World Refugee Day — Greece

Greek Asylum Service reports on information provision to asylum applicants

Chios, June 2016 (photo taken with everyone’s permission)

“Concerning the Asylum Service’s efforts at providing asylum seekers and beneficiaries of international protection with adequate and reliable information..” is not the same thing as ensuring that all applicants actually have reliable and adequate information and are able to access it in good time before their claims are assessed.

“(22) It is also in the interests of both Member States and applicants to ensure a correct recognition of international protection needs already at first instance. To that end, applicants should be provided at first instance, free of charge, with legal and procedural information, taking into account their particular circumstances. The provision of such information should, among other things, enable the applicants to better understand the procedure, thus helping them to comply with the relevant obligations.” (APD2013)

The most relevant and important obligation for asylum applicants is to substantiate their claims (Article 4 QD2011); both the admissibility and eligibility of their claims. They cannot reasonably be expected to be able to do that if they are not aware in advance of the admissibility and eligibility criteria, of the credibility assessment methodology, and of what sorts of supporting evidence they should submit if they can. Eligibility criteria are relatively more naturally intuitive, but the concept of admissibility and thus the criteria for it are hardly intuitive at all.

“information on the possibility to submit an application for international protection.” as in L4375 Art.38 is not practically equivalent to the standard of legal information required in APD2013 art.8, which requires the information provided to be adequate to enable applicants to fulfil their obligation to substantiate their claims.

Most of the 4,471 applicants rejected to date have been rejected on admissibility, certainly all the Syrians I’ve heard from, but I have not met or heard from one rejected applicant yet who had even the slightest clue what an admissibility interview is about beforehand (they assumed, naturally, that they were going to what we call an eligibility interview), about what the criteria are and therefore what was relevant in their case to tell to the interviewers. That is not adequate legal information because it does not help them to comply with their obligation to substantiate their claims. It is a shared duty to substantiate, because the applicant normally cannot do it only by themselves without information, guidance, and appropriate, open and probing questioning at interviews.

We also know that the quality of interviewing particularly by EASO in admissibility interviews has dropped off a cliff, such that ECCHR reported that it was systematically in violation of Art 41(2a) of the CFR and paragraphs §2.1, 2.5, 3.5 and 3.6 of EASO’s own guidelines, the right to a fair hearing.

We also know that the appeals acceptance rate dropped 97% between the old and the new appeals committees, to 0.4% now, as reported by GCR.

EC pressure reported by HRW to reduce the number of vulnerable cases recognised is outrageous — we know that really the proportion of refugees we have met whose cases match the vulnerability criteria is much higher than was being officially recognised even before that. Refugees by definition have suffered trauma and the prevalence of PTSD is high — acting the joker sometimes and putting on a brave face by day does not mean that someone does not also have daytime flashbacks and nightmare memories of seeing their friends killed, and that causes chaotic memory function — some good days or weeks, some bad, and if you happen to interview them on a day after weeks of disrupted sleep, their ability to remember — especially time-sequential information, and thus credibly substantiate their claims is lower.

The reception conditions especially on the islands, due to three-times overcrowding, created by government policy, are so degrading that they induce depression and sleep deprivation such that people have memory function problems — several close friends who are refugees have told me this spontaneously now, and one friend in Chios asked me if it was ok for him to write down his story in advance because he recognised he couldn’t always remember certain details of the worst things that had happened to him — obviously I advised yes, and also said to tell the interviewer why.

Not a few cases I’ve heard people’s experiences with smugglers crossed the legal line into having been victims of human trafficking. If you also counted “victims of shipwreck or distress at sea” objectively, combined with the prevalence of serious psychological trauma and trafficking victims, that would mean most applicants would be recognised as vulnerable, therefore should not be subjected to the delay of a separate admissibility procedure and should have special procedural guarantees.

“a. Unaccompanied minors,
b. handicapped persons or suffering an uncured or serious illness,
c. elderly persons,
d. pregnant women or who have recently given birth,
e. single parent families with children under 18 years old,
f. victims of torture, rape or other kinds of psychological, physical or sexual assault or exploitation, persons with post traumatic syndromes, especially survivors or relatives of victims of shipwrecks,
g. victims of human slavery or trafficking.”

The quality of interviewing and the appeals acceptance rate now are simply not plausibly consistent with “individual, objective and impartial assessments” (Art.10(3) APD2013). Truly the variation in acceptance rates of different nationalities of asylum applicants across the EU is too big to be plausibly consistent with “individual, objective and impartial assessments”.

