Over the last decade, Greece remains one of the main countries where people enter the European Union and the Schengen Area (1) - mainly through the Turkish-Greek borders (at land and sea). The EU has put a lot of pressure on the Greek government to control these external borders and invested in closing the borders by sending Frontex – officers of a specialized EU-border agency – and by funding “border security” such as fences or infrared cameras amongst other things. More than that, it has used Greece to test harmful new migration policies, such as the ‘EU-Turkey Deal’ (2) and the so-called ‘hot spot’ (3) camps at the external borders.
This European policy of migration control and deterrence is also reflected on a national level by the Greek government, who pursue hostile policies against refugees and advocate for the protection of Greece’s borders. In general, it has become much harder to reach Greek soil for those escaping their countries and many people have been unlawfully returned to Turkey or even lost their lives. For those living within Greece and seeking protection, the only accommodation available is in isolated and controlled camps, far from cities. New asylum laws create more barriers to receive protection, such as the admissibility procedure (4). Even for those who receive protection, integration into Greek society is a major obstacle because of the overall situation of the national economy and limited support available. Greece today is harder to reach and harder to live in, yet people find their ways to survive.
Following a sudden increase in arrivals of refugees in 2015 when many people found their way from Greece through the Balkans to Northern Europe and with the later closure of these migratory paths in 2016 the Greek government confronted with thousands of refugees trapped within its borders set up an emergency infrastructure with dozens of provisory camps all over the country and flats offered to the most vulnerable among people. Unable to provide adequate reception conditions and services it accepted the help of international organisations and NGOs as well as smaller initiatives. Today, the Greek government is mostly in control of official services for refugees, it limited the housing of asylum seekers to camps and restricted the access of NGOs to those. This has generally meant a reduction in quality of reception conditions and support services. NGOs and associations still provide important services for refugees, like free legal, psychological or social support, but they mostly operate in cities. (contacts to NGOs are available here)
If you reach Greece and want to claim asylum, you register your claim for asylum in a closed centre run by the Greek authorities (on the islands they are called Closed Controlled Access Centres – CCAC, and on the mainland they are called Reception and Identification Centres -RIC). There are CCACs on the five Aegean Island “hotspots” (Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Leros and Kos). There is a RIC at the land border between Greece and Turkey, by the Evros river called Fylakio. If you arrive by land without being arrested, you can only register a claim for asylum in Diavata RIC (for North Greece, including Thessaloniki) or Malakasa RIC (for South Greece, including Athens). In general, these RICs do not let you inside if you turn up without an appointment. You can book an appointment using this online application (apps.migration.gov.gr/international-protection-registration/registration_appointment), however often the website does not work, or says that there are “no appointments available”. You should according to law have a right to reception conditions once trying to seek asylum, therefore you can attempt to ask for shelter in one of the open camps and seek their help for the registration of your asylum claim.
Attention! There is no official procedure to accept persons prior to the official asylum application in these camps. You can only ask for their help and tell them that you are homeless and want to ask for asylum and explain your situation. Attention! In some areas in Greece more near to the Turkish border, people have been reportedly arrested and unlawfully send back to Turkey, which is why most newcomers try to reach camps further away in West- Central or Southern Greece.
The registration of your asylum claim within a closed first camp can last up to 25 days according to law. In this time you cannot go outside the camp but you can move freely within the camp and use your mobile phone accordingly. During registration you will be photographed and your fingerprints will be taken. You will be asked your basic personal information such as name, family name, birthdate, nationality, Mother’s and father’s name, years you attend school, family status, religion and you will be asked to answer very briefly why you left your country of origin and maybe also why you didn’t stay in Turkey. If you hold identity documents of your country (or photos of these) you may show them for proper writing of your data. Attention! This is not the asylum interview but it is important when being asked why you left your country to state one sentence for each reason. Do not generalise but be specific about your reasons of persecution. You may name more than one reason why you were not anymore safe in your country.
After the registration of your data you will be briefly examined by a doctor. At this stage it is important to explain any illnesses, medications you need, psychological problems, disabilities, pregnancy and also if you are a victim of any form of violence (such as torture, rape, domestic violence or other). Many health problems are not visible as well as special conditions or experiences of violence. You should explain these to the doctor as he or she is responsible to register any special needs or vulnerabilities. Attention! If you are a parent and your children are underage you have to speak also on their behalf.
