From Theory to Practice: Working with Refugees on the Island of Leros, Greece
In this blog the author sheds light on several practical consequences for the asylum procedure as a result of the conclusion of the EU-Turkey agreement encountered while working as a legal volunteer on the island of Leros, Greece.
During the month of July 2018, I took the opportunity to work with the NGO Advocates Abroad on the island of Leros, Greece. This island, together with Lesvos, Chios, Samos and Kos, hosts so-called hotspots which were proposed by the European Commission to support the process of the registration and handling of asylum applications. Amongst others, the Greek Asylum Service (GAS) is supported by the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) in conducting interviews. On Leros, the hotspot comprises of an identification and registration centre, a mobile asylum office and housing facilities. As opposed to the practice in the Netherlands, where (judicial) support before and during the asylum procedure is provided by licensed attorneys and the Dutch Refugee Council, on Leros, this legal aid is only provided by NGOs. Only when an asylum application is rejected, does an asylum seeker have the right to subsided legal assistance to appeal a decision before a competent Court. Hence, the majority of my tasks concerned interview preparation. During several meetings, the clients were given information on the procedure in general. Then, on behalf of the client, a legal statement including the specific legal grounds on which international protection must be granted was written and the relevant evidence was collected. Lastly, we trained our clients to answer the questions during the interview(s) coherently and as detailed and precisely as possible and if feasible, we accompanied them to the interview to observe the interview and if necessary, to object against certain types of questions. In this blog, I will shed light on the practical consequences of the EU-Turkey agreement by using some examples of issues I experienced.
On 18 March 2016, a deal between Turkey and the EU was concluded to prevent the flow of asylum seekers coming from Turkey to Europe. Its main provisions prescribe that all asylum seekers arriving in Greece as of 20 March 2016 and whose asylum applications have been declared inadmissible, should be returned to Turkey. For every Syrian returned to Turkey, a Syrian who had been granted asylum in Turkey, would be resettled to the EU. On the Aegean islands, this resulted in the fast track border procedure where it is determined whether a particular asylum application must be declared admissible or inadmissible. In practice, the fast track border procedure is variably implemented depending on the asylum seeker’s nationality and profile. Essentially, for Syrians, the asylum application is declared inadmissible if Turkey can be considered a safe third country. According to Article 38 of the Procedures Directive this concerns a country where there is no risk of being subjected to maltreatment or serious harm, where the principle of non-refoulement is respected and the possibility exists to request and obtain refugee status in accordance with the Refugee Convention. Asylum application from non-Syrians with an international protection recognition rate below 25% are only examined on the merits and those non-Syrians with a recognition rate above 25% are assessed on both admissibility and merits. Generally, two categories of persons are exempted from the fast track border procedure: vulnerable persons or individuals falling under the family provisions of the Dublin III Regulation. The latter group is normally identified at registration, whilst the former often have their vulnerability assessed during the interview. As a result, during the majority of all first interviews, only questions dealing with Turkey and vulnerability are asked.
Besides the discussion whether Turkey can actually be considered a safe third country, the way in which this vulnerability assessment is conducted is particularly dubious. When the EASO interviewer is of the opinion that a particular asylum seeker is vulnerable, the interview is stopped and it is flagged to GAS that they need to further assess the vulnerability of the asylum seeker in question. This extra procedural step only leads to the extra prolongation of the total duration of the asylum procedure. Besides this, the extra delay heavily affects actual vulnerable persons as they are forced to wait even longer for a decision and sometimes for necessary medical care.
Most of the asylum seekers have been subjected to the most terrible circumstances in their countries of origin or during their travel to the EU. Stopping the interview deprives the asylum applicants of the possibility to tell their full story. Having already waited a long time, this only leads to unnecessary extra frustration and insecurity. This happened to an Iraqi client of mine. He was well prepared and of the opinion that he no longer suffered from psychological problems. However, during the interview, he had difficulties answering questions about his (psychological) health. At the same time, he was not allowed to talk about the persecution he and his former boyfriend faced because of their homosexuality. This caused extreme stress and anxiety as he thought the interview was stopped because of him. A procedural explication by the interviewer for stopping the interview at that particular point is then far from satisfactory.
These issues are not helped by the fact that it is permitted for GAS to notify an asylum applicant of this interview a minimum of 24 hours in advance. I experienced this several times and besides one arguing whether this is in line with Article 43 Procedures Directive which does not allow for restrictions on procedural rights, this makes providing decent judicial assistance practically impossible.
Despite the obstacles I have described above, spending a month on Leros was very valuable to me and it was the ultimate opportunity to become familiar with the situation on the ground. I learned a lot and I can certainly use these experiences during the rest of my academic career in (international) refugee and asylum law.