It has been 15 months since the EU-Turkey press statement trapped refugees in Greece within an asylum procedures system which had not been functional up to EU legal standards before, even with far smaller numbers of people, and still most refugees are not actually getting even basic information.

Fundamentally, they do not even know what stage of the procedures they are at, they do not know what’s next for them, so they cannot know what stage of the procedures they should be seeking information on or about.

It would cost next to nothing extra to add onto their registration papers and cards a line simply saying what stage they’re at, not just leaving it to inference from what type of registration number they have. Please, as we’ve been begging for so long already: just add a simple few words onto the registration papers and cards so that refugees can simply know what stage they’re at and therefore know what stage they should ask for information about next.

Most refugees do not understand why they should seek information and assistance to prepare for their interviews, so too many people who we know have admissible and eligible claims are getting rejected and then the appeals are practically non-existent now — a 0.4% appeals acceptance rate cannot plausibly be objective, especially when in previous years it was 13–14%.

The ‘emergency crisis’ was created by the European Council, European Commission and a part of the Greek government’s refusal to acknowledge the mass influx as a “mass influx” and activate the Temporary Protection Directive which is clearly the proper legal framework for this situation, and substituting a sequence of shoddy compromises since. To then continue using this politically artificial ‘humanitarian emergency’ as an excuse for the degrading reception conditions and punitively and deterrently inefficient and unfair asylum procedures convinces no-one who really knows the situation in detail.

The fact of irregular sea and land border crossings is not the refugees fault — they have no viable alternative because they are denied their legal right to leave any country including their own (Art. 3 ECHR) and often are violently forced back before reaching or even across the frontier, with EU governments’ “effective authority or control” in that extraterritorial refoulement.

They’re not in practice allowed legal routes to travel because of (i) private carrier penalties with no allowances for people likely to be in need of international protection preventing people from travelling to even approach a frontier legally; (ii) the negligible number of LTV visas under Art.25 of the Visa Code currently being issued by EU m/s; routine illegal pushbacks at sea and the Turkish border wall forcing Syrians to remain in a place of persecution, contrary to the non-refoulement principle, which were both explicitly commissioned in the EU-Turkey statement (paragraphs 3 & 4). There cannot really be practical compliance with non-refoulement while enforcing non-entrée policies (Hathaway, 2014); it is just nonsense.

Well worked out practical solutions have been proposed and even legislated for by the European Parliament, but EU executive government bodies choose to ignore facts and override the law for their political expediency to pander to populist nonsense and and neofascist myths.

The Greek government still could and should notify the European Council that you have a mass influx of persons likely to be in need of international protection and therefore require the activation of the Temporary Protection Directive. As far as I understand, if you officially notify the European Council of this, they have no legal option but to activate the TPD.

The number of asylum applicants who have arrived now in Greece and Italy since 2015 is really comparable to the number of prima facie refugees who streamed out of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, which was the context for developing the Temporary Protection Directive in the first place.

There is no objective difference between the “large number” (art.2.j) then and now. The only difference is the post-truth political attitude of compromising with neofascist hate fantasies in order for ‘Liberal’ politicians to conserve their positions. We have moved on from the peak of that phase of political madness now, it is time to let the damned EU-Turkey press statement die, and activate the Temporary Protection Directive, as should have been done two years ago.

According to the EP LIBE Committee’s recommendations based on the TPD it also means proactively granting Temporary Protection status to prima facie refugees who come from countries where it is manifestly obvious why they need asylum — Syrians, Yemenis, Iraqis, at least, and Art.25 visas to others who are individually eligible independent of their nationality, in all EU Member States consulates and embassies in transit countries, and then directly, safely, legally and inexpensively transporting and distributing them proportionally around the EU countries, in accordance with all EU Member States constitutional treaty obligations in Art.78(3) of the TFEU.

If the TPD were applied in that way, there would be no ‘hotspots’ or problem of locally overwhelming public services in Greece and Italy, because there would be a better alternatives available for those refugees eligible for Temporary Protection status and those eligible for an Article 25 visa. Eligibility for those routes should be interpreted in such a way that all those with manifestly eligible claims can get legal status and permits to travel safely and be directly transported to their destinations and distributed proportionally according to Annex D European Migration Agenda 2015.

