Greece’s policies towards refugees and asylum seekers have become increasingly harsh since 2020. In July this year all financial assistance for asylum seekers not housed in government-sponsored facilities was cut. As a result, growing numbers of unregistered refugees and asylum seekers are struggling to survive. Many are now living in urban areas on the mainland and an increasing number are on the street.
Organisations on the ground are deeply concerned. In June 2021, 30 NGOs and civil society organisations wrote to the Greek government to protest these measures which, they said, were ‘of questionable legality and will undermine the effective integration of asylum seekers in our country’. In October 2021, 33 organisations signed a joint open letter to the European Commission entitled ‘Denying food: instead of receiving protection, people go hungry on EU soil’. This was followed in December by a letter to the Pope (who was about to visit Lesvos), again expressing deep concern at the current situation in Greece.
Almost 18,000 refugees live in camps on the Greek mainland. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates that 60% of them currently have no access to food services or financial support. Half of them are children. This estimate does not include unregistered people living in urban centres, of which there are many more in an equally desperate situation, often homeless or in insecure housing.
A series of new laws and administrative changes have restricted support services to those in the process of applying for asylum. This has cut off huge numbers of people from receiving any financial support.
- People who have been granted asylum (recognised refugees) used to receive financial support and accommodation under the EU-funded ESTIA programme. Now they receive nothing.
- People whose asylum applications have been rejected and who have exhausted the appeals process also receive nothing. These people are told to leave the country, but disputes between Greece and Turkey mean they are not deported but are left in limbo, ineligible for any support and without even basic rights.
- Even people in the process of applying for asylum have received no financial support in recent months, due to delays since the Greek government took over from the EU in administering payments.
At the same time, the barriers to claiming asylum have been increased, meaning that increasing numbers of people are either having their applications rejected or struggling to apply at all. Many of these people end up outside the system and completely adrift.
- Asylum interviews continue to be held just days after someone arrives in the country and registers in a designated RIC (Reception and Identification Centre) on the islands or in Evros borderline area. This creates obstacles to accessing legal aid, medical assistance, and to assemble evidence necessary to support their asylum claims. Child Protection actors expressed concerns that asylum interviews of alleged children are taking place prior to the conclusion of the age assessments.
- The recent decision to designate Turkey as a safe country for applicants from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Somalia means that asylum seekers continue to be rejected based on admissibility (Turkey as a safe country) adding more rejected asylum seekers to the list of those left in limbo: left without access to accommodation, food, cash assistance or their asylum claims assessed, but also not returned to Turkey. Turkey does not accept people returned from Greece, so they are trapped and without recourse to any government support. These and other unregistered people have no legal documents for Greece, cannot work, and are unable to open a bank account.
This is an extremely complex situation, where a number of changes have come together to create the perfect storm.
What Impact Is This Having?
According to IOM data, there were 3,286 unregistered people living in camps in Greece in October, 2,988 unregistered people living in camps in Greece in November. Civil society organisations and NGOs on the ground report that the real number is far higher and that there are many more living in urban centres. A lack of financial support, food, and shelter means thousands are at risk this winter – not just of cold, hunger and despair, but of exploitation and sex-trafficking, and turning to crime in order to survive.
Greece – and particularly the five Greek islands closest to Turkey – has been an entry point for large numbers of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan since 2015. While it has had some funding from the EU to help cope with the numbers arriving, Greek authorities have long argued that there is not enough help and that the burden of housing refugees and processing asylum claims is falling unfairly on a few states in Southern Europe.
The country has been strongly criticised for its push-back policies, for taking little action to integrate successful asylum seekers into Greek society, and for the conditions in its refugee camps. In 2020 a fire destroyed the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, leaving 12,000 people homeless as winter approached. Many of these people are still living in inadequate temporary accommodation.
Greece’s newly built camps are heavily securitised and unregistered people housed within them are often unable to leave or move freely since they have no papers.
How You Can Help
Refugees and asylum seekers are in danger in Greece.
There is an urgent need for basic supplies and services to help people both living in camps and surviving on the streets or in insecure housing in urban areas.
Perhaps even more important in the long term is the overwhelming need for legal aid. People need support in order to apply for asylum within the extremely tight timeframes set by the Greek government. They need support in understanding the legal requirements and completing the interview and appeals process, which for many now includes proving that Turkey is not a ‘safe country’ for them. The most vulnerable desperately need advocates to help them navigate Greece’s punitive asylum application system and manage the trauma response the process can trigger. There have been reports of asylum seekers’ applications being rejected because they were unable to give full and clear answers during triggering interviews or children being treated as adults on the whole procedure and only identified as children after lawyers intervention.
We have provided funding to FENIX legal aid, a team of lawyers and legal professionals, psychotherapists, protection staff, and social workers who ensure the most vulnerable asylum seekers are offered holistic support throughout the application process. You can find out more, and follow their work through visiting their website, and following them on social media.
To continue funding them, and other organisations doing such invaluable work, we need your support.
Please join us to put love into action and support people in desperate need in Greece and around the world.
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