Relations between Ankara and Athens have been uneasy in recent months and tensions have increased over Hagia Sophia.
Athens, Greece – Two aid organisations have asked the European Commission to launch infringement proceedings against Greece for violations of Europe’s asylum law.
Oxfam and WeMove Europe said a Greek asylum law that took effect this year has made it easy to disqualify asylum applicants and difficult for them to appeal rejections.
The groups said these violations are taking place “deliberately, on a drastic scale, in a systemic manner and on an ongoing basis”.
A senior Greek immigration source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that problems in the new asylum law were addressed through a parliamentary amendment in May.
“If somebody didn’t show up for an interview or didn’t pick up their registration, the old law allowed you only to suspend their application. The new law allowed you only to reject it. This was amended in May. The asylum service can now reject or suspend an application.”
The new law and with better staffing have helped the Greek Asylum Service double the speed of its decisions this year and reduce a backlog of cases by almost one-third.
The immigration source admitted the new law stiffened procedures, but said it remained within the remit of the EU Asylum Directive. “The previous law was favourable to applicants. The new law was meant to go in the opposite direction.”
The aid groups also said the government does not provide appealants with enough public defenders. Legal aid groups in Greece have told Al Jazeera an appeal is too complicated to be filed without a lawyer, but only one in five appealants has access to a lawyer. The law allows appealants to use a private lawyer, but few have the resources to do so.
Perhaps the most serious allegation levied by the aid groups is that Greece is conducting pushbacks at its borders. By not allowing potential asylum seekers to apply in the first place, Greece risks reintroducing potential refugees to dangerous environments they are attempting to flee – a serious crime under the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees.
Greece was the entry point for more than 60 percent of refugee arrivals to Europe last year, versus just 23 percent in 2020.
Migration minister Notis Mitarakis denied that it was because Greece is performing pushbacks.
“We are protecting our borders with determination, observing our international obligations, and European regulations,” Mitarakis recently said. “Illegal entries are not acceptable, and that is entirely in line with international law.”
A tough job
EU rules require asylum seekers to apply at the EU country in which they first arrived. This means that countries, such as Greece, carry a disproportionate burden of asylum applications. Although it is home to just 2 percent of the EU population, Greece is processing more than 13 percent of EU asylum applications.
“There is no EU country hosting as many people as us in proportion to the native population,” said Manolis Logothetis, who heads Greece’s Reception and Identification Service. “The Netherlands, for example, have a reception capacity of 5,000 refugees. Our system has a capacity of 100,000. It’s natural that we can’t provide the same level of services.”
Logothetis said the government is trying to scale down the reception capacity.
“We have two choices – to increase capacity or decrease the number of people who need to be in the system. We chose the second, which is easier on the pocket of European taxpayers.”
In June, July and August, usually peak months for refugee crossings in the Aegean, arrivals numbered just 2,076 compared with 18,519 for the same period last year – a drop of 89 percent.
During the same period, 2,736 asylum applicants were deported, relocated or returned home voluntarily. “It’s the first time that the balance of arrivals and departures is in the black,” Mitarakis told Parliament this month.
A continental problem
Greek authorities are not the only ones who have come under criticism. Last year, Al Jazeera revealed details of complaints by aid groups against the European Asylum Support Office (EASO).
These included failure to establish whether an asylum applicant is a minor, which alters their legal status; failure to allow an applicant’s lawyer to be present; and failure to provide reliable interpreters.
More seriously, legal aid groups accused EASO of conducting its interviews as interrogations, repeatedly asking the same question in an effort to find inconsistencies.
A decision by the European Ombudsman last year found EASO had committed “maladministration” through such interview techniques, when they resulted in the deportation of a gay Algerian man.
Greek officials point out the scale of the refugee phenomenon in Greece demands greater EU assistance – a sentiment that sits at the heart of the European Commission’s new proposals for a common asylum policy.
“Lesvos alone recorded 22,250 applications last year. Austria as a whole recorded 12,000,” said the senior immigration source. “Samos recorded 8,000 – more than Finland.”
“Greece is implementing an EU policy on the islands. It is implementing the EU-Turkey Statement. This means that we are called upon to do the hard work for the European Union,” said the source.
“To tell me that the situation is difficult and there are problems is hardly news. We know this very well.”