By Phili Cool and Inês Avelãs, from ECRE member, Fenix Humanitarian Legal Aid (Fenix)

Fenix is a legal NGO based on Lesvos and in Athens, which provides Holistic Legal Aid with the aim of empowering asylum seekers through provision of information, medical and psychosocial case management, mental health and legal representation. Fenix also advocates for a fairer and equitable asylum system through capacity bridging and advocacy and strategic efforts based on the experience of clients – including survivors of torture – and our case management teams. Fenix recently published a report on the lack of identification and certification of survivors of torture and its consequences for them.

Based on national, European and international legislation Greece has an obligation to ensure that everyone who states or presents signs of having been subjected to torture is properly identified, and if recognised as a victim of torture, obtains access to their fundamental rights, and redress, including rehabilitation. Nonetheless, over the last four years Fenix has observed serious systematic deficiencies in the identification and certification of survivors of the torture among people seeking asylum in Greece. Our clients who reported instances of torture, and many others with them, have been subjected to poorly conducted vulnerability assessments, accelerated asylum procedures, lack of certification of torture and general disregard of their rights.

People seeking asylum in Greece must undergo a vulnerability screening, consisting of both a medical and psychological assessment. Based on national legislation, these assessments should be carried out by competent medical staff and the psychosocial support section of the Closed Controlled Access Centre or Registration and Identification Centre where the applicant is residing. The determination of a person’s vulnerabilities is critical in order to ensure access to specialised health care and specific accommodation provision. Moreover, in the context of extremely accelerated asylum procedures on the Eastern Aegean islands, vulnerable asylum seekers, including torture survivors should not fall under rushed border procedures, in order to effectively access adequate care and satisfy their special procedural needs.

The reality that survivors of torture undergo in Greece differs significantly from these legal safeguards. Firstly, people seeking international protection are regularly rushed through multiple phases of the asylum process, including asylum interviews, before their medical and/or psychological examinations are complete. Fenix has witnessed time and time again how vulnerability assessments are of worryingly low quality. Oftentimes only physically evident vulnerabilities are identified and recorded, leaving less observable vulnerabilities unrecognised and unnoticed. The severe shortcomings in vulnerability assessments are caused by a multitude of different factors including insufficient numbers of available medical and psychosocial professionals, lack of privacy to conduct thorough assessments, failure to provide interpretation during assessments, the failure of medical practitioners to recognise the types of scars and other physical trauma resulting from torture and violence, and difficulties in referrals where public hospitals refuse to proceed with further evaluation. Since the end of 2022, Fenix has witnessed that vulnerability assessments on Lesvos now only consist of a medical examination, as referrals to psychological assessments have ceased altogether. Out of 42 applicants who reported instances torture and were represented by Fenix between 2020 and 2022, only five were recognised by Greek authorities as survivors of violence, and in need of continuation of their needs assessment and the creation of a care plan. Four out of these five cases only received this recognition after a re-assessment was demanded by their legal representative.

In addition to a lack of identification, survivors also face difficulties obtaining official recognition as a victim of torture. In recent years, no public authorities have knowledge, training or translation capacity to proceed with medical certification of SoTs in line with the Istanbul Protocol. Where states fail to meet their obligations, it is often left to NGOs to fill those gaps. This is no different in this context, where organisations with in-house expertise provide certification to victims of torture in line with the Istanbul Protocol. However, since 2018 national legislation only recognises public authorities as competent bodies to provide medical certification in this regard, further shrinking the space for NGOs in assisting vulnerable asylum seekers. In other words, the certification for torture survivors provided by NGOs may be taken into consideration by asylum authorities during a survivor’s asylum procedure, but it is at the discretion of each decision-maker. In practice, Fenix observed that different authorities, at different moments, apply their discretionary powers differently in a seemingly arbitrary manner. When survivors raise incidents of torture they endured during their journey to Greece during their asylum interview, these are widely disregarded by caseworkers. Our in-house mental health team has found that for some, the loss of autonomy and control in the asylum procedure paralleled their previous experience of torture:

“My mind was busy with many problems when I went for my asylum interview. I remember telling my story to the caseworker. He had no interest in hearing me. He was asking questions that made me break down and cry. I felt so ashamed to be like this in front of him but I had no control. What happened to me is eating me from the inside. Seeing the rejection paper felt like being back to that place again.”

– J.B., a survivor of torture from Congo, on his experience during his asylum interview.

While essentially all who are seeking safety in Greece are subjected to a practically dismantled asylum system, completely inhumane living conditions, and more often than not severe border violence, people who have survived torture are specifically vulnerable to the consequences of Greece’s asylum policies. The failure to properly identify and certify survivors of torture, leaves them without access to their fundamental rights and guarantees. Their invisible vulnerabilities turn them into a vulnerable group, forgotten in the eyes of authorities.

The case of A.A, a survivor of torture who fled to Greece with his wife and six young children, is one a distinct yet typical example of how the flaws in Greece’s asylum system in combination with its subpar vulnerability assessments specifically effect survivors of torture: after arriving on Lesvos in January of 2020, it wasn’t until late December of that same year that A.A. finally went through his vulnerability assessment. This means that he underwent his initial application for international protection, the appeal against its negative decision, and a subsequent application all without a proper vulnerability assessment and medical examination. The lack of vulnerability assessment did not only jeopardise his asylum application, but also submitted him and his family to living conditions which were completely unsuitable to satisfy his special needs precisely as a result of A.A.’s experiences of torture, while depriving him of medical care he urgently needed. After a year and a half in these conditions, their situation only improved following interference from the European Court of Human Rights, ordering Greece to stop the inhuman and degrading treatment to which A.A. and his family had been subjected, following an urgent application for interim measures supported by Fenix.

The mistreatment of survivors of torture seeking asylum in Greece is a deeply dehumanising and disastrous consequence of inept vulnerability assessments, crackdowns on NGOs providing critical services, and above all a government with complete disregard to fundamental human rights. It is the account of yet another vulnerable group, invisible if not purposefully ignored, in an already traumatising context. In a time of increasingly restrictive public discourse towards people seeking asylum, in which Greece is the frontrunner in a race to the bottom, the country’s treatment of survivors of torture should never be viewed as an archetype for migration policies, but only ever as a cautionary tale.

Op-ed: ECRE publishes op-eds by commentators with relevant experience and expertise in the field who want to contribute to the debate on refugee rights in Europe. The views expressed are those of the author and does not necessarily reflect ECRE positions.