Lesvos is a small island which, at the time of the Justice Fund grant, received the majority of sea arrivals (on average 1,300 asylum seekers in each month from October 2017 to February 2018). Most of the asylum seekers during the period were from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – with many extremely vulnerable, suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of sexual violence and torture.
Despite this, the EU and the Greek Government worked to minimise or remove entirely the safeguards available to asylum seekers under Greek law and seek to return them to Turkey under the EU-Turkey Deal (in accordance with which any person arriving from Turkey to a Greek island shall be returned to Turkey once the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) has determined through an admissibility interview if it is safe to return them there).
According to safeguards under Greek law, asylum seekers recognised as vulnerable or eligible for reunification with family members are exempt from such admissibility interviews and are meant to receive an asylum interview on the mainland with the Greek Asylum Service instead of EASO. However, criteria for identifying vulnerable individuals were changed in an effort to increase returns of even the most vulnerable to Turkey.
The GCR found that due to the chaotic and under-resourced reception centres in Lesvos, asylum seekers were often unable to access proper vulnerability assessments and may not be vetted to establish eligibility for reunification with family.
Support from Lawyers Against Poverty
Access to legal aid for asylum seekers is a right recognised by the European Court of Human Rights and may for individuals fleeing war and maltreatment mean the difference between life and death. It ensures that asylum procedures progress without mistakes or violations of rights and reduces the anxiety inherent in seeking asylum, mitigating the risk of self-harm and other negative coping mechanisms to which asylum seekers may otherwise resort out of despair. It may also reduce the ability of smugglers or other individuals to exploit asylum seekers (for example by offering alternative access to refugee status or mobility).
Access to legal aid has, however, become increasingly difficult. Despite the exponential increase of asylum applications after the advent of the EU-Turkey Deal (692 applications were filed on Lesvos in 2015 compared with 9,411 in 2017), there has not been an equivalent increase in the availability of legal aid. Greek law only allows for access to such aid at appeal stage, which is often too late, and our understanding is that there is a very limited number of lawyers available to support asylum seekers in Lesvos, meaning that individuals are reliant mainly on word of mouth for information about seeking asylum in Greece.
The €10,000 from Lawyers Against Poverty was used to contribute to the funding of a GCR lawyer for 5 months between October 2017 and February 2018. This lawyer was able to open 65 new cases during this time and supply information, counselling or representation to around 96 individuals, including some with ongoing open cases (cases may remain open from anywhere between a few weeks and several years).
The wider GCR initiative was staffed with another lawyer and a small number of interpreters and social workers who were able to offer counselling, referrals to urgent services such as medical care and case management for vulnerable individuals. Our funding was used under this initiative to help 193 individuals (49 women, 94 men and 64 children) access individual legal support and 275 individuals (81 women, 83 men and 111 children) access social counselling.
Of the 275 individuals who received social counselling, 107 were victims of rape, racist violence and exploitation, torture and other types of psychological, physical or sexual abuse and 65 who had not been identified as vulnerable by medical examiners were assessed as such by social workers. They were referred for and received a vulnerability assessment and subsequently were able to access the appropriate asylum procedures for vulnerable individuals under Greek law.
Legal aid is currently the single most critical intervention for asylum seekers arriving in Greece and yet is still inaccessible to many. The number of asylum seekers arriving into Greece so far in 2018 is three times the number during the same time in 2017 and is set to increase further. Lawyers Against Poverty hopes to continue to support this vital work in the future. As the EU builds “Fortress Europe” and increases its impenetrability to migrants, legal aid is needed now more than ever.