By Sharon Silvey
For people fleeing in fear, information on their rights and how to get a fair hearing for their asylum claim can be hard to find.
Many rely on information from smugglers who speak their language. Smugglers make their profits by lying to those seeking sanctuary, describing a rosy future of freedom of movement throughout Europe and a future of freedom of movement throughout Europe, adequate reception facilities and easy and speedy access to asylum, should they wish it. The reality is far, far worse.
We were present when Wassim, a Kurdish doctor, fleeing from Afrin with his wife and children, arrived in Moria, on Lesvos Island in the summer of 2017. It was Wassim’s second day in the ‘hotspot’ and he had just been released from the new arrival ‘cage’ where refugees are initially screened, into the main camp. It was distressing to witness the shock when the harsh reality of his situation hit him.
“What is this place? We were told there would be good accommodation, we were shown pictures of it, look!”
The pictures he showed us were of a community centre in Mytilini, not pictures of the dismal and overcrowded camp. This is a common story, which doesn’t become any less distressing no matter how many times we hear it. Stark reality hits hard when people arrive on Europe’s shores and they realise that reception conditions are tough, freedom of movement is severely restricted and asylum takes a long time if it happens at all. Many arrivals to Greece have no idea that Europe has closed its borders, that they will be forced to remain in Greece, and that, they will receive asylum only if they are lucky. People have no inkling that they may be returned to Turkey and from there, back to their country of origin.
With these facts dawning on Wassim and seeing the hell that is Moria camp for the first time, he kissed his small son’s head and said “ I wish I stayed in Turkey. In fact, seeing this, I wish I had drowned in the sea”.
Currently, more than 90,000 refugees are ‘interned’ in Greece.
To the end of September 2019 there have been more than 45,000 new arrivals, 36,000 of those arriving by sea. Of these, an estimated 30,500, up from 17,000 in just the last few weeks, languish in deplorable conditions on the islands of Chios, Samos, Lesbos, Kos and Leros. Most of them come from Afghanistan and Syria. A large percentage of them are children.
They are squeezed into detention centers, which are de facto concentration camps, designed to only hold a fraction of their current populations.
Moria camp on Lesbos was described by the BBC as “the worst refugee camp on Earth”, where children as young as ten attempt suicide and live in constant, horrific violence. Some 17,000 refugees, many of them children, are forced to live in a ‘camp’ designed to hold no more than 2,000 people.
A deal between the EU, Turkey and the Syriza government in March 2016 established Greece as the EU’s jailer of refugees. The agreement mandates all refugees entering Greece via “irregular” routes — that is, those making the dangerous journey via boat from Turkey to Greece — will be deported back to Turkey. Only those who can prove that they would be persecuted in Turkey can obtain asylum in Greece. Once in Greece, they are interned until their applications for asylum are processed; some are denied asylum and sent back to Turkey.
Having risked their lives to get there, people arriving on Greek shores are often severely traumatised and face an unfamiliar set of rules, often in a language they don’t understand. Most asylum seekers are not proficient in major world languages and yet they are often presented with information in languages they do not understand. This includes vital legal information and instructions regarding their case, as well as information about their rights and obligations. A shortage of interpreters who speak their language exacerbates the situation.
The ability to understand this information, not the strength of the case itself, is often what determines the fates of those seeking sanctuary — and whether they get the chance to start a new life, or are sent back to the traumatic situations they fled.
Fatima, who traveled to Lesvos from Syria told us “It’s quite literally terrifying, it’s like living in a wall of silence at a time when we really need to know what’s happening to us. At a time when we need to communicate with service providers and legal advisors about our situation. We have no idea what our rights are or how to successfully get the protection and help we are entitled to”.
All new arrivals are vulnerable and when understanding vital information is not possible, these vulnerable individuals are unable to access appropriate care or guidance. Already stressed and traumatised, the lack of guidance and information on asylum procedures increases their feelings of uncertainty about the future, which takes a further toll on their mental and psychosocial well-being.
