In early 2017, a group of UK volunteer immigration lawyers, with the support of the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, set up the Athens Legal Support Project, a four-month pilot project from April to July 2017 to provide specialist legal advice and support to refugees and Greek lawyers in Athens. Based out of the Khora Community Centre, immigration-accredited solicitors and barristers are providing pro bono legal advice on refugees’ substantive asylum claims, as well as assistance in making applications for reunification with family members elsewhere in Europe. If successful, it is hoped to establish a long-term support project which will help alleviate the immense pressures currently facing the Greek legal and non-governmental organisation (NGO) community.
The challenge for Greece and its asylum seekers
While the image of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old boy found drowned on a Turkish beach in September 2015, brought the full horror of the refugee crisis in southern Europe to the world’s attention, this did not lead to positive change in the asylum process for those seeking international protection in Europe. There are still no safe routes for those fleeing persecution to leave their countries of origin and seek asylum abroad. The impact of the mass movement of over two million people across the Mediterranean since 2014 has been mostly felt in southern Europe, particularly in Greece, which, already struggling with its own economic crisis, is shouldering the additional burden of attempting to absorb and control the influx of refugees.
The situation has been rendered even more difficult by many European countries closing their borders, preventing those who have made it to Greece from moving on elsewhere. In March 2016 the EU-Turkey Agreement was signed, pursuant to which refugees arriving in Greece from 20 March 2016 must undergo an admissibility procedure to determine whether they should have their asylum claims determined in Greece or be returned to Turkey. While this reduced the numbers of new refugees arriving in Greece to around 1,500 per month from over 50,000 per month in the first three months of 2016, there remain tens of thousands of undocumented asylum seekers in mainland Greece waiting to have their claims for protection processed. In addition, following the EU-Turkey Agreement, Greece’s islands have been turned into ‘hotspot’ reception and detention centres where arrivals must wait for the decision on the admissibility or, for non-Syrians, the substantive merits of their claims. The deplorable conditions in the island camps drives many to leave the islands illegally in breach of island restrictions, only to enter a further limbo on the mainland where their claims cannot proceed unless they return to the islands.
The challenge for Greece is greater as a result of the Dublin III Regulation, which stipulates that asylum claims must be made in the first country of arrival in the EU. In 2011 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the conditions in Greece (in particular reception conditions, the treatment of vulnerable applicants, and the long delays in registering and examining applications) breached Art 3 of the ECHR (MSS v Belgium and Greece No. 30696/09), with the result that returns to Greece of refugees who subsequently claimed asylum in other EU countries was suspended. However, in December 2016 the European Commission recommended that returns to Greece should be gradually resumed from March 2017 onwards, as Greece had made ‘significant progress’ in improving reception conditions (Commission Recommendation of 8.12.2016: see bit.ly/2kLKs1L).
UK lawyers can play a meaningful role
The combination of these factors means that in the current crisis Greek lawyers and organisations are incredibly overstretched, and the vast majority of asylum seekers do not receive any advice or representation prior to receiving the initial decision on their claim. Many of our volunteer lawyers also worked on Chios in the summer of 2016, and have already seen first-hand the desperate need for legal assistance. Since most cases in Greece are won or lost at the initial stages, where the quality of a witness statement or an understanding of the evidence necessary to develop the claim can make the difference between success and failure, we decided to set up the Athens Legal Support Project as a four-month pilot to test whether UK lawyers can play a meaningful role in assisting to meet this need. In particular, we aim to provide crucial support in gathering evidence and articulating claims for asylum, and helping applicants in reunification with family members in other countries in the EU.
Our main partner for the project is Khora, an Athens-based humanitarian co-operative foundation set up in 2016 and run by volunteers who previously worked on Lesvos. Khora provides a range of support services for refugees in Athens, from music and language classes to free dental treatment. From the base in Khora, UK lawyers have since April been assisting and advising refugees from diverse populations including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, Cameroon, DRC and Guinea. The refugees we have seen so far present with vastly differing issues, at all stages of the process. Many of them are unaccompanied minors or victims of extreme trauma, who face further abuse and mistreatment in the overcrowded refugee camps around Athens. A recurring and overriding theme is frustration and despair at the delays at each and every stage – it can be up to ten months from pre-registration until the date on which a refugee has an appointment to formally register their asylum claim, and even a successful claim for family reunification in another EU Member State under Dublin III is likely to involve a timescale of a year from the claim being made until the family members are reunited – and this is something that we simply cannot change. However, the feedback from Khora has been overwhelmingly positive, describing the contribution made so far by UK lawyers as ‘invaluable’.
As well as seeing refugees in Khora, we have provided advice at the Lavrio and Ritsona refugee camps, accompanying the Refugee Info Bus which is doing great work visiting camps outside Athens and also now on Chios, ensuring refugees receive basic information about their rights and claims, since those living in these camps generally have even more limited access to any legal support or information. Another key and ongoing task is providing training for interpreters, without whom we simply wouldn’t be able to provide effective assistance. The interpreters based at Khora are predominantly refugees themselves: they are committed to the job and learning quickly, and we have been able to pay them for this crucial role as a result of the generous donations which have been made so far through our justgiving site.
Long-term project for long-term need
We have been overwhelmed by the huge support we have received for this project so far, both through donations as well as provision of remote assistance. We really hope that this will continue in order to enable us to establish a long-term project reducing the pressures on the Greek legal and NGO community, and making a real difference to the huge numbers of unassisted refugees in and around Athens. If you would like to donate to the project please visit: www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/athenslegalsupportproject.
Case study: reuniting a syrian family
The first client we saw was a Syrian father who had arrived on Rhodes in December 2016 with his wife, two daughters, and two sons. As for all Syrians arriving on the islands after 20 March they were banned from leaving Rhodes, but due to the appalling conditions in the camp they illegally travelled to the mainland, hoping to make claims for asylum there. On the journey, the father and his son became separated from the remaining members of the family, who had managed to travel on to Germany. When the father and son attempted to register their asylum claims with the Greek Asylum Service (GAS) in Athens, they were told that the original claim they had made on Rhodes had been implicitly withdrawn, and their only option was to return to Rhodes in order to begin the process again. However, there was no information from the GAS as to whether their claim could be transferred to the mainland in order to make a Dublin III request for transfer to Germany, since by this time the wife and remaining children had been granted protection in Germany. I was able to accompany him to the GAS at Katehaki and to speak with a member of the Dublin Unit, to find out whether a transfer request could be made from Athens despite the original claim being made in Rhodes. Unfortunately, the answer was that there was no way to proceed with the Dublin request without returning to Rhodes, reinstating the claim, and asking for the restriction to be lifted. Without the accompaniment of a lawyer, however, he wouldn’t have been granted access inside Katehaki to obtain this information. Crucially, we were also able to ensure that whilst still in Athens he gathered the necessary documents to prove his family relationship in order that he could produce these immediately on his return. Given the lack of lawyers to assist on Rhodes, it is highly unlikely that he would have otherwise known how to produce the evidence required to begin the lengthy process of reuniting his family again in Germany.