Meet Fatima: trying to have a normal life as a refugee in Greece while going through the never-ending renewal process of her documents
This month, to illustrate parts of the surreal situations and challenges faced by refugees living in Greece, we would like to talk about the case of our dear colleague Fatima.
Fatima is a woman from Afghanistan who came to Greece in 2019 where she was recognised as a refugee in 2020. After several months she obtained a residence permit or ID card (valid for 3 years) and a travel document or blue passport (valid for 5 years). Despite all of her efforts to live, work and build a new life in Greece, all of her efforts to comply with Greece’s requirements, the refugee status supposed to protect her, keeps on bringing obstacles.
Fatima’s residence permit expired in June 2023. In accordance with the Greek law – which requires you to apply for the renewal of your document one month before the expiration date – Fatima applied for renewal in May 2023. As explained in Farhad’s story last month, however, the renewal process of residence permits and travel documents, just like for asylum seekers’ cards, constitutes every year a never-ending administrative hurdle for thousands of migrants settled in Greece. The usually lengthy process took even longer in 2023, due to a months-long shutdown of the Greek asylum service online database and the national elections that took place in Greece in May and June 2023.
Greece is aware of how long the renewal processes of documents can take and the Greek Asylum Service usually issues renewal certificates for people to be able to prove their identity and exercise their rights as beneficiaries of international protection while waiting for the renewed documents. Fatima obtained one of these certificates in September 2023 which was valid for 6 months and reads as follows: “The present certificate is granted for all legal use and can be used only with the parallel presentation of the original international protection applicant card or residence permit. […] It also provides the beneficiary with the same rights and obligations that he had before the expiry of the Residence Permit.”
Based on the crystal clear wording of her certificate, Fatima has no doubt that, as a refugee, she has – now like before – the right to travel within the European Union for a maximum of 3 months. This is why when she gets invited to be a speaker in a public presentation with another colleague at a conference in a German university, she accepts to go. Conscious of the increased border checks in the Schengen area, Fatima goes fully prepared: she has booked a return ticket to Greece, train tickets within Germany, she obtained an invitation letter from the university in Germany, has her Greek work contract and a sufficient amount of money with her.
Despite all of this, when Fatima and her colleague are waiting to board their plane to Germany in Thessaloniki airport, Fatima is stopped by the Greek police and not allowed to board her plane. While the police were checking her documents, the Ryanair employee tore up Fatima’s ticket right in front of her at the gate, without providing any further explanation. What’s more, the explanation of the Greek police officer to refuse her boarding is disconcerting: her certificate of renewal being issued in Greek, it would only be valid in Greece and not abroad. Despite Fatima’s demonstration to the police that she has all the necessary documents to travel within the EU, the police officer threatened that she would be arrested if she tried to board.
Thankfully, Fatima was not arrested that day but she was still arbitrarily prevented from travelling to her conference, which, ironically, was about border violence. This kind of police harassment and controls at borders – racially profiling non-white persons – is unfortunately a daily routine and increasingly prevents beneficiaries of international protection, legally residing and settled in Greece, from travelling to other places in the European Union. These arbitrary controls within the Schengen area targeting migrants are the direct consequence of some of the European Union Member States’ obsessive policies to stop secondary movements of migrants and asylum seekers to their territories, at any price. Countries like Germany have drastically increased the presence of border police to nearly all flights coming from Greece, impeding many to travel legally to Germany, even on a connecting flight to another destination within the EU. Such refusals of boarding of protected refugees like Fatima are entirely arbitrary and constitute a violation of their freedom of movement. The fact that Fatima managed to travel to Spain – with the exact same documents – a few weeks after this incident for her holidays, shows the absurdity and arbitrariness of her initial boarding refusal.
Fatima’s experience is unfortunately shared by many others trying to travel with their refugee documentation issued in Greece, and shows that even after receiving international protection, refugees in Europe continue to encounter arbitrary obstacles which violently and unfairly interfere with the normal course of their life, their rights to travel, to work, to visit friends and, so, to be free.
In January, Fatima was still waiting for her new residence permit to be issued by the Greek authorities. She also knows that the longer the procedure takes, the less time her residence permit will effectively be valid in the end. In fact, in addition to the inexplicable delays acknowledged to renew documents, the validity of the renewed documents issued by the Greek asylum service always starts retroactively, that is from the day following the expiry date of the previous document, instead of the actual date of issuance of the renewed document. This practice added to the endless delays of issuance leads the Greek Asylum Service to deliver documents to beneficiaries of international protection which are at best with a limited validity, often about to expire, or even, at times, already expired. Apart from being counterproductive from the administration’s perspective, this practice is always to the disadvantage of migrants, even when the administration is to be blamed for these unacceptable delays and failures.