Nearly 44,000 asylum seekers have crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek islands so far this year, compared to fewer than 32,500 in all of 2018 – an annual increase of more than 30 percent, but still far below 2015 and 2016 levels.
In response, the Greek government passed a new asylum law on Thursday, 31 October aimed at speeding up procedures and facilitating the return of more people to Turkey under the terms of the EU-Turkey deal signed in March 2016 to curb migration across the Aegean.
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.
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.
Already, tens of thousands of people are living in dismal conditions on the Greek islands, which the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatovic, called “explosive” following a recent visit.
It’s unclear what the new legislation will do, if anything, to alleviate the humanitarian crisis on the islands, and it is likely to only make conditions worse for asylum seekers in Greece overall. Refugee advocates expect the new law to be challenged in the European Court of Human Rights.
Why a new asylum law now?
It has been more than three years since the height of the migration crisis in the Aegean, when one million people crossed the sea from Turkey to Greece between March 2015 and March 2016.
But even with dramatically fewer people crossing, those who do arrive now often remain in Greece due to the closure of borders along migration routes to northern Europe.
There are now more than 96,500 refugees and migrants in Greece, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.
The refugee issue has become a major political battlefield between the government and the far-right opposition, and nationalist and racist attitudes are rising in Greece, according to a Pew Research report from last year.
“It's not 2015 anymore where we had one million people arriving.”
In the past few months, there have been weekly protests in rural Greece against refugee relocation where protestors express fears of an “ongoing invasion” and the “Islamisation” of the country.
“The government is now under fire even from members of its own party because during the election campaign it promised it would solve the issue,” said Marina Rigou, a professor of journalism and new media at the University of Athens. “The media are also fuelling the situation further by constantly reporting on increased arrivals, even though they're much lower than those in 2015.”
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has vowed to protect Greek and EU borders and increase deportations. Following elections in July, his new government, which campaigned on a “law and order” platform, closed the Ministry of Migration and transferred responsibility for the issue to the Ministry of Civil Protection: the police.
The government is arguing that the majority of people arriving in Greece are economic migrants who should be deported and that Greece is no longer facing a refugee crisis.
According to UNHCR, however, 85 percent of people arriving are from Afghanistan, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, or other countries experiencing violent conflict.
Women and children account for 56 percent of arrivals over the past two years, with the majority of children under the age of 12. Minors travelling without their families account for two out of every 10 people who have arrived.
“Waves of immigrants and refugees besiege countries,” Mitsotakis said at an event in October. “Democratic rules of order and rights require reprocessing.”
What are conditions like for new arrivals?
There are currently 34,000 asylum seekers on the Greek islands, where new arrivals are required to stay during the course of the asylum process. Under the terms of the EU-Turkey deal, asylum seekers can only be considered for readmission to Turkey from the islands. Once they are transferred to the mainland, asylum seekers who have their claims rejected have to be deported to their countries of origin, which isn’t possible in many cases.
As a result, reception facilities on the islands are dramatically over capacity and living conditions are horrendous.
Apostolos Veizis, director of medical operational support in Greece for Médecins Sans Frontières, told The New Humanitarian that there’s one toilet for every 300 people on Samos and one shower for every 506 people at Moria, the camp on Lesvos.
MSF has observed a sharp deterioration in mental health among asylum seekers due to the inhumane conditions on the islands. The medical charity says it has seen a 40 percent increase in the number of cases compared to summer 2018, including dozens of attempted suicides and self-harm incidents, many involving children.
“There's no justification for what we're seeing,” said Veizis. “It's not 2015 anymore where we had one million people arriving. After the EU-Turkey deal, the islands are in a situation that I've never seen in my 20 years with MSF.”
How has access to healthcare changed?
In July, the Greek government cut access to public healthcare for newly arrived asylum seekers, leaving people with chronic illnesses to have to pay privately or rely on help from NGOs. The move also meant children weren’t able to be immunised – a requirement for them to be able to enrol in schools.
