Diminished, Derogated, Denied: Asylum in Greece under the new International Protection Act

Diminished, Derogated, Denied: Asylum in Greece under the new International Protection Act

One of the most devastating human rights disasters happening on European soil is taking place in the refugee camp ‘hotspots’ on the Greek islands. These overcrowded, unhygienic and under-resourced camps have only worsened since the EU-Turkey deal was implemented in 2016.

Increased pressure on the Greek authorities as a result of dire conditions in the camps led to the creation of the International Protection Act (IPA), which was implemented in January. Instead of improving conditions, however, the IPA restricts the rights of the most vulnerable, establishes unfair asylum timelines, increases administrative detention and negative decisions, limits asylum appeals, and highlights an alarming pattern of an EU-wide effort to deter and reduce the number of people seeking asylum in Europe.

Asylum seekers in a new country are extremely vulnerable, and as such, are afforded special protections. As well as the inherent vulnerability of being an asylum seeker, many groups – such as unaccompanied children, survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and torture, and those with mental health disorders – need additional support. Under Greek law, these vulnerable populations can access medical treatment and specialised reception conditions – but in practice, this is rarely done due to the shortage of healthcare professionals to identify and help those who need it.

The IPA has further contributed to the suffering of vulnerable people by reversing this practice and no longer prioritising or fast tracking their asylum applications. This disregard for the vulnerability of specific populations, such as single women or survivors of SGBV, is especially dangerous during the pandemic and while incidents of rape and assault have risen dramatically due to a decrease in security in the camps.

The IPA was implemented following months of groundwork laid by the Greek government to paint people seeking asylum  as “fake refugees” and normalise refoulement and deportations. The government is using the new law as a deterrent by speeding up returns of those deemed ineligible for protection. To that end, the new law fast tracks asylum seekers who have arrived throughout this year, with the aim of illustrating to people in Turkey – who are hoping to make the crossing to Greece – that their stay will be short.

In practice, fast tracking denies people seeking asylum the opportunity to prepare for their interview, attain counsel or even understand the complex process. Another disastrous consequence is that people who arrived in Greece last year – and endured months in horrendous conditions in Greek ‘hotspot’ centres – are now seeing their long-awaited first asylum interviews being rescheduled for 2021.

Under EU law, administrative detention is the exception for managing migration, but the IPA has laid the groundwork to make it the default. The IPA allows for indiscriminate detention of all people seeking asylum until a judge recognises that they are eligible for international protection. This practice has resulted in a massive increase in detention centre capacity – a deadly and dangerous reality in the midst of a pandemic.

The reckless decision to detain asylum seekers does not just apply to adults; the number of unaccompanied children in detention reached a record high in March. This arbitrary detention of minors violates the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other legal mechanisms which stipulate that the detention of children should only be used as a measure of last resort.

The new measures enacted by the IPA earlier this year severely diminish the safeguard of the asylum process and do not allow for redress of administrative mistakes. Asylum claims are now being refused as ‘unfounded’ and viewed as implicitly withdrawn if a person fails to attend an interview. These refusals do not take into account administrative errors – which are a major issue in camps like Moria – or dense overcrowding, which makes making appointments difficult and dangerous.

Additionally, the IPA allows for Greek asylum services to refuse applications as unfounded if they cannot provide an interpreter for the applicant. This is a violation of EU law. In May, amendments were added to the IPA which allowed people seeking asylum to apply for a continuation of the examination of their application. While this amendment was welcome, it did not address the errors made between January and May and those people who had their applications for asylum refused.

Accessing legal assistance and the right to appeal was severely impacted with the implementation of the IPA. People are allowed to apply for State-funded legal aid, but this is severely limited. This means that most asylum seekers rely on legal assistance from under-resourced and overstretched NGOs. The inaccessibility of legal aid along with the convoluted system for notification of decisions means an increase in negative decisions for people seeking asylum.

Oxfam and the Greek Council for Refugees have released a report on this issue, which highlights the changes needed to improve the situation on the Greek islands.

The European Commission and (when relevant) the European Parliament should:

  • Review Greece’s compliance in both law and practice with European directives pertinent to international protection. The findings should be published, and the situation closely monitored.
  • Promote respect for fundamental rights and the rights of refugees. This includes ensuring all communications avoid inflammatory language and war-like terminology. Countries which instrumentalise the plight of people seeking asylum for political gain end up demonising vulnerable people.
  • Ensure that all vulnerable asylum seekers are explicitly exempt from expedited border procedures. The use of expedited procedures, which are more prone to errors in judgment, should be restricted to the absolutely necessary minimum. Access to safe accommodation, healthcare and legal assistance should always be guaranteed.
  • End the administrative detention of children and their families by explicitly prohibiting it in legislation.
  • Establish mandatory responsibility-sharing mechanisms for asylum seekers that enhance their protection – this is the only effective and long-term solution to reducing the pressure on asylum services and social support in Greece.

EU Member States should:

  • Provide financial and in-kind support for protection work, social services and legal assistance to people seeking asylum in areas that see a large number of arrivals, under an EU-wide responsibility-sharing mechanism. All projects should be gender-sensitive and address the specific needs of women.
  • Pledge to resettle refugees from non-EU countries and commit to creating additional legal pathways for refugees and migrants, in order to gradually reduce the need to resort to dangerous routes.

The Greek government should:

  • Review and amend the International Protection Act based on an impact assessment, so as to ensure respect for the rights of people seeking asylum and compliance with international and EU law.
  • Ensure that all asylum seekers, regardless of nationality, have access to a fair and efficient asylum procedure in a safe environment, as well as the healthcare and services they need.
  • Enhance State-funded legal aid so that, at a minimum, all people are able to receive legal assistance at the second instance of their asylum examination, as mandated by EU law. Guarantee that lawyers and organisations that provide legal assistance have unhindered access to people seeking asylum so as to provide legal assistance and services at first and second instances.
  • Implement alternatives to detention and only ever use administrative detention as a measure of last resort, after a thorough examination and justification of its necessity on a case-by-case basis.  Explicitly prohibit the detention of children and their families by law.
  • Significantly bolster the capacities of the Greek Asylum Service, the Reception and Identification Service and the National Public Health Organisation by increasing staffing and improving training.
  • Take all necessary measures to eliminate all phenomena/instances of xenophobia and racist violence. Promote a facts-based engagement between Greek authorities, Greek nationals, and refugees and migrants to reduce tensions and foster social cohesion between communities on the islands.
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