The lack of accessible information also means that mistakes are unwittingly made by the asylum seeker. Highly vulnerable people do not understand the importance of mentioning their vulnerability at the earliest possible stage leading to victims of rape or torture suffering in silence and surviving undetected for long periods of time. Vulnerable people are treated differently in the asylum process in Greece, by law, and it is essential that they know this so that they can access the care they need and be referred to a simpler, more guaranteed, asylum procedure.
On the Greek Islands, the procedures are more complicated because of the EU Turkey ‘deal’ which traps people on the Islands and adds a complicated layer to the asylum procedure.
People are not informed about what they need to do to prepare for the complicated personal interview and get a fair hearing, causing them to make fatal errors in their application. This leads to their applications being rejected on what can be argued as legal errors or technicalities, drastically changing their fate. All too often, people’s hopes of a new beginning are dashed not for the lack of a strong legal case, but because they are deprived of the tools to make their case.
This is a gross injustice, they have a right to information by law.
In July and August, 2017, we partnered with Translators Without Borders to investigate how information was being provided to refugees in Greece and to test whether or not those on the receiving end could understand the translated materials detailing their right to asylum.
The respondents who participated in the research reported a number of failures in their applications, which were due not to the fact that they had a legitimate claim, but because of the lack of information about the process and their rights. As an example, according to Greek law, asylum seekers have the right to free interpretation services at every stage of their application. We showed them an animation about the procedures, in their language, which informed them that the interpreter must speak their language and if they don’t, the applicant has a right to stop the interview and ask for an appropriate interpreter.
Many respondents in our research, through focus groups, told us their interpreter did not speak their language or dialect and therefore could not relay crucial information about their situation. They felt that this resulted in miscommunication and rejection of the applicant’s asylum claim, thus putting them at high risk of being returned to the dangerous situation from which they were fleeing.
One asylum seeker, Abrar, from Pakistan, learned his rights through volunteering with us on Chios in 2017. Having entered an asylum interview where the interpreter did not speak his dialect, he stopped the interview and asked for another interpreter. The interview was conducted on a different day, with an interpreter who did speak his dialect and his asylum application was successful. But what if he hadn’t learned that he had a right to do that? Like thousands of others, he could have faced being deported- not because he didn’t have the right to stay in Europe, but because he had been failed by the system. Abrar is convinced he would have faced certain death upon return to Pakistan and the fact that he did get asylum, evidenced that his life was seriously in danger.
It’s not just about Asylum Seekers’ rights, it’s also important that they understand their obligations.
Another applicant, a volunteer who worked with us in 2016, missed his asylum interview, just before he began working with us. Until we met him, he didn’t understand the procedure and didn’t realise what he had to do, or the importance of making sure he fulfilled his obligations, one of which is to ensure they turn up for interviews and appointments. The consequences of not turning up are serious — the asylum application will cease and the applicant is, again, at risk of not getting asylum and being deported. In this case, the applicant was an Iranian Christian and returning to Iran would have meant certain death. RefuComm had to make a special case for him, and though it was extremely difficult to get him back into the asylum system our efforts to get him asylum were successful. Many other people in the same situation are not so lucky. For asylum seekers, understanding not just their rights, but their obligations is absolutely crucial.
Changes in the Political Landscape
On the Greek mainland, high numbers of people drop out of the asylum system or do not get asylum because they do not receive information in a language or a format that they understand. Without papers, or any legal document of residency in Greece, they are constantly at risk of being arrested and detained.
One of the first decisions by the new Greek government, New Democracy (ND), elected after a snap election in July 2019, was to introduce Operation Black Panther, which involved special commandos, dressed in black and heavily armed with automatic weapons, night binoculars, sound and light flares and tear gas, deployed to raid places where undocumented refugees and migrants, live. Families were evicted and arrested and are under threat of deportation, many of whom were not able to access the asylum procedure, because they didn’t know what they had to do or because the lack of information meant that they had inadvertently dropped out of the asylum process.
Once detained, the law dictates that people can access and enter the asylum procedure. However, many of them are unaware of this fact, and thus vulnerable people, often with a good reason to claim asylum, fall through the cracks and are at high risk of being deported.
