Last week, it was reported that in response to criticism the director of the notorious Reception and Identification Centre outside Moria village in Lesvos stated that “anyone who thinks they can do better than us is welcome to try.”
What he misses is that it is actually an obligation of the State to provide adequate reception facilities for asylum seekers. It is also an obligation of the state to respect, protect, and ensure the enjoyment of human rights for all residing in its jurisdiction, including all migrants and refugees.
Three years after the EU-Turkey Statement, time has shown that the Greek state, and the European Union in its role implementing European migration policies, have utterly failed to meet these obligations. The horrible conditions and systematic procedural violations are not only morally, but legally unacceptable.
The practices we have documented in the first quarter of 2019 demonstrate a continued policy of dehumanization, discrimination, and structural violence against migrants entering Europe via Lesvos. Below is just a sampling of the continuing violation of migrants we have repeatedly reported on.
Bureaucratic Obstacles to Realizing Rights
Two ways in which individuals are granted permission to leave Lesvos before their asylum claims are processed are if they are designated vulnerable (a legal designation under Law 4375/2016) or they are found eligible for transfer out of Greece through the Dublin III regulations. We welcome the fact that in 2018, 85% of asylum seekers in Lesvos were granted permission to leave the island on one of these bases. However, due to overcrowding in government provided housing for asylum seekers throughout Greece, the delay for being transferred off the island after permission to leave is granted can take several months, meaning that thousands of individuals who are recognized as vulnerable must remain in Moria Camp unless they are able to secure their own housing.
Furthermore, those who use their own means to travel off the island, and secure their own housing, face further procedural obstacles. While many individuals we have been in contact with have attempted to register at the nearest asylum office after they have moved off of Lesvos, they have either been unable to access the asylum office, or officers at the nearest asylum offices have refused to transfer the individuals’ asylum cases to the nearest office, as is their right. This has meant that these individuals must return to Lesvos for their asylum interviews at their own expense (both travel back to Lesvos and accommodation in Lesvos).
Failure to appear for an interview results in the interruption and closure of one’s asylum case, which has been practically impossible to reopen for many individuals, since 2018 amendments to the Greek Asylum Law require that the asylum seeker show “with specific evidence that the decision to discontinue was rendered under circumstances independent of the applicant’s own will.” Article 28 (8), Law 4540/2018.
While individuals who have been designated vulnerable are currently not subject to being deported to Turkey, they are left without status, in a state of legal limbo. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that asylum interviews will take place on the date scheduled, and several individuals have reported to our office that they returned to Lesvos for their interview only to have it postponed.
Case Study: An individual from Syria arrived in Lesvos in December 2017, and was arrested in March 2018 after being wrongfully accused of participating in a riot in Moria Camp. Despite the lack of any credible evidence against him, he spent a year in Greek prison in pre-trial detention, where he was re-traumatized as he had survived imprisonment and torture in Syria.
In March of 2019, he and all other defendants were acquitted on all charges, and he was finally released from prison. His asylum interview was scheduled just a few weeks later, on the 27 March 2019. While he had limited access to medical care while in Greek prison, he was able to visit volunteer medical actors in the days before his interview. Suffering from months of insomnia and other symptoms as a result of his trauma and imprisonment in Greece, he was prescribed with sleeping pills and anti-depressant medication just the day before his interview. He also was assessed as to his vulnerability by a psychologist from KEELPNO (the public health service) the day before his interview, and had to recount to the psychologist the torture he had survived in Syria.
As it was the first day he took this medication, and after months of not sleeping well, he did not wake up the next morning to his alarm. While he admittedly woke up later than he had planned, he managed to arrive at around 10:30am to the EASO office where his interview was to be held; an office 15 km outside of Moria camp and Mytilene, only to find out his case would be discontinued because he had missed his appointment.
Through advocacy and representation of a Legal Centre lawyer, who demonstrated the individual’s previous trauma in Syria, his unjust imprisonment in Greece, and the provision of prescription medication just the day before his interview, his case was finally reopened on the 17 April, and he now awaits to be scheduled for an interview on his asylum claim.
There are many individuals, however, who are not able to access legal aid, or who do not have specific evidence to support reopening their case after missed appointments.
Identification documents denied to individuals granted status
For several months, the Regional Asylum Office in Lesvos has required that those whose asylum cases are approved, to provide proof of residence in order to obtain a Greek resident permit, contrary to Article 24 of Law 4375/2016, which provides that it is an obligation of the competent Asylum office to provide individuals with resident permits if their cases are approved. The vast majority of those granted status in Lesvos are still living in Moria Camp, however, RAO will not issue IDs to these individuals, requiring instead that individuals provide a rental contract for housing outside the camp. This arbitrary requirement, which was not required in the past and is not required from other Regional Asylum Offices in Greece, is a practical impossibility for most individuals and denial of IDs perpetuates the marginalization and exclusion of these individuals from political and civil society.
Increased scrutiny of claims under Dublin III delay and deny family reunification
The Legal Centre has represented an increasing number of individuals applying for reunification with close family members outside Greece under Dublin III regulations. While in past years, copies of identification documents showing family links were sufficient, increasingly the Dublin Units of Third European Countries, in particular Germany, have required individuals to provide translation of documents and DNA evidence, and have required the advocacy of lawyers in order for claims to be approved. European regulations, and Greek law provide that it is the obligation of the state to translate any supporting documentation (Law 4375/2016, Article 41). However, we have documented several cases where the German Dublin Unit has required translation of documents before accepting them as evidence in support of claims.
