Hostility towards migrants and those working to support them continues as state policy in Lesvos

LEGAL CENTRE LESVOS UPDATE: Police fines for migrants seeking legal aid, the prolonged lockdown on refugee camps, the detention of new arrivals in the Mytiline port (again), and government measures targeting organizations working with migrants are four recent threads in the Greek authorities’ growing hostility towards migrants and those working to support them.

Last week, the asylum services opened in Lesvos after two months’ closure due to COVID-19. During their closure, at least 1400 individuals were issued with first instance rejections to their asylum claims. If they wish to challenge this negative decision, which is their right, they are required to file an appeal within the first 10 days’ of the asylum services’ reopening.

The successful lodging of so many appeals is, in practical terms, impossible. Not only did the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) cap the number of people allowed to appeal at 100/day, which would require at least 14 days’ operation – four days over the deadline – to meet the need, but the practicalities of lodging an appeal further thwart individuals’ opportunities.

The lockdown continues for Moria refugee camp. Only 70 permissions to leave the camp are given per day, in addition to permission for those with medical appointments. This limited number of permissions is obviously insufficient in a camp of approximately 20,000 individuals who have various reasons to leave, in addition to seeking legal aid.

Under Article 71(3) of Greek asylum law Law 4636/2019, asylum seekers “shall be provided, upon their request, with free legal assistance in the procedures before the Appeals Authority.” This right, also protected in Article 20 of EU Directive 2013/32/EU, has been systematically denied since July 2017 in Lesvos. Despite the denial of legal aid, the Regional Asylum Office of Lesvos (RAO) has stated that it will not extend the deadline of 10 days for individuals to appeal, practically guaranteeing that the majority of these 1400 individuals will be unable to challenge their negative decision.

Several individuals came to the Legal Centre Lesvos last Monday – the first day the asylum office opened – seeking legal advice following the rejection of their asylum claim, and the police were quick to close off the street in order to trap people waiting outside our offices. They issued fines of 150€ (which we have challenged) to the fourteen migrants then queuing outside for assistance who had not obtained permission to leave the camp.

Although visiting a lawyer was recognised as a reason for individuals to obtain permission to leave the camps since the previous Friday – the relatively small number of people allowed to leave, and the period of time that they are granted to leave the camp, again limited their practical ability to receive legal assistance. Furthermore, police continued to visit our offices nearly every day, reprimanding people for standing less than 2m apart or for gathering in groups larger than 9 people – despite the fact that distancing is impossible inside the overcrowded refugee camps, and that since the lifting of movement restrictions for the general population across Greece, the streets, beaches and squares are thronged with other groups of people left undisturbed by police.

Despite such ongoing and targeted harassment, LCL assisted over 130 people in lodging their appeal last week. While we also have limited capacity to take on cases for representation on appeal, if people are able to lodge the appeal, their case will be reviewed by the Appeals Committee, and they can gather and submit supporting documentation and potentially find legal representation before their appeal is examined. At least two individuals – one from Mali, and one from Afghanistan, were granted residency in Greece on appeal, after the Legal Centre assisted them in lodging their appeal. Both these individuals were detained when we assisted them with lodging the appeal, and received no other legal assistance on appeal.

Among those assisted last week include families, in which one spouse is granted status and the other is rejected, and survivors of torture and sexual violence in their countries of origin. Furthermore, multiple individuals have been rejected without an interview. These few examples demonstrate that numerous valid asylum cases are being overlooked under the accelerated procedure implemented since January 2020, and many errors will likely remain unchallenged given the lack of legal aid. These individuals include:

  • A, from Afghanistan, who married his wife R in Iran – as they were married outside of their country of origin, they have not been recognised as a family unit under Article 2 of the present Greek asylum law, 4636/2019. She is now seven months’ pregnant with their first child, and has been granted refugee status, but A has been rejected. Given that latest statistics from the Appeal Committee showed over 95% rejection rate, there is a very real possibility that A will be deported back to Afghanistan, separating him from his wife, and leaving R to raise their baby alone in Greece;
  • K, from Afghanistan, and his wife N. They have three small children together, and N is now seven months’ pregnant with their fourth child. She and the three children were granted refugee status, but K has been rejected – as K´s application was considered separately under Article 2 of Law 4636/2019, since they were married in Iran. N, while an Afghan national, was born in Iran, met her husband in Iran, and she and K started their family in Iran. The family link between K and his wife was denied simply because of their place of marriage, indicative of the cruel and methodical application of the current asylum law;
  • M, from Syria, and his wife and two children. They have been deported from Turkey to Syria multiple times – in clear violation of the principle of non-refoulement – and yet the asylum service has ruled that Turkey is a safe country for them, and has therefore deemed their application in Greece inadmissible. Despite the increase in unlawful deportations from Turkey to Syria, and Turkish aggression within Syria – itself a cause of mass displacement – Greece and the EU continue to consider it a safe country for Syrians;
  • M, from Afghanistan, and his family. They faced a violent and unlawful pushback at the northern border of Greece, in which their passports and possessions – including the milk that they were carrying for their young baby – were stolen, before crossing successfully to Lesvos several months later. They did their interview within two weeks of arriving, without legal assistance, and were rejected two months later. They have not had an opportunity to challenge their unlawful pushback, and could be deported again before being able to do so;
  • N, from Afghanistan, who left Lesvos without permission after being sexually assaulted in Moria refugee camp, and therefore did not renew her asylum seeker’s card on its expiry date – which resulted in her case being closed and her asylum claim rejected as unfounded, under Article 81 of L 4636/2019, without her having done a substantive interview.

