During the year several factors reduced the flow of migrant and asylum seekers to the country from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia; the flow consisted of a mix of asylum seekers/potential refugees and economic migrants.
While the flow of migrants and refugees declined upon implementation of the March 18 EU-Turkey Statement, the closing of the northern borders caused Greece to transition from a predominately transit country to a de facto host for a large migrant and refugee population. As of November 1, government figures indicated 61,327 migrants and asylum seekers were scattered throughout the country.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has an established system for protecting refugees through an autonomous, asylum service under the authority of the Ministry of Interior and Administrative Reconstruction. The law provides that applicants have access to certified interpreters, may appeal negative decisions to the appeals authority, and may be detained but not deported.
Authorities worked with NGOs, IOs, and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) to inform undocumented migrants awaiting registration in the asylum system, as well as non-EU foreign national detainees, about their rights and asylum procedures and IOM-assisted voluntary return programs. UNHCR also assisted the government with briefings and distribution of multilingual leaflets and information packages on asylum and asylum procedures.
An April 1 law expedited the existing asylum process and allowed for EU and IO assistance in processing asylum claims. The law enables police and military personnel to assist in the registration of asylum applications and for EASO officials and interpreters to assist local asylum service authorities in registering applications and conducting interviews.
The law also enabled asylum seekers without criminal records whose claims had been pending at second instance for more than five years, to be automatically eligible for a two-year renewable residence permit on humanitarian grounds if they opted to discontinue their asylum process. This provision was intended to clear a backlog of pending cases from prior to the establishment of the Greek Asylum Service in 2013.
On June 22, parliament passed an amendment providing for the restructuring of the appeals committees that reviewed second instance asylum claims. Appeals committees subsequently consisted of two administrative court judges and one member designated by UNHCR. The amendment limited applicants’ ability to be physically present at a second instance hearing–leaving it up to the appeals committees–in contrast to the past practice when an applicant could request to be present at the hearing. The amendment also expanded EASO officials’ authority to conduct interviews, increasing the rate of asylum claims processing.
Throughout 2015 the asylum service received 13,197 asylum applications. According to governmental and nongovernmental sources, this number reflected the fact that the vast majority of migrants and asylum seekers transiting Greece were reluctant to file asylum claims in the country prior to the closure of neighboring borders and the March 18 EU-Turkey Statement. From January 1 through August 31, the asylum service reported receiving 25,364 asylum applications, a nearly 220 percent increase over the same period in 2015. A significant backlog in asylum claims remained.
From June 6 through July 30, the asylum service, in cooperation with UNHCR and EASO, conducted a preregistration exercise throughout the mainland to address the overwhelming interest in and lack of physical access to the asylum process. The exercise focused on formal reception camps and other facilities hosting migrant and asylum seekers, but it was also available to those residing in informal sites and urban areas. The procedure was available only to foreign nationals arriving in the country through March 19. Migrants and asylum seekers arriving thereafter were subject to expedited admissibility and asylum procedures initiated in island hotspot locations (see section 2.d., Freedom of Movement). The exercise aimed to identify individuals eligible for relocation or family reunification in other EU countries and those who would have to file asylum claims in country. Preregistration documents, issued in the interim period before an applicant filed a formal asylum claim, granted beneficiaries the right to legal residence in the country for one year and access to free health care, but not permission to work. Work was permitted once an applicant started the formal asylum process with an initial interview and received updated documentation. According to asylum service and UNHCR data, 27,592 individuals preregistered as part of the exercise.
IOs, NGOs, and human rights activists expressed concerns about problems related to the asylum system, including the lack of adequate staff and facilities; difficulties in registering claims and questions about the expedited nature and thoroughness of the examination of initial claims and appeals; lack of suitable reception centers to address the increased number of asylum seekers stranded in the country; insufficient welfare, integration, counseling, legal, and interpretation services; discrimination; as well as detention under inadequate and overcrowded conditions inside the hotspots. Asylum seekers of nationalities other than Syrian alleged delays in the processing of their claims due to the expedited processing of Syrian applications under a special program instituted in August 2014.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The country adheres to the Dublin III Regulation, according to which authorities may return asylum seekers to the EU member state of first entry for adjudication of asylum claims.
