Drastic Deterioration of the Asylum Situation on the Greek Islands
The Greek asylum system is drastically deteriorating under the rule of the new conservative Greek government. A new asylum law has been adopted, cutting back on the most basic procedural rights of asylum seekers and extending detention measures even further (e.g. through increasing administrative detention up to 36 months). While lawyers and human rights organizations have tried everything possible to prevent the systematic disenfranchisement arising from the draft law, the new regulation was adopted at the end of October and is supposed to enter into force in January 2020. However, already we can see disturbing harbingers of the coming changes. The deportation and rejection procedures of the last weeks have given a first taste of the new law’s devastating impact.
Rejecting without Asylum Hearing
Most recently, we have been notified about 28 cases of asylum applicants who received a rejection of their asylum claim without undergoing any sort of asylum hearing. 27 of them were arrested directly after arrival in Lesvos and are detained in the pre-removal detention centre in Moria camp, where single men belonging to nationalities with asylum recognition rates below 25% are sweepingly held under the low-profile detention scheme. Some rejection documents include a five-page explanation stating that no translation can be provided for the interview and the decision is therefore only based on the brief registration procedure after arrival – where the access to adequate interpretation is in fact also very limited. Elli Kriona Saranti, a lawyer with HIAS, is preparing appeals for some of the rejected asylum applicants. She explains: “In some of the rejection decisions, the asylum service accepts that somebody is a victim of torture, and still they reject him. And we have examples where they accepted that there are attacks by armed forces against the whole village where an asylum applicant fled from and he is still rejected.”
It is, according to current law, illegal to reject people without an asylum hearing. This practice could be seen as a consequence of implementing the the “safe country of origin” concept, which is part of the new asylum law. According to the “safe countries of origin” the burden of proof will be reversed and shifted onto the asylum applicant. There remains reason to fear that this will result in wide-scale rejections of people whose asylum chances are considered low simply because of their national belonging.
Extending Deportations to Turkey based on Inadmissibility
Similar drastic measures are supposed to be implemented regarding the “safe third country” concept. The law allows the authorities to forgo an individualized examination of an asylum applicant’s relationship to a third country when that country is designated as generally safe and included in a national list of safe third countries. In addition, the “safe third country” concept will affect a rising number of people, including unaccompanied minors, since the vulnerability criteria have been drastically reduced. Beyond that, vulnerable applicants will also have their asylum application assessed under the fast-track border procedure (with only a few exceptions), meaning that they will no longer be exempted from the admissibility procedure. Under this procedure it is only assessed whether Turkey can be considered as a safe third country or first country of asylum, and the merits of the asylum claim are not taken into account. It also remains unclear whether the admissibility check will still be limited to the border procedure, and therefore the Greek islands, or will also be applied on the Greek mainland. If the Greek state is able to implement these changes, they will allow for sweeping deportations to Turkey of people seeking protection.
Making Appeals Nearly Impossible
Alarmingly, the legal right to appeal will be drastically reduced. The UNHCR will lose its seat on the appeals committee and the right to prepare for an interview seems to be abolished for most. The right to appeal will only grant three days under specific circumstances for people considered as vulnerable. Through the new asylum law, it is possible that appealing the rejection at first instance will not have an automatic suspensive effect, meaning that asylum seekers could potentially be legally deported despite having appealed their asylum rejection. In the case of rejections handed out without any hearing of the asylum claims, this could simply lead to the systematic deportation of people in need of protection, breaking the international non-refoulement requirement.
Recently we have seen that people are already being deported with an ongoing asylum procedure. Looking at applications of annulment at the administrative court (a procedure that follows the rejection of the first instance appeal), we can already see the terrible situation arising from an appeal’s lack of automatic suspensive effect: recently, the deportations of 23 people were witnessed by Deportation Monitoring Aegean. Eight of these individuals had filed an appeal against their second instance rejection before the administrative court (two out of ten people deported from Lesvos to Turkey on 25th October, and six out of 13 people deported from Kos to Turkey on 18th October). Their lawyers had also applied for the suspension of the deportation decision – which usually guaranteed that their clients are not deported until the appeal has been considered. Nevertheless, all eight people were deported.
Chain Deportations and Refoulement
All these developments come during a period in which it is obvious that Turkey cannot be considered as a “safe third country” for anyone deported from Greece. Turkey is not only waging a war in Syria, leading to the expulsion and displacement of roughly 300,000 people, but it also fails to provide protection to migrants staying in the country. Deportation Monitoring Aegean and Harekact have extensively reported about the detention and refoulement of migrants deported from Greece to Turkey and about forced “voluntary returns” from Turkey. As highlighted by different researchers, all non-Syrians are detained after their deportation to Turkey. While some remain in prison for up to 12 months, others are directly deported on to their countries of origin, tricked into agreeing to “voluntary return”, or sign the return paper because they want to escape the situation in the removal prisons. For Syrians the situation is also far from safe. After thousands of Syrians were deported to the region of Idlib this summer, the Turkish government now openly talks about “resettling” between one to three million Syrians to the so-called “safe zone”, currently a war zone in North-East Syria where Kurdish forces and civilians are expelled.
Although all these facts are public, the EU and the Greek government forcibly deport a rising number of people who manage to reach Europe and expect to find safety. We are now facing a situation where it becomes legal to send people back to insecurity, prison and war, which, for some people, means simply to send them to death.