The lack of information has been a cause for concern for many years in Greece and is evidenced in many reports, including our research with Translators Without Borders and, most recently, a report by UNHCR evidenced that a key concern from 1436 asylum seekers in Greece was due to the lack of information and awareness on services and asylum procedures . Despite there being some improvements in creating the information, it is still not getting to the people who need it and when it does, they are simply not engaging with the information.
Information must be Accessible to all
Our research shows that there are many reasons why asylum seekers can’t or don’t engage with the way information is currently provided;
Most asylum seekers arriving in Greece are physically and psychologically traumatised. Trauma has great effects on physical aspects of the brain, to the point that it can have detrimental effects akin to actual physical brain damage. Trauma affects reasoning and memory and therefore it is critical, when issuing important information to understand that asylum seekers need to be in a rational and physically sound state to be able to process the information. That’s why our research indicated that information in film format was the format that people prefer. Asylum seekers also told us that they appreciated the calm tone of our films. Timing when issuing information is important. It is unlikely that any information provided upon arrival will be retained.
As mentioned before, the majority of people currently arriving in Greece are not generally proficient in world languages, especially women and children. Much of the information they are currently provided is provided in Greek or English — even in their asylum decisions. Participants in our 2017 research were nearly twice as likely to understand the information provided in their mother tongue as in English. English was an ineffective language with this audience and was understood by less than 25 percent of the sample. Using English means that many refugees and migrants, vulnerable women and children in particular, will miss out on essential information. The language in which information is provided is critical. The majority of respondents (89 percent) said they would prefer to receive information in their mother tongue.
Many people arriving on Europe’s shores cannot even read the information provided. This is particularly true of the huge numbers of children arriving to Greece from countries like Afghanistan who are illiterate having never been to school. Often, they can not even read or write in their own language. In many countries, women are not able to educate themselves. Even for the literate, information is often shrouded in legal terms that can only be understood by lawyers. More than half of the participants in our research did not understand the information provided to them in their mother tongue.
As a result, the population remains marginalized at a time when understanding their rights, and the complicated procedures are of paramount importance and not understanding has crucial consequences for their future and their lives.
Comprehension and Format
The research conducted by ourselves and Translators Without Borders showed a strong correlation between education levels and comprehension in all of the formats that we tested in the focus groups. We tested refugees by comparing infographics, formal documents, and film.
The format of information is a critical factor in understanding. During the comprehension testing, we found that less-educated participants were less likely to comprehend a written document than information presented in other formats like audio or film.
Animation was 50 percent more effective and an infographic more than twice as effective as a written document in conveying information to participants with no schooling.
Respondents with higher levels of education scored highest for comprehension in all categories, including written English. The disparities were most marked for text-only material in the participant’s mother tongue or second language.
Respondents with a high school diploma or higher were 62 percent more likely to understand the content than those with no schooling. Although overall comprehension rates were lower for the infographic format, the disparities between education levels were also lower.
In the focus groups, the vast majority of participants stated they were satisfied with the animation.
The majority of participants (78 percent) preferred to receive information by word of mouth or in video format.
Sadly, the respondents who watched our animations recognised that their knowledge was limited due to lack of information and they were angry that they hadn’t received the right information before their asylum interviews. The respondents felt strongly that good information would have helped them to understand their rights and the complicated procedures sooner. Many of them had failed asylum claims and were facing deportation back to war-torn countries, or back to Turkey, which is an increasingly hostile environment for refugees.
Access to information on the internet
During the research, refugees who were internet literate also reported that they were severely hampered by connectivity problems in their efforts to obtain information. Participants reported difficulty accessing the internet because of poor or non-existent Wi-Fi and the high cost of mobile phone data in the camps. They confirmed that even if we provided information in understandable formats and languages they understood, they often did not have enough internet to access it and couldn’t afford to buy extra data.
Through our direct interaction with refugees in the camps, we were already aware of the situation with internet access and the use of micro sd cards, pre-loaded with films, audio files and infographics that they could simply put in their phones so that they could access information offline. The trial was successful and all respondents agreed that this was a good solution. The sd cards are a low-cost solution for ensuring total accessibility to information regardless of wifi access or literacy levels.
