The report was previously updated in March 2019.
In 2019, 74,613 persons arrived in Greece. This is an increase of 48% compared to 2018. In 2019, Greece alone received more arrivals than Spain, Italy, Malta and Cyprus together (49,100). Out of those a total of 59,726 persons arrived in Greece by sea in 2019, compared to 32,494 in 2018. The majority originated from Afghanistan (40%), Syria (27.4%) and DRC (6.7%). More than half of the population were women (23%) and children (36%), while 41% were adult men. Moreover, 14,887 persons arrived in Greece through the Greek-Turkish land border of Evros in 2019, compared to a total of 18,014 in 2018. The Asylum Service received 77,287 asylum applications in 2019 (15.4% rise compared to 2018). Afghans are the largest group of applicants with 23,828 applications, followed by Syrians with 10,856 applications.
Following the July 2019 elections, the new government announced a more punitive policy on asylum, with a view to reduce the number of people arriving, increase the number of returns to Turkey and strengthen border control measures. Following the elections, the Ministry of Migration Policy has been repealed and subsumed to the Ministry of Citizens Protection. In January 2020, however, the Ministry for Migration and Asylum was re-established.
A new law on asylum has been issued in November 2019. L. 4636/2019 (hereinafter: International Protection Act/IPA). It has been repeatedly criticised by national and international human rights bodies including the Greek Ombudsman, the Greek National Commission for Human Rights (GNCHR), UNHCR and civil society organisations, as inter alia an attempt to lower protection standards and create unwarranted procedural and substantive hurdles for people seeking international protection. As noted by UNHCR, the new law reduces safeguards for people seeking international protection and creates additional pressure on the overstretched capacity of administrative and judicial authorities. “The proposed changes will endanger people who need international protection[…] [the law] puts an excessive burden on asylum seekers and focuses on punitive measures. It introduces tough requirements that an asylum seeker could not reasonably be expected to fulfil” […] “As a result, asylum seekers may be easily excluded from the process without having their international protection needs adequately assessed. This may expose them to the risk of refoulement”. In May 2020, less than 4 months after the entry into force of the IPA, national legislation has been reamended in May 2020. These amendments have been significantly criticised by human rights bodies, including the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights as they further weaken basic guarantees for persons in need of protection and introduces a set of provisions that can lead to arbitrary detention of asylum seekers and third country nationals.
Following an increasing number of cases of alleged pushbacks at the Greek-Turkish border of Evros during the previous years, allegations of pushbacks were also reported during 2019. In September 2019, the UN Committee Against Torture noted in its concluding observations that “[t]he Committee is seriously concerned by consistent reports that the State party may have acted in breach of the principle of non-refoulement during the period under review”. In particular since 2020, these allegations do not only refer to push back at the land borders with Turkey (Evros) but also at the Aegean Sea. The CoE Commissioner for Human Rights thus stated on 3 March 2020: “I am alarmed by reports that some people in distress have not been rescued, while others have been pushed back or endangered”.
- Operation of the Asylum Service: At the end of 2019, the Asylum Service operated in 25 locations throughout the country, compared to 23 locations at the end of 2018. The recognition rate at first instance in 2019 was 55.9%, up from 49.4% in 2018.
- Access to the asylum procedure: Without underestimating the number of applications lodged in 2019, access to asylum on the mainland continued to be problematic throughout 2019. Access to the asylum procedure for persons detained in pre-removal centres is also a matter of concern. Following tension erupted on the Greek-Turkish land borders at the end of February 2020, on 2 March 2020, the Greek Authorities issued an Emergency Legislative Order (Πράξη Νομοθετικού Περιεχομένου/ΠΝΠ) by which access to the asylum procedure had been suspended for persons entering the country during March 2020. According to the Emergency Legislative Order, those persons were about to be returned to their country of origin or transit ‘without registration’. As noted by several actors, inter alia by UNHCR, “[a]ll States have a right to control their borders and manage irregular movements, but at the same time should refrain from the use of excessive or disproportionate force and maintain systems for handling asylum requests in an orderly manner. Neither the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees nor EU refugee law provides any legal basis for the suspension of the reception of asylum applications”. On 30 March 2020, following a legal action supported by the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR), the Council of State partially accepted the request for interim orders for two vulnerable individuals, subject to the suspension of access to asylum, and ordered the Authorities to refrain from any forcible removal, while it rejected the request in a third case.
