With Greece still struggling to deal with some 100,000 refugees and migrants packed into camps on five islands and on the mainland, made tougher during the COVID-19 pandemic, two aids groups want the European Union to begin infringement proceedings for alleged violations of the against Greece for violations of asylum laws.
Oxfam and WeMove Europe said a Greek asylum law that took effect this year has made it easy to disqualify asylum applicants and difficult for them to appeal rejections and that the violations are taking place “deliberately, on a drastic scale, in a systemic manner and on an ongoing basis.”
A senior Greek immigration source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera journalist John Psaropoulos that any problems with the law were taken care of in Parliament without specifying the changes.
“If somebody didn’t show up for an interview or didn’t pick up their registration, the old law allowed you only to suspend their application. The new law allowed you only to reject it. This was amended in May. The asylum service can now reject or suspend an application,” the official said.
Greece has been tough on asylum seekers, rarely granting any before a wave of refugees and migrants descended starting in 2015, mostly to five Greek islands near Turkey where they went fleeing war, strife and economic hardships in their homelands.
They wanted to get to more prosperous EU countries but the borders were closed after hundreds of thousands used Greece as a conduit, the sudden move stranding them in the country with sanctuary the only option to prevent deportation.
Turkey had allowed human traffickers to keep sending more, even during the pandemic, with a 2016 swap deal with the EU essentially suspended.
It can take two years or more for asylum applications to be reviewed, often leading to frequent tension and violence in detention centers and camps, especially the notorious Moria facility on Lesbos which was destroyed in a fire set in protest to a quarantine after COVID-19 infections were discovered.
The new law and with better staffing have helped the Greek Asylum Service double the speed of its decisions this year and reduce a backlog of cases by almost one-third, the report said.
The immigration source admitted the new law tightened procedures, but said it remained within the remit of the EU Asylum Directive. “The previous law was favourable to applicants. The new law was meant to go in the opposite direction.”
The aid groups also said the government does not provide applicants with enough lawyers to make their case and legal aid groups in Greece have told Al Jazeera an appeal is too complicated to be filed without a lawyer, but only one in five appealants has access to a lawyer. The law allows appealants to use a private lawyer, but few have the resources to do so.
Greece is also accused of pushing back migrants and refugees trying to reach the islands, sending their rubber dinghies and overcrowded boats away, which the government has denied doing.
Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis said, “We are protecting our borders with determination, observing our international obligations, and European regulations,” Mitarakis recently said. “Illegal entries are not acceptable, and that is entirely in line with international law.”
EU rules require asylum seekers to apply at the EU country in which they first arrived, almost always countries such as Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain as they can't land in the middle of the bloc.
“There is no EU country hosting as many people as us in proportion to the native population,” said Manolis Logothetis, who heads Greece’s Reception and Identification Service. “The Netherlands, for example, have a reception capacity of 5,000 refugees. Our system has a capacity of 100,000. It’s natural that we can’t provide the same level of services.”