Proportional method of distribution of refugees around the EU, combining weighted geographic and economic factors

Under a managed system for refugees to arrive legally and safely into the EU and be directly distributed proportionally to the countries where they are offered to resettle, assuming the same 1.3 million arrivals, Greece would have had to accommodate 24,700, but not had upwards of 800,000 refugees mostly transiting through since 2015. 24,700 would have been very manageable, and it wouldn’t have been a crisis or an “emergency” at all if it had been proactively managed in accordance with Art.78(3) TFEU and the TPD2001.

I just want honesty and justice back again. Europe did used to have some coherent values and, though the practice has always been imperfect, it did used to be relatively much better. We didn’t used to call the day ‘night’ and night ‘day’ by executive fiat, at least, as we have done with the EU-Turkey Statement. Government statements of nihilistic political surrealism must end.

It’s not mostly Greece’s fault, Greece has done relatively well considering the pressures from the EU and numbers of refugees arriving and then staying longer than ever before, but I do believe the Greek government could have objected more clearly based on facts and law to the EU, and still could. Doing things properly the first time is not more expensive in the long-term.

Activating the Temporary Protection Directive even now would be a triple-win for Greece, for the refugees and for the soul of Europe — our moral integrity and social and political cohesion have suffered due to the dishonest and unjust way we compromised and appeased the neofascist political insurgency over their instrumentalisation of the issue of the mass influx of refugees.

I have seen three refugee friends get recognised Refugee Status in the Netherlands recently, and the effect on them is so obvious and so immensely important — before, they were so stressed, they were desperate, anxious all the time and exhausted from anxiety and travelling on and on — they had to travel illegally because there was no really viable alternative, and now, their stress has dissipated suddenly, I met both the day after they got notification of Refugee Status decisions, and they are suddenly so much more relaxed, sleeping normally most of the time, and got their autonomy and dignity back.

I’m glad for them but I’m also angry that it took so long unnecessarily — one friend was travelling for a year, from Aleppo, he arrived in Greece after just a month or two. If he had got the recognition of his Refugee Status straightforwardly in the proper legal timeframe after his arrival, or even been able to get Temporary Protection status and permission to travel legally, safely, and inexpensively, he would have saved about €42,000 in smugglers fees in total, not been beaten up by police four times and nearly died of hypothermia in a forest in Serbia, he’d be far further on his psychological process of recovering from having been tortured and seen a friend murdered in front of him, and could spend that €42,000 of his family’s savings and sale of their house on completing his law degree. He’d probably also be earning already by now rather than living on Dutch State welfare payments.

Creating unnecessary delays in the procedures system is effectively a penalty contrary to Art.31 of the Geneva Convention, and it’s obviously intended as a deterrent to others who might otherwise come seeking protection, which is not really consistent with the intention of non-refoulement principle either.

I’ll remind us all for surrealism’s sake of the statutory time-frames:

  • 3 days between expression of the intent to apply for asylum and full registration (Article 6 APD2013) — or exceptionally, up to 10 days;
  • “within a reasonable time” assessment of needs for special procedural guarantees due to vulnerability (Article 24 of APD2013);
  • a first instance decision should be delivered within 6 months — or in particularly complicated cases, in case of a mass influx, or if the applicant fails to comply with their obligation to substantiate, within 9 months — or in further exceptional circumstances up to 1 year (Article 31, APD2013).

At the current rate of cases examined on Lesvos and Chios, it would take probably about 4 years to get through the current caseload, and the mass influx which has still not been acknowledged as such is still continuing. Rushing to reject people unfairly is not the right answer to this conundrum, but collectively and efficiently granting Temporary Protection status to the majority of refugees arriving in Greece who have manifestly eligible claims because they are from Syria, Yemen or Iraq, would be both fairer to them and far less costly and slow than doing individual procedures for everyone

To fellow solidarity volunteers and human rights activists who might read this far, I have three campaign suggestions:

  1. Ask the affected Greek islands’ mayors to write to the European Council to notify them of the Mass Influx and require activation of the Temporary Protection Directive — it’s not legally binding if it’s not from the Greek national government, but it’d be a good start in terms of public awareness and campaigning.
  2. Start campaigning for the Greek national government to officially demand the activation of the TPD — this means start off informing more Greek people that it is a possibility, what it would mean, and how it would practically make a difference and be a triple-win benefit for everyone.
  3. Ask the Εθνική Επιτροπή για τα Δικαιώματα του Ανθρώπου Greek National Commission for Human Rights http://www.nchr.gr/ to intervene with the Greek national government in this matter.

If you are a journalist or an activist and willing to write up about this campaign for the Temporary Protection Directive to be activated, there are a few links above but I’m happy to send you more.