None of the individuals mentioned, nor the vast majority of those that LCL assisted this week, had received any legal assistance at any stage of their asylum procedure thus far. Most were interviewed within a few weeks of arriving on the island, after making the inherently traumatizing journey from Turkey, and being forced to live in the overcrowded and inhumane Moria Refugee Camp. Those who made it to our offices in Mytilene after Monday´s fines were issued were among the few given permission to leave the camp.

Restriction on the movement of residents of refugee camps in Greece (Moria and Karatepe Camps in Lesvos) remains in place at least until the 7th of June, ostensibly to prevent the spread of Covid-19 – despite the fact that there has not been a single case in either camp. Furthermore, two months after Covid-19 movement restrictions were enacted throughout Greece, thousands of vulnerable individuals in refugee camps have yet to be evacuated or provided protection from Covid-19. Meanwhile, on Monday bars and restaurants opened across Greece, and the previous restriction on travel to the Greek islands for non-residents and island workers was also lifted.

This discriminatory treatment of migrants is preventing people from seeking legal aid, and is simultaneously fulfilling the goal of local right wing groups of keeping migrants out of public spaces away from public view. In February and March, local right wing groups set up roadblocks targeting migrants and those in solidarity with them, and preventing migrants from reaching Mytilene. Now, migrants’ effective restriction to Moria and Kara Tepe Camps has become state policy.

The Greek government’s open pursuit of migration policies with a single goal – to deter arrivals and facilitate mass deportations – continues, and will be further accelerated by the application of amendments to the asylum law next month.

These amendments, in addition to further stripping migrants rights, also place onerous accounting obligations and restrictions on the operation of non-governmental organizations working with migrants – obligations and restrictions which are not required of organizations working in other fields. In February and March, NGO workers and those in solidarity with migrants were targeted and physically attacked by local right wing groups, both at civilian-organized roadblocks and in isolated attacks to NGO cars and personnel. Now the targeting of NGOs working with migrants has been enacted into law, threatening the freedom of association of political organizations, and the continued operation of small grassroots organizations.

Beyond the decimation of migrants’ rights within the legal procedure and continued movement restrictions on the island, migrant lives continue to be instrumentalised from their moment of arrival to Lesvos.

Sixteen people who arrived from Turkey last week – eleven adults and five children (of which two are unaccompanied) from Syria, Togo and the Democratic Republic of Congo – are currently detained on a bus in the Mytiline port, where they have been held since Thursday night. When they first arrived, they were not given any food for over twenty-four hours, until an intervention by LCL and No Border Kitchen Lesvos, who also brought blankets and diapers to the detainees. The group have no information as to why they are being held or for how long they will be kept in the port, but have expressed their fear of being collectively expelled to Turkey – a practice that has become increasingly well-documented in recent weeks. Moreover, although everyone in the group has tested negative for Covid-19, the police have dispersed people trying to communicate with the new arrivals through the fence – even at a Covid-19 safe distance – continuing the practice of isolation and information deprivation of new arrivals that was initiated in March and April.

The Mayor of Mytiline, Stratis Kytelis, reportedly suggested that the group be held in the port – as opposed to being transferred to a quarantine-prepared building, where non-governmental organisations were prepared to assist – to raise “awareness” of Lesvos’ inability to cope with the arrival of new asylum seekers. The subjugation of this group does not, however, speak to the resource challenges faced by the island (as mentioned above, a building was prepared to receive them) or the burden that it bears in relation to the rest of the EU. Instead, it demonstrates the authorities’ willingness to ignore their moral, legal and international obligations, and to use inhumane treatment to punish migrants, deter new arrivals, and capitulate to the far-right.

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