Covid-19 has made us all wonder what to expect from “the new normal”. For Philip Worthington, managing director of European Lawyers in Lesvos (ELIL), one of LAP’s local partners in the Moria refugee camp, its meaning is crystal clear.
“Once, spending one night in a refugee camp was considered unacceptable. Now Europe has accepted that 40,000 to 50,000 asylum seekers are living in camps on the Aegean Islands. That’s the new normal.”
If changing this is the long-term challenge, the immediate challenge facing lawyers working on Lesvos remains Covid-19.
Greece imposed a strict lockdown on 23 March; all citizens, had to text the authorities or document their purpose if they wanted to leave their homes. But “enhanced” measures were applied to the refugee camps, including a curfew from 7pm to 7am, with limited numbers of permits granted to leave the camps at all. Effectively this cut access between the camps and the outside world.
With all non-medical services also suspended, ELIL closed its offices in Moria and Lesvos’s main port town Mytilini and began working remotely from accommodation on the island. Greek asylum services had closed on 13 March and for two months there were no asylum interviews; all previously scheduled interviews were in limbo.
The refugee family reunification process continued, however, and ELIL switched its resources to that. The big loss has been drop-in sessions in Moria, when asylum seekers with legal documents or questions can seek advice unscheduled.
Since early May, ELIL has been holding remote asylum interview preparation consultations from its Mytilini office. An asylum seeker – with a permit to leave Moria – comes to the office and meets a lawyer over Skype, with ELIL providing an in-person interpreter. ELIL has also re-started in-person consultations with its Greek lawyers.
“The feedback is that it’s better than expected and remote consultations are a great way for lawyers to stay involved,” says Phil. Subject matter is sensitive and as he says, “we have to create a similar atmosphere of confidentiality.”
Though ELIL has been interviewing similar numbers as when working inside the camps, universal access could prove a challenge. With the camp office closed, asylum seekers must call the duty phone; details are on the side of ELIL’s container in the camp. But for those who are illiterate, that’s a potential barrier. “We’ve asked medical agencies to refer them,” says Phil.
Incredibly there have been no confirmed outbreaks of Covid-19 in the camps on Lesvos, but numbers on the island are increasing. There have also been very few official arrivals of new asylum seekers on the islands – but there are reports of pushbacks (the authorities preventing arrivals at land and sea borders), which the UNHCR has urged Greece to investigate.
Covid-19 of course followed hard on the heels of Turkey opening its European border with Greece to asylum seekers in early March; thousands of refugees gathered at the border (although very few actually crossed the border and, overall, arrivals were lower during this period than the same period the year before).
Though the Greek lockdown was lifted on 4 May, it continued in the camps and still remains in place. A change in asylum law, passed by the Greek government in May, has also altered the asylum process, including suspending humanitarian protection and making arbitrary detention possible. It has been heavily criticised by Oxfam and another of LAP’s local legal aid partners, the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR).
Against this background, Greek asylum services – which reopened and restarted interviews at the end of May – continued to issue asylum application decisions while it was closed. So besides a backlog of first interviews, there is also an enormous imbalance between the number of refugees facing a negative decision – and a ten-day appeal deadline – and access to legal aid.
“Our capacity is reduced. There are still very few volunteers on the ground. All the NGOs – including the legal ones – are at full capacity,” says Phil.
With international travel restrictions slowly lifting, ELIL has restarted its volunteer programme for European lawyers (who assist its permanent Greek lawyers and legal assistants), albeit with strict preventative measures related to Covid-19 in place. And Phil highlights a glimmer of hope to spring from the pandemic.
“Because of coronavirus there has been a push for unaccompanied minors to be relocated,” says Phil. Germany, Luxembourg, Finland, Ireland and France are among 11 EU Member States pledging to accept 2,000 unaccompanied and separated children.
“The burden sharing needs to be fair,” he continues. “It’s a European problem; it needs a European solution.”
LAP has supported legal aid programmes at Moria camp since 2017 through grants of more than £38,000 to Oxfam Greece, ELIL and GCR. We are currently funding a legal aid lawyer through GCR. We would like to thank our members for their continued generosity, which enables this support. To donate to the LAP Justice Fund please visit https://www.oxfam.org.uk/lawyers-against-poverty/donate-now. To support ELIL, visit https://www.europeanlawyersinlesvos.eu.
Emma Pomfret, Volunteer Journalist