The solution to t his would be for camp management to show the films in the camps on a regular basis so that people can have many opportunities to watch the films and digest the information. The team at RefuComm has made many, largely unsuccessful attempts to persuade camp management to do this and instead our films are shown mainly by smaller, grassroots information providers working on the ground.
Changes to the procedures
Though asylum laws are clear, the procedures, however, are often complicated and subject to change. To make matters worse, the authorities are not skilled in communicating the changes to the people affected. Not communicating the changes to the asylum seekers has led to some serious consequences for asylum seekers in Greece. Missed appointments, confusion as to where their asylum interview is to be held when they are transferred from the Islands to the mainland has meant that the Asylum Service has withdrawn applications because people have not shown up for the interview.
A more recent study for information provision in Greece was conducted by UNHCR and the report evidenced;
“Overall, a lack of information on arrival to integration-related issues was reiterated by most participants. Thus, strengthening and harmonizing group and individual information provision in languages spoken by the refugee population (inclusive of minority groups) should be a priority throughout Greece. Generally, younger people prefer to receive information through social media whereas adults and older people preferred focus groups and information sessions. Most asylum-seekers and refugees are connected to the internet through mobile phones. However, there are connectivity challenges in some of the RICs on the islands.”
What the report failed to identify were the reasons why people are not engaging with information even when it is provided.
Responsibility for Information Provision
Article 41 L 4375/2016 provides inter alia that applicants should be informed, in a language which they understand, on the procedure to be followed, their rights and obligations.
It is to be assumed that it is the responsibility of the Greek Asylum Service to ensure that this information is provided, and indeed, they have produced information in a variety of formats, however, the information is not being distributed to asylum seekers, as evidenced in the most recent UNHCR report.
A number of actors are engaged in information provision concerning the asylum procedure. Including RefuComm. One of the largest information providers in Greece. Refugee.info, who provided quality information to asylum seekers in Greece, albeit almost exclusively in text format, have sadly lost their funding and have ceased operating.
It is not clear who is responsible for ensuring people actually receive and understand the information, which is a major problem. It has become evident that there is a lack of consistency, continuity and, there is no evidence of a plan by the authorities to improve the situation. Revolving reports, which are published year after year on the scarcity of information provision and reports that say applicants do not engage with the information, has not led to any single organisation taking responsibility for ensuring a positive change.
The Greek Council for Refugees are one of the main advocates and providers of legal assistance for asylum seekers in Greece and have been for the past 30 years. They contribute to the ‘Country Report’ for Greece which is updated annually.
The most recent report for 2018/19 states;
“due to the complexity of the procedure and constantly changing legislation and practice, as well as bureaucratic hurdles, access to comprehensible information remains a matter of concern. Given that legal aid is provided by law only for appeal procedures and only remains limited in practice, applicants often have to navigate the complex asylum system on their own, without sufficient information”.
“These challenges are corroborated by findings on the ground. A 2018 cross-sectional survey of Syrian nationals conducted in eight locations found that “a very low proportion of participants reported having had access to information on legal assistance, between 9.6% (Samos) and 30.1% (Katsikas). Information on asylum procedures was also generally limited, with only 11.0% (Samos) to 31.6% (Katsikas) of the population considering that they had received the necessary information… Participants interviewed in the qualitative study said that the lack of guidance and information on asylum procedures increased their feelings of uncertainty about the future, which was taking a toll on their mental and psychosocial well-being.”
Moreover, the UNHCR inter-agency report from 2018, which we mentioned before in this article, found that;
“The majority of participants were frustrated with what they consider a lack of sufficient information on asylum procedures and the legal framework. A particular source of anxiety is the lack of clarity on procedures or feedback on the status of their asylum claim, particularly on the islands. This has severe implications on psychosocial wellbeing, irrespective of age and gender”.