Once the registration procedure is completed, you will be handed an asylum seeker card and an appointment for your asylum interview. Ideally you should also receive a tax number (AFM). On your asylum seeker card is registered your personal asylum file number, your asylum case number, your asylum card number and your social insurance number (PAAYPA). With the PAAYPA number you have now access to the Greek public health system – meaning you can book appointments and visit doctors and make examinations in the hospitals. In the bottom of the card it is noted when you have to renew your card and until when it is valid. Attention! Never miss the period for the renewal as your file might get closed. Attention! Your asylum seeker card may show it is still valid but if your asylum procedure is ended negatively, the system still registers the end of validity of your asylum seeker card and you are not protected from arrest and detention with the danger of deportation.
Remember! If you have close family members in another European country, you may be able to request family reunification when you register your asylum claim in Greece (read more about the asylum procedure here and about family reunification here)
From the beginning of your asylum procedure you have the right to seek state support for housing, which then will be provided in one of the 33 camps in Greece – upon choice of the Ministry of Migration and Asylum. If you were already staying in one camp before, you may be allowed to return there or get transferred to another camp. If you do not wish to be housed in the camp assigned to you, you will also lose the right for social allowances.
If you do not apply for asylum in Greece you will be in danger of arrest and detention. with the aim of your readmission or deportation. Anyhow, readmissions to Turkey are not implemented as Turkey does not cooperate with the Greek government to take people back since 30 March 2020. The Greek police actively control people who they think could be refugees. They often stop people not looking European and ask for papers. Upon arrest and in detention you can still request to apply for asylum. Upon arrest a deportation and detention decision is issued on your behalf. You can appeal this decision within only 5 days upon issuance (see date of issuance noted on the document). Many times people are arrested and detained and get this detention and deportation decision only later. After the 5-days-deadline you can still appeal against the detention before a competent court and with the help of a lawyer. Concrete danger of deportation to your home country affects those who do not apply for asylum if they come from countries where deportations can be carried out from Greece such as Turkey, Albania, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Tunisia and Morocco (amongst others). There is no effective danger of deportation for people coming from Syria. If you are from Syria and arrested / detained with the aim of deportation and do not apply for asylum, you should receive a suspension of deportation decision and be released. For people from Afghanistan where deportations are also not feasible there is also currently no effective danger of deportation but also no clear policy. That means your detention may not be ended automatically (until the maximum of permitted 18 months) and you may need the help of a lawyer to fight for a prompt release. There are other countries such as Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo a.o. where deportations are not possible to be conducted and haven’t been heard of. But in general, there are no available statistics on deportations from Greece and no official announcements specifying the countries where deportations are conducted. (read more about detention here)
The asylum procedure in Greece in general has been fastened up compared to the last years, so even though you may experience every day as a burden, in terms of the duration of the asylum procedure it’s generally better than before. As we receive many requests of support to speed up asylum procedures – which is understandable – we want to emphasize here, that less time to prepare your asylum case is in most of the cases not helpful. If you don’t have enough time to seek legal information about the asylum procedure, to prepare your case, find a lawyer and collect any available evidence for your cases and your vulnerability, you may face negative results.
It can also be helpful to be in Greece longer, if the “admissibility procedure” applies to you.
According to current law, and if you belong to the following five nationalities: Syrian, Afghan, Somali, Pakistan and Bangladesh you will first undergo an admissibility procedure where it will be examined if you are safe to be returned to Turkey and conduct your asylum procedure there. Due to Law that provides Turkey to be a safe country for those nationalities, you have to persuade the Greek authorities that in your individual and personal case Turkey is not safe. Only after receiving a positive decision, which accepts the fact that you are not safe in Turkey, you can proceed to your asylum procedure. As mentioned above, since March 2020 no legal returns (readmissions) to Turkey have been implemented. That means that a rejection would currently not put you in danger to be returned, but it would lengthen your asylum procedure.
Once your first asylum interview is conducted, a decision will be issued. If a negative decision is received, it is still possible to appeal and take further legal steps to get documents, but it is very hard to win at appeal. It is best to prepare as well as possible for the interview in order to receive a positive decision at first instance and not face the difficult appeal procedure. Please understand how important your first asylum interview will be for your future. It is highly recommended to take your time and find good support to prepare for admissibility and the first asylum hearing in the best possible way.
