Greece has adopted controversial new asylum legislation that the centre-right government claims will form the cornerstone of a fresh drive to stop more refugee and asylum seekers from arriving on its border and then piling up in the country.
Since July, when the new Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis took office, the government has been under constant pressure due to an increase in refugee flows. Over 30,000 people crossed the Aegean Sea to Greece this year compared to 13,775 over the same period in 2018.
The sharp increase in numbers has pushed the precarious reception system to its limits, and the government says the new reforms should change this, by making asylum procedures faster and increasing the rate of returns.
The Greek asylum system currently has a backlog of over 68,000 applications, which means many people have to wait years for interviews and a final decision on their status.
The new law makes longer detention the cornerstone of refugee and migration policy, increasing the maximum time limit for the detention of asylum seekers from three to 18 months. Detention in extreme cases could reach up to 36 months.
It increases the number of people who will have to undergo border admissibility procedures before they can submit a proper asylum request. Even unaccompanied children and other vulnerable asylum seekers could be examined in future under accelerated procedures; PTSD is scrapped from the list of conditions that entitle applicants to obtain vulnerable status.
Asylum claims will be now considered implicitly withdrawn and rejected if applicants fail to satisfy specific procedural formalities.
The changes also narrow the definition of “family members”, to exclude families established after migrants left their country of origin.
Appeals procedures are also affected, by upgrading the requirements about documentation as well as scrapping the independent experts sitting in second-instance committees. These will now comprise only judges, a move that critics say could potentially slow down the committees’ work and diminish the quality of their procedures.
Civil society organisations have criticised the new legislation for diminishing safeguards. Vassillis Papastergiou, from the Hellenic League for Human Rights, HLHR, says the government avoided real discussion of the new law by allowing only five days for public consultation. “The government wants mostly to show that is taking action, and it’s attempting to satisfy an audience that expects a tougher response to migration and refugee issues,” he said.
Regarding the promise of faster procedures and swifter returns of failed applicants, Papastergiou told BIRN the outcome would more likely be a less regulated system. “People will end up undocumented, in many cases without the possibility of being returned, leading to exclusions and destitution,” he predicted.
HLHR joined other human rights organisations, including Doctors without Borders and Amnesty International in jointly condemning the new legislation this week.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has also expressed concern about various elements of the law. It is most alarmed about a provision that forces recognised refugees to leave the accommodation provided to them within six months of the new law’s adoption.
A direct consequence will be that thousands of recognised refugees now hosted by ESTIA, a project housing close to 20,000 people, managed by UNHCR and financed by DG HOME, could be left “without any support and at risk of homelessness”, it said. Some cases “will face extreme risk due to their physical or mental condition” the UN agency warned.
Defending the new law before the vote in parliament on Thursday, the Greek Minister for Citizens’ Protection, Michalis Chrysochoides, said the purpose was to overcome the current stalemate by expediting procedures, better integrating people into society and improving returns rates.
“Time is after us,” he said. “As the days pass, more people arrive – because this is what the neighbouring country has decided,” implying that the hike in arrivals was a direct result of Turkish policy.
Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month threatened to release “millions” of refugees hosted by Turkey into Europe if the EU kept criticising his controversial offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria. He has made similar threats before.
Greek officials therefore suspect that Ankara is deliberately using refugee flows as an instrument to promote and defend its regional foreign policy.
Last week, Ankara also angered the Greek government when it claimed Greece had pushed 25,404 refugees or migrants back into Turkey by October, compared to 11,867 in the whole of 2018.