Under the new law, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been removed from the vulnerability criteria considered during the asylum process – the government says it believes people falsely claim to have PTSD to increase their chances of receiving a positive decision.
“The removal of PTSD from the list of vulnerability… will just prevent patients from receiving the appropriate medical and social support needed, while they won't receive a fair treatment in their asylum claim either,” Veizis says.
Victims of torture now need to have their cases certified by doctors who are part of Greece’s public health system, despite the fact that asylum seekers no longer have access to healthcare and, from 2020, will only be able to access emergency care.
MSF and METAdrasi, a Greek NGO, have trained personnel to provide these certifications for years. But the new law doesn’t recognise certifications issued by anyone outside of the public health system. “There's a lack of trained medical staff in public hospitals to conduct the vulnerability screening on the Greek islands,” explained Veizis.
Currently, there are two doctors at Moria for around 14,000 people and one doctor on Samos for 6,000 people.
What do the new asylum procedures look like?
Under the new law, Greek police and army personnel can conduct asylum interviews, which were previously done only by the Greek Asylum Service or the European Asylum Support Office, known by the acronym EASO.
Rights groups are worried that police and army personnel aren’t trained and don’t have an adequate understanding of international protection law. There have also been dozens of reports of the Greek police and army pushing back asylum seekers at the country’s land and sea borders and committing other abuses.
“This is a serious backward step that will compromise the impartiality of the asylum procedure,” said Eirini Gaitanou, Amnesty International's Greece campaigner.
The new law also makes the process of appealing a rejection more difficult. Asylum seekers will need to provide complicated legal documents to find out why they were turned down, and they have no access to free legal counsel from the state to navigate the process.
Under the previous system, the committees hearing appeals to rejected asylum claims were composed of two Greek judges and an independent expert trained by UNHCR. Now, the committees will only be made up of one or two judges – a change that UNHCR and the Greek Bar Association warn will create further delays and make more of a backlog.
The new law also allows for the detention of asylum seekers who have their claims rejected or who are having them reevaluated. This may end up in people being held in detention for more than 18 months, according to rights groups, even though this is unconstitutional in Greece.
And if an asylum seeker is deemed not to be cooperating with authorities, even for something as simple as moving to a different area or camp than the one they are assigned to, their case will be automatically suspended, according to Gaitanou from Amnesty International.
“This is a serious backward step that will compromise the impartiality of the asylum procedure.”
Authorities are drawing up a list of third countries considered to be safe for people to be returned to, which they say will speed up the asylum process.
To open up spots for newcomers, once an asylum seeker’s application is accepted, they will have a maximum of four months to leave the refugee camp they are living in and will then have to find accommodation on their own.
Unemployment in Greece is still at 17 percent, and UNHCR, MSF, and other organisations predict that this measure will dramatically increase the number of homeless refugees, placing thousands of people in precarious situations.
Critics and refugee rights advocates have long complained about the lack of integration programmes in Greece to help newcomers learn the language and find a job.
What lies ahead?
The EU-Turkey deal, the agreement underlying the situation for refugees in Greece, is set to expire at the end of 2019. A new agreement is currently being negotiated.
The EU commissioner for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, visited Turkey at the beginning of October, along with the French and German interior ministers. Avramopoulos said that Turkey had reassured them that it is determined to continue implementing the EU-Turkey agreement.
“We also passed on the message that the financing of the UN and IOM (International Organisation for Migration) programmes will continue in order for Turkey to keep the four million refugees there,” Avramopoulos told the Greek parliament mid-October, adding that if tensions on the Turkish-Syrian border escalate people living their could be forced to migrate to Europe.
Meanwhile, the Greek government is pushing for some changes to the current deal.
Citizen Protection Minister Michalis Chrisochoidis has called for asylum seekers from any country to be eligible for return to Turkey from anywhere in Greece, instead of just Syrians on the islands. “Otherwise,” Chrisochoidis said, “Moria will continue stigmatising Europe.”
Additional editing by Eric Reidy.