Inside Greece’s Flawed Asylum System
By Danilo Zak
It’s July, and the Kara Tepe refugee camp is hot and dusty. 34 degrees blinks in blocky green on a battered neon sign that rises above a ramshackle Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) hygiene kiosk. Even here, the dirt claims ownership, invading what is meant to be a sterile safe haven. The small kiosk, which delivers soap, sanitizer, and a few other basic cleaning items, sits at the corner of a large collection of sturdy white tents. Rows of these tents, pressed together and sparsely furnished, provide shelter for the thousand or so refugees that reside in Kara Tepe.
“There are so many problems,” Ghalib tells me. “It’s very hot. The food is bad, and many people get sick. Everywhere there are insects, mice, and snakes. It is so hard for me to eat or sleep.”
Ghalib is an older Afghani man who arrived on the small Greek island of Lesvos several months earlier, after smuggling himself and his family on a boat from Turkey’s nearby western coast. During his journey from Afghanistan, he suffered a spinal cord injury that has left him partially paralyzed and constantly in pain.
“Every day, we go to UNCHR, and every day, they tell us to wait. They help only the Syrians. Finally, after eighteen days of this, we got a lawyer to represent us.”
Ghalib was eager to speak. He wants the world to know the conditions here for Afghans, the struggle and suffering that he and his people must face as they fight for papers, for safety, for a new life. Greece is not supporting him the way it must to uphold fundamental human rights enshrined by the United Nations and the European Convention for Human Rights.
And yet, compared to many asylum seekers from the Middle East, Ghalib and his family have been lucky. They had the means to leave danger in Afghanistan and make it to Turkey. They survived that perilous ten-mile voyage from Turkey to Lesvos, a journey that had claimed four lives just two days before we spoke. After arriving on the island and entering into the asylum procedure, Ghalib was sent to Kara Tepe, the most comfortable and well-run camp on the island. With the infamous Moria detention center (rife with police brutality, ethnic tensions, and cases of tuberculosis) just a few miles down the road, being sent to Kara Tepe seems a blessing.
Finally, unlike the vast majority of asylum seekers in Kara Tepe, and in Greece as a whole, Ghalib and his family had access to individualized legal assistance via a UNHCR lawyer. It is likely, within a month or two, that the family will receive asylum and be able to start a new life in Greece. Ghalib, his wife, and his two daughters, waiting for months in a hot, dirty camp with lingering injuries and poor food, somehow are among the luckiest refugees I met in a month visiting camps across the country.
For most of the millions of refugees attempting to flee dangerous regions in the Middle East, especially over the past few months, the path to asylum in Europe has been significantly more difficult. In Turkey, asylum seekers are frequently endangered, illegally repatriated, and discriminated against. It is for this reason that so many refugees have used Turkey as a stepping-stone towards more legitimate safety in Europe. Once there, asylum seekers had access to a more capable EU asylum system that is backed up by layers of national and international law, courts, directives, and referendums. Crucially, the right to appeal is explicitly ensured at several stages of the process.
But as more asylum seekers made their way through Greece and into the rest of Europe, the EU asylum system was put under significant pressure. Anti-refugee sentiment and fear of terrorism grew, and many countries began re-instituting internal borders. Asylum seekers who had friends and families in northern Europe were suddenly stuck in camps and detention centers in Greece, a country without the resources to provide for them on its own. Everywhere in the Aegean, rights guaranteed to asylum seekers under Greek and European law were being almost categorically withheld. Greece does not have the money, lawyers, or initiative to provide adequate legal information, much less individual legal counsel, to most of the asylum seekers.
Thousands continued to arrive on Aegean shores, and in overcrowded asylum centers tensions flared. Like Ghalib, many asylum seekers in Greece are forced to constantly define themselves based on nationality, as the process is very different depending on each individual’s country of origin. Syrians are often prioritized in the process due to their high chance of receiving asylum, leaving Afghanis, Pakistanis, Iraqis, and others feeling unfairly treated. This has engendered tension within camps all over the country. In a camp near Athens, an Afghan man died in a brawl related to ethnic tension, one of a number of similar deaths throughout Greece.
The EU-Turkey deal in March was a callous and cowardly attempt by Europe to ease the burden on Greece without requiring other EU countries to accept more refugees. Part of the deals mandate was to “return” all of the refugees who arrived irregularly in Greece after March 20 to Turkey, under the premise that Turkey somehow counted as a “safe third country.” Given Turkey’s general inability to provide any meaningful protection to refugees or acceptable access to labor, medicine, and education, the EU-Turkey deal has come under intense criticism for violating the guidelines and codes that were the reason the EU asylum system was so vaunted. Deporting those who arrived after March 20 to Turkey constitutes mass expulsion and contradicts fundamental principles of asylum and human rights.
At first those deported had the ability to appeal the decision. Frequently, the committees judging those appeals would reject the first instance decisions under the grounds that Turkey is not a safe third country. Here, the asylum system was working the way it should: When Europe and Greece sought to violate the law in order to deport en masse a group of asylum seekers, the right to appeal prevented them from following through.
However, on June 16, Greece passed an amendment that rearranged the appeals committees to be made up of Greek judges instead of independent representatives from the UNHCR and National Commission for Human Rights. The bill, unabashedly forced through Greek parliament by EU officials, was a gross attempt by Europe to dismantle the checks and balances of their own asylum system. The new committees have yet to judge appeals yet, but it seems likely that they will begin to reverse the old committees’ rulings and uphold first instance decisions of inadmissibility.
According to Greek attorneys, past Committee members, and the NCHR, the new amendment entails an unconstitutional overlapping of judicial and administrative powers, and is an overt political attempt to influence a quasi-judicial body that is required by law to be fully independent and impartial. With so many of their rights already being trodden on in Greece, Asylum seekers who have arrived after March 20 have now also lost the right to an effective remedy.
The new amendment violates the right to appeal guaranteed to asylum seekers in the European Convention for Human Rights, and some legal advocates are preparing to take cases against the amendment before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). With the inefficiencies and backlog in Greece’s higher courts, it could take over five years for an ECtHR case to be brought against the new amendment.
The EU-Turkey deal and the lack of effective appeals is far from the only injustice done to Greece’s ever-growing refugee population. Provision of information and basic organization at these camps is almost universally poor. With terror attacks igniting even more fear and Islamophobia, alternate routes through Europe may begin to close as well. Many refugees I spoke to were confused by this cause and effect. They are running from the same terrorists, they say. ISIS and the Taliban killed their families as well. “I am here because my school was destroyed by the Taliban,” one young refugee told me in the Piraeus Port camp.
Many of those I spoke to were the same young Muslim men who are so thoroughly demonized by the west. They have given up their lives, their families, and their communities in a desperate and dangerous bid for safety. Many have made this journey only to end up in the brutal conditions of Moria, where military personnel detain them in barb wire and steel bars. If anything is radicalizing these young men, it is the disgrace of an asylum system they are faced with in Greece.
Ghalib shook my hand, grabbed his crutches, and hobbled off to his tent. He must survive the undoubtedly uncomfortable conditions of hot Kara Tepe, and make it another few months to his substantive asylum interview. With the help of his lawyer, he and his family will likely be given asylum. Then, they must work with what little Greece is able to provide for asylees to build a new life. It is an almost insurmountable challenge. And yet, this small Afghani family is among the lucky ones. They are those who might find a way out of this broken asylum system in which so many fall through the cracks.
Danilo Zak is a junior in Silliman College. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.