Greek authorities yesterday announced the total lockdown of Moria refugee camp, with entry and exit explicitly prohibited for the next 14 days for all those other than security personnel, after the first person has tested positive for COVID-19 in the camp. This follows over five months of effective lockdown of Moria Camp, where only a limited number of people were granted permission to leave the camp each day, for specific and authorized reasons. This move is directly contrary to UNHCR’s global call to release asylum seekers from arbitrary detention amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Minister of Migration has used this opportunity to confirm the government’s plans to transition Moria refugee camp to a closed controlled centre, and yesterday, a contract was signed between the Ministry of Migration and Asylum and AKTOR, the construction branch of multinational company ELLAKTOR Group – worth almost a million euros – to initiate preparatory work. The Minister stated that the closure of the camp is an “ongoing process” that will “enhance the feeling – not only health, but security – both of the residents and the local communities.”
These announcements follow the forced closure of Medecins Sans Frontieres COVID-19 isolation unit, adjacent to Moria camp, despite multiple warnings of the devastating risks that this would pose to residents’ health. A clinic, managed by the Greek state and funded by the Dutch government, was subsequently inaugurated in Moria refugee camp by the President of the Hellenic Republic, the Minister of Migration, and the Dutch ambassador – but two weeks have since passed, and it is yet to be operative.
COVID-19 RELOCATION PLEDGES HIGHLIGHT SYSTEMIC ISSUES
Earlier this year, as news of the COVID-19 pandemic spread, European-wide campaigns called on Greece and Member States to evacuate the refugee camps in Greece, due to their unpreparedness to respond to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Several European Union Member States made limited offers to relocate vulnerable individuals from the Aegean hotspots or to make arrangements for the timely transfer of those with accepted family reunification cases. Such declarations, while ostensibly benevolent, cast light on systemic issues: the hostility of European states to migration from the Global south, and the lack of robust and fair relocation programmes, including of those individuals eligible for reunification with their family members.
The introduction of the “hotspot approach” in 2015, and the codification in Greek law of the EU-Turkey Statement in 2016, which underpinned the creation of Moria refugee camp and other sites across the Aegean islands, was presented alongside two initiatives: first, an encouragement from the European Commission to Member States to show their solidarity with countries of first arrival, including by offering relocation spaces; and second, a mandatory relocation scheme, that would allow some 160, 000 people to relocate to second European Member States. The aforementioned solidarity never materialised, while the relocation effort itself stuttered to a halt in 2017, after less than a fifth of the intended number of people were able to relocate.
Since then, ad hoc relocation initiatives have been instrumentalized to boost Member States’ public relations, while those same States quietly refuse any regional responsibility-sharing mechanism and rely on a restrictive and bad-faith implementation of the European family reunification framework (as established by EU Regulation 604/2013, the “Dublin Regulation”) to deny people their right to join family members elsewhere on the continent.
EU MEMBER STATES’ BAD FAITH APPLICATION OF EU LAW CONTINUES TO DENY FAMILY UNITY
During the lockdown of refugee camps across Greece, the Dublin Unit did not extend deadlines for the submission or reconsideration of family reunification applications. Requests submitted outside of the deadline are often rejected out of hand, without consideration of the merits or extenuating factors; for example, the failure to meet deadlines is not only due to the pandemic and subsequent lockdown of the camps, but often also due to the non-provision of legal aid for Applicants, including unaccompanied minors. The burden of proof demanded often goes far beyond that which is required by law, often introducing additional delays (such as to obtain DNA evidence) to a process which ostensibly provides for the timely reunification of separated families.
Furthermore, and despite the Dublin Regulation asserting that the best interests of the child (EU Reg. No. 604/2013, Recital 13) and respect for family life (ibid, Recital 14) should be primary considerations in its application, child asylum seekers are often denied the right to reunite with family members who arrived to Europe after them, despite the fact they have been granted legal status in the receiving Member State. Such was the case of A, a twelve-year-old boy from Afghanistan, who lives in state care in Germany. A’s mother, his sole carer since A’s birth, is an applicant for international protection in Greece, where she lives with A’s two older sisters. Their application to join him in Germany was rejected, due to the fact A’s status in Germany is not considered as a grant of international protection. It is important to note that, were their roles reversed – and A’s mother held this form of protection in Germany, while A was alone in Greece – he would be entitled to reunify with her, owing simply to her legal presence in that State.
In fact, Germany systematically flouts the substantive principles of the Dublin Regulation, and instead relies on the stringent application of deadlines and selective interpretation of technical requirements to deny the right to family reunification. German authorities issue the highest number of rejections to “take charge requests” sent from Greece, frequently ignoring the practical challenges faced by applicants to lodge their requests in a timely manner or to provide the stringent evidence required to demonstrate their family bonds.
Across Europe, court decisions have further restricted the ability of family members to reunite . In Sweden, for example, the Supreme Migration Court ruled that the rejection of a request for family reunification made under Article 17.2 of the Dublin Regulation (which includes, inter alia, humanitarian and family considerations) cannot be appealed.
