Picture: Sto Nisi, ‘We Never Change Our Nationality’ sign held during a protest organised in the Lesvos CCAC on 6 November 2023
Since mid-September 2023, the Legal Centre Lesvos and other legal actors on the island received a number of testimonies from Eritrean clients who, during their asylum interview with the Regional Asylum Service of Lesvos, were requested to sign a document to change their nationality to Ethiopian. Those who refused to sign had their asylum interviews immediately stopped without any further possibility to express the details of their fear of persecutions in their country of origin. Some of them received a rejection afterwards, others were later scheduled a new appointment for an interview, while others are still waiting for their decision.
This policy specifically affects displaced Eritrean nationals who grew up or were living in Ethiopia or do not have identification documents from either Eritrea or Ethiopia. Given that both countries are culturally and religiously connected, and that Ethiopia has been hosting displaced Eritreans for decades without providing them with identification documents, this group is arbitrarily and automatically being assessed as Ethiopian upon arrival. This follows an initial assessment of presumed nationality carried out by FRONTEX and the reception and identification services (RIS) during a very short interview, which does not constitute a binding nationality assessment. It is also an intransparent and arbitrary procedure as the assessment is not recorded on the registration form of the individuals concerned nor in their asylum file, and can therefore not be challenged either by the applicant or their lawyers. Nevertheless, this initial assessment is used by the Greek Asylum Service to record the registered nationality of asylum seekers, leading to serious mistakes in the asylum procedure and the near impossibility to challenge or change those mistakes.
On 23 October 2023, the Eritrean community held a protest in the Lesvos Closed Control Access Centre (CCAC) to challenge this unfair treatment which effectively prevents them from accessing the asylum procedure. During this protest some members of the Eritrean community requested a meeting with the Greek asylum service to address those issues. At this occasion, and according to one person who was present, a representative of the Regional asylum office stated that the asylum office will consider as Ethiopian nationals all asylum seekers from Eritrea who have been initially presumed as Ethiopian by Frontex, without further individual assessment. She further threatened to reject all asylum applications of Eritreans nationals if they refused to change their nationality to Ethiopian, while stating that if they accepted to sign a document to change their nationality they would have a 50% chance to receive a positive decision.
Another demonstration was organized on 6 November 2023 as the blackmail policy targeting Eritreans continued. In November and December, more clients from Eritrea who had refused to change their nationalities to Ethiopian explained to the Legal Centre Lesvos that they were requested to present themselves to an ISO box in the camp where a Spanish Frontex officer proposed to them the option of a ‘voluntary return’ to Ethiopia and the payment of 500 euros if they accepted to change their nationality to Ethiopian.
In November 2023, the Legal Centre Lesvos’ lawyers took on the legal representation of two Eritrean nationals on appeal, whose asylum claims had been rejected as Ethiopians. The lawyers argued that the first instance decision (a) mistakenly ignored the applicant’s country of origin and nationality as declared by the asylum seekers during the registration process, (b) did not, as a consequence, examine whether they fulfilled the requirements for refugee protection, (c) all of which happened without any justification as no nationality assessment was to be found in their respective asylum files.
On 18 December 2023, the Legal Centre Lesvos also submitted three complaints to the Greek Ombudsperson on behalf of three single women from Eritrea whose interviews were interrupted before any assessment as to their eligibility for asylum. The complaints were brought on the basis that the Greek asylum service violated the European Union’s Asylum Procedures and Qualification Directives. In particular, we argued that by not conducting full interviews, the Greek asylum service violated its obligation to assess all the relevant elements of the asylum applications on an individual basis, taking into account gender, vulnerability and individual background as stated in article 4 of the Directive 2011/95/EU. Further the asylum service did not provide the applicants with an adequate opportunity to present elements needed to substantiate their application, as required in article 16 of the Directive 2013/32/EU.
Following increasing pressure from the Eritrean community in the camp and legal organizations on the island, we observed that since the end of December 2023 the Greek asylum service stopped its malpractice of denying the right to an interview to Eritrean asylum seekers who refused to change their nationality to Ethiopian. Since then, the Greek asylum service resumed the conduction of interviews with Eritrean nationals, yet these interviews consist mostly of a nationality assessment and do not always explore the individual grounds for asylum, nor the applicants’ specific needs and vulnerabilities, such as sexual and gender-based violence or human trafficking, etc.
This practice prevents Eritrean asylum seekers who grew up in Ethiopia from accessing a fair asylum procedure and therefore denies them access to international protection. It should be recalled that the need for a nationality assessment does not impede the duty of the asylum service to individually assess the personal circumstances of the applicants, especially taking into account vulnerabilities, gender and individual background according to the EU Qualifications Directive. This was further confirmed by a recent ruling of the European Court of Justice (C-621/21) which stated that women can be considered a particular social group for the purposes of asylum determination, and therefore the experience of sexual or gender based violence can be a basis for international protection. This ruling shows the need for the asylum service to assess the applicant’s grounds of asylum individually, irrespective of their nationality.
The arbitrary and unlawful decision to force Eritrean nationals to change their nationality and undergo asylum interviews as Ethiopian nationals following a superficial ‘presumption’ of nationality by Frontex and the RIS is another tactic to further limit people’s access to asylum. Displaced people from Eritrea have — given the current political situation and the horrific human rights violations carried out in their country of origin as well as in neighboring countries, such as Ethiopia – a very high chance of obtaining asylum. From January to November 2023, 79% of the Eritreans were recognised as refugees or beneficiaries of subsidiary protection by the Greek Asylum Service’s in the first instance. In 2022, Eritreans had one of the highest recognition rates for international protection in the EU, at 84%, the highest after Syrians (93%) and Ukrainians (86%).
As is too often the case within the asylum procedures in Greece, these policy changes happen from one day to another and have no legal basis nor logical justification. This is particularly evident when comparing with the similar situation of displaced Afghans who were born and grew up in Iran without identification documents, who the Greek Asylum Service considers as Afghans – given their Afghan nationality – even in cases where they have never been to Afghanistan.
These fluctuating and arbitrary practices by the Greek authorities are unjust and leave many people in a legal limbo, forcing them to stay for extended periods of time in the Lesvos CCAC where they live in inhumane conditions, facing insecurity, instability and unfair treatment, and denying them the right to have their application assessed individually on the risks they are facing in their country of origin. It denies people access to legal certainty regarding the asylum procedure and cannot easily be challenged by lawyers given the lack of transparency during the screening and registration procedures and given the lack of any effective remedies against them.