In 2015-2016 over one million migrants crossed into and through Greece seeking asylum in Europe. While spontaneous boat arrivals to Greece’s Aegean islands peaked in 2015 and early 2016, their impact on the country’s asylum system was far from catastrophic in that period. Externer Link: According to the Greek Asylum Service, asylum applications in 2015 reached 13,187, which represents an increase of about 40 percent in comparison to 2014. However, this number pales in the face of the 187,1 percent increase in 2016, when 51,053 asylum applications were registered in a single year. This can be explained by looking at the movements of and the possibilities still available to those on the move at the time.
The vast majority of those arriving to Greece aimed at seeking asylum in other EU member-states, which in 2015 was still possible via what came to be known as the Western Balkan Route. In fact, the journey from Turkey, through the Aegean islands and the Greek territory, the Balkans and all the way up to Northern Europe, was a matter of days. However, with the tightening of border controls even within the Schengen area, including the erection of border fences, and the eventual closure of the Greek-Macedonian border in March 2016, tens of thousands of people got trapped within the Greek territory. They had no other recourse but to apply for asylum there. Today, Externer Link: according to estimates of Greece's Ministry for Migration, there are approximately 17.000 migrants registered in detention centers, hotspots, and camps on Lesbos, Chios, Leros, Samos and Kos, the five Aegean islands that have received the most people fleeing from the Middle East to Europe.
Reflective of the geopolitical developments in the wider geographical area of the Middle East and Turkey, it comes as no surprise that, since 2015 and up to today, the vast majority of asylum seekers in Greece are Syrian nationals. These are followed by nationals from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. Asylum related migration from Turkey has seen a significant increase since 2016, the failed coup d'état and the increasing authoritarianism of President Erdoğan's regime. Asylum claims by Turkish nationals quadrupled in 2016 only to see a tenfold increase in 2017 and an additional threefold increase in 2018, Externer Link: reaching 3,807 asylum claims by October 2018. Of the 51,053 asylum applications in 2016 and the 58,642 in 2017, a significant proportion consists of applications for Family Reunification under the Dublin Regulation and applications for relocation to other EU member-states under the Emergency Relocation Scheme. This amounts to 13,069 applications in 2016 and 20,613 in 2017. This means that these people did not eventually get asylum in Greece but instead their applications were processed by other EU member-states. Finally, as processing of asylum claims may take up to two years, and even longer if there is an appeal, it is only now (late 2018) that many of these people receive final decisions on their application. Therefore, the actual impact of Greece’s and EU’s policies on asylum seekers but also on the country remains to be seen.
There are three developments that have marked asylum policies in Greece since 2015: (1) the mass arrivals of 2015-2016; (2) the introduction of the hotspot approach for the management of border crises, along with the increasing and controversial involvement of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) in the asylum process; and (3) the EU-Turkey Statement. The 2015 migration crisis came to exacerbate the chronic inadequacies and systemic failures of the Greek asylum system that had effectively led to the suspension of the Dublin Regulation for Greece and had halted returns there already since 2011. As asylum claims soared in 2015-2016, the then newly elected Greek government, an unlikely coalition between the left-leaning SyRizA and the right-wing populist party of AnEl implemented the hotspot approach and the EU-Turkey statement. Ever since, these two interconnected mechanisms have been regulating mobility and asylum through fast-track procedures at the border.
While the first hotspot in Greece (in Moria on the island of Lesbos) was inaugurated in October 2015, it wasn’t until the EU-Turkey Statement (March 2016) that the hotspot approach became practically functional. The implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement meant that thousands of asylum seekers instantly became subject to EU’s hotspot approach and fast-track border procedure. This effectively turned the Greek islands into containment zones, where asylum seekers are detained under substandard conditions in camps, and kept in a state of limbo.