- Processing times: The average processing time at first instance is reported at about 10.3 months in 2019, compared to 8.5 months in 2018. Out of the total number of 87,461 applications pending by the end of 2019, in 71,396 (81.6%) of the cases, the personal interview had not yet taken place. In 47,877 (67%) of these applications pending as of 31 December 2019, the interview is scheduled for the second semester of 2020 or even after 2020. This includes, for example, Fast-track Syria Unit applicants who receive interview appointments for 2021, applicants from Iraq and from African countries with interview dates scheduled for late 2023 and applicants from Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan with interview dates scheduled for 2024. Thus, given the number of the applications, the backlog of cases pending for prolonged periods is likely to increase, if the capacity of the Asylum Service is not further increased.
- First instance procedure: The IPA foresees an extended list of cases in which an application for international protection can be rejected as “manifestly unfounded” without any in-merits examination and without assessing the risk of refoulement, even in case that the applicant did not manage to comply with tough procedural requirements and formalities. In addition, the IPA introduced the possibility of a ‘fictitious service’ (πλασματική επίδοση) of first instance decisions, with a registered letter to the applicant or to the authorised lawyers, consultants, representatives or even the Head of the Regional Asylum Office/Independent Asylum Unit, where the application was submitted or the Head of the Reception or Accommodation Centre. Given that the deadline for lodging an appeal starts from the day following the (fictitious) service, this deadline may expire without the applicant being actually informed about the issuance of the decision, for reasons not attributable to the latter. As noted by the Greek Ombudsman, the provisions relating to this fictitious service effectively limit the access of asylum seekers to legal remedies.
- Fast-track border procedure: The EU-Turkey statement, adopted in March 2016 and initially described as “a temporary and extraordinary measure” continues to be implemented to those arrived by sea on the Aegean islands. The impact of the EU-Turkey statement has been inter alia a de facto dichotomy of the asylum procedures applied in Greece. Asylum seekers arriving after 20 March 2016 on the Greek islands are subject to a fast-track border procedure with limited guarantees. As noted by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) “almost three years of experience [of processing asylum claims in facilities at borders] in Greece shows, [that] this approach creates fundamental rights challenges that appear almost insurmountable”.
- Legal assistance: No state-funded free legal aid is provided at first instance, nor is there an obligation to provide it in law. A state-funded legal aid scheme in the appeal procedure on the basis of a list managed by the Asylum Service operates since September 2017. Despite this welcome development, the capacity of the second instance legal aid scheme remains limited and almost 2 out of 3 appellants do not benefit from free legal assistance at second instance. Out of a total of 15,378 appeals lodged in 2019, only 5,152 (33%) asylum seekers received free legal assistance under the state-funded legal aid scheme. This is a slight increase compared to 2018 (21.8%). These figures demonstrate “an administrative practice incompatible with Union law, when it is to some degree, of a consistent and general nature”. Compliance of the Greek authorities with their obligations under national legislation and the recast Asylum Procedures Directive should thus be further assessed.
