Greece: a safe country for refugees?

Although normally a caseworker in Duncan Lewis’ Public Law team, I recently lived and worked on Lesvos island in Greece for a month, volunteering with a legal charity. My role was to prepare asylum claimants for their interview with the Greek authorities - this is a vital part of the process for those claiming asylum on Greece, as their claim is decided following an hour long interview assessing their credibility and consistency. Supporting evidence may be submitted; however, most claimants are unable to produce documents corroborating their story, and it is not unusual for claims to be decided on the interview alone.

Detention on Lesvos

Lesvos is one of the main arrival points in Europe for people fleeing conflict, persecution and extreme hardship. The flow monitoring project of the International Organization for Migration reports 1.13 million new arrivals from 1 January 2015 to 12 June 2019.  During 2015, headlines were dominated by tragic mass drownings in the Aegean, and these tragedies continue to occur. The EU Turkey deal, however, greatly reduced the numbers of new arrivals. Agreed in March 2016, the deal is aimed at reducing the number of arrivals of refugees by enabling them to be forcibly returned to Turkey, or else confining them to one of five islands in Greece to undergo the slow asylum process. Those who are assessed as vulnerable - often many months after they have arrived - may have their travel restriction lifted, and they are allowed to travel to the mainland to pursue their asylum claim there. The impact of the EU-Turkey deal was stark: practically overnight, reception facilities and temporary camps on the Greek islands were transformed into detention centres[1][2]. Refugees who had arrived before the 20 March 2016 were transferred to the islands, and subsequent arrivals were held on the islands indefinitely. Conditions, already poor, deteriorated further.

Moria camp: overcrowded, dangerous, lethal

The majority of the 8,000 refugees on Lesvos live in Moria camp. The camp, originally built for 2,000, is now accommodating around 5,000 people. A former military base, it is surrounded by razor wire. Occupants overflow the main camp into the olive grove surrounding the camp, where they live in UNCHR tents, or else makeshift huts constructed from tarpaulins and scrap wood.

Inside the camp, refugees live in tightly packed shipping containers or large tents housing hundreds of people in bunk beds (with only blankets hung between the beds for privacy). According to MSF figures, there are approximately 80 people per shower, and 60 per toilet. The camp smells like raw sewage.

In early January of this year, a young Cameroonian man was found dead in his tent during sub-zero temperatures. Sometimes people chop wood and light fires in their tents to try to keep warm; this led to accidents that killed three people in Moria last year.

New arrivals are given one blanket each; if it is lost (or more likely, stolen), they are not given a new one. Women in the camp avoid using the toilets at night due to the risk of sexual assault. There are piles of rubbish everywhere, people crammed in to shipping containers, UNCHR tents and their own tents made of whatever materials they have been able to find. The electricity is unreliable, supplied only a few hours a day. Running water is supplied only at insufficient wash stations - and cooking facilities are not provided at all.  Those who are unable to afford the bus into town to buy food must wait for hours in line to receive meals.

Desperate medical needs

Around the camp there are notices about the warning signs of hypothermia, and what people should do to prevent it (hot drinks and blankets, neither of which are readily supplied in the camp). Healthcare for those who need it is limited. People must produce evidence of their appointment to police officers outside the health clinic, or else wait outside in the hope that a member of staff passing by will spot them and invite them inside. Otherwise, they queue outside the tents occupied by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) just outside the camp, and hope that they can be seen there instead. Many of these clinics are staffed by volunteers, and there are not enough.  Needless to say, a few health clinics in tents and shipping containers cannot provide for the complex needs of over 5,000 people, many of whom are suffering from serious mental health problems and the lasting impact of torture or other violence.

When I was preparing claimants for their interview, many of them told me about their experiences of torture, imprisonment, sexual violence and forced marriage. Some presented with psychotic symptoms. Others were glazed, unable to hold a conversation. One woman pushed bits of broken metal into her hand as we spoke.

Children in appalling conditions

I was surprised by the number of children in Moria - it seemed as though half the camp were children, their mothers queuing up outside makeshift NGO offices in the camp each morning to register their children for school. Many children endure the same conditions as the adults. Although the Greek authorities have made an effort to house families in nearby towns, I saw months-old babies carried around the camp, even in the freezing cold. One day, I helped the police search for a young girl who had gone missing a few days before. There was no oversight, and no space left in the children’s areas of the camp. Many were therefore staying in the main camp or outside of it, with little adult supervision or intervention. It is worth noting that there are no child psychiatrists on Lesvos.