Case Study: A couple from Afghanistan with a sixteen year old daughter in Germany arrived in Lesvos in February 2018. The couple applied for family reunification under Dublin III regulations in order to join their daughter, who is unaccompanied and living with a state appointed guardian in Germany. They submitted government issued documents and family photos in order to prove the family relationship, and received written letters of support from both their daughter and her guardian. The Greek Dublin Unit recognized the couple’s right to join their minor daughter, and sent a “take charge” request to Germany in May 2018.
In June 2018, their daughter’s asylum case was approved in Germany and she was granted refugee status, however, the same month, the Germany Dublin Unit rejected her parents request to join her, stating that they needed an English or German translation of documentation showing the family relationship, and further proof of the relationship. In July 2018, with representation of the Legal Centre and support of the Greek Dublin Unit, the couple requested the reexamination of their request to join their minor daughter, and requested a DNA test in case the documentation submitted was considered insufficient. Because of bureaucratic delays, and a second rejection of the take charge request by Germany, the DNA test samples were not taken and compared until January 2019, nearly six months later.
The DNA test confirmed the family relationship and in March 2019, Germany finally accepted that the couple had the right to join their minor daughter in Germany. To date, the couple awaits to be reunited with their child, over a year after arriving in Greece, and nearly a year after the Greek Dublin Unit recognized their right to join their daughter.
Arbitrary Detention Practices and Collective Punishment of Detainees
Greece continues its discriminatory practice of detaining upon arrival individuals based on nationality in Lesvos. While the number of detainees in Lesvos has decreased, this is mainly due to the change in demographic of arrivals in 2019 – the vast majority are Afghan nationals who are not subject to detention on arrival.
For those detained, practices are often changed without notice or justification. In January, after one individual escaped from detention, all detainees were denied access to their phones, and lawyers, including from the Legal Centre, were denied access to clients in detention for several days.
While in the past detainees had access to their phones throughout the week, currently, detainees are only granted access to their phones on Saturdays and Sundays. Most deportations to Turkey are carried out on Thursdays, meaning that individuals subject to deportation who learn that they are scheduled for deportation only hours before the detention, are unable to communicate with family, friends, or lawyers prior to their deportation.
There have also been reported cases of the deportation to Turkey of individuals who have not had their claims heard in Greece. One Senegalese national, who through an attorney had notified the police and asylum office of his intention to file a subsequent application for asylum was deported to Turkey before this claim was considered.
Resistance and Organizing in Greece 3 Years after EU-Turkey Statement
On 16 March, in coordinated actions held in cities across Europe and Greece, around 200 people marched through Mytilene, demonstrating against the racist policies of Fortress Europe and the EU-Turkey Statement. Activists in Lesvos erected a fence around the statue of the Mother of Asia Minor, which commemorates the arrival of Greek refugees in Lesvos from the West coast of what is now Turkey. Locals and migrants gave speeches about the impact of the deal. Migrant leader, Sohel Miah, who in January 2019 was arrested on baseless charges and three weeks later released, denounced the dehumanizing policies that help to legitimize racists attacks against migrants, like the tragic terrorist attack against Muslim refugees in New Zealand in March. “This attack was not only an attack against Muslim people. We must all stand together as one humanity. As community leader for Bangladesh I have stood with my brothers and sisters from all countries to protest deportations, to protest deaths in Moria, delays in EASO, and no freedom of movement. In Greece, I have been arrested, I was in prison, and I was falsely accused of crimes I did not commit. But I will not stop fighting for freedom for all my sisters and brothers. We need to end the EU-Turkey Deal. We need to open the borders for all people and not just for Europeans.”
On 5 April, over one thousand migrants and refugees gathered in protest in Northern Greece outside of Thessaloniki in Diavita, and in the Larissa train station in Athens, with the stated intention of attempting to cross the northern border of Greece. Following an announcement in early 2019 by the Ministry of Migration that recognized refugees would lose state benefits – including cash assistance and housing – migrants and recognized refugees throughout Greece have mobilized, and the recent incidents are not isolated. Contrary to reports that these protests were the result of “fake news” that the borders would open, most migrants know very well that European policies have maintained the borders closed for the past three years, but they gathered in protest in response to these hostile policies of marginalization and exclusion. Predictably, they were met with extensive police violence, and they were prevented from moving north. Freedom of movement was also restricted as the Migration Ministry’s Regional Coordinator cancelled all trains from Athens to Thessaloniki until the mobilization was forcibly dispersed.
On 16 April, in a strike organized by the Trade Union of the Employees in Non-Governmental Organizations, and joined by Legal Centre attorneys, NGO workers demonstrated in Athens against the same announced plan to terminate accommodation and financial aid to refugees who have received a positive response to their asylum application.
Legal Centre Updates
Since August of 2016, the Legal Centre has operated on principals of nondiscrimination, support for migrant movements, and in recognizing and advocating against exclusionary polices of the EU and Greece. We have not compromised these positions to secure funds, and have limited our funding from individuals and donors with a similar ethical standing as our own in order to maintain our independence. We are proud that our political positions have been recognized by partners and funders alike. In 2019, we secured increased support from La Garriga Societat Civil and Fons Catala. Additionally, in March 2019 Fundacion Heres has renewed its support for the Legal Centre, for a limited time period. Because of this support, we are now able to recruit for a fundraising position, in order that we can ensure the continued and sustainable presence of the Legal Centre in Lesvos.
In other funding news, the Mosaik Support Center and Lesvos Solidarity – Pikpa are going through funding crisis and need your help. Since we started working on the island, the Legal Centre has been hosted in Mosaik Support Centre, which provides a space of warmth, safety and community for the most vulnerable populations on Lesvos. Over the past two and a half years, we have been proud to be a part of this community formed at Mosaik Centre. Please see the linked statement and share with your networks in order to secure sustainable future of Mosaik Centre and Lesvos Solidarity.