In this challenging context, the Legal Centre Lesvos has represented over 50 families in the Dublin proceeding since the initiation of the lock-down in March. Many of those are still pending, but the cases of at least sixteen families – including those who had already received rejections on the above grounds – were approved in the last four months after the intervention of the Legal Centre. These acceptances have led, or will lead, to reunions in eight different Member States, and include:
- H, an unaccompanied minor from Afghanistan, who was accepted for reunification with his older brother in Germany. During his time in Lesvos, H lived alone – like many unaccompanied minors – in the olive groves surrounding Moria refugee camp. While his case was initially rejected, the Legal Centre Lesvos’ request for re-examination and the provision of additional information (with the support of his relatives and their assistants in Germany) resulted in the ultimate acceptance of his case. H travelled earlier this month, and is now happily residing in Berlin;
- S, a stateless member of the Bidun community from Kuwait, and her four minor children, will reunite with her husband – the children’s father – in England. S’s case was first rejected due to errors in her application, which she submitted without legal aid, and ensuing difficulties to trace her husband. A subsequent request was made under Article 17.2, which was again rejected – but, after taking her case at that point, a re-examination request sent by the Legal Centre Lesvos ultimately led to an acceptance. The family were delighted – however, S has since been waiting for over three months to travel to England;
- K, his wife F, their four minor children, and their adult daughter S, who will travel to Switzerland to join their minor son/brother. Given that S in an adult, her case had to be lodged separately under Article 17.2 – but we were delighted that she was accepted at first instance. The family have been living in Moria refugee camp since November last year: none of the children have accessed schools during that time, and F’s health is deteriorating. Despite the acceptance of their case three months ago, they are still awaiting news of their transfer.
REUNIFICATION OR THE LOTTERY OF RELOCATION
In at least one case, a family denied reunification under the Dublin Regulation were subsequently reunited by a COVID-prompted relocation programme. J, a single mother living in Greece with her chronically ill minor son, applied for reunification with her minor daughter and son, who were living in Germany. In a situation reminiscent of A’s case described above, J and her son were rejected, as J’s children in Germany are not classed as beneficiaries of international protection. However, J later benefitted from a COVID-prompted relocation programme for vulnerable asylum seekers in Greece to travel to Germany – and has now travelled to the State. While a happy accident to say the least, the trauma that J and her son experienced while living in Moria refugee camp and the emotional distress of being rejected for family reunification with the minors in Germany will not be erased by her ultimate transfer to that state. J’s case instead demonstrates the restrictive praxis used by States to refuse their legal responsibilities towards asylum seekers – including vulnerable families – and the lottery that such limited relocation programmes introduce.
Information surrounding the COVID-prompted relocation programmes has been scarce to say the least. There has been limited information about the implementation of each programme, no publication of the required criteria, and no opportunity granted to migrants themselves to sign up for such initiatives.
The joint coordination of Member States’ offers to relocate unaccompanied children from the islands led to hundreds of best interests assessments conducted by the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), the office typically charged with conducting asylum interviews. EASO staff had not been given adequate training in child-sensitive approaches to interviews, nor in child protection. Minors were not informed of whether their relocation was guaranteed, let alone given the choice to travel to States of their preference. In fact, in the midst of the programme, Germany withdrew its participation – and no efforts were made to inform children who had expressed their will to travel to Germany, often due to the presence of relatives in that state, of this withdrawal.
Some minors have since been relocated to a number of European countries, but those who completed interviews and have not been transferred are unsure of whether their case has been effectively rejected. Moreover, children who were accepted for relocation to France were subsequently transferred to Athens, where asylum eligibility interviews were conducted in the French embassy. Those who were deemed provisionally eligible for asylum have since been transferred.
Relocation programmes are typically framed as benevolent efforts, offering a safe route for the most vulnerable migrants to leave the Aegean hotspots. Yet the COVID-prompted relocation programmes have so far lacked transparency and had limited impact, instead feeding the narrative that only the most vulnerable migrants – and those pre-selected by State authorities – deserve to enter mainland Europe.
EU COMPLICIT IN GREEK AUTHORITIES’ MOVE TO MASS DETENTION
It has been known, for months, that COVID-19 would reach Moria refugee camp. It has been widely documented that residents there (including hundreds of vulnerable people, who have not been evacuated) live in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions – as they have done for years – where basic preventative measures are a practical impossibility. It has become evident, particularly in recent weeks, that the Greek state’s hostility towards organisations operating in solidarity with migrants has further restricted residents’ already-limited access to healthcare.
The response of European Member States, in light of this dire reality, has been abysmal – and unsurprisingly so. Member States are complicit in the systematic abuse of human rights at the European border, whether those violations manifest in Moria refugee camp, in the asylum procedure and associated family reunification mechanism, or in the deadly practice of the border itself. In the context of a global pandemic, Member States chose to push forward a limited relocation effort that serves their public image rather than engaging with these substantive issues. As the Greek authorities now openly instrumentalise the pandemic to pursue their pre-existing objective of expanded detention of asylum seekers, the silence from other Member States and European institutions is no longer just conspicuous – but expected.