- Appeal: Recognition rates at second instance remained low in 2019. Out of the total in-merits second instance decision issued in 2019, 5.93% resulted in the granting of international protection; 6.07% resulted in the granting of humanitarian protection and 87.9% resulted in a negative decision. Effective access to the second instance procedure has been restricted in practice severely by the 2019 legislative amendment (IPA). According to the IPA, an appeal against a first instance decision inter alia should be submitted in a written form (in Greek) and mention the “specific grounds” of the appeal. Otherwise, the appeal is rejected as inadmissible without any in-merits examination. Given the fact that said requisites can only be fulfilled with the assistance of a lawyer, and the significant shortcoming in the provision of free legal assistance under the free legal aid scheme, appeals procedures are practically non-accessible for the vast majority of applicants, in violation of Article 46 of the Directive 2013/32/EU and Article 47 of the EU Charter for Fundamental Rights. As stated by UNHCR, “[i]n some circumstances, it would be so difficult to appeal against a rejection that the right to an effective remedy enshrined in international and EU law, would be seriously compromised”. The IPA abolished the automatic suspensive effect for certain appeals, in particular those concerning applications rejected in the accelerated procedure or dismissed as inadmissible under certain grounds. A ‘fictitious service’ of the second instance decision is also foreseen by the IPA, which entails the risk that deadlines for judicial review have expired without the appellant having been actually informed about the issuance of the decision.
- Dublin: In 2019, Greece addressed 5,459 outgoing requests to other Member States under the Dublin Regulation. Within the same period, 2,416 outgoing requests were expressly accepted, 107 were implicitly accepted and 2,936 were rejected. Additional obstacles to family reunification continued to occur in 2019 due to practices adopted by a number of the receiving Member States, which may underestimate the right to family life. In 2019, Greece received, for the first time, more rejections than acceptances. In 2019, the Greek Dublin Unit received 12,718 incoming requests, coming predominantly from Germany (8,874), compared to 9,142 incoming requests in 2018. Of those, only 710 were accepted. In a number of cases domestic courts in different Member States have suspended Dublin transfers.
- Relocation: A number of agreements have been concluded throughout 2019 regarding the relocation of applicants from Greece to other European countries. In March 2019, the Greek and Portuguese authorities concluded a bilateral agreement to relocate 1,000 asylum seekers from Greece to Portugal by the end of the year. No further developments on this matter have been recorded throughout the year. In January 2020, the Alternate Minister for Migration Policy reiterated Portugal’s willingness to accept up to 1,000 asylum seekers and stated that Greece and Portugal have already been working on this project. In December 2019 the Greek and Serbian authorities reached an agreement for the relocation of 100 unaccompanied minors to Serbia. A new project for the relocation of 400 vulnerable asylum seekers to France has also been announced in January 2020, aiming at the completion of the relocations by the summer. In March 2020, a number of EU Member States have accepted to relocate a number of 1,600 unaccompanied children from Greece. UNHCR, IOM and UNICEF, in a joint statement have urged “other EU Member States to also follow through on relocation pledges”. As underlined, “[t]he relocation efforts are humane, concrete demonstrations of European solidarity… there is a need to move beyond one-off relocation exercises and establish more predictable arrangements for relocation within the EU, for longer-term impact”.
- Safe third country: Since mid-2016, the same template decision is issued to dismiss claims of Syrians applicants as inadmissible on the basis that Turkey is a safe third country for them. Accordingly, negative first instance decisions qualifying Turkey as a safe third country for Syrians are not only identical and repetitive – failing to provide an individualised assessment – but also outdated insofar as they do not take into account developments after that period, such as the current legal framework in Turkey, including the derogation from the principle of non-refoulement. Second instance decisions issued by the Independent Appeals Committees for Syrian applicants systematically uphold the first instance inadmissibility decisions, if no vulnerability is identified or no ground in order for the case to be referred for humanitarian permission to stay is present. Contrary to the requirements of the recast Asylum Procedures Directive, no rules on the methodology by which the competent authorities satisfy themselves that the safe third country concept may be applied to a particular country or to a particular applicant is provided by national legislation (IPA). According to the IPA, “transit” as such through a third country in conjunction with specific circumstances may be considered as a valid ground in order to be considered that the applicant could reasonably return in this country. The compatibility of said provision with the EU acquis should be further assessed, in particular by taking into consideration the recent CJEU case law (C924/19 PPU and C-925/19 PPU).