The EU-Turkey “deal”, as it has come to be known, is not an usual legal agreement, but a bilateral political statement of the leaders of the EU and Turkey. It was the culmination of efforts to tame the autonomous migratory movements of 2015-2016 that shook the entire EU border, migration and asylum regime. The EU-Turkey statement imposes a geographical restriction on all those who arrive on the Greek Aegean islands from Turkey. This means that migrants cannot travel to the mainland until there is a final decision on the admissibility of their asylum claim. This is the reason why thousands are trapped on these islands leading to increasingly worsening conditions in the camps and hotspots there, a situation that puts the lives of those affected on hold for periods of up to two years. Once this stage is over, migrants whose claims are inadmissible await their removal and return to Turkey while those whose claims are considered admissible are then allowed to move to the mainland and lodge full asylum applications.
While the abysmal conditions on the ground for the thousands trapped on Greek territory are well documented, the effects of this statement on Greece’s (but also eventually on the EU’s) legal system are less known. For example, the fact that it is not a legally binding agreement means that it is not subjected to any legal scrutiny. In 2017, the Court of Justice of the EU declared itself incompetent to rule on the legal action taken by three asylum seekers against the EU-Turkey Statement.
Migrants arriving to one of the five Greek Aegean islands after March 20, 2016 are subjected to the fast-track border procedure as provisioned by the EU-Turkey Statement and the hotspot mechanism. This means that all those who have crossed the border unauthorized after March 20, 2016 are subject to return to Turkey based on admissibility criteria rather than a full consideration of their asylum application. Only if an asylum seeker can demonstrate that he or she is in considerable danger should he/she be returned to Turkey; the asylum claim is considered admissible and thus processed by Greece. In all other cases, Turkey is considered to be able and willing to process asylum applications while offering asylum seekers temporary protection and respect for their rights. In other words, the Greek Asylum Service considers whether an individual claim is admissible rather than whether an asylum seeker is in need of international protection. Thus, the EU-Turkey-Statement disentangles the right to protection from territory. This means that arrival on EU territory no longer guarantees that asylum seekers may lodge full asylum claims.
The Greek government, in order to implement the above described EU policies, had to introduce amendments to existing laws or bring in controversial pieces of legislation. In order for returns to Turkey to become possible, Yannis Mouzalas, the then Migration Minister, overhauled the Independent Appeals Committees in June 2016. To this point, the Committees had accepted the vast majority of asylum seekers’ appeals, effectively blocking returns to Turkey. After the restructuring, the Committees rejected 93.63 percent of all cases. In essence, the hotspot approach and the EU-Turkey Statement have forced thousands of migrants arriving on the Aegean islands to apply for asylum on arrival, at the border, under a fast-tracked and extra-legal procedure established by the not legally binding agreement between the EU and Turkey. As a result, a two-tiered asylum system has emerged in the country, one at the border on the islands and one on the mainland.
Situation in the Hotspots and Deficiencies in the Asylum System
In 2018 about 50,500 asylum seekers arrived in Greece, Externer Link: according to the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR. With hotspots like Moria on Lesbos, housing up to three times their capacity under excruciating conditions, and daily increasing numbers, the aftermath of the EU-Turkey Statement is drawing the shape of a bitter reality. In Moria in particular, overcrowding is so extreme that residents spend half of their day (up to twelve hours) queuing for food and water, while one toilet and one shower serve 80 people. Sexual assaults and rapes are not uncommon, and women often report that they avoid walking alone in the camp at nights. Dozens of deaths have been recorded, while the authorities have failed to winterize the camp for the third consecutive year. Adding to these abysmal conditions, the inscrutable asylum process, the uncertain futures and suspended presents of residents lead to daily scuffles between different migrant groups, riots and other aggressions. By the summer and autumn of 2018, Moria had reached a tipping point. The government, under heavy pressure from international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) and following a pan-European outcry as well as political backlash, was forced to speed up the transfer of about 2,000 people from the island to the mainland in order to ease the overcrowding. Humanitarian actors on the ground, such as the International Rescue Committee, warn that there is a looming mental health crisis in hotspots, as 30 percent of the people have attempted suicide and 60 percent have contemplated it.
