The IPA, entered into force in January 2020, has made significant amendments to the definition of vulnerable persons and persons in need of special procedural guarantees.
According to Articles 39(5)(d) and 58(1) IPA the following groups are considered as vulnerable groups: “children; unaccompanied children; direct relatives of victims of shipwrecks (parents, siblings, children, husbands/wives); disabled persons; elderly; pregnant women; single parents with minor children; victims of human trafficking; persons with serious illness; persons with cognitive or mental disability and victims of torture, rape or other serious forms of psychological, physical or sexual violence such as victims of female genital mutilation.” Persons with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been deleted as a category of persons belonging to vulnerable groups.
According to Article 58(2) IPA “The assessment of vulnerability shall take place during the identification process of the Art. 39 of this law without prejudice to the assessment of international protection needs”. According to article 58(4) L 4636/2019 “Only the persons belonging to vulnerable groups are considered to have special reception needs and thus benefit from the special reception conditions”. Article 58(3) IPA provides that “[…] the special condition of applicants, even if it becomes apparent at a later stage of the examination of the application for international protection, is taken into account throughout this procedure […]”
According to article 67 (1) IPA relating to special procedural guarantees “The Receiving Authorities shall assess within a reasonable period of time after an application for international protection is submitted, or at any point of the procedure the relevant needs arise, whether the applicant requires special procedural guarantees, due to their age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, psychological disorder or because they are a victim of torture, rape or other serious forms of psychological, physical or sexual violence.”
The number of asylum seekers registered by the Asylum Service as vulnerable in 2021 is not available.
The number and type of decisions taken at first instance on cases of vulnerable applicants in 2021 is not available.
The number of first instance decisions granting refugee status or subsidiary protection to vulnerable applicants in 2021 is not available.
According to information provided by the Appeals Authority, 1,146 appeals were submitted by vulnerable persons (unaccompanied minors are not included) during 2021.
Out of 910 second instance decisions issued throughout the year on appeals submitted by vulnerable applicants (unaccompanied minors not included in the figure), only 38 granted refugee status and 54 granted subsidiary protection. At the end of 2021, 406 appeals submitted by vulnerable persons (except for unaccompanied minors) were still pending.
Additionally, 735 appeals were submitted by unaccompanied minors in 2021. A total of 518 second instance decisions on appeals submitted by unaccompanied minors were issued in 2021; of these, only 8 granted refugee status and 14 granted subsidiary protection. At the end of 2021, 282 appeals submitted by unaccompanied minors were still pending.
Screening of vulnerability
Vulnerability identification in the border regions
The identification of vulnerability of persons arriving at the border regions shall take place, according to IPA, either by the RIS before the registration of the asylum application or during the asylum procedure.
Vulnerability identification by the RIS
According to Article 39(5) (d) IPA, in the context of reception and identification procedures carried out by the RIS, “[…] The Manager of [RIC] or the Unit, acting on a motivated proposal of the competent medical staff of the Center, shall refer persons belonging to vulnerable groups to the competent public institution of social support or protection as per case. A copy of the medical screening and psychosocial support file is transmitted to the Head of the institution where the person resides or is being referred. In all cases the continuity of the medical treatment followed shall be ensured, where necessary. The assessment that a person is vulnerable shall have as only consequence the immediate provision of special reception conditions.”
According to Article 75 (3) IPA “In case of doubt, the competent Receiving Authorities shall refer the unaccompanied minor to the age assessment procedures as per the provisions in force. In the case where the above-mentioned referral is considered necessary and until the completion of the procedure, special attention should be paid to the particular characteristics of the minor, especially those related to their gender or cultural peculiarities” (see below).
Since the end of 2019, the authority competent for carrying out medical checks has been the National Public Health Organisation (EODY), which was established by L 4633/2019 as the successor of KEELPNO.
The number of asylum seekers identified as vulnerable by the Reception and Identification Service in the border regions in 2021 is not available.
The average time between the completion of a 14-day quarantine period imposed upon arrival to all newcomers and the completion of the medical/psychosocial examination/ vulnerability assessment in the border regions in 2021 is not available.
Even if there were no long delays between the arrival and the vulnerability assessment, the low quality of the process of medical and psychosocial screening remained a source of serious concern. Until now, alarming reports indicate that vulnerabilities are often missed, with individuals going through the asylum procedure without having their vulnerability assessment completed first. As UNHCR has reported at the end of 2020 “access to health care for asylum-seekers and refugees continued to be limited at several locations across Greece, in particular on the islands, mainly due to the limited public sector medical staff and difficulties in obtaining the necessary documentation.”
According to GCR’s knowledge, the situation remained the same in 2021 with following issues: a lack or complete absence of psychosocial assessment, difficulties in carrying out referrals from RIS to public hospitals, low quality of the medical screening and the psycho-social support, the classification of vulnerability and non-vulnerability and the lack of information on the outcome of the procedure were the main problems concerning the vulnerability assessment in the context of Reception and Identification procedure during 2021. As mentioned in the Regular procedure and Fast-track border procedure, many asylum seekers continue to be forced into the personal interview before the Asylum Service without prior assessment of their vulnerability, including pregnant women.
