Greece’s rejected asylum seekers stuck in limbo

Fearing deportation to Turkey or elsewhere, rejected asylum seekers say they feel unsafe going outside in Lesbos.

Moria - don''t use
Refugees in Greece's Moria camp fill water bottles from a hose at a nearby farm [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]

Mytilene, Lesbos Island, Greece – When Armine Nenareh’s first asylum application was rejected by Greek authorities three months ago, he was overwhelmed with fear of being sent back to Iran.

Living in a squatted office belonging to Syriza, Greece’s ruling left-wing party, in Mytilene, the 30-year-old Iranian Kurd explained that he spent more than a year in the decrepit and overcrowded Moria camp, a closed facility on Lesbos Island.

Nenareh is one of the dozens of refugees who currently, with the support and assistance of local anti-fascist activists, have occupied Syriza’s office for more than two weeks.

They want to be moved to Athens and put in proper accommodation rather than refugee camps.

“It was like hell there, and everyone knows it,” he told Al Jazeera, recalling living in a small tent with eight others in the camp, which is currently home to more than 6,000 refugees and migrants.

“I can’t explain how bad it was.”

After making the dangerous journey across the mountainous border region between Iran and Turkey and taking a dinghy across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece, he found himself waiting in seemingly endless queues to see a doctor or get a bottle of water in Moria.

“We would wake up at six in the morning and wait for a long time, sometimes two hours, for a small bottle of water and a little piece of bread,” he remembered.

“There’s a lot of pressure and tension [in the camp], and fights broke out in the queues often.”

Although the Greek government has barred asylum seekers from travelling to the country’s mainland, authorities recently announced a decision to move 5,000 refugees and migrants to Athens to ease the mounting pressure on the islands due to overcrowding.

Yet, life took a turn for the worse after Nenareh received news his asylum application was rejected, prompting him to leave Moria out of fear of being apprehended by police. 


“After the refusal came, I knew that [authorities] could arrest me at any moment,” he said, adding that he faced “problems” in Iran due to Kurdish political activism. 

Although Nenareh declined to provide details about his situation in Iran owing to concern for the safety of his family, watchdogs have decried the Iranian government’s treatment of the Kurdish minority, which comprises around 8 percent of the population.

Scared to go outside

Because of the March 2016 deal between the European Union and Turkey, which aims to stem the flow of refugees from to Europe, asylum seekers can apply in Greece or be deported to Turkey to apply for relocation from there.

More than 60,000 refugees and migrants are stranded in Greece due to that deal and a series of closed borders across the Balkan region. 

In September, Greece’s highest administrative court ruled that two rejected Syrian asylum seekers could be returned to Turkey after rejecting appeals against their deportation orders. 

That decision drew the condemnation of rights groups, including Amnesty International.

Of the 8,500 refugees on Lesbos, more than 6,000 live in Moria, which residents have described as a 'prison' [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]
Of the 8,500 refugees on Lesbos, more than 6,000 live in Moria, which residents have described as a ‘prison’ [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]

John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe director, described the decision “as an ominous precedent for many other asylum-seekers who have fled conflict and persecution and are currently stranded on the Greek islands”.

Explaining in a statement at the time that conditions for refugees in Turkey are unsafe, Dalhuisen continued: “Until such time as asylum-seekers and refugees can be guaranteed effective protection in Turkey, EU countries must stop sending them there.”

For Nenareh, life has become doubly difficult while stuck in limbo, dodging authorities and feeling hopeless and out of options.

“We no longer feel safe going out,” he said, alluding to the chance of being arrested and an apparent upsurge in anti-refugee xenophobia on Lesbos.

While Nenareh and dozens of others recently occupied Sappho Square, a central area in Mytilene, for more than a month to protest living conditions in Moria, local far-rightists hurled racist insults at them and photographed their faces. 


“We go and get food, but then we hurry back. We get a pack of cigarettes, but we don’t wait around. It’s not safe.”

At the time of publication, Greece’s migration ministry had not replied to Al Jazeera’s request for a comment.

Greek Migration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas recently defended the EU-Turkey deal against widespread criticism. 

“Despite the difficulties of [the deal], which has gray areas Europe must clarify, it is a useful agreement for Greece,” he told the local Ekathimerini daily last month.

Nasim Lomani, a member of the Solidarity Initiative for Political and Economic Refugees activist group, said that Greek authorities often provide asylum to members of a family and reject their relatives.

“Practically speaking, they divide families so that half of the families can move from the island and other cannot,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Meanwhile, the plan seems to be to keep the conditions [on the islands] so bad that others don’t come [from Turkey].”

‘Didn’t imagine Europe was like this’

Raza, a 31-year-old ethnic Arab who fled Iran’s Ahvaz and arrived in Greece six months ago, also had his first asylum request rejected.

Ahvaz is the capital of Iran’s Khuzestan region, which is home to more than three million Arabs who endure systematic discrimination related to politics, employment and cultural rights, according to rights groups.

Ahvaz’s Arabs have also been targeted by mass arrests and executions for their political activism, Amnesty International has observed in the past.

We go and get food, but then we hurry back. We get a pack of cigarettes, but we don't wait around. It's not safe.

by Armine Nenareh, Iranian Kurdish refugee in Greece

Declining to provide his surname for fear of his relatives’ safety in Iran, he explained that he spent three months in Moria before leaving the camp after his asylum request was rejected.

“The police [in Moria] made us feel like we were prisoners,” he told Al Jazeera. “In every way, they didn’t treat us well.”

Although Raza and Nenareh have filed appeals, they are not hopeful that Greek authorities will reverse their decisions. 

Raza’s lawyer recently told him there is 90-percent chance his appeal will be rejected, he said. 

Raza worries about eventually being returned to Iran, where he says his brother died in prison after being jailed for political activities.

“I have an Iranian passport, I don’t want it,” he said, adding that he hopes to reach the United Kingdom and obtain asylum there. “I want to study, to get married, and I’ve never started my life because of our situation in Iran.”


Unsure of his fate, Raza said he is exhausted from stress. Authorities have informed him that he has until January 31 to successfully appeal his asylum rejection or leave the country, he said.

“Waiting is hard, it’s like a mental prison,” Raza added. “I had no idea Europe was going to be like this … I am scared to return to either Turkey or Iran.”

For his part, Nenareh no longer wants to stay in Greece.

“At this point, I would go anywhere where people treat me like a human being,” he concluded. “We’re all [rejected asylum seekers] in the same situation.”

Source: Al Jazeera