The Greek government, in cooperation with international actors such as the European Commission (EC) and UNHCR, have taken steps to improve the situation of asylum seekers in comparison to the past. One such initiative is the cash assistance given to asylum seekers, but also as of recently to recipients of subsidiary and international protection. The money comes from EC’s funds and is managed through UNHCR and its partner organizations; it currently provides predefined monthly cash allowances to about 41,000 recipients (as of November 2018). It is only given to people who live in official accommodation and are in possession of an asylum seeker’s card, thus excluding thousands asylum seekers living outside of the camps (e.g. in squatted buildings) but also those who do not have documents. Depending on the type of accommodation they reside in and the size of their families, recipients receive an allowance between €90 and €550 per month. Additionally, asylum seekers and refugees enjoy full health coverage in the same way as citizens do, and children are entitled to enroll in public schools. The government introduced a special program for the education of asylum seekers’ and refugees’ children in 2016. Reception classes for children residing in camps and private accommodation were created in state schools in the evenings. This measure has been heavily criticized by civil society organizations and advocacy groups as segregating but also by teachers as counterproductive and ineffective. Finally, since November 2015, an UNHCR accommodation scheme has been providing accommodation to asylum seekers eligible for relocation, family reunification applicants and vulnerable cases. The scheme was extended in July 2017 to include recipients of subsidiary and international protection. The only other alternative provided by the State in terms of housing is refugee camps.
However, there has been an increasing acrimony over the reasons why conditions in Greece’s camps are so bad when nearly €1.62 billion of EU funds have been directed towards the country’s humanitarian infrastructure since 2015. Eventually, and following media reports over potential misuse of funds, an investigation by the European anti-fraud agency has recently been launched into alleged irregularities concerning the management of these funds. According to data published by the EC in April 2018
Despite these efforts, the Greek asylum system remains fragile and deficient. Both on the islands and on the mainland, there are significant delays of up to 10 months before someone can lodge his/her asylum application. On mainland Greece, asylum procedure is fraught with backlogs and systemic failures. One such problem is the process through which asylum seekers need to go to launch their claim: While it has been proven complicated, ineffective and quite often unattainable, the Greek Asylum Service insists on using Skype as a method to register asylum claims. Additionally, there are major delays in scheduling first asylum interviews (these are usually scheduled for a year after registration) and in the delivery of decisions. Free of charge legal aid at first instance asylum applications is not provided to applicants. It is also worth mentioning that EASO is increasingly involved in the asylum procedure, conducting interviews and providing recommendations, which exceeds its competence under relevant EU regulations and the Greek law. Finally, there is a backlog of about 3,100 cases of appeals against first instance decisions of the Asylum Service, some of which are pending since October 2015, due to the restructuring of the Appeals Committees mentioned above.
Public Reaction to Growing Presence of Asylum Seekers
The Greek population’s reaction to the increasing presence of asylum seekers in Greece has fluctuated massively since 2015. In the first months of the crisis on the Aegean islands, Greeks in their majority were moved by the plight of the newcomers. Back then, Greece served as a transit space and most migrants left the country within a week after arrival. Additionally, significant sums of money poured into the Greek economy, either through EU funding, which also created numerous new job opportunities, or because asylum seekers spent their own cash. This reinforced local economies, such as on the island of Lesbos, or even created new micro-economies to cover the needs of transient asylum seekers. At the same time, almost the entire leadership of the Greek neo-Nazi party of Golden Dawn was on trial for conspiring to form a criminal organization responsible for multiple attacks on migrants but also the assassination of the migrant worker Shahzad Luqman and the antifascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas in 2013. They were just forced to keep a low profile, even when they were released from remand. All these aspects factored into a generally positive public sentiment towards asylum seekers. Yet, things gradually started to change with the implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement in March 2016, when increasing numbers of asylum seekers were no longer able to move on to other EU Member States and were forced to remain within the Greek territory. Especially local communities on the Aegean islands and those neighboring camps were at times particularly hostile towards asylum seekers, while Golden Dawn and other fascist groups started organizing again. Since then, racist attacks have once more been on the rise, and covert or open racist discourse has made its way to mainstream media. According to recent studies