The impact of the EU-Turkey deal: a failure to protect

The EU-Turkey deal has done nothing to stop people putting their lives at risk to travel to Europe to seek protection. It has only meant that those who are unlucky enough to to be found insufficiently vulnerable (and isn't everyone arriving in Lesvos vulnerable, given the journey they have just made?) risk being sent back to Turkey. In Turkey, the attempted coup in 2016, and the subsequent State of Emergency has placed refugees at greater risk of refoulement[3] (i.e. being sent back to their country of origin, rather than having their claims processed in Turkey). As a result, only 64 refugees have been sent back to Turkey from January to April 2019. The rest wait on the island, sometimes for years, in squalid conditions, to have their claims processed. The minimum conditions enshrined in asylum law are just not being met. Refugees undergo the asylum process in overcrowded, inhumane living conditions, with limited access to healthcare services, exposure to violence and a lack of real protection.

A non-functional, understaffed and under resourced asylum system

The ECtHR has recognised that the conditions for asylum seekers in Greece breach their Article 3 ECHR rights as the conditions amount to inhuman and degrading treatment (see, for example, MSS v Greece). Judges in MSS heard evidence of police tricking asylum claimants into believing that they were not eligible to claim asylum, after being detained in awful conditions. Those who were eventually interviewed found themselves interviewed in the wrong language, or receiving a rejection without a formal refusal letter giving reasons for the decision.

When the asylum system does function, it is chronically understaffed and under resourced. Many claimants have their interview stopped if the interviewing officer considers the individual may be vulnerable; as they may require a psychiatric assessment to determine whether they suffer from a mental illness, as this informs the type of asylum process that applies to them. Arranging and conducting this assessment can take up to two years. In my own experience, lack of staff meant that claimants due to be assessed by a social worker (due to potential vulnerabilities such as age, illness etc) had their claims delayed indefinitely. The contracts for the social workers at Moria had ended, with no contract renewals or new employees to take their place.

After grant of status: protection only ‘on paper’

Following a grant of asylum, the conditions are not much better. According to Article 30 PD 141/2013[4], beneficiaries of international protection should enjoy the same rights as Greek citizens and receive any necessary social assistance, according to the same terms applicable to Greek citizens. However, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled on 31 July 2018 that it cannot be generally assumed that recognized beneficiaries of international protection in Greece can be returned, due to the lack of access to provisions such as shelter, healthcare and financial assistance.

A report carried out by Pro Asyl in 2018[5] reports the following:

“The current living conditions of beneficiaries of international protection  in Greece are alarming, as beneficiaries do not only suffer from the lack of integration prospects into Greek society, but they are often faced with inadequate living conditions and humanitarian standards, a precarious socio-economic situation, and even have problems in securing their very existence. Such a situation undermines the effectiveness of the provided protection in line with The 1951 Refugee Convention and European law.”

In early February 2019, the Greek Ministry of Migration Policy announced the gradual termination of accommodation to beneficiaries of international protection living in refugee camps in mainland Greece. The first group of beneficiaries of international protection required to leave their accommodation were those recognized before the end of July 2017, and the deadline for their exit was 31 March 2019.

Refugees also face near insurmountable administrative and bureaucratic barriers preventing access to benefits in Greece, The procedures make no provision to accommodate the inability of beneficiaries to submit certain documents such as family status documents, birth certificates or diplomas.

A Pro Asyl report in April 2019[6] regarding the eviction of refugees from official accommodation reports that:

“The announced eviction of recognized refugees from accommodation in ESTIA flats and official refugee camps will lead to homelessness and destitution for many as very few steps have been taken so far by the Greek authorities in practice to secure the refugees’ autonomous living and equal integration into Greek society”

Those who have nowhere to go can theoretically be accommodated in existing shelters for the homeless in Greece. However their access to these centres is not always guaranteed (as refugees are treated as third country nationals in relation to access to accommodation). Additionally, these shelters have only a limited number of places. In practice, it is almost impossible to find a place there.

In consequence, recognised refugees still have no secure and effective access to shelter, food, the labour market and healthcare including mental healthcare. International protection status in Greece does not guarantee a dignified life for beneficiaries of protection and is no more than protection “on paper”.

EU initiatives are being phased out[7], leaving asylum claimants and refugees unable to meet their basic living needs. Beneficiaries now lose access to camps, UNHCR accommodation and cash only six months after they receive refugee status or subsidiary protection. The state is unable to step in and make up for these losses, citing the high numbers of new arrivals. This results in already-traumatised individuals enduring further hardship. Despite international condemnation, conditions remain inhuman and degrading.

The “crisis” is not over; Greece is not safe for refugees.

Image - Elleanor Wilkins


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