The waiting area at the EASO interview site, Pagani, November 2020.

The European Asylum Support Office (EASO) announced last week that it has increased the number of interviews conducted on the Aegean Islands by 170% throughout 2020 – this despite the month-long suspension of asylum, COVID-related lockdowns, and devastating fires that have affected the islands this year. 

In Lesvos, the services of the Regional Asylum Service and EASO have been partially suspended since 2 September 2020, following the first positive COVID-19 case in Moria camp and the fires that subsequently destroyed it. In that time, migrants have been unable to submit appeals or to lodge subsequent applications, meaning that many are stuck in limbo without legal status. 

Those who are outside of the procedure (with a first-instance rejection that they have been unable to appeal, or with a second-instance rejection and no pending procedures) are no longer considered asylum seekers by either the Greek state or UNHCR, and are therefore arbitrarily denied the protections guaranteed to asylum seekers. In addition, they are ineligible for certain forms of assistance, including the monthly cash provision from UNHCR. 

The majority of migrants in Lesvos are residing in the camp hastily built to replace the former Moria RIC. Conditions there remain abysmal, over two months after its construction. There are still no showers, nor adequate running water; single men share rub halls of approximately 300 people; and the standard tents, often housing several families, have flooded repeatedly in response to heavy rains over the past weeks. 

Many of those formerly detained in the pre-removal centre in Moria camp, PRO.KE.K.A, have been arrested and are now held in the Mytiline police station or in a detention centre on mainland Greece. Those in the police station are unable to file appeals or subsequent applications, depriving them of pathways to contest their detention. In the police station, migrants have reported that they have limited access to basic hygiene items, cell phones, or clothes and blankets to stay warm in the cold weather. 

Despite these dire procedural and material circumstances, the authorities have been eager to resume interviews; in fact, EASO recently announced that it aims to complete all interviews for migrants in Lesvos by the end of the lockdown. 

Legal aid actors have issued joint objections, citing the poor quality of remote interviews, the lack of procedural safeguards, and obstacles to migrants’ access to legal aid. Nonetheless, EASO, the Regional Asylum Office of Lesvos, and the new camp’s management have all stated that interviews will continue. In recent weeks, the conduct of interviews  has raised serious concerns about the quality of the procedure and its compliance with European and Greek regulations: 

  • At least three people supported by the Legal Centre Lesvos inquired about their interview dates, only to be put directly on a bus and interviewed that same day. A married couple, for example, went to request an interview date from authorities in the new camp, and were put on a bus without being told why or where they were going. Later, they found out they were being taken for their asylum interview; the written notification for the interview, which states the date and time of the appointment, was provided to them at the start of the interview. They were not prepared mentally for the interview, and worry they will be rejected as a result.

  • Vulnerable people, including unaccompanied minors, are similarly being rushed through the procedures. A minor, who is currently registered as an adult and awaiting an age assessment, was notified of his interview the day before it was conducted. Before and at the beginning of the interview, he repeatedly stated that he is a child, that he is suffering with mental health issues, and that he was not ready to do his interview that day. He reported that the caseworker from EASO told him that, according to the law, he was required to do his interview; the caseworker went on to say that, in any case, EASO staff have to conduct all the interviews by the end of the month.

  • The majority of interviews are being conducted remotely via telephone or video, with neither the interpreter nor interviewer in the same place as the interviewee. Applicants and LCL team members have reported numerous concerns regarding the quality of the interview,  including poor connection on the call, background noise, and a lack of privacy in interviews, and their adherence to Greek and European law. Article 77(11) of Greek Law 4636/2019 and Article 15(2) of the recast European Asylum Procedures Directive 2013/32/EU state that interviews should take place “under conditions that guarantee/ensure the necessary confidentiality” – yet EASO officers are conducting interviews remotely from their homes, where there is no guarantee that family, housemates, or visitors cannot hear the content of the interviews.