On March 18, the EU and Turkey reached a migration agreement, with implementation starting March 20. According to the agreement, every undocumented migrant crossing from Turkey into the Greek islands would be confined to a hotspot for up to 25 days, during which time the individual would have the opportunity to apply for asylum in Greece. Individuals opting not to apply for asylum or whose applications were deemed unfounded or inadmissible would be returned to Turkey under the terms of the agreement. The National Commission for Human Rights, an independent advisory body to the prime minister, and NGOs including HRW, Doctors without Borders, and the Greek Council for Refugees expressed concerns, objecting to detention of incoming migrants and asylum seekers. The NGOs argued that the expedited asylum process foreseen in the April 1 law undermined individual international protection rights because there was a lack of access to information on asylum proceedings and inadequate numbers of staff to execute properly the necessary procedures for each asylum claim.
Refoulement: The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. In its July report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), HRW alleged that the readmission of some individuals to Turkey on April 4, under the EU-Turkey Statement, was abusive, contending that some individuals returned were not adequately informed of the process and lacked the opportunity to apply for asylum. On October 28, Amnesty International reported to have evidence that Greek authorities forced the return of at least eight Syrian refugees to Turkey, without respecting procedural guarantees or considering their asylum claims. Greek authorities insisted that all individuals were given the opportunity to apply for asylum on several occasions, also noting that three Syrian nationals from the same group did not return because they had requested asylum at the airport prior to their departure. Authorities also noted that the procedure took place under the supervision of the office of the Greek ombudsman. On October 21, a UNHCR spokesperson expressed concerns about these and other cases involving Syrian nationals who were returned to Turkey from Greece without “due consideration of their asylum claims.”
Freedom of Movement: Undocumented migrants arriving at Greek islands after March 20 were subjected to special border reception and registration procedures in closed facilities. According to the law, those arriving would experience “deprivation of liberty” for up to 25 days, although NGO and activist sources reported that this timeframe was not always respected. After this 25-day period, undocumented migrants remaining in those facilities were generally allowed to enter and exit. Undocumented migrants were prohibited from travelling to the mainland unless they filed asylum applications deemed admissible by the asylum authorities. Once asylum applications were filed, found admissible, and in process, migrants could move to an accommodation center on the mainland. There was no restriction on movement in/out of the accommodation centers.
Unaccompanied minors were also placed under “protective custody” due to lack of space in specialized shelters. In a July 19 report, HRW, citing the National Center for Social Solidarity (EKKA), stated that as of July 18, an estimated 18 children were held in police stations awaiting transfer, while hundreds of other unaccompanied children were kept in large detention centers in various locations, including the Greek islands. Unaccompanied minors were generally not free to leave these centers, although government and NGOs reported that NGO employees and volunteers were permitted to escort them outside the centers for recreational activities.
The government detained undocumented migrants with expired residence permits or rejected asylum seekers for up to six months. There were also cases of asylum seekers being detained under special circumstances or when under arrest for unlawful acts. Likewise, migrants and asylum seekers living in open camps with expired temporary residence documentation were detained if suspected of committing unlawful acts. Relying on police data, media reported approximately 1,140 migrants were in detention centers as of March 3. Police maintained that 13,928 individuals were deported or voluntarily returned to countries of origin through September 30.
Employment: Recognized refugees and holders of asylum-seekers’ papers were entitled to work. Asylum-seekers who underwent the preregistration process were not allowed to work until they underwent an initial interview and formally filed an asylum application.
