The start of a new year in Lesvos has seen the arrival of a paradoxical new challenge: while a bottleneck of asylum seekers applying for settlement has been the problem to date – many wait up to two years for an interview – speed is now the enemy.
On 1st January 2020 the Greek government passed a new law, under which asylum seekers in the ‘hotspots’ on the Greek islands – including Moria camp, where LAP works – will have only five days to appeal a first negative decision. That’s five days in which they must find a lawyer and submit grounds for their appeal – which must be in Greek.
Philip Worthington, managing director of European Lawyers in Lesvos (ELIL), one of LAP’s local partners, recently told The Guardian: “People’s cases are being determined very quickly with not enough time to gather evidence, documents, or see a lawyer. This increases the risk of people with a good basis for an asylum claim being rejected.”
Under the new law, vulnerable people – unaccompanied children, victims of torture, sexual violence and trafficking and those who have suffered trauma – are no longer exempt from the accelerated border procedures. They’re no longer protected – on grounds of safety – from returns to Turkey.
The Greek government is aiming to speed up returns to Turkey so it can implement the EU-Turkey deal of 2016. Fast-tracking is the latest part of a pledge to “decongest” the Aegean islands by deporting 10,000 migrants by the end of the year; Greece intends to close the hotspot camps and replace them with new controlled structures with a total capacity of 20,000.
But last year alone close to 54,000 migrants arrived in Greece by sea and almost 14,000 arrived by land, according to the UNHCR. Oxfam reports that in Moria, the largest camp, more than 17,000 people are currently crammed into a facility designed for a maximum of 2,500 people, with only 300 toilets. And when Turkey opened its borders with Greece at the end of February 2020, an estimated 35,000 migrants and asylum seekers gathered on the land border, with many more preparing to cross by sea.
Inside, Moria is a scene of violence and disease, where fighting breaks out frequently. Afghan girls who arrived with dreams of finding a school education are instead learning survival skills. During February, migrants took to the streets in their thousands to protest against the chronic overcrowding and horrendous living conditions. The UN has called on the Greek government to take emergency measures to improve the situation.
The head of the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency, Michael O’Flaherty, said in November 2019 that the plight of trapped migrants on Lesvos and other islands was “the single most worrying fundamental rights issue that we are confronting anywhere in the European Union”.
The violation of rights and the risk of mistakes can only grow in the wake of the new law and accelerated procedures. The need for lawyers to substantiate cases and navigate the complex asylum process is even more acute. In 2018 LAP granted £15,000 to Oxfam’s continuing legal aid programme for asylum seekers on the Greek islands. This funded one lawyer from one of Oxfam’s local partners, the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR), for six months and managed the legal fees of new and ongoing cases for that period.
In total 1,667 asylum seekers received help: 517 beneficiaries were reached by the GCR lawyer; 1,150 were helped through the dissemination of a legal information pamphlet, also paid for by LAP’s grant. Produced by Oxfam, GCR and ELIL, it was printed in ten different languages, covering the languages of 95% of asylum communities on Lesvos.
Phil Worthington estimates that in the last three and a half years, 74.5% of the 10,000 asylum seekers helped by ELIL were granted international protection, while the average granted in Greece is 46.5%.
LAP’s support is making a vital difference to asylum seekers’ lives in Lesvos – thanks to the generous donations of our members.
[This report was prepared prior to the Covid-19 outbreak in Europe]