The updated AIDA Country Report on Greece tracks numerous legislative, policy and practice-related developments relating to the asylum procedure, reception conditions, detention of asylum seekers, and content of international protection. While it mainly covers the year 2019, it also contains information on the first five months of 2020 as well as COVID-19 related measures.

48 % increase of arrivals in 2019: In 2019, 74,613 persons arrived in Greece. This is an increase of 48% compared to 2018. Out of those a total of 59,726 persons arrived in Greece by sea in 2019, compared to 32,494 in 2018. The majority originated from Afghanistan (40%), Syria (27.4%) and DRC (6.7%). More than half of the population were women (23%) and children (36%), while 41% were adult men.

The average processing time at first instance also increased in 2019, reaching about 10.3 months, compared to 8.5 months in 2018. Out of the total of 87,461 applications pending by the end of 2019, in 81.6% of the cases the personal interview had not yet taken place and in 67% of the cases the interview is scheduled for the second semester of 2020 or even after 2020. In certain cases, interviews have been scheduled as late as 2023 and even 2024.

Pushbacks and suspension of the asylum procedure: The increase in the number of alleged pushbacks at the Greek-Turkish border of Evros continued during 2019. The United Nations Committee Against Torture expressed serious concerns as regards the principle of non-refoulement. Incidents of pushbacks are also reported at the Aegean Sea since 2020, as pointed out by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights in early March 2020.

On 2 March 2020, following tensions that erupted on the Greek-Turkish land borders, the Greek Authorities issued an Emergency Legislative Order by which access to the asylum procedure has been suspended for persons entering the country during March 2020. According to the latter, those persons were about to be returned to their country of origin or transit ‘without registration’. As noted by several actors, inter alia by UNHCR, “[a]ll States have a right to control their borders and manage irregular movements, but at the same time should refrain from the use of excessive or disproportionate force and maintain systems for handling asylum requests in an orderly manner. Neither the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees nor EU refugee law provides any legal basis for the suspension of the reception of asylum applications”.

The IPA, a new asylum law which reduces safeguards: L. 4636/2019 (hereinafter: IPA) is a new law on asylum that has been issued in November 2019 and entered into force on 1 January 2020. It has been repeatedly criticised by national and international human rights bodies as an attempt to lower protection standards and create unwarranted procedural and substantive hurdles for people seeking international protection.

The IPA foresees an extended list of cases in which an application for international protection can be rejected as “manifestly unfounded” without any in-merits examination and without assessing the risk of refoulement, even in cases where the applicants were not able to comply with strict procedural requirements and formalities. The IPA abolished the automatic suspensive effect for certain appeals, in particular those concerning applications rejected in the accelerated procedure or dismissed as inadmissible under certain grounds.  The IPA further extended the grounds for detention of asylum seekers and significantly lowered procedural guarantees, which does not seem in line with principle that detention should only be applied exceptionally and as last resort.

In May 2020, less than 4 months after the entry into force of the IPA, national legislation has been reamended. These amendments have also been significantly criticised by human rights bodies, as they further weaken basic guarantees for persons in need of protection and introduce a set of provisions that can lead to arbitrary detention of asylum seekers and third country nationals.

Turkey as a safe third country: use of template decision remained in 2019: Since mid-2016, the same « template decision » is issued to dismiss asylum claims lodged by Syrians applicants as inadmissible on the basis that Turkey is a safe third country. As a result, these negative first instance decisions are identical and repetitive,  they do not provide an individualised assessment, and they are outdated insofar as they do not take into account developments in Turkey, such as the current legal framework and the derogation from the principle of non-refoulement. Second instance decisions issued by the Independent Appeals Committees for Syrian applicants systematically uphold the first instance inadmissibility decisions, i.e. if no vulnerability is identified or no ground in order for the case to be referred for humanitarian permission to stay is present.

Relocation agreements with Greece: A number of agreements have been concluded throughout 2019 regarding the relocation of applicants from Greece to other European countries. This includes a bilateral agreement reached in March 2019 between the Greek and Portuguese authorities on the relocation of 1,000 asylum seekers from Greece to Portugal by the end of 2019. However, this was not implemented in practice and Portugal reiterated in January 2020 its willingness to accept up to 1,000 asylum seekers. In December 2019 the Greek and Serbian authorities reached an agreement for the relocation of 100 unaccompanied minors to Serbia. A new project for the relocation of 400 vulnerable asylum seekers to France has also been announced in January 2020, aiming at the completion of the relocations by the summer. In March 2020, a number of EU Member States have accepted to relocate a number of 1,600 unaccompanied children from Greece.

Reception conditions: Most temporary camps on the mainland – initially created as emergency accommodation facilities – continued to operate throughout 2019, without a clear legal basis or official site management. The required Ministerial Decision for the establishment of the Temporary accommodation facilities has been issued on March 2020.

As of December 2019, 24,110 persons were accommodated in mainland camps and 21,620 people were accommodated under the UNHCR accommodation scheme (ESTIA), with an occupancy rate of 98%. On the Eastern Aegean islands, the nominal capacity of reception facilities was at 8,125 places as of 31 December 2019; but a total of 41,899 newly arrived persons remained there. Similarly, the nominal capacity of the RIC facilities (hotspots) was 6,178 as of December 2019, but 38,423 applicants remained at the RIC facilities on the islands under a geographical restriction. In 2018 the capacity in RIC facilities was higher (6,438) and the occupancy way lower (11,638 as of December 2018).

As it has been widely documented, the living conditions on the islands remain substandard. Overcrowding, a lack of basic services, including medical care, limited sanitary facilities, as well as violence and lack of security poses significant protection risks. The mental health of the applicants on the islands is aggravating.

*This information was first published by AIDA, managed by ECRE.

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin . You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.