“Participants in most Focus Group Discussions noted difficulties accessing information. This included a lack of interpreters for certain languages (e.g. Somali, Farsi, Kurmanji, Panjabi, Bangla, Urdu, Sorani, Amharic, Tigrinya, etc.), lack of consistent and simplified information on services and procedures. This applies to sites, RICs and urban locations and to information provision upon arrival … Communication materials are often too difficult to understand or not translated in all relevant languages. Almost no participants were aware of UNHCR’s HELP website.”
“For those detained and due to the almost total lack of interpretation services provided in detention facilities, access to information is even more limited. As observed in the most recent CPT Report, following the Committee’s April 2018 visit, “the delegation met again a large number of foreign nationals in the pre-removal centres visited who complained that the information provided was insufficient — particularly concerning their (legal) situation and length of detention — or that they were unable to understand this information. This was partly due to the complex legal framework which allowed for their detention on numerous grounds.”
“The Committee further called upon the Greek authorities to “ensure that detained foreign nationals are systematically and fully informed of their rights, their legal situation (including the grounds for their detention) and the procedure applicable to them as from the very outset of their deprivation of liberty (that is, from the moment when they are obliged to remain with the police), if necessary, with the assistance of a qualified interpreter” and underlines that “all detained persons should be systematically provided with a copy of the leaflet setting out this information in a language they can understand.”
It is not clear how any of the recommendations will be achieved. To date, there is no evidence that information provision to asylum seekers has improved.
Our attempts to present the findings from our research to the authorities have largely fallen on deaf ears, we have met with the Greek Asylum Service, UNHCR and the European Commission to try to find solutions to no avail. We can only conclude that there is a lack of will to provide quality information and find ways to engage the asylum-seeking population.
As a result of our research, we made quality films with legal organisations and NGOs in Greece that were supported and shared by many organisations working on the ground but ignored by UNHCR and the Greek Asylum Service.
Through our work over the last four years, we have garnered much support for our approach to information provision and luckily we do not have to rely on cooperation from either UNHCR or the Greek Asylum Service in order to distribute our films. Our work is shared across Greece both by actors working on the ground and by refugees themselves, who are fully involved in the creation of the information and films. However, the responsibility of a small, volunteer-led organisation like ours is overwhekming, and more cooperation from both organisations, with all their funds and resources, would benefit everyone, especially the asylum seekers themselves.
Change in the Political Landscape
Recently, the need for quality information and engagement of asylum seekers in Greece to be provided in a timely manner has become even more crucial.
Greece’s right-wing New Democracy government, which took office in July, argues that faster procedures will allow refugees to integrate more smoothly into Greek society and accelerate the return to Turkey of people whose asylum claims are rejected and passed new asylum legislation on October 31st.
But human rights organisations say the new law will result in major rights violations, making it more difficult for people to access protection, leaving thousands in limbo, and doing nothing to improve the situation for almost 100,000 refugees and migrants in Greece.
The new law includes denying refugee rights to healthcare and it has also been mooted that they will attempt to abolish the asylum seeker’s right to appeal after receiving a negative asylum decision. The aim, ultimately, is to speed up the rate of deportations — regardless of the validity of asylum claims. The attempt to deport asylum seekers before they have the right to appeal is illegal and contravenes national and international legislation, yet the new government insists it has the support of the European Commission, which has been pressurising Greece to speed up returns since the deal was first made in 2016. Europe finally has a government that is willing to do their bidding.
Much anti-refugee rhetoric is coming from the new government. The new Prime Minister, Kariakos Mitsotakis, announced the government’s plan for curbing migration, in a rousing, populist speech in the Greek Parliament. Although many of the measures he says the government will take are quite clearly illegal, it is without a doubt that changes to the procedures will happen. It is also certain that there will be a huge delay in informing asylum seekers of the changes.
Asylum seekers in Greece right now, more than ever, need clarification of the government’s plans and how it will affect them. They will need timely, quality information in order to ensure a fair hearing or in the worst-case scenario, information that will help them to prepare for their return to Greece or their potential deportation.
In this fast-paced, hostile, political landscape, information for refugees, in languages that they understand and formats they can access, is increasingly crucial. It literally can mean the difference between, asylum, deportation and death.
To see our work please go to our website at www.refucomm.org