The number of healthcare professionals involved in the provision of medical and psychosocial services at different Reception and Identification Centers in the border regions in 2021 is not available
The following examples reflect some issues relating to vulnerability assessments in the context of reception and identification procedures conducted by RIS at the Eastern Aegean Islands during 2021:
Lesvos: According to GCR’s observations, on Lesvos the quarantine period imposed upon arrival could last from two weeks up to about two months depending on several factors, such as the availability of EODY and RIS staff, the number of Covid-19 cases, etc. UNHCR Units had limited access to the quarantine area where all new arrivals were being placed for as long as quarantine lasted, thus depriving newcomers from the possibility to undergo a vulnerability assessment and access to basic information regarding their rights, the procedures and their general status. Even after the completion of the quarantine period, only evident vulnerabilities were identified given the low quality of the medical screening. Psychosocial support was conducted only upon request and mostly after the first instance interview. Due to these shortcomings, a considerable number of newcomers and asylum seekers had never been (properly) assessed regarding potential vulnerabilities. Furthermore, according to GCR, there were strong indications that many women from Cameroon were victims of human trafficking, despite the fact that they had not expressed it explicitly. Yet, they were not identified as vulnerable by Lesbos RIC before GCR’s intervention.
Chios: During 2021, EODY Unit in Chios RIC was fully staffed with the exception of a psychiatrist. Thus, referrals of people in need of psychiatric care were made to a doctor, whose medical reports were often not taken into consideration by Chios RAO on the grounds that “they were not issued by a public entity”. Furthermore, people lacking valid asylum seeker’s card were not accepted by the Chios General Hospital without an appointment arranged by civil society organisations or EODY personnel. Contrary to the practice followed in other Eastern Aegean Islands, Chios RIS was conducting new medical and psychosocial screening to people whose asylum application was rejected at second instance and were willing to submit a subsequent asylum application. Furthermore, social workers and psychologists of EODY would make referrals to the psychiatrist if needed. However, similarly to all the other islands, applicants did not have access to their medical/psychosocial file kept in RIS without the intervention of their lawyer.
Samos: Shortcomings related to understaffing and other issues mentioned above, apply also for Samos. Even though during 2021 the medical screening was conducted a few days after the arrival, in most of the cases it was insufficient and of poor quality. In numerous cases, no psychosocial assessment took place at the competent RIS Unit before the registration and examination of newcomers’ asylum claims. Repeated interventions were made by GCR lawyers regarding the aforementioned issue.
Leros: Difficulties in access to the psychosocial support and the outcome of the vulnerability assessment and other issues mentioned above, apply also for Leros.
Kos: Up until July 2021, detention upon arrival was imposed to all newcomers, except to those with obvious vulnerabilities The limited access to healthcare and vulnerability assessments resulted in many vulnerabilities being undetected. In several cases, a vulnerability assessment was conducted only after the examination of the asylum claim and the results of the vulnerability assessment were often not communicated to the Asylum Service prior to the examination of the asylum claim. Moreover, vulnerability documents of detained applicants were often not being shared to applicants nor to Police by RIC’s secretariat. As a result, many people remained detained despite their vulnerabilities (see Detention of vulnerable applicants). Shortcomings related to understaffing were also reported in the RIS of Kos, as there was only one doctor of EODY in 2021. Additionally, even though newcomers were subjected to medical screening one day after the completion of the quarantine period imposed upon their arrival, the medical examination conducted was superficial and insufficient.
During the first semester of 2021, despite the low number of new arrivals the Kos RAO immediately proceeded with the examination of the applications for international protection applying the fast-track border procedure prior to carrying out vulnerability assessments or providing proper access to reception procedures. Additionally, psychosocial screening was not always conducted. Following several interventions by GCR in July 2021 before the competent authorities and the Greek Ombudsperson, RIS committed orally that it would carry out a psychosocial screening will of all newcomers. However, there are still doubts as to whether this is actually happening in practice according to GCR.
Furthermore, according to GCR’s observations, in the second semester of 2021, during the quarantine imposed upon arrival for an undetermined period, in some cases, neither people were always registered by RIS, nor UNHCR/civil society organisations had access to the “quarantine area” inside the PRDC. In other cases, both asylum and RIS’s procedures were initiated while the newcomers were still in quarantine and had limited access to legal aid. Only obvious vulnerabilities were identified (e.g. pregnant women, elderly people); while victims of GBV or Female Genital Mutilation victims were often not identified as vulnerable. There are also cases where GCR had to intervene to ensure that applicants detained by Police authorities would be referred to public entities for the purpose of assessing their vulnerability, after which they were released if identified as such. However, Kos RIS often enough did not accept to conduct a new medical and psychosocial screening to ex-detainees due to “lack of competence”.
Rhodes: Even if Rhodes is among the Eastern Aegean islands and constitutes an entry point, together with other islands neighboring to Turkey (e.g. Simi, Megisti, Kastellorizo), there is no RIC, no medical/psychosocial screening and the RAO does not examine asylum applications lodged by newcomers. The majority of third-country nationals, who entered Greece through Rhodes or the nearby islands during 2021, were transferred –after an undetermined quarantine period imposed upon their arrival- to Kos PRDC (or less frequently Leros RIC) or, were released and allowed to move to the mainland. Especially since October 2021 a decision of postponement of return for six months has been issued for a significant number of newcomers entering Greece via Rhodes or the nearby islands. However, according to GCR’s knowledge, there were cases of asylum seekers who after their arrival to Rhodes were transferred to Kos Police station or Kos PRDC or to Leros RIC. Others remained under administrative detention at Rhodes Police Station after their arrival and were eventually released, while others were immediately transferred by the Police to Athens. In both cases, no vulnerability assessment was conducted.
