This article was published by Al Jazeera International.
Greece says it has begun to enforce fast track procedures for new asylum-applicants and is stepping up deportations to Turkey, but aid organisations voice concerns that applicants’ rights are being trampled upon.
Greece deported 53 asylum-seekers in January, police tell Al Jazeera, a significant increase on last year’s monthly average of 16, but only slightly higher than the monthly average of 45 since the EU-Turkey Statement went into effect in April 2016. Turkey and the European Union are obliged to readmit irregular migrants from each other under that agreement.
“The rules have changed. We’re no longer open to people who don’t have a refugee profile,” said migration minister Notis Mitarakis on Friday as he headed for the island of Chios, his constituency and one of five eastern Aegean islands bearing the brunt of new arrivals.
“We’re now taking at least first instance [asylum] decisions within four weeks,” he said.
Greece has long been pressed by its EU partners to speed up asylum procedures. Under a new asylum law that took effect on January 1, asylum applications on the five islands of Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Leros and Kos are to be adjudicated within 28 days, including appeals. The regular procedure that applies in the rest of the country allows for six months for first instance decisions and three months for appeals.
Aid organisations are concerned that the government may be taking short cuts in an effort to observe the shorter deadlines.
“We are already receiving reports of difficulties rejected asylum seekers on the islands [are having] to prepare the needed document of appeal and application to remain [on Greek soil], without legal aid and in such a short time frame,” says Boris Cheshirkov, spokesperson for UNHCR Greece.
The tight new timeframe allows up to ten days for appeal, but requires applicants to state their reasons in legal terms and in Greek. Human righs lawyers say that is impossible without a lawyer, and authorities cannot always provide one as required by law.
“Under law, new arrivals and asylum seekers in detention have access to legal aid,” says Cheshirkov. “However, in practice, the needs are greater than the availability of free-of-charge legal aid.”
The Greek Council for Refugees, a legal aid charity that has helped thousands of asylum applicants, has observed serious irregularities.
“We have a case in Moria [on Lesvos] who went to his interview and it was clear that he couldn’t communicate because the interpreter did not speak his language. He received a first instance rejection on grounds of refusing to cooperate,” says GCR’s Alexandros Konstantinou. “He is Senegalese and did not speak French. Despite this his interview took place in French while he protested repeatedly that he needed to speak his local language.”
GCR is appealing this and other cases with irregularities, and suspects the government may not be acting in good faith.
“What is being attempted is the reduction in the number of asylum-applicants, not through the fair adjudication of their cases but through their rejection on technical grounds… That’s our assessment,” says Konstantinou.
The new asylum law, passed last autumn, allows the government to reject cases if applicants refuse to move to a camp, fail to divulge a change of address or miss a deadline.
Aid groups are also concerned that as resources go to the fast-track procedure, a backlog of 87,000 first instance asylum cases and 38,000 appeals cases will fester. “We are concerned that this may increase the pressure that [applicants] face,” says Cheshirkov.
The European Asylum Support Office last week announced it will double its personnel in Greece to 1,000 and assign a third of its budget to Greece.
Pressure on the government
New Democracy came to power last July promising to curtail refugee flows from Turkey. Greece received more than 74,000 asylum-seekers last year, almost two thirds of the total entering Europe.
A record 42,000 of them are still on Greece’s five east Aegean islands with reception centres, because the government allows only those designated as vulnerable to move to the mainland before their asylum application is processed. Under the new law, even they will have to remain on the islands, placing them under even greater pressure.
On Janaury 22, local and central government services on the islands were shut down in protest against the high refugee population.
“Our basic goal is to reduce [refugee] flows,” Mitarakis said during the strike, days after stepping into the job. “This will be achieved through strengthening border protection, speeding up asylum, increasing returns [to Turkey] and closed pre-removal centres.”
New Democracy is boosting border protection. The Hellenic Coast Guard is spending 33.8mn euros on 15-18 high-speed patrol vessels and hiring a thousand new officers. The defence ministry has requested tenders for a 2.7km-long fence that would be anchored along the waterline between Greece and Turkey and rise 50cm above sea level, to prevent small craft from approaching Greek shores.
Islanders are bradly in agreement with these defences and the speeding up of asylum, but they strongly disagree with government plans to replace open reception centres with larger, locked-down camps.
“We demand a closure of the camps and no new camps,” says Kostas Moutzouris, prefect for the North Aegean, echoing a manifesto put out by the mayors of the five islands this month.
“The important thing is not the size [of camps]. The important thing is to stop new people from coming. While that’s still happening, what is the point of a discussion about size? We will need more and more camps,” he says.
Exposed to Turkish shores, Greece arguably faces the biggest refugee problem in the EU. In the first three quarters of last year, it processed almost 11 percent of EU asylum cases, far above the 1.6 percent allocated to it on the basis of population size and GDP.
In the coming weeks Greece is expected to submit a white paper for a common asylum policy that would allow frontline states like Greece, Italy and Spain to share new asylum applicants with other EU members.
To prepare the ground for that discussion, Greece is for the first time reaching out to migration hardliners in the EU. Deputy foreign minister Militadis Varvitsiotis met his Polish counterpart earlier this month. “Come with your proposals. We are ready to discuss them,” he said.
Cabinet ministers in Athens have often proclaimed that corners have been turned and deals struck in the tortuous migration portfolio. The view in the east Aegean is different.
“Nothing has changed [in terms of asylum]. It’s business as usual,” says Moutzouris. “I don’t see anything happening. Just words. I’m an optimist but there have to be certain actions.”