Athens, Greece – Two aid organizations have asked the European Commission to initiate infringement proceedings against Greece for violations of European asylum law.
Oxfam and WeMove Europe said a Greek asylum law that came into effect earlier this year has made it easy to disqualify asylum seekers and it is difficult for them to appeal rejections.
The groups said these violations were “deliberate, drastic, systematic and ongoing”.
A senior Greek immigration source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said problems in the new asylum law were addressed by a parliamentary change in May.
“If someone didn’t show up for an interview or didn’t collect their registration, the old law only allowed you to suspend the application. The new law only allowed you to reject it. This was changed in May. The asylum service can now reject or suspend an application. “
The new law and better staffing have helped the Greek Asylum Service double the speed of its decisions this year and cut the backlog of cases by almost a third.
The immigration source admitted that the new law tightened procedures but said it remained under the purview of the EU Asylum Directive. “The previous law was favorable for applicants. The new law should go in the opposite direction. “
The aid groups also said the government was not providing enough public defenders to appeal leaders. Legal aid groups in Greece have told Al Jazeera that an appeal is too complicated to be filed without a lawyer, but only one in five appellants has access to a lawyer. The law allows Appellants to hire a private attorney, but few have the resources to do so.
Perhaps the most serious claim made by the aid groups is that Greece is carrying out setbacks on its borders. By not allowing potential asylum seekers to apply at all, Greece runs the risk of returning potential refugees to dangerous environments from which they want to escape – a serious crime under the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention.
Greece was the entry point for more than 60 percent of the refugees who came to Europe last year, up from just 23 percent in 2020.
Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis denied this because Greece is carrying out setbacks.
“We protect our borders with determination, respecting our international obligations and European regulations,” Mitarakis said recently. “Illegal entry is unacceptable, and that is in line with international law.”
According to EU rules, asylum seekers have to apply in the EU country where they first arrived. This means that countries like Greece bear a disproportionate burden of asylum applications. Although only 2 percent of the EU population lives here, Greece processes more than 13 percent of EU asylum applications.
“There is no EU country in which as many people as we live in relation to the local population,” said Manolis Logothetis, head of the Greek reception and identification service. “The Netherlands, for example, has a capacity of 5,000 refugees. Our system has a capacity of 100,000. It is natural that we cannot offer the same level of service. “
Logothetis said the government is trying to reduce reception capacity.
“We have two options – increase capacity or decrease the number of people who need to be in the system. We chose the second one, which is easier for European taxpayers. “
In June, July and August, typically peak months for refugee crossings in the Aegean, the figure was just 2,076, compared to 18,519 in the same period last year – a decrease of 89 percent.
During the same period, 2,736 asylum seekers were voluntarily deported, relocated or brought back home. “It is the first time that the balance between arrival and departure is in the black,” Mitarakis told parliament this month.
A continental problem
The Greek authorities are not the only ones who have been criticized. Last year Al Jazeera revealed details of complaints from aid groups against the European Asylum Office (EASO).
This included a failure to determine whether an asylum seeker is a minor, which changes his or her legal status; Failure to allow an applicant’s attorney to be present; and the failure to provide reliable interpreters.
Seriously, legal aid groups accused EASO of conducting their interviews as interrogation and repeatedly asked the same question in order to find inconsistencies.
A decision by the European Ombudsman last year revealed that EASO had committed “maladministration” through such interview techniques when they resulted in the deportation of a gay Algerian man.
Greek officials point out that the scale of the refugee phenomenon in Greece calls for stronger EU support – a sentiment that is at the heart of the European Commission’s new proposals for a common asylum policy.
“Lesbos alone submitted 22,250 applications last year. Austria recorded a total of 12,000, ”said the senior immigration source. “Samos recorded 8,000 – more than Finland.”
“Greece is implementing an EU policy on the islands. It implements the EU-Turkey declaration. This means that we are being asked to do the hard work for the European Union, ”the source said.
“Telling me that the situation is difficult and that there are problems is hardly news. We know that very well. “