New Democracy’s ‘ambitious plan’ for Asylum Seekers in Greece is Flawed and ill-informed.
Despite numerous reports from NGO’s working on the ground and human rights organisations, including their own police force, that the situation in the Island camps was untenable and at breaking point, it took three tragedies and several deaths in the sea and on the land, for the new Greek government to recognise the emergency and agree on a plan of action. The new center-right government has watched the situation escalate and has done nothing to alleviate the crisis since coming into power in July this year. Their response so far has been to introduce brutal asylum policies, to threaten to abolish 2nd instance appeals and, after only four hours of deliberation, publish an indefensibly naive, populist plan designed to appease the fascist faction without any consideration for the plight of the suffering refugees.
In June this year, following a push on transfers from the previous government, there were only 5,500 refugees in Moria In total there were only 13,500 people in total on all the Islands, this figure has grown since June to 30,500 with new arrivals reaching Greeks Islands every day. People had to die in the sea and on the land before a reaction to the crisis from the new government was forthcoming.
As a result of the tragedies, an ‘ambitious’ plan announced yesterday by Greece’s new government, following a four-hour emergency meeting, indicates nothing more than a naive, knee jerk reaction from this new government. A reaction that shows a complete lack of knowledge of, or a total disregard for, local, European and international asylum legislation. The response from the government yesterday is simply unacceptable and smacks of inexperience and a cavalier approach to the huge problems facing the country and the refugees in Greece. An indication that they do not understand their own laws is the recent ‘backtracking’ on their threat to abolish second instance appeals. Greek media is calling the plan ‘an orgy of misinformation’.
Asylum Procedure Changes
After the four hour meeting, the government said they will present a ‘greek initiative’ (draft legislation)at the European council on the 17th and 18th of October 2019 and propose a bill to speed up and tighten asylum procedures. They say they want to set clear timelines for the country’s primary and secondary administrative asylum committees and streamline the appeals process. According to government officials and lawmakers familiar with the new draft proposal, the goal is to have asylum applications processed within 100 days.
They say that their main objectives of the new legislation are;
To develop a new asylum system, compact, structured, rigorous, fair, designed in the light of exceptional circumstances.
The basic principles of the bill are:
(a) Full respect for the rights of asylum seekers, as provided by the EU Law
(b) Requiring applicants to cooperate with national authorities;
©Inclusion in the asylum system of only those applicants who have a refugee profile and retention in the system only of those who comply with their obligations;
d) Rapid removal from the system of those not eligible for asylum.
A more experienced government and one who genuinely cared about alleviating the problem would attempt to understand, before making and publishing such a plan, that the laws that would enable their objectives, already exist.
Law 4375 was created by the Greek government in 2016 to achieve all of the above and ensure that Greece was processing asylum applications in line with international and EU law. In particular, the “fast-track” border procedure, connected to the implementation of the EU-Turkey statement allows for the asylum seekers' application to be processed within a time frame of two weeks. Much less than the 100 days they are considering legislating for. The fast-track border procedure is introduced as an extraordinary and temporary procedure exactly designed for emergency situations like we are seeing now.
Maybe it would be a good idea for the new government to actually understand that the laws they already have are fit for purpose and the problem is not the law. The problems are far more complicated than that and I have a feeling that they are about to learn. If it was as easy as changing the law, someone would have done it by now.
Presenting these ‘new proposals’ to the European Commission, which are already enshrined in local, European and International law, will be an embarrassment to the government, and to Greece.
ND’s plans for Relocation
The government claims that there is to be a relocation program for 40,000 people, funded by the European Commission. In 2015 a relocation programme for 160,000 individuals from Italy and Greece was passed by the European Union. The programme came to an end in September 2017. Europe closed its borders and countries refused to take refugees and the numbers of relocation places were never achieved. To our knowledge and despite calls from organisations on the ground to extend the programme, the European Commission has NOT announced plans for a new programme although we understand that Germany, France, Italy, and Malta have agreed a new relocation policy, however, as before, the new scheme is described as voluntary and temporary and it would only involve four countries for now. We do hope they are successful in persuading Europe to share the burden but so far, any previous attempts have failed. The Greek government is due to meet with German and French interior ministers within the week.
Aligning With Bulgarian Attitudes
It is alarming to hear that the Greek government will be meeting with Bulgaria next week to present a joint document on the Eastern Mediterranean migration route. Given Bulgaria’s history of inhumane treatment of asylum seekers by the country’s authorities and the systemic deficiencies in the Bulgarian asylum system, it is really very worrying that the new government appears to want to align themselves with Bulgaria as a first step.
The government says it will transfer 16,000 people to hotels. At this time of year, hotels in Greece always agree to accommodate refugees during the winter once the tourist season is over. This is an annual event and is not a long- term solution as everyone will need to be relocated next spring when the tourist season begins. We are now in October and there have been no winterisation plans from this government. No doubt, we will be seeing a fourth cruel winter with refugees living in tents or outside in the cold.