- Identification of vulnerability: Major delays occur in the identification of vulnerability on the islands, due to significant lack of qualified staff, which in turn also affects the asylum procedure. The average time between the arrival of the persons and the competition of the medical/psychosocial examination/vulnerability assessment on islands’ RICs was between 1 and 8 months in 2019, depending on the location. The regulatory framework for the guardianship of unaccompanied children initially introduced in 2018 was still not operational as of May 2020.
- Freedom of movement: Asylum seekers subject to the EU-Turkey statement are issued a geographical restriction, ordering them not to leave the respective island until the end of the asylum procedure. The practice of geographical restriction has led to a significant overcrowding of the facilities on the islands and thus to the deterioration of reception conditions. In 2018, following an action brought by GCR, the Council of State annulled the Decision of the Director of the Asylum Service regarding the imposition of the geographical limitation. However, following a new Decision of the Director of the Asylum Service, the geographical restriction on the Eastern Aegean islands has been reintroduced. Legal action filed against the new Decision for the geographical limitation by GCR before the Council of State was still pending as of May 2020. A new regulatory framework for the geographical restriction on the islands entered into force in January 2020, which has significantly limited the categories of applicants for whom the restriction can be lifted. Thus, the implementation of the latter can increase the number of applicants remaining on the Greek islands and further deteriorate the conditions there.
- Reception capacity: Most temporary camps on the mainland, initially created as emergency accommodation facilities continued to operate throughout 2019, without a clear legal basis or official site management. The required Ministerial Decisions for the establishment of the Temporary accommodation facilities has been issued on March 2020. In December 2019, a number of 24,110 persons were accommodated in mainland camps. Additionally, 21,620 people were accommodated under the UNHCR accommodation scheme (ESTIA) in December 2019, 6,822 of whom were recognised refugees and 14,798 were asylum seekers. The occupancy rate of the scheme was 98%. Respectively, as of 31 December 2019, there were 5,301 unaccompanied and separated children in Greece but only 1,286 places in long-term dedicated accommodation facilities, and 748 places in temporary accommodation. On the Eastern Aegean islands, the nominal capacity of reception facilities, including RIC and other facilities, was at 8,125 places as of 31 December 2019; while a total of 41,899 newly arrived persons remained there. The nominal capacity of the RIC facilities (hotspots) was 6,178 as of December 2019, compared to 6,438 in December 2018. 38,423 applicants remained at the RIC facilities on the islands under a geographical restriction, in December 2019, compared to 11,683 in December 2018. Compliance of the Greek authorities with their obligations under the recast Reception Conditions Directive should be assessed against the total number of persons with pending asylum applications, i.e. 87,461 applications pending at first instance and about 14,547 appeals pending before Appeals Committees, at the end of 2019.
- Living conditions: As it has been widely documented, reception facilities on the islands remain substandard. Overcrowding, a lack of basic services, including medical care, limited sanitary facilities, and violence and lack of security poses significant protection risks. The mental health of the applicants on the islands is aggravating. As stressed by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights in October 2019, “[t]he situation of migrants, including asylum seekers, in the Greek Aegean islands has dramatically worsened over the past 12 months. Urgent measures are needed to address the desperate conditions in which thousands of human beings are living”. In February 2020, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees “called for urgent action to address the increasingly desperate situation of refugees and migrants in reception centres in the Aegean islands”. The High Commissioner underlined that “[c]onditions on the islands are shocking and shameful”. On the mainland, even if the capacity in sites has increased, the shortage of accommodation countrywide is increasingly leading to the overcrowding of many mainland camps, creating tension and increasing protection risks for the residents. Moreover, some continue to operate below standards provided under EU and national law, especially for long-term living. Main gaps relate to the remote and isolated location, the type of shelter, lack of security, and limitations in access to social services, especially for persons with specific needs and children.