Lift of the geographical restriction (see also Freedom of movement)
Under IPA, the recognition of vulnerability of asylum seekers has no bearing on the asylum procedure under which their application is examined. Therefore, vulnerable groups, even when identified as such, are no longer referred to the Regular procedure, unless it is proven that no appropriate health care regarding their individual medical problem is available on the island where they reside (See below). In the latter cases, the geographical restriction imposed upon arrival is lifted and persons are transferred or allowed to travel to the mainland. In light of this, the exemption of vulnerable individuals from the Fast-Track Border procedure has become much more difficult.
More precisely, for asylum-seekers who entered Greece through the islands of Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Kos, Leros, and Rhodes during 2021, a restriction of movement within each island (‘geographical restriction’) has been imposed as per the Ministerial Decision 1140/2.12.2019 (GG B’ 4736/20.12.2019) which has been in force since 1 January 2020. Greek law transposes Article 7 RCD allowing Member States to impose a restriction of movement to asylum-seekers within a specific area assigned to them, provided that it does not affect the unalienable sphere of private life and that allows sufficient scope for guaranteeing access to all benefits under the Directive. Until 31 December 2019, the geographical restriction could be lifted, inter alia, in respect of vulnerable persons. Following amendments to the law, after 1 January 2020, the geographical restriction may inter alia be lifted by a decision of the Manager of the RIC for vulnerable persons or persons in need of special reception conditions if appropriate support may not be provided within the area of restriction, without sufficiently describing what such appropriate support entails.
The number of decisions of lift geographical restrictions per RIC and per category of vulnerability (or other cases) in 2021 is not available.
Lesvos: According to GCR’s knowledge, following the Moria fire on 9 September 2020 and the destruction of many documents in the RIS, there were cases of applicants identified already as “vulnerable in need of special reception conditions” who, upon notification of the first instance decision, could not file an appeal because Lesvos RAO had informally suspended – without the issuing of a relevant legislative act, therefore infringing the vital principle of legal certainty – the deadline for the submission of appeals for the first instance rejections that had been notified until 8 September 2020. Thus, RIS did not proceed to the lift of the “geographical restriction” of the aforementioned persons despite their vulnerability because the latter were considered as “non-applicants” as they were notified of a first instance rejection but an appeal was not submitted in due course. On 11 January 2021, and for the first time in 4 months, Lesvos RAO would begin notifying applicants on Lesvos with first instance rejections and would start accepting appeals against these decisions. However, following the concerns expressed by legal actors, the notification of first instance rejections was postponed due to lack of legal assistance. According to GCR, up until March 2021 there were still vulnerable persons with first instance rejections who were not able to submit an appeal due to lack of legal aid, and thus their geographical restriction was still not lifted. Since April 2021, the RAO has started receiving pending appeals against first instance decisions.
Additionally, despite the lift of geographical restriction during the first trimester of 2021, many vulnerable groups continued to be practically trapped on the island, waiting for their transfer to a refugee camp/shelter in the mainland. During the second trimester, transfers to the mainland increased, but they were not transferred to private apartments as initially planned; while the refugee camp of Kara Tepe was closed in April 2021.
Samos: During the first trimester of 2021 significant delays occurred in the context of COVID-19 in transferring asylum seekers who received decisions lifting their geographical restrictions and providing the issuance of open cards. GCR intervened in these cases to urge for the prioritization of their transfer. In contrast many decisions lifting the geographical limitation imposed to Syrian citizens were issued in April and May 2021 in the context of the decongestion of Samos RIC and the transfer of a limited number of persons to the new RIC. In certain cases, negative first instance decisions concerning Syrian nationals were revoked after an appeal was lodged, and they were subsequently referred to the regular procedure after having their geographical restriction lifted. Even asylum seekers with a geographical restriction were encouraged to leave the island upon authorities’ permission. However, by the beginning of the second half of the year, the latter were asked by the authorities to return to the island in order to avoid an interruption of their asylum claims.
In the first half of 2021, the RIS would continue to issue cards with geographical restriction even though the latter had already lifted, due to miscommunication between the RAO and the RIS. GCR had to intervene in several cases involving vulnerable persons who were facing this issue.
On 18 September 2021, the new closed facility for the reception and accommodation of the asylum seekers residing on the island of Samos was inaugurated and the residents of the old RIC were gradually transferred to the new center, which is described as one with “controlled access” (Closed Control Access Center, “KEDN”). As of November 2021, a total prohibition of exit from the closed new Camp has been imposed to all residents who did not have an asylum seeker’s card. There are no exceptions to this exit ban, i.e. iot applied to vulnerable groups as well as to applicants that have lodged a subsequent asylum application, but who were not provided an asylum card pending the examination of their admissibility. Even following the intervention of the Greek Ombudsman and the development of the successful objections against the de facto detention that GCR filed, the administration of the closed facility did not change its practice. Following interventions regarding the absolute prohibition of exit and entry of those who do not hold an asylum seeker’ s card in Zervou’s KEDN, the Head of the Center orally clarified that ‘those who are finally rejected are entitled to exit but won’t be allowed to re-enter the site, thereby raising additional concerns relating to the fact that the RAO was not registering second subsequent applications for applicants who had already seen their first subsequent application rejected. Moreover, people who had already submitted a first subsequent applications, also faced important difficulties in entering and exiting the site pending the admissibility examination of their claim under Art 89 L.4636/2019, as they did not hold an asylum seeker’s card.
Kos: Up until September 2021, most of the newcomers were automatically detained except for obvious vulnerable applicants. During this period, decisions lifting the geographical restriction were issued by RIS to some vulnerable people residing at Kos RIC. However, according to GCR’s observations, none of the applications by lawyers requesting the lift of the geographical restriction were addressed. Decisions by the RIS that did lift the geographical restriction for vulnerable applicants did not provide specific grounds and the practice was thus described as arbitrary. During 2021 GCR addressed several interventions to the competent authorities and the Greek Ombudsperson in order to comply with procedural guarantees for vulnerable persons foreseen in the context of reception and identification.