Access to Basic Services: Services such as health care, education, and judicial procedures were granted to asylum seekers in possession of a valid residency permit. Legal assistance was limited and was usually offered via volunteer lawyers and bar associations, NGOs, and IOs. Designated refugees were also entitled to public housing, but almost all housing programs ceased due to austerity measures. Asylum seekers had access to special shelters operated under state management or supervision, or administered by NGOs. All residents in the country are entitled to emergency medical care regardless of legal status. Medical volunteers or doctors contracted by NGOs and military doctors provided basic medical care in camps with emergencies or more complex cases referred to local hospitals. The government started an initiative to provide education to refugee and migrant minors in October.
The Reception and Identification Service (RIS)–formerly known as the “First Reception Service,”–co-managed with the armed forces, police, and other agencies, a number of open reception and closed facilities, but the RIS was severely understaffed. The April 1 law placed the RIS under a newly established Secretariat for Reception under the authority of the Ministry for Interior and Administrative Reconstruction. Together with police, the RIS was responsible for registering, verifying the identity, medically screening, and identifying vulnerable groups among undocumented migrants entering the country. The RIS was also responsible for the short-term housing of individuals, the referral of vulnerable individuals to other facilities, and the provision of information concerning options for international protection or assisted voluntary return to the undocumented migrants’ home countries.
More than 40 reception and accommodation camps were gradually established throughout the country to house a migrant and asylum seeking population that ceased being transitory. Most sites were “open” and typically operated in such areas as former military camps; state-owned lands where prefabricated houses were installed; unused and refurbished municipal or state-owned buildings; empty or abandoned and refurbished hotels; or former factory or warehouse facilities. “Closed” sites, typically on island hotspots, mostly operated on military or state-owned plots with additional prefabricated houses. The government participated in a European Commission-funded UNHCR rental subsidy program launched in December 2015 to increase housing capacity. Based on UNHCR data from April through October 31, the program accommodated 16,393 migrants and asylum seekers in a combination of rental subsidies, hotels, host families, and a relocation camp administered by UNHCR.
Sites lacked standard operating procedures and monitoring and evaluation mechanisms. Living conditions for migrants and refugees were occasionally reported to be below international humanitarian standards. NGOs, IOs, and independent observers voiced concerns about overcrowding, poor access to water and sanitation, inadequate food provision, poor access to basic health and pharmaceutical care (particularly for individuals suffering from chronic diseases), limited mental health care and social and psychological support. Accommodation for individuals with disabilities at most sites was inadequate. Connections to sewage and water supply systems were nonexistent or problematic at many sites–although the government prioritized water and sanitation projects in cooperation with local municipalities, NGOs, and others to mitigate long-standing complaints among local resident communities.
In a July 21 open letter published by the Hellenic Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KEELPNO), its officials cited conditions deemed to pose health risks to migrants, asylum seekers, and the public. According to KEELPNO, their officials visited 16 accommodation facilities along with regional health officers on July 4-8, following a ministerial decree providing for a public-health assessment of these centers. The letter specifically mentioned the site of a former tannery in Sindos, in the Thessaloniki area, noting water at the site probably had high traces of toxic heavy metals and that the facility contained other hazardous materials including asbestos in the ceilings.
Segregation of vulnerable groups was not always feasible at some sites, with overcrowding and a lack of information raising tensions among residents. Credible observers reported several violent incidents, including fist fights involving migrants and asylum seekers, stabbings, gender-based violence (see section 2.d., Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons), and at least two alleged killings. Residents initiated periodic hunger strikes and protests, including suicide attempts, inside hotspots and accommodation camps to protest detention policies, delays in the asylum process, overcrowding, and poor living and sanitary conditions.
In its May report, the German-based NGO “Pro ASYL” found conditions in most emergency camps in the Athens area to be substandard, adding that the system of detection and protection of vulnerable groups was ineffective and that migrants and asylum seekers lacked information about and access to asylum, relocation, and family reunification options. Campaigns by NGOs, IOs, and the government helped improve information dissemination, particularly in the months immediately following agreement on the March 18 EU-Turkey statement.
Temporary Protection: As of August 31 the government also provided temporary protection to approximately 21 individuals who may not qualify as refugees.