Proper information and advice is best from professional Greek lawyers experienced in refugee law that can support your case. All major NGOs supporting refugees provide lawyers for free. As they may have more or less waiting times, seek from the beginning to find a lawyer from one of them. You also have the right to get a private lawyer if you prefer, but paying a lawyer does not automatically mean that you will have better support. If you search for a private lawyer make sure to chose one specialised in asylum law. A good lawyer you do not recognize by the fact that he or she is able to speed up your asylum procedure but by the fact that he or she will spend sufficient time asking you questions and understanding your story, your family and health situation and reading through all your documents. He or she will explain to you in detail the asylum procedure and also answer all your questions. You can be only represented by one lawyer in your asylum procedure. If you are represented by a lawyer from an NGO, it is possible that other lawyers from the same organisation also support your case. You can change your lawyer at any given time by informing him or her, but if you have made oral or written agreements of payment with a private lawyer you may be obligated to pay the agreed price before any change. To be represented by a lawyer you undersign an authorization letter which should be legalized once you have papers (asylum card) by your official signature before a municipality office (KEP) or the police. The authorization will be sent by your lawyer to the asylum service where it will be placed in your file. If you lack valid papers you may either put your mere signature (without legalization) or - if needed according to your lawyer - you will have to sign in front of a notary at the given costs (around 50-70 Euros). This is a paper that gives the lawyer permission to communicate with the Greek authorities on your behalf and work on your case officially.
Because there is limited support in Greece and you may be accommodated far from a city, you have to get active! Ask for information and contacts and seek proper support from lawyers, social workers, doctors, psychologists, educational staff and any experts for your individual needs. Ask others living longer in the area for contacts and develop a network of supporters for yourself to make use of all your options in the best possible way. Write down the names and contact numbers or emails of the professionals and the organisations they work for supporting you in order to connect them with each other (lawyer, social worker, psychologist, doctor etc.). Try to learn/improve languages (Greek, English) and get to know the area around to be as independent as possible. Keep all your original documents in one file and let professionals supporting you keep copies when needed. Documents can be important in your case, so collect evidence on any hospital stay, doctor visit, therapy, diagnosis, school admission papers of your children and school grades or diplomas, your monthly allowance, your address, tax documents, work contracts, the asylum service or the police, social reports etc. When visiting first time your lawyer bring all these documents along and make him/her aware of any other documents you may have access to from your home country or transit countries, so you can receive proper advice about what is helpful to submit to the Greek authorities for your asylum procedure.
The internet platform of the Ministry of Migration and Asylum has some options to apply directly (without a lawyer) and in different languages for appointments, copies of your file, change appointments, fasten up your procedure, declare a change of address, phone or email, submit documents, renew your residence permit etc. Take care to ensure your name, date of birth and father’s and mother’s name is recorded exactly correctly – as it can only be changed with an original identity document, if recorded incorrectly. If language or reading/writing or the use of these forms is difficult for you seek help from a person who you are sure can handle the form AND who can advise you on the steps you plan to make beforehand. Do not use the form with someone you are not sure if he or she knows the consequences of the steps you want to make. Specifically, if you plan to fasten up your asylum procedure and ask for an earlier appointment do not take this step before being well prepared. Do not submit additional documents if you are not sure they are helpful for your case. Always seek proper advice before taking any decision. It is also very important to keep your contact information up to date, so that the authorities can reach you. In particular, any email address you give the Greek Asylum Service, the inbox and spam folders should be monitored – important things, even asylum decisions may be sent by email to you. The same goes for your address in case you do not live in a camp.
Despite the difficult conditions in Greece, people who have continued their journey from Greece to another EU country can face return back to Greece. This is a risk for people who have been fingerprinted in Greece or claimed asylum there, as well as people who got positive decisions in Greece and were given refugee status. The risk of return depends on the person (your particular characteristics including gender and any vulnerabilities) and the country you move on to (different countries have different policies about returning people to Greece, and this is something that is always changing). It also depends on the willingness of Greece to accept you back. If you leave Greece after being fingerprinted there, it is vital to explain and if possible document the reasons you left. It is also important to have a good lawyer to help explain the general and personal problems you faced in Greece and the reality you would face if you are returned.
(1) The Schengen Area consists of 26 European countries, of which not all are in the EU. The area had largely abolished passport and any other type of border control at their mutual borders, while sharing a common visa-policy. But as a result of the on-going “migration crisis” and with the excuse of security issues following the terrorist attacks in Paris, a number of countries have temporarily reintroduced controls on some or all of their borders with other Schengen states. As of 22 March 2016, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, and Sweden have imposed controls on some or all of their borders with other Schengen states.
(2) EU-Turkey Deal: The EU-Turkey Deal was agreed upon in 2016 and laid grounds for an additional framework of forced returns to Turkey.
(3) Hot Spots: The „hot spot“ approach was developed in Europe. First hot spot camps were opened in Italy and Greece in 2015 aimed at the containment and management of migration. Protection seekers were to be registered through fast track procedures aimed at quick asylum procedures and mainly quick returns.
(4) Admissibility procedure: When the asylum service examines first whether or not a person could be returned to the „safe third country“ he/she travelled through – in this case Turkey. Only after Turkey is in the individual case considered to be not safe, the asylum procedure in Greece is admitted.