Vulnerability identification in the asylum procedure
According to Article 72 (3) IPA “During the Reception and Identification procedure or the border procedure of art. 90 of this law, the Receiving Authorities or the Decision Authorities and especially the Regional Asylum Offices or the Autonomous Asylum Units shall refer the applicant for international protection to doctors of Public Hospitals or Public Mental Health Institutions or other contracted physicians or the Medical Screening and Psychosocial Support Unit of the RIC for the vulnerability assessment under the article 39(4) of this law. Upon the completion of medical and psychosocial assessment, the Unit, acting on a written motivated proposal, shall inform the Head of the competent RAO. The above-mentioned proposal is also notified to the Manager of the RIC. That assessment shall have as only consequence the immediate provision of special reception conditions and special procedural guarantees to the applicant.”
According to Article 75 (3) IPA “In case of doubt, the competent Receiving Authorities shall refer the unaccompanied minor to the age assessment procedures as per the provisions in force. In the case where the above-mentioned referral is considered necessary and until the completion of the procedure, special attention should be paid to the particular characteristics of the minor, especially those related to their gender or cultural peculiarities.” (See below)
Article 67(1) IPA provides that “The Receiving Authorities shall assess within a reasonable time after the application for international protection is lodged or at any point of the procedure the relevant need arises, whether the applicant requires special procedural guarantees as a consequence, inter alia, of age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, mental disorders or as a consequence of torture, rape or other serious forms of psychological, physical or sexual violence”. According to Article 67(3) IPA “When adequate support cannot be provided [to the applicants] within the framework of the accelerated procedure (art. 83 (9) IPA) and border procedure (art. 90 IPA), especially when the applicant needs to be provided with special procedural guarantees as a consequence of torture, rape or other forms of serious psychological, physical or sexual violence, the abovementioned procedures do not apply or cease to apply […]”
Also, according to article 58 (5) IPA “In case the competent Authorities identify victims of human trafficking, they are obliged to inform as soon as possible the National System of Recognition and Referral of Victims of Human Trafficking in accordance with the article 6 L. 4198/2019”
Despite these provisions, the shortage of medical and psychosocial care can make it extremely complicated and sometimes impossible for people seeking asylum to be (re-)assessed during that process. Following the medical and psychosocial assessment, the medical psychosocial unit of the RIC should inform the competent RAO or AAU of the Asylum Service.
As mentioned above, due to significant gaps in the provision of reception and identification procedures in 2021, owing to a significant understaffing of EODY units and other issues, GCR has found that for a considerable number of applicants the asylum procedure was initiated without a proper medical screening and/or a psychosocial assessment having been concluded.
Accordingly, where vulnerability is not identified before the asylum procedure the initiation of a vulnerability assessment and further referral for vulnerability identification lies to a great extent at the discretion of the caseworker. However, according to GCR’s observations, the referral for further medical/psychosocial screening by the caseworker after the first instance interview before the competent RAO is not common practice.
Also, according to GCR’s knowledge, the understaffing of state authorities in combination with the constant pressure to process more asylum applications more quickly, resulted in a serious undermining of procedural legal safeguards and thus to decisions of poor quality and unjustified rejections in many cases. GCR has documented many cases where the asylum interview took place before the medical examination of the asylum seeker, who was afterwards rejected as non-credible because of his/her inability to provide all the dates and details of certain events and narrate his/her story in a chronological order, although the person suffered from acute psychiatric problems (e.g. psychosis), as was later proved.
To GCR’s knowledge, article 67(3) IPA (exemption from the fast-track border procedure and referral to the regular procedure due to vulnerability) was not applied by the Asylum Service to any case without a prior lift of the geographical restriction during 2021. It was also noted that after the lift of geographical restriction for reasons not related to vulnerability, article 67(3) IPA was applied in several cases by the Asylum Service and the case was referred to the regular procedure without the person being identified as vulnerable. If the interview of first instance had already been conducted before the decision of lift of geographical restriction and the referral to the regular procedure due to vulnerability, it was not conducted again in accordance with the guarantees provided by article 67(2) IPA.
According to the Ministry of Migration and Asylum, 1,569 applications were exempted from the fast-track border procedure and referred to the regular procedure on grounds of vulnerability in 2021.
On 15 February 2021 RSA, Pro-Asyl and MSF had reported that “The gravity of non-compliance of the Greek authorities with the above obligations is reflected in the case of a particularly vulnerable asylum seeker, survivor of serious and repeated violence. Despite having been recognised by the Reception and Identification Service (RIS) as a survivor of torture, rape or other form of violence, the applicant was repeatedly summoned to conduct the asylum interview within the border procedure. The authorities’ indifference to his already fragile psychological state led to systematic re-traumatisation on four different occasions ending up to repeated urgent transfers from the Asylum Service offices to the hospital’s emergency ward culminating to the deterioration of his mental health condition. The Asylum Service at no point assessed whether the applicant was in need of special procedural guarantees on account of his health condition, and whether or not adequate support could be provided in his case, despite the prior submission of medical documents from the public hospital, documents attesting the person’s inability to follow the demanding process of the asylum interview and recount extremely traumatic experiences, as well as documents highlighting the deterioration of his health condition stemming from the interview process. As a result, his case was not exempted from the border procedure as required by the law, even though the competent authorities were fully aware of the state of his health.” 
