Is Greece going to back down on asylum 'reform'?

New government's plan to 'simplify' asylum procedure has been met with concern by human rights and legal aid groups.

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    The Moria camp on the island of Lesbos is just one of several packed and overflowing facilities [Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters]
    The Moria camp on the island of Lesbos is just one of several packed and overflowing facilities [Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters]

    Athens, Greece - Greece's announcement that it would "simplify" its asylum procedure has met such concern from human rights groups and the judiciary that the government may be reconsidering its course of action.

    The two-month-old conservative New Democracy government issued a statement on September 1 accusing the previous, left-wing Syriza administration of creating an "absurd … unique, complicated" legal framework for asylum, leading to "endless recycling of asylum applications".

    "The government will simplify this system," it said.

    The legal profession believes this likely means an abolition of the appeals process to which a rejected asylum seeker may apply, and which is mandatory under European and international humanitarian law.

    It would pass the burden of thousands of asylum appeals to administrative courts which are already struggling under the weight of cases to deal with.

    "The possible transfer of these cases to the administrative courts will … greatly overburden them, which has consequences for the speed and efficiency of their overall performance," a statement from the Administrative Judges' Union said.

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    The Appeals Authority, created in 2016 as part of the Greek Asylum Service, has heard more than 36,000 denials, overturning about three percent of them.

    Human rights lawyers say hundreds of applicants who failed to win their appeals have gone on to contest their cases in Administrative Court, and a handful have ultimately reached the Supreme Court, but the Appeals Authority clearly carries the main burden of ensuring fairness in the system.

    New Democracy, which created the Asylum Service in 2013, clamoured for the Appeals Authority when in opposition. A policy paper it published in 2016 demanded that "the second instance Appeals Authority must start operations immediately" to help clear the caseload.

    Legal aid charities that help shepherd refugees through their application process say it has lived up to that task. "Changing the system won't speed things up and it will probably lead to a lessening of rights for refugees," says Vasilis Papadopoulos, head of legal research at the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR), a leading legal aid charity.

    In addition, there are practical and legal problems. "Administrative courts do not review the substance of a case, only the legality [of state services' behaviour]," says Papadopoulos.

    Further adjustments would have to be made. The Appeals Authority offers plaintiffs continued international protection and access is free. Administrative courts offer no protection from deportation and charge fees beginning at $880 and which can end up double that figure.

    "The plaintiff could be back in Afghanistan by the time their case is adjudicated," says Alexandros Konstantinou, a lawyer with the GCR. "And there's a limit to how many appeals we could represent in court, given the fee."

    The Greek Asylum Service and its overseer, the Citizens' Protection Ministry, declined to comment, leading some to believe that the government may be rethinking its strategy.

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    The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told Al Jazeera that "further clarification by the Greek authorities" was needed, but stressed "the right to appeal is a fundamental safeguard".

    The UNHCR also questioned the imperative of speeding up returns to Turkey. "In 2018, for the fifth consecutive year, Turkey was the country that hosted the largest number of refugees worldwide," it said, adding that Turkey needed "further support to develop its international protection framework".

    An imperfect process

    The asylum process is largely one of faith. Interviewers cannot independently verify an applicant's claims. They instead rely on the internal consistency of the applicant's story and their background knowledge of the country the applicant is fleeing.

    This can sometimes lead to miscarriages of justice, as in the case of a 20-year-old Iraqi man who was denied asylum last year, having made a claim on the basis of his atheism and homosexuality.

    "The cafeteria in Basra where he worked hired two Christian women as waitresses," said Natalia Kafkoutsou, his GCR appeal lawyer. "That was enough to prompt the Shia paramilitary group Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq to blow up the cafe. Days later, they visited the man's house and beat him senseless … His father and uncle decided he had to be smuggled out of the country."

    Thanks to the appeals process, justice was eventually done, says Kafkoutsou. "In May this year, the 20th appeals committee overturned the first instance denial because it decided that his homosexuality was grounds for persecution in Iraq, especially in combination with his atheism."

    ND pledges reform

    The New Democracy party has promised to reduce the number of refugees on Greek soil, currently estimated at 50,000.

    The matter gained urgency in recent weeks with more than 200 refugees arriving on Greek shores daily, double the rate earlier in the year. They are spilling beyond the borders of refugee camps on Greece's eastern Aegean islands to which they are usually confined until their asylum cases are heard, and which now act as a buffer zone for Europe.

    We cannot allow some EU members to whistle nonchalantly on the subject of solidarity between member states while enjoying the full benefits of Schengen

    Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greek prime minister

    Many Greek officials see this as deliberate Turkish policy. Twice this month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to flood Europe with refugees unless he receives more international financial support for Syrian refugees in his country, and greater endorsement for a Turkish-controlled zone in northern Syria.

    "If they do not give us the necessary support in this struggle, then we will not be able to stop the 3.65 million refugees from Syria and another two million people who will reach our borders from Idlib," Erdogan told a rally in Malatya, Turkey's Eastern Anatolia region, on September 8.

    Greek and EU officials know what this could potentially mean. Almost a million refugees entered Europe by hopping onto the Greek islands that lie as little as 1.5 nautical miles off Turkish shores in 2015, prompting the EU-Turkey Statement the following March. It created a process through which the European Union and Turkey could return refugees entering each other's territory.

    In practice, though, more than 350,000 refugees have entered Greece since the Statement, while Greece has sent back less than one percent.

    New Democracy promises to send more back. Its 2016 policy paper demanded Greece apply to deport "the 50,000 refugees who are trapped on mainland Greece".

    "Mr Erdogan needs to understand that he cannot threaten Greece and Europe in an attempt to secure more funding for refugee management," Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told reporters on the day Erdogan spoke.

    "Europe has given a lot of money to Turkey - six billion euros ($6.7bn) in recent years."

    Mitsotakis has also pledged to strike back at the European populists who refuse to share the burden of the asylum applications.

    "We cannot allow some EU members to whistle nonchalantly on the subject of solidarity between member states while enjoying the full benefits of Schengen," Mitsotakis said, referring to the open borders agreement between 26 of the 28 EU members (Ireland and the UK are not part of the scheme).

    "I shall propose that if a country wants to enjoy Schengen, it must agree with common decisions or there have to be consequences."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News