The unbalanced scales of refugee justice

Yola Verbruggen, IBA Multimedia Journalist

Reporting from Athens and Lesvos, Global Insight met lawyers on the frontline of Europe’s refugee crisis as they attempt to gain access to those in greatest need of legal assistance.

It’s a sunny afternoon on the Greek island of Lesvos. More than two months after snow first covered the island, Spring has finally arrived. A few hundred metres from where a British border patrol ship is docked in the harbour of Mytilene, young men bathe themselves in the water. Their recently washed clothes lie on the rocks, drying in the sun. On the horizon, through a thick fog, the outline of the Turkish coast is faintly visible.

In the middle of an animated conversation, three young men from Algeria and Tunisia suddenly fall silent as one of them huddles down against the rock face that separates the beach from the main street. ‘Police, police!’ he hisses.

After a few tense minutes, in which they collect their scattered belongings and then press their bodies against the rock face in the hopes of not being seen, the police drive off. In the back of the car sit two young refugees.

Though they have valid papers, the refugees say they live in constant fear of the police, who arrest them at will. One of the Algerians shows his broken phone, damaged by a police officer who kicked it away the last time he was arrested. ‘If you are not from Syria or Eritrea, they say there is no problem in your country and you will not get asylum,’ he says.

It doesn’t matter who we send to these camps, they will be denied access. It has been a frustrating experience

Ariel Ricker
Executive Director, Advocates Abroad

Over the past year, these refugees have left their homelands, risking their lives boarding rickety boats to Europe in the hope of finding a better existence. But now they’re stuck on Lesvos, as an agreement between the European Union and Turkey made in