Throughout 2021 different practices were being followed by the various RAOs in the different islands as regards the conduct of asylum interviews (see the Regular procedure and Fast-track border procedure)
Vulnerability identification in the mainland
In the Attica region, depending on their nationality, vulnerable groups are referred to the RAOs of Attica, Alimos, or Piraeus. In the rest of the mainland, vulnerable groups are registered by the RAO competent for the area they reside in. The number of vulnerable asylum seekers registered by RAOs and AAUs in the mainland in 2021 is not available.
However, obstacles to Registration through Skype in the mainland also affect vulnerable persons. As referrals of vulnerable persons to the competent RAOs in order to be registered are taking place through NGOs or other entities, GCR is aware of cases of vulnerable applicants who, before being supported by NGOs or other entities and have an appointment fixed, have repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to fix an appointment themselves to register their application through Skype. Moreover, appointments for the registration of vulnerable persons in the mainland can be delayed due to capacity reasons or due to the suspension of services provided by the Asylum Service due to the preventive measures against Covid-19 (See above, “Registration”).
Additionally, on 22 November 2021 the Greek authorities issued a circular establishing that asylum seekers (except for unaccompanied minors) who have not been through the reception and identification process can submit their asylum applications only in the Reception and Identification Centres (RIC) on the Aegean island hotspots of Samos, Chios, Lesvos, Leros and in the Evros region. Following strong opposition in the parliament however, the government backed up and clarified that applicants will not be transferred from the mainland to the islands, without however providing further information on the competent authorities for the registration of said applications. According to the Authorities, the island centres will exclusively process the cases of people arriving by sea. Furthermore, Skype is no longer used as a channel to access to the asylum procedure for new applicants. Consequently, vulnerable persons in the mainland (with the exception of unaccompanied minors) who have not been subjected to the reception and identification procedures are not able to have access to the asylum procedure via Skype. Moreover, even if a lawyer intervenes and requests the registration of the asylum application of a vulnerable person in the mainland, a medical document of vulnerability issued from a public entity is most of the times needed according to the competent Regional Asylum Offices.
In case that indications or claims as of past persecution or serious harm arise, the Asylum Service should refer, according to the law, the applicant for a medical and/or psychosocial examination, which should be conducted free of charge and by specialised scientific personnel of the respective specialisation. Otherwise, the applicant must be informed that he or she may be subject to such examinations at his or her initiative and expenses. However, article 72(2) IPA provides that “Any results and reports of such examinations are deemed as justified by the Asylum Service where it is established that the applicant’s allegations of persecution or serious harm are likely to be well-founded”.
Currently, there are no public health structures specialised in identifying or assisting torture survivors in their rehabilitation process. As a result, it is for the NGOs running relatively specialised programmes, to handle the identification and rehabilitation of victims of torture. This is rather problematic for reasons that concern the sustainability of the system, as NGOs’ funding is often interrupted. In Athens, torture survivors may be referred for identification purposes to Metadrasi in the context of the programme “VicTorious: Identification and Certification of Victims of Torture”. However, those referrals take place mostly by other NGOs.
Also, according to article 58 (5) IPA “In case the competent Authorities identify victims of human trafficking, they are obliged to inform as soon as possible the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) for the identification and referral of victims of Human Trafficking in accordance with the article 6 L. 4198/2019”.
The following case supported by GCR mirrors several of the aforementioned issues arising in the context of vulnerability identification by RIS and during the asylum procedure both at the border region and in the mainland:
A single woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo, victim of sexual and gender-based violence in her country of origin, arrived on Chios Island in June 2019 and applied for international protection before the competent RAO. A month later she was sexually assaulted by a man and she tried to report the incident to the local Police but to no avail. She then addressed to “Médecins sans Frontières” who referred her to the public hospital due to severe gynaecological problems. In October 2019, she breached the geographical restriction and she arrived at the mainland. It is mentioned that until her departure she was residing at Vial camp (Chios) in inhuman and degrading conditions without having been subject to any adequate medical support, psychosocial assessment and vulnerability identification by the RIS. Her interview before Chios RAO was still pending at that time. In July 2020 she was arrested on the mainland and remained in administrative detention with a view of return to Chios Island and without her asylum application being taken into consideration. Despite the several requests submitted by GCR to Chios RIS and RAO in order for the geographical restriction to be lifted and her case to be channelled to the regular procedure in accordance with article 67(3) IPA on the grounds of a) vulnerability (victim of sexual violence-mental health problems), b) need of special reception conditions given that appropriate support could not be provided within Chios, c) need for preventive measures so that young woman will not be exposed to any risk related to her gender/need to protect women and girls during reception procedures, the applications were rejected or remained unanswered. Following a suicidal attempt committed in the PRDC of Amygdaleza (Athens), the young woman was released by the Police and stayed in Athens where she was supported by several NGOs. The Police Directorate of Chios proceeded to the lift of geographical restriction for reasons other than the vulnerability. Despite a new request by GCR to RAO Chios and RAO Alimos (Athens) in order for the applicant to be exempted from the fast-track border procedure and for the asylum procedure to be continued in Athens due to the fact that the geographical restriction was already lifted, that the person in question already resides in Athens and is in need of special conditions and procedural guarantees due to her vulnerability, the Asylum Service, did not reply to that demand until June 2021. After several requests from GCR and numerous interventions by the Greek Ombudsperson, during which the young asylum seeker remained in legal limbo in Athens, the RAO in Chios replied in June 2021 that the case cannot be channeled into the regular procedure without the prior lift of geographical restriction by Chios RIS, despite the fact that said restriction was already lifted by the Police. Thus, according to the RAO in Chios RAO, the latter remained competent for the case. Meanwhile, Chios RIS did not accept the medical documents provided by GCR in order to identify the person’s vulnerability and issue a decision of lift the geographical restriction. Given that the vulnerable applicant could not return, due to her traumas, to Chios neither for the first instance interview nor for the medical/psychosocial screening, the examination of her claim by Chios RAO finally took place via teleconference from Attica RAO. Consequently, Chios RAO informed Chios RIC about her vulnerability and the procedure continued in the mainland after the issuance of relevant decisions by the Authorities on Chios.
