The Complicated Quest to Claim Asylum
It’s a little known fact that refugees who reach mainland Greece can only claim asylum by using the online telecommunication application, Skype. People arriving by sea to the island ‘hotspots’ face a different procedure, but those arriving over land or direct to mainland Greece must call Skype.
The Greek Asylum Service accept in principle that people categorised as ‘vulnerable’ may claim asylum without calling Skype. But many people, including families with children, are not part of this legal category. If one does fall into the category, evidence of vulnerability is essential. It is however often impossible to obtain, especially in cases where an asylum seeker is vulnerable for health reasons. Undocumented persons yet to claim asylum cannot access Greece’s ‘dangerous’ public health system. Only emergency medical attention is available (without interpreters) from the Greek state, while NGOs serving undocumented asylum seekers often do not have the specialist medical practitioners necessary to provide the vital evidence of vulnerability that will mean being able to claim asylum without calling Skype.
Insisting on Skype technology means that an asylum seeker cannot claim asylum unless they have a device which connects to the internet. The Greek Asylum Service assume that every asylum seeker will have either a working smartphone with data/good enough wifi, or that they will know of and be physically able to access NGOs who can help make the calls.
UNDERSTAFFING MEANS CALLS GO UNANSWERED
Understaffing is a major issue. Following almost 57,000 asylum applications in 2017, around 30,000 of which were lodged on the mainland, the Greek Asylum Service stated on 15 February 2018 that only two staff members of the Asylum Service together with an interpreter were operating the Skype application system on a daily basis.
It is therefore unsurprising that the Greek Asylum Service do not answer asylum seekers’ calls when they ring to claim asylum. It is well documented that those trying to claim asylum have to call Skype repeatedly for many months, to no avail. The frustration that this causes has resulted in protests and humorous videos — but it also has serious implications for people’s mental health.
An additional failing is that the Greek Asylum Service do not operate their Skype system in all languages necessary. As they are aware, thousands of people claiming asylum in Greece do not speak one of the 14 languages on their timetable.
The scheduling of languages does not follow any clear logic. Throughout 2018 there was an hour allotted for Russian yet no Skype service at all for Turkish speakers, though 30 out of 56,950 asylum seekers arriving in Greece in 2017 were from Russia and 1,820 were from Turkey. Turkish nationals were the 5th highest nationality claiming asylum in Greece in the 3rd quarter of 2018, yet the Greek Asylum Service’s Skype timetable published in January 2019 still does not account for those speaking Turkish.
Asylum seekers speaking languages not timetabled have no choice but to go directly to Katechaki, the main asylum office in Athens. Members of our group have accompanied people, often families with young children, to register in such circumstances. Sometimes people are allowed in to claim asylum and sometimes they are not — the chance of being allowed entry if unaccompanied is very low, though signposting to advocacy groups such as ours or providing information is not something the police at Katechaki’s gates do.
Greek law and EU Directives, state clearly that refugees must be able to claim asylum in Greece, and that asylum seekers are then entitled to certain rights, such as education for their children and healthcare or employment.
Greece’s Skype system is therefore unlawful — refugees are unable to effectively request protection. If people cannot claim asylum they are unable to realise their legal rights. Asylum seekers are unable to request to be reunited with family in other EU member states, until they have claimed asylum.They are also unable to live, to plan or to heal, if their future remains uncertain.
Liable to be picked up by police whilst undocumented, the Greek Asylum System operates a system whereby refugees can be detained and deported, before they have even managed to claim asylum.