Greece likes to see itself as an exceptional case. Think of the naming dispute with its neighbour in the north, or the paranoia about Turkish invasion causing an outrageously high military budget. In turns out that in matters of immigration, Greece too, forms an exceptional case. In the early 2010s, Greece has formed the hotspot of irregular immigration into the European Union. Hundreds of thousands of Africans, Afghans and Pakistanis live on Hellenic streets. It is impossible to find regular employment, and until recently, first-instance acceptance rates of asylum seekers had been less than 0.1%. Something was clearly very wrong in Greece.
Until last year, the Greek asylum system was managed and operated by the police. The police was responsible for the screening of all irregular immigrants, which means that regular police officers needed to ascertain the identity of all persons who crossed the border without passing through a border checkpoint. As was reported all over the press, Greece employed an extensive and relentless detention policy for so-called ‘illegal immigrants’. Hundreds of police stations all over the country served as temporary prisons for people who had committed no crime other than having crossed a border without valid documents. NGOs, the UNHCR and a countless number of institutions had condemned Greece for its inhumane policies. The vast majority of EU member states had furthermore suspended all so-called Dublin-transferrals, but the effects had been limited. Seeking asylum in Greece was either pointless or impossible. The police personnel that was responsible for asylum was both incompetent and hopelessly understaffed. The statements on first instance decisions were usually no longer than a page, and it was not seldom the case that people were queuing at police stations for days or weeks before they had a chance to ask for asylum.
|The main offices of the Greek Asylum Service in Athens|
In 2013 much of this changed. Greece set up a so-called First Reception Service which is took over the police’s role of screening irregular immigrants. They are still detained, but only for a couple of days until they are designated one of three labels: asylum seeker, humanitarian protection or illegal immigrant, with the vast majority being placed in the third category. Greece is a transit country. Hardly anyone really wants to apply for asylum. Furthermore, the Asylum Service was set up, staffed not by police officers but by civilians. Having been trained by the European Asylum Support Office, the Greek Asylum Service is far more competent than the police. Acceptance rates for first-instance decisions currently lie at 18% and are approaching the European average. Five regional asylum offices and one mobile unit have so far been set up in Athens, Thessaloniki, Orestiada, Rhodes and Lesbos. Clearly, this is progress, but much remains to be done. I have seen the queue outside the Asylum Service’s headquarters myself, and given that the number of regional offices is limited, access to the asylum procedure has, if anything, become even more difficult. One needs to consider that Greece is a country composed of thousands of islands, over 200 of which are inhabited. Furthermore, the Asylum Service is hopelessly understaffed. Forty case workers currently assess asylum applications while eighty are required. Funding is insecure. The NGO Metadrassi provides interpretation services for the Asylum Service, but it is funded by European funds which are regularly and rigorously reviewed. The fact of the matter is that even though the Greek asylum system has undergone a radical reform, Dublin-transferrals to Greece have not been resumed.
So what happened in Greece? Why has the Greek government decided to overhaul its asylum policy? The first trigger for change was a decision of the European Court of Justice which condemned the abhorrent human rights situation in Greece. An asylum seeker who entered the EU through Greece yet sought asylum in the UK challenged the provision of the Dublin-Regulation which demands his transferral to Greece, claiming that his human rights would be infringed due to the inability of the Greek asylum system to handle asylum applications properly. Mr Saeedi won the case, but the Dublin-Regulation is the cornerstone of the European asylum system – preventing the large-scale arrival of African refugees in core Europe depends on the functioning of the Dublin-system which essentially creates an asylum buffer zone in the EU periphery. Several member states, and first and foremost the European Commissionincreased pressure on Greece to reform the asylum system. The responsible Commissioner Malmström travelled to Greece several times – the political pressure was immense, and it was finally the cause of the deal between the EU and the Greek government.
This deal foresaw that the EU would support the fortification and patrolling of the Greek borders, while the Greek government would reform its asylum system, partially with European money. Frontex is omnipresent – both at the Greek maritime border and on the small land border. I witnessed the presence of Frontex in Orestiada, and I have heard of their activities by a member of the Hellenic Coastguard. The Greek First Reception Service is 75%-funded by EU money, and the Asylum Service relies on the assistance of the European Asylum Support Office to achieve the kind of quality that is needed.
Now we come to the heart of the matter: the Dublin-Regulation, which determines that the member state of first entry is responsible for an asylum application, creates a disincentive for Greece to set up a proper, functioning asylum system. The Greek government has created an asylum service, but it remains incapable of granting everyone immediate access to the asylum procedure. This is because the government has in interest is preventing the re-launch of Dublin-transferrals to Greece. The Greek government can therefore use the Dublin-Regulation as a pawn to squeeze more money out of European funds. “Yes, as you can see, we have tried to set up an asylum system, but we just don’t have the money to do it properly! You want to have Dublin-transferrals to Greece? Sure! Just give us the money, and we will build the type of asylum system you want.” Greece has no problem with taking care of asylum seekers per se. It merely has a problem with paying for them. At the same time, the rest of the EU, and particularly the core member states, have an interest in reinstating Dublin-transferrals to Greece. The Dublin-Regulation guarantees that African and Middle Eastern refugees will not enter Germany, France or the UK in huge numbers.
The Greek strategy works – it is only a matter of time until more money will begin to flow into the Greek Asylum Service and the First Reception Service. I am convinced that the people who actually work there have only the best of intentions, but their agencies are used as pieces on the political chessboard that is the European asylum system.
You have now read a lot about European and Greek interests, but have you noticed something? At no point are the interests of the refugees themselves taken into consideration. At no point is the question raised, “How does what we’re doing affect them?” Let us hope that this mentality will eventually change.