Age assessment of unaccompanied children by the RIS and in the asylum procedure
On 13 August 2020 the Joint Ministerial Decision 9889/2020 entered into force, which sets out a common age assessment procedure both in the context of reception and identification procedures and the asylum procedure. However, as with the previous Decisions, the scope of the JMD 9889/2020 does not extend to the age assessment of unaccompanied children under the responsibility of the Hellenic Police (meaning minors under administrative detention or protective custody) (see Detention of Vulnerable Applicants).
Article 39(5) (f) IPA related to reception and identification procedures refers to JMD 9889/2020. According to article 1(2) JMD 9889/2020, in case of doubt of the person’s age, i.e. when the authority’s initial assessment is not consistent with the person’s statements, the RIS or the Asylum Service or any authority/organisation competent for the protection of minors or the provision of healthcare or the Public Prosecutor should inform -at any point of the reception and identification procedures or the asylum procedure- the Manager of the RIC or the Facility of temporary reception/hospitality, where the individual resides, or the Head of RIS or the Asylum Service -if the doubt arises for the first time during the personal interview for the examination of the asylum application-, who, acting on a motivated decision, is obliged to refer the individual for age assessment. Age assessment is carried out by EODY within the RIC, by any public health institution, or otherwise, by a private practitioner under a relevant programme.
The age assessment is conducted with the following successive methods:
- Initially, the assessment will be based on the macroscopic features (i.e. physical appearance) such as height, weight, body mass index, voice, and hair growth, following a clinical examination from properly trained healthcare professionals (physicians, paediatricians, etc) who will consider body-metric data.
- In case the person’s age cannot be adequately determined through the examination of macroscopic features, a psychosocial assessment is carried out by a psychologist and a social worker to evaluate the cognitive, behavioural and psychological development of the individual. If a psychologist is not available or there is no functioning social service in the nearest public health institution, this assessment can be conducted by a specially trained psychologist and a social worker available from a certified civil society organisation but it cannot be conducted by an organisation in charge of providing care or housing to the person whose age is in question. The outcome of the age assessment at this point is a combination of the psychosocial assessment and the examination of the development of macroscopic features.
- Whenever a conclusion cannot be reached after the conduct of the above procedures, the person will be subjected to the following medical examinations: either left wrist and hand X-rays for the assessment of the skeletal mass, or dental examination or panoramic dental X-rays or to any other appropriate means which can lead to a firm conclusion according to the international bibliography and practice.
According to Art. 1(7) JMD 9889/2020 the opinions and evaluations are delivered to the person responsible for the referral, who issues a relevant act to adopt the abovementioned conclusions, registers the age in the database of Reception and Asylum, and notifies the act to the Special Secretariat for the Protection of Unaccompanied Minors.
After the age assessment procedure is completed, the individual should be informed in a language he or she understands about the content of the age assessment decision, against which he or she has the right to appeal in accordance with the Code of Administrative Procedure. The appeal has to be submitted to the authority that issued the contested decision within 15 days from the notification of the decision on age assessment.
In practice, the 15-day period may pose an insurmountable obstacle to receiving identification documents proving their age, as in many cases persons under an age assessment procedure remain restricted in the RIC. These appeals are in practice examined by the Central RIS. The number of appeals submitted against age assessment decisions in 2021 is not available.
The findings of a report published by several civil society organisations in the beginning of 2020 are still valid for the year 2021: “Medical methods for age assessment are systematically used, despite well-documented concerns as to their accuracy and reliability. The authorities do not systematically comply with the procedure set out in secondary legislation […] Persons are subjected to an X-ray examination at the First-Line National Health Network Centre (ΠΕΔΥ) or general hospital, without prior assessment by a psychologist and a social worker. Moreover, EODY does not perform a systematic process starting from less invasive methods, as established by JMD 9889/2020. The alleged minors go through a one-time appointment, which includes an age assessment interview and a medical and psychological evaluation. Many are only asked about aspects irrelevant to age assessment such as their family relationships, country of origin, and reasons for fleeing. The sessions take less than 15 minutes and involve no explanation of the procedure or its outcome.”
In the same report, it is mentioned that “Errors in the registration of personal details e.g. name, parents’ names, date of birth, are frequently reported in the different RICs. […]. Particularly as regards the date of birth, the RIS frequently sets artificial dates such as 1 January. This is especially relevant in the case of alleged minors. In several cases, documents held by individuals are disregarded on the ground that the authorities cannot access the documents’ authenticity, and the authorities assign a new date of birth to the applicant. This practice is verified, for instance, vis-à-vis applicants from Afghanistan. [….] Complaints also relate to wrong registration of children as adults. Frontex officers are reported to systematically register declared minors as adults, without recording their declared age and without referring them to age assessment procedures.”
