The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) announced in December that it had communicated eight cases of pushbacks by sea to Greek authorities. Restrictions on access to procedures and the termination of the Skype option has left NGOs with “horrendous job” of telling people arriving on the mainland that there is no way to claim asylum. In a submission to a European Commission Rule of Law report, Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) warn of “persisting concerns relating to the rule of law through the lens of the Greek asylum system”. The Commission has called into question the Greek practice of declaring subsequent applications from nationals of certain countries inadmissible on the basis of the safe third country concept.

On 20 December the ECtHR announced that eight cases had been communicated to Greek authorities following 32 applications by 47 asylum seekers who were violently pushed back from Evros, Crete, Kos, Kalymnos, Lesvos, Samos or at sea before arriving. The court has requested information from applicants and Greek authorities to establish potential rights violations. The court’s questions aim to clarify whether domestic remedies have been exhausted, whether lives were endangered, and whether the applicants were exposed to inhumane and degrading treatment. They also seek to ascertain whether there was an effective domestic remedy for alleged violations of articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and in some of the cases also whether the persons were lawfully detained, informed in a language they understood of the reasons for their detention, and whether there was an effective remedy to appeal against that detention.

Following the ECtHR communication, Greece is obliged to respond and a Chamber of the court is expected to decide on the cases in the summer of 2022. According to the Legal Centre Lesvos who filed complaints on behalf of two of the applicants: “Given the ECtHR’s structural and procedural limitations, a positive decision in these two cases would be limited to the facts of these individual cases and bring partial redress only for the named Applicants. The proceedings are therefore insufficient to condemn the systematic nature of the crimes being committed”. The organisation is one of many compiling evidence of the violent pushbacks by Greek authorities and the related legal challenges. According to the NGO, “the modus operandi of collective expulsions in the Aegean amount to crimes against humanity within the definition of Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court”. Further, Racist Crimes Watch states that the Greek Supreme Court is obliged to investigate more than 200 claims of illegal pushbacks lodged by the Greek Helsinki Monitor concerning incidents between March 2020 and May 2021. A group of 29 people of Syrian and Turkish origin have stuck on a tiny island in the Evros region since 19 January, reportedly with Greek authorities refusing to rescue and Turkish authorities refusing to allow their return.

In the context of a meeting between EU interior ministers in Lithuania on 21 January, the Greek Minister for Migration and Asylum Notis Mitarachi stated: “Migration should take place through legal means, not through illegal entry and smuggling networks”.  The minister didn’t clarify what such “legal means” might be. Beyond the systematic pushbacks of people arriving by sea, access to asylum procedures is also heavily restricted for people managing to arrive by land.

In November 2021 a new system was introduced obliging all asylum applicants appearing on the mainland (and not passing through existing hotspots on the Aegean islands or the Evros outpost), to go to two facilities in Northern and Southern Greece to register their claim while in detention. At the same time Greek government cancelled the Skype pre-registration procedures already defined by delays of an average of 14 months. The Mobile Info Team commented at the time: ”scrapping the Skype system without an immediate alternative was not the answer. Practical improvements of the system such as increasing staffing capacity and the number of hours people could call would have cut delays. In combination with access to in-person registration or through written application forms, it would have allowed fair and efficient access to asylum from anywhere on mainland Greece, Crete and Rhodes without prohibiting people’s freedoms”. Several months later, the consequences of this policy are being witnessed as the organisation delivers food to asylum seekers and refugees in Thessaloniki in sub-zero temperatures. Advocacy Manager Corinne Linnecar states: “We have the horrendous job right now of telling people: ‘There’s no way to claim asylum,’ and seeing them just in utter disbelief, and knowing that they will spend many, many more nights either sleeping in parks or on the streets, or in abandoned buildings or abandoned trains”.

In its submission to the 2022 Rule of Law Report from the European Commission, RSA warns of persisting rule of law concerns in the Greek asylum system. The NGO says non-compliance with law-making standards results in the regular use of last-minute amendments in unrelated bills and disregard for the strong concerns of civil society, UN and Council of Europe bodies regarding legislative reforms. The framework of asylum appeals undermines the independence and impartiality of judicial review, while appeal bodies disregard key EU law infringements. Further, the organisation points to the fact that lawyers and journalists working with refugees are increasingly targeted by surveillance and intimidation.

Despite the fact that Turkey has not accepted any readmissions since March 2020, Greece continues to reject nationals from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan and Bangladesh on the basis that Turkey is a ‘safe third country’ for them. On 25 January the European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson responded to a set of parliamentary questions from Green MEP Erik Marquardt denouncing this practice. The Commissioner stated that: “The condition for the application of Article 38(4) of the Asylum Procedures Directive is that ‘the third country does not permit the applicant to enter its territory’. If that condition is met, Member States shall ensure that access to a procedure on substance is given, and therefore shall not reject the subsequent application as inadmissible on the basis of the safe third country concept”. Further, the Commissioner commented on the fee introduced for lodging second or onward subsequent applications: “Article 38(4) of the Asylum Procedures Directive provides that ‘Member States shall ensure that access to a procedure is given in accordance with the basic principles and guarantees described in Chapter II’. While Chapter II of the Asylum Procedures Directive does not regulate the question of a fee, the Commission has indicated to the Greek authorities that the unconditional application of a EUR 100 fee for second subsequent applications raises issues in terms of effective access to the asylum procedure”.

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Photo: ECRE

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