  • Furthermore, Article 15(3) of the European Asylum Procedures Directive 2013/32/EU states that appropriate steps should be taken to ensure that “personal interviews are conducted under conditions which allow applicants to present the grounds for their applications in a comprehensive manner.” The aforementioned technical and procedural issues compound frequently-reported concerns about the interview, including challenges in interpretation and a lack of sensitivity to Applicants’ disclosure of trauma, and therefore compromise Applicants’ ability to present their case. The following incidents experienced by beneficiaries of the Legal Centre illustrate how these problems can both retraumatize applicants, and potentially result in rejection of asylum cases:

    • In an interview conducted remotely via video, the EASO officer’s dog repeatedly interrupted the interview, causing undue stress to the applicant;
    • In another remotely conducted interview, the Applicant was constantly interrupted by the EASO caseworker, who asked her to shorten her answer because the caseworker said she had difficulties taking notes, due to the poor connection. The applicant felt she was not able to fully describe her eligibility for international protection, and worries her case will be rejected as a result.
    • A female survivor of sexual assault was interviewed by a male EASO caseworker and male interpreter, despite EASO’s Practical Guidelines, which state that:  “every effort should be made to enable the applicant to provide a full and accurate account by assigning a case officer and interpreter of a sex that does not make the applicant feel threatened or uncomfortable. This is vitally important where the applicant has been a victim of rape or sexual abuse.” She had to wait five hours from her scheduled interview time until the interview started, and then it lasted until 9pm. At no point was she offered the option of having a female EASO officer or interpreter. She was repeatedly questioned about the sexual assault she survived, causing her extreme stress and anxiety. She had no food or water during this time and only one break during the interview, despite the fact that she was crying. She had difficulty continuing the interview, and is anxious now about the result.

  • Moreover, Applicants are not adequately informed of the modalities of the interview, in violation of the EASO Guidelines which require that, “when organising personal interviews remotely, invitation letters will have to be adapted to inform the applicant accurately about the modalities of the interview”. The guidelines further state that Applicants should be given the choice of whether or not to complete their interviews remotely, while EASO caseworkers themselves should conduct a case-by-case assessment on the suitability of a remote interview for the Applicant.

  • While EASO officers are able to conduct interviews from the comfort and safety of their homes, Applicants are bussed from the new camp (where conditions remain abysmal) to the interview site and left to wait, outside and in confined conditions, often for several hours. There is limited access to hygiene facilities, and migrants reported that the bathrooms are very dirty; there is no or very limited provision of food or water; and there is very little shelter from the cold weather. Some people supported by Legal Centre Lesvos reported that they were instructed to stay seated, and told that they should not move or talk. These are exhausting and inappropriate conditions for anyone, but particularly when people are awaiting a substantive interview about trauma they have survived in their home country. Furthermore, given the present COVID-19 pandemic, such overcrowded conditions also place Applicants’ health at serious risk.  

EASO’s emphasis on its own “productivity,” in face of such widespread procedural violations, underlines the agency’s willingness to gloss over the migrants’ rights (and its own legal obligations) in pursuing corporate metrics of success. 

Earlier this year, an investigation revealed the role of United States based consulting agency McKinsey & Company in the development and implementation of the EU’s Joint Action Plan on Migration, with particular regard to the design of the border procedures. Documents, obtained after freedom of information requests, demonstrated McKinsey’s ongoing focus on ‘targeted strategies’ and creating a ‘streamlined end-to-end asylum process’ – with little mention of guarantees for asylum seekers. 

McKinsey initially provided a twelve-week consultancy, free of charge, to the Greek Asylum Service and relevant EU agencies. In January 2017, however, EASO itself signed a contract with McKinsey worth almost a million euros. The contract faced significant criticism for its violation of European procurement regulations, and yet the project itself was implemented. Throughout, the “driving logic” of McKinsey’s intervention and recommendations was “maximising productivity.” While the contract might have ended, it seems that McKinsey’s metrics remain in EASO’s operations. 

EASO’s ongoing commitment to productivity, as opposed to adherence to their legal obligations and the procedural rights of asylum seekers, raises additional and serious concerns about the agency’s role in the asylum procedure. Personal interviews should not be conducted when such grave procedural concerns remain unaddressed, nor when the transfer and waiting period puts Applicants in situations which heighten their risk of contracting COVID-19.  

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