Moreover, UNHCR has also observed gaps in the age registration procedure followed by the police and Frontex as well as in the referrals to the age assessment procedure, which is applied contrary to the provisions provided in Greek law. The latter foresees a step-by-step and holistic assessment by the medical and psychosocial support unit in the RIC defining the referral to the hospital as the last resort and only if the medical and psychosocial assessment of the RIS is not conclusive. However, in practice, the medical and psychosocial assessment in the scope of the RIS is skipped and a referral takes place directly to the hospital for an x-ray assessment, which usually concludes the age assessment procedure. Furthermore, issues of concern are the gaps in the age assessment procedures that result in instances of repeated age assessments requested by different actors, a practice that prolongs the stay of unaccompanied children in dire conditions in RICs.
According to GCR’s findings, in practice, the age assessment of unaccompanied children is an extremely challenging process and the procedure prescribed is not followed in a significant number of cases, inter alia, due to the lack of qualified staff.
According to GCR’s findings, on Kos, minors were treated as adults unless their lawyer submitted a request for age assessment. It is also observed that, in case of doubt, the medical and psychosocial assessment in the scope of the RIS was skipped and the individuals were directly referred to the public hospital for X-rays. Additionally, among the 375 asylum seekers stuck on the Turkish flagged vessel in territorial waters for 4 days that was finally transferred on 31 October 2021 to Kos Island, there were around 70 people who were identified as unaccompanied minors by Frontex and subsequently transferred to the safe zone of the Kos RIC. However, afterwards, the competent unit of RIS challenged their age and carried out wrist examinations concluding that around 30 children were not minors. Consequently, Kos RAO treated them as adults and conducted immediately their first instance interviews under the fast-track border procedure (article 90 par. 3 IPA). Negative decisions were issued to all of them except for Afghan nationals.
On Lesvos, age assessment procedures, which had been frozen, started taking place again as of June 2021, albeit at a very slow pace. In certain cases, alleged minors were not treated as such by the Authorities during the asylum procedure even though their age assessment procedure had not been carried out yet.
On Samos, since the entry into force of the JMD 9889/2020 up until March 2021, age assessment procedures were suspended for unknown reasons. However, throughout 2021, the first stage of age assessment procedures resumed . They were conducted by the doctors of Samos RIC. The second stage of the age assessment procedure, which includes the psychosocial examination by the Psychosocial Unit of Samos RIC, remained suspended. By the end of 2021, age assessment procedures have been on hold again due to lack of medical personnel in the EODY’s medical division
Concerning the age assessment in the asylum procedure, the IPA includes procedural safeguards and refers explicitly to the JMD 1982/2016 (amended by JMD 9889/2020 since 13 August 2020) (see above).
More specifically, Article 75(3) IPA provides that “when in doubt the competent receiving authorities may refer unaccompanied minors for age determination examinations according to the provisions of the Joint Ministerial Decision 1982/16.2.2016 (O.G. B’ 335). When such a referral for age determination examinations is considered necessary and throughout this procedure, attention shall be given to the respect of gender-related special characteristics and of cultural particularities.”
The provision also sets out guarantees during the procedure:
- A guardian for the child is appointed who shall undertake all necessary action in order to protect the rights and the best interests of the child, throughout the age determination procedure;
- Unaccompanied children are informed prior to the examination of their application and in a language which they understand, of the possibility and the procedures to determine their age, of the methods used, therefore, the possible consequences of the results of the above-mentioned age determination procedures for the examination of the application for international protection, as well as the consequences of their refusal to undergo this examination;
- Unaccompanied children or their guardians consent to carry out the procedure for the determination of the age of the children concerned;
- The decision to reject an application of an unaccompanied child who refused to undergo this age determination procedure shall not be based solely on that refusal; and
- Until the completion of the age determination procedure, the person who claims to be a minor shall be treated as such.
The law also states that “the year of birth can be modified after the age determination procedure under Article 75, unless during the interview it appears that the applicant who is registered as an adult is manifestly a minor; in such cases, a decision of the Head of the competent Receiving Authority, following a recommendation by the case-handler, shall suffice.”
The JMD was an anticipated legal instrument, filling the gap of dedicated age assessment procedures within the context of the Asylum Service and limiting the use of medical examinations to a last resort while prioritising alternative means of assessment. Multiple safeguards prescribed in both the IPA and JMD 9889/2020 regulate the context of the procedure sufficiently, while explicitly providing the possibility of remaining doubts and thus providing the applicant with the benefit of the doubt even after the conclusion of the procedure. However, the lack of an effective guardianship system also hinders the enjoyment of procedural rights guaranteed by national legislation (see Legal Representation of Unaccompanied Children).
In practice, the lack of qualified staff within the reception and identification procedure and shortcomings in the age assessment procedure in the RIC undoubtedly have a spill-over effect on the asylum procedure, as the issuance of an age determination act by the RIS precedes the registration of the asylum application with the Asylum Service. While registration of date of birth by the Hellenic Police could be corrected by merely stating the correct date before the Asylum Service, this is not the case for individuals whose age has been wrongly assessed by the RIS. In this case, in order for the personal data e.g. age of the person to be corrected, the original travel document, or identity card should be submitted. Additionally, a birth certificate or family status can be submitted, however, these two documents require an “apostille” stamp, which in practice is not always possible for an asylum seeker to obtain. In practice though, in a few cases the employees in the RAOs proceed to the correction of the age of the person, based on documents without “apostille”. Alternatively, according to the law, the caseworker of the Asylum Service can refer the applicant to the age assessment determination procedure in case that reasonable drought exists as to his or her age. In this case, referral to the age assessment procedure largely lies at the discretion of the Asylum Service caseworker.