Thirteen New Structures
There is no evidence that new structures have been created on the mainland to back up their claim that asylum seekers will be transferred from the islands and distributed to thirteen regions in Greece. Apparently, Greece’s Defence Ministry has presented a list of unused or shuttered military facilities on the Greek mainland which could be transformed into new sites that would be suitable for housing several thousand refugees. Sources within the Civil Protection Ministry have claimed that the Moria refugee camp most of its 13,000 inhabitants transferred from their squalid conditions to new sites on the mainland within the next two months. These structures are not ready and winter is already upon us. Why weren’t these structures made operational, as an emergency measure already? The spike in arrivals has been well documented. Despite the EU providing funding to the Greek government to support them in this crisis, it is not enough with the huge number of arrivals we have now. The new Greek government should be focussing on this issue but instead, it has chosen to focus on trying to introduce unnecessary ‘new’ asylum policies.
No doubt, these new structures in the thirteen regions will be remote and lacking proper infrastructure and access to schools and hospitals. It is certain that the accommodation will be wholly unprepared for the coming winter. After the sudden arrival of 600 people in one night, the Greek government recently decided to transfer 1,400 people to the mainland. Most were taken to the camp of Nea Kavala in a remote village in northern Greece where conditions are wholly unacceptable and no better than conditions on the Islands. There is a huge lack of accommodation, health facilities, even proper food available to asylum seekers in Greece. The frustration among the asylum seekers is at a tipping point. People are crammed into flimsy tents, afraid for their safety, not knowing the person sleeping next to them at night.
The success of the government’s plan to return 10,000 people to Turkey by the end of 2020 will rely on two things. First, the government will need to ask Turkey to accept 10,000 refugees when Turkey has made it quite clear that they are struggling with the refugees they already have. A meeting takes place tomorrow and Wednesday between the two countries, it will be interesting to see the result.
The second issue is that returns to Turkey rely on there being a functioning appeals committee making impartial decisions that do not violate international law. The Appeals Committees have been part of the asylum system in Greece since 2012. Until then the Council of State, the highest administrative court, was responsible for the review of asylum decisions in the second instance. The decision to change to an appeals committee was made because there were serious deficiencies in the administrative court system
The new government says they have a plan to change the composition of the appeals committee by adding an extra judge to the two already in situ and removing the UNHCR member.
This plan to change the appeals committee has been tried before, the legal basis for the establishment of the Appeals Authority was amended twice in 2016 (by L 4375/2016) in April 2016 and( L 4399/2016) in June 2016, and then in 2017 (by L 4461/2017). Further amendments were introduced by (L 4540/2018). The changes made no difference. In the last three and a half years only 1805 people were returned to Turkey. Creating an appeals committee consisting of three judges would almost certainly be challenged as it would be a return to a system already proven to be ineffective and illusory.
It is very worrying that the new government seems to be under the impression, that they have the legal power to return people forcibly to Turkey by creating a ‘safe country’ list and detaining people in new pre-removal centres, without following asylum procedure and giving them a fair hearing. The simple truth is, they can’t, not without violating international law.
Under international human rights law, the principle of non-refoulement guarantees that no one should be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm. This principle applies to all migrants at all times, irrespective of migration status. Again, this plan is a stark indication of a complete lack of understanding of International law.
According to the law, a person applying for asylum at liberty cannot be placed in detention simply for entering the country ‘illegally’. An asylum seeker may only remain detained if he or she is already detained for the purpose of removal when he or she applies for international protection, and subject to a new detention order, following an individualised assessment to establish whether detention can be ordered on asylum grounds. All asylum cases must be examined individually under the Geneva Convention.
However, once again, the new government appear to be ignorant of the fact that Greece already segregates and detains newly arrived persons belonging to particular nationalities with low recognition rates on Lesvos, Kos and Leros. The project initially focused on nationals of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, the list of countries was expanded to 28 in March 2017. These nationalities, with low recognition rates, are immediately placed in detention upon arrival and remain there for the entire asylum procedure. In other words, what they are proposing is questionable, but it already exists, and the government should know that.
In a recent interview, the Minister of Development, Adonis Georgiades claimed that the people arriving are not refugees but migrants. His claim is wrong and is another indication that they are unaware of the facts. They claim that only 7% of new arrivals are Syrians, when, in fact, the figure is 21%. The Minister of Rural Development Makis Voridis also quoted Radio 989 as saying: “65% of those entering are Afghans, 15% are from Sub-Saharan Africa, another 10% are from the Maghreb, Tunisia, Morocco and there are some 3000 Turks who are seeking asylum because they are being persecuted by Erdogan, Syrians are few”. This is clearly not true. If they were interested in finding out the facts, instead of spouting populist propaganda of a kind that would make Orban and Salvini proud, they would understand that majority of people coming are refugees, not migrants.
One of the government’s first moves when they came to power in July, was to shift responsibility for refugee policy from the experienced office of the Migration Ministry to that of the inexperienced department for Civil Protection. If the government had experienced people from the Ministry of Migration in the meeting, maybe they would be fully informed. Regardless, their plan does not give us hope that this crisis, and the care of vulnerable people, is going to be resolved any time soon. Instead the government appears more interested in the punishment of vulnerable people. They have to learn the lessons of the previous government, and more importantly, they need to learn asylum law first.