Detention of asylum seekers
- Statistics: The total number of third-country nationals detained during 2019 was 30,007, out of which 23,348 were asylum seekers. The total number of persons detained at the end of 2019 was 3,869. Of these, 1,021 persons (26.3%) were detained in police stations. Furthermore, at the end of 2019, 195 unaccompanied children were in detention (“protective custody”) across the country.
- Detention facilities: There were 8 active pre-removal detention facilities (PRDF) in Greece at the end of 2019. Police stations continued to be used for prolonged immigration detention.
- Amendments to the legal framework on detention: The IPA introduced extensive provisions for the detention of asylum seekers and significantly lowered guarantees regarding the imposition of detention measures against asylum applicants, threatening to undermine the principle that detention of asylum seekers should only be applied exceptionally and as a measure of last resort. Inter alia the IPA increases the maximum time limit for the detention of asylum seekers to 18 months and additionally provides that the period of detention on the basis of return or deportation procedures is not calculated in the total time of detention, and thus the total detention period of a third country national within the migration context may reach 36 months (18 months while the asylum procedure + 18 months in view of removal).
- Detention of vulnerable persons: Persons belonging to vulnerable groups are detained in practice, without a proper identification of vulnerability and individualised assessment prior to the issuance of a detention order. Due to the lack of accommodation facilities or transit facilities for children, detention of unaccompanied children is systematically imposed and may be prolonged for periods. During 2019, both the European Court of Human Rights and the European Committee of Social Rights have ordered the Greek authorities to immediately halt the detention of unaccompanied children and transfer them in age-appropriate reception facilities.
- Detention conditions: In many cases, the conditions of detention in pre-removal centres fail to meet adequate standards, inter alia due to their carceral and prison-like design. Police stations and other police facilities, which are not suitable for detention exceeding 24 hours by nature, continue to fall short of basic standards. Overall, available medical services provided in pre-removal centres are inadequate compared to the needs observed. At the end of 2019, there were only four doctors in total in the PRDFs across the country (1 in Amygdaleza, 1 in Korinthos, 1 in Xanthi and 1 in Fylakio). No doctor was present in Tavros and Paranesti PRDF on the mainland. On the Eastern Aegean islands PRDFs (Lesvos PRDF and Kos PRDF), i.e. where persons are detained inter alia in order to be subject to readmission within the framework of the EU-Turkey Statement, there was no doctor, interpreter or physiatrist present as of the end of 2019. Medical services are not provided in police stations.
- Legal Remedies against Detention: The ability for detained persons to challenge detention orders is severely restricted in practice due to gaps in the provision of interpretation and a lack of free legal aid, resulting in the lack of access to judicial remedies against detention decisions. Limited judicial control regarding the lawfulness and the conditions of detention remains a long-lasting matter of concern.
Content of international protection
- Family reunification: Administrative obstacles, in particular for the issuance of visas even in cases where the application for family reunification has been accepted, continue to hinder the effective exercise of the right to family reunification for refugees. In 2019, 266 applications for family reunification were submitted at the Asylum Service. The Asylum Service took 22 positive decisions, 2 partially positive decisions and 29 negative decisions.
- Naturalization: Following an amendment of the Citizenship Code in March 2020, the minimum period of lawful residence required for submitting an application for citizenship in the case of recognised refugees has been increased from 3 to 7 years, despite the legal obligation of the Greek Authorities under Article 34 of the Geneva Convention 1951 to “facilitate the assimilation and naturalisation of refugees” and “in particular make every effort to expedite naturalisation proceedings”.
- Housing of recognised refugees: Following an amendment to the asylum legislation in early March 2020, beneficiaries of international protection residing in accommodation facilities must leave these centres within a 30-days period after the granting of international protection. As regards unaccompanied minors, they must also comply with that 30-days deadline once they reach the age of majority. Given the limited integration of recognised beneficiaries of international protection in Greece, this results in a high risk of homelessness and destitution.