee crisis in Greece and the EU, is the integration of recognized refugees into the labour market and the Greek and European society in general – integration of culture, language and values.
This challenge, which is approaching for all of us and which concerns not only asylum seekers but also third-country nationals living in Greece, is for many people the most important aspect of the issue. It is essentially a problem that does not yet concern as much as it should the state and civil society even though the management of many vulnerable people with multiple and serious demands, ranging from daily survival to the process of recognizing them as refugees in Greece, is now urgently required.
In this process, the most important problem for asylum seekers in Greece is the lack of information about their rights in the country, but also about their obligations, procedures, deadlines, etc. Even people who have been in Greece for a long period of time and may have been pre-recorded, fully recorded, detained, or even interviewed to be recognized as refugees, often find out for the first time what a request for international protection means shortly before or even after their first instance interview.
A serious problem is the almost impossible – at least in Attica – access for asylum seekers to the Asylum Service if it is not the day of their interview or the day of the renewal of their Asylum Seeker’s Card. As a result, they fail to obtain information even on matters of major importance, such decisions on their international protection request or other equally important issues, for example progress of family reunification requests under the Dublin Regulation.
This established situation has led applicants to seek the assistance of lawyers and advisers to simply accompany them to the Asylum Service or to provide them with a lawyer’s note so that they can reach the entrance of the Service. The issue of access to the asylum procedure is not a simple administrative problem. It is linked to the very core of the right to international protection: this is the basis on which countries are legally considered as safe or not for asylum seekers and the basis on which this country’s tomorrow citizens are “trained” to be either frustrated and unable to take responsibility or to have a sense of respect towards the rule of law of the host country.
However, the most important problem the refugee population in the country is facing right now- and with it, all professionals and volunteers in the refugee sector – is the situation on the islands; caused by the EU-Turkey deal, the problematic implementation of the agreement marked a year in March 2017. In the predominant cases of Lesvos and Moria, which have been the subjects of domestic and international research, but also on other islands, people have been wedged for months in inhumane and even dangerous conditions for their lives, without substantial access to the asylum process – the latter being a very important problem for our legal culture. Asylum seekers on the Greek islands are not allowed to go to the mainland to have their asylum claims considered there except in specific cases of vulnerability judged on-the-spot. Some are just waiting for their return to Turkey, a safe third country according to the EU-Turkey deal, many are leaving illegally to other European countries with traffickers who demand huge sums of money, in the hope that something positive will happen at the place they end up to, while others just leave for Athens and the mainland with the same hope. The ones who have no hope, commit self-immolations or go on a hunger strikes as an ultimate attempt to be heard.
Besides the obvious humanitarian risk and, in many cases, the already manifested danger to public security and social peace and besides the increasing racist attacks against refugees, what is particularly important for the legal world is the access to the asylum process for refugees on the islands. More specifically, the problem concerns the totally problematic imposition of the geographical constraint which is appropriate only for detention and in conflict to the to date rights of asylum seekers who should only be restricted and/or detained in very special circumstances and under specific conditions; and ultimately it concerns the separation of the state regarding the examination of asylum claims in the mainland and on the islands, while the Asylum Service is unified. After all, detention of asylum seekers on the islands after the first rejection of their request and up to the second instance of their judgment is very common.
As time passes, the problems are deepening and developments in Turkey are far from justifying its designated status as a safe third country. Fortunately, institutions are reacting with the European Court of Human Rights being the leading one; the Court recently accepted an Iranian refugee’s claim for protection and banned, at least temporarily, his deportation to Turkey. This development is particularly promising at a time when the messages from Greece and Europe were and are, the acceleration by any means of the asylum process, with parallel reductions to the rights of asylum seekers which can even lead to the limitation of the possibility for appealing rejection decisions on asylum applications.
Those who believe that Justice can teach, they have something to hope for: a shift of the European and Greek legal order to the requirements of international law for the rights of asylum seekers.