News from Lesvos, Greece – why access to legal advice is essential for asylum seekers

News from Lesvos, Greece – why access to legal advice is essential for asylum seekers

Is the right to asylum related to the language spoken by the asylum seeker? Could a victim of torture be deprived of his right to apply for international protection due to lack of interpretation? Not according to international law, but in Lesvos, from 15 to 20 November 2019, 28 asylum seekers from sub–Saharan countries received a negative decision on their asylum applications without having previously had the mandatory interview with the competent authorities.

The asylum interview is the cornerstone of the process of examining an application for international protection. It is the only opportunity that an applicant has to fully explain the reasons why he/she was forced to flee his/her country. For this reason, it is required by Greek, European and International Law to ensure a fair and efficient process.

Despite these safeguards in the law, the Regional Asylum Office in Lesvos justified its decision, citing its “inability” to ensure interpretation for the communication with the applicants claiming that “the applicant did not participate in a personal interview as repeated attempts to seek interpretation services in the applicant’s native language [were]. . . unsuccessful”, even in the case of an asylum seeker whose native language was Portuguese!

Unfortunately, this is not the only arbitrary practice being piloted in Lesvos. The administrative detention of asylum seekers coming from countries with a low refugee profile has been used since mid-2016 as part of an assumption that their asylum claims are not grounded despite violating the fundamental principles of individualized examination of any application for international protection, non-discrimination, and that detention of asylum seekers should only ever be used as a measure of last resort.

It seems that there is no space in Greece for refugees from Mali, Guinea or Angola according to the new government’s plan for “managing the migration / refugee issue”. In a damning reflection of just how unfair and inefficient the asylum procedure has become in Europe- one of the richest continents in the world, the country of origin and the language spoken by an asylum seeker is slowly becoming the main criteria for accessing refuge from persecution and war. The personal stories don’t matter. Who cares if one of these applicants had been attacked in their home country by jihadi militiamen and has lost two brothers because they were Christians? Who cares about the actual violation of the right to appeal when the relevant rejection decisions were written in languages that the applicants could not understand?

The answer is that only the legal actors providing free legal aid in Lesvos and other islands seem to care (GCR, OXFAM’s legal partner, is one of them). Together, they issued public statements directed to the Greek government and the relevant authorities[1] denouncing the unlawful rejection of the 28 asylum seekers without a personal interview. They also pursued complaints to the Greek Ombudsperson and coordinated among them to take over the appeals of the rejected asylum seekers and ensure that each of them will be represented by a lawyer. As usual, the legal actors are one of the only safeguards left within an increasingly unpredictable asylum system which fails to respond adequately and without discrimination of country of origin and gender.

This is why access to information and legal assistance for asylum seekers is so crucial. This is why lawyers are needed more than anything else during the asylum process. For some people, legal assistance can make the difference between life and death. When someone is erroneously rejected as a refugee, he or she can be sent back to life-threatening circumstances. And we should all care- because one day, we could be the ones fleeing for our lives and in need of safe refuge elsewhere. So, if you also care about the rights of people reaching Europe’s shores in search of safety, and if you think that fighting for their rights means fighting for human rights – then please support Lawyers Against Poverty, Oxfam, and the Greek Council for Refugees.

Nefeli Bami, Senior Protection Officer, Oxfam Greece