The number of age assessments conducted within the framework of the asylum procedure in 2021 is not available.
Several organisations sent a letter to the National Commission for Human Rights on 16 December 2021 stressing that the age assessment procedure is not conducted in compliance with the IPA and JMD 9889/2020 on Lesvos and Samos RAO. Moreover, the Asylum Service does not apply the presumption of minority while Article 39(5) IPA foresees that “In any case, until the issuance of a conclusion about his/her age, the person is considered as minor and receives appropriate treatment”.
In light of the persisting gaps in child protection in Greece, including the lack of effective guardianship, lack of qualified staff for age assessment procedures, inconsistencies in the procedure followed, and the lack of any legal framework governing the age assessments conducted by the Police (see Detention of Vulnerable Applicants) the 2017 findings of the Ombudsperson are still valid: “The verification of age appears to still be based mainly on the medical assessment carried out at the hospitals, according to a standard method that includes x-ray and dental examination, while the clinical assessment of the anthropometric figures and the psychosocial assessment is either absent or limited. This makes more difficult the further verification of the scientific correctness of the assessment.”
Moreover, in the past, the Greek Ombudsperson had expressed serious doubts as to the proper and systematic implementation of the age assessment procedures provided by both ministerial decisions and the implementation of a reliable system. On 30 August 2018, the Greek Ombudsperson had sent a letter to the Director of the Asylum Service on issues that hinder access to the asylum procedure for the unaccompanied minors as well as other issues, such as delays, erroneous implementation of the age assessment procedure, etc. This document remained unanswered, thus the Ombudsperson sent a reminder on 30 September 2019, emphasizing that age assessments based on diagnostic examinations (such as a wrist X-ray scan) should not be accepted given the fact that the accuracy of these exams is questionable.
 Appeals Authority, 11 March 2022.
 UNHCR, Factsheet, Greece 1-31 December 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/39PMtWv.
 For a detailed description of the issues that exacerbate the procedure of the vulnerability assessment see AIDA report on Greece 2021.
 This act is based on Article 45 L. 4636/2019. It is worth noting that the act mentions that the geographical restriction is necessary for the implementation of the EU-Turkey statement.
 Except for the case of vulnerable persons and persons in need of special reception conditions the geographical restriction may be lifted in the case of: a. unaccompanied minors; b. persons falling under the family reunification provisions of Articles 8-11 of Dublin Regulation, only after the person is accepted by the concerned member state; and c. persons whose applications for international protection are reasonably considered to be founded.
 See Article 67 (2) L. 4636/2019 and Article 2 (d) of the Ministerial Decision 1140/2.12.2019.
 According to article 67 (2) L. 4636/2019, ‘[w]here applicants have been identified as applicants in need of special procedural guarantees, they shall be provided with adequate support in order to allow them to benefit from the rights and comply with the obligations of this Part throughout the duration of the procedure. Forms of adequate support shall, in particular, consist of additional break times during the personal interview in accordance with Article 77, allowing the applicant to move during the personal interview if this is necessary because of his or her health condition, as well as showing leniency to non-major inaccuracies and contradictions, where these are related to his/her health condition.’
 GCR and other civil society organisations, 11 January 2021, “Legal actors express serious concerns regarding the lack of state free legal aid for asylum applicants in Lesvos”, available at: https://bit.ly/3sWzU3j
 Ενημέρωση εξελίξεων σχετικά με το Δελτίο Τύπου 11.01.21 από την ομάδα εργασίας Legal Αid Working Group Lesvos, available in Greek : https://bit.ly/3oVmVxx.
 Ministry of Migration and Asylum, Reply to parliamentary question by KINAL, 97157/2022, 17 February 2022, available at: https://bit.ly/3HiYIsF .
 MSF, RSA, PRO-ASYL, “Border procedures on the Greek islands violate asylum seekers’ right to special procedural guarantees”, 15th February 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3mp0Bes.
 Efsyn, ‘Μόνο σε νησιά και Έβρο τα νέα αιτήματα ασύλου’, 24 November 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3HqcnOM.
 Article 72(1) IPA.
 Office Of The National Rapporteur On Trafficking In Human Beings, https://bit.ly/3rVPLxB.
 Joint Ministerial Decision 9889/2020, Gov. Gazette 3390/Β/13-8-2020.
 See Article 1(3) JMD 9889/2020.
 See Art 4 JMD 9889/2020.
 See Article 1(5)(a) JMD 9889/2020.
 See Art. 1(5)(b) JMD 9889/2020.
 See Art 1(5)(c) JMD 9889/2020. Contrary to MD 92490/2013 and JMD 1982/2016 which provided for left wrist, hand X-rays, dental examination and panoramic dental X- rays cumulatively and not alternatively.
 See Art1(9) JMD 9889/2020.
 RSA, HIAS, GCR, Legal Center Lesvos, DRC, Fenix, ActionAid, Mobile Info Team, The Workings of the Screening Regulation. Juxtaposing proposed EU rules with the Greek reception and identification procedure, January 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3fL8xFF, 21.
 Ibid, 10-11.
 Submission by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the case of International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and European Council for Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) v. Greece (Complaint No. 173/2018) before the European Committee of Social Rights.
 Amended on 13 August 2020 by JMD 9889/2020.
 Article 79(4) IPA.
 Decision of the Director of the Asylum Service No 3153, Gov. Gazette Β’ 310/02.02.2018.
 Article 75(3) IPA.
 Ombudsperson, Migration flows and refugee protection: Administrative challenges and human rights, Special Report 2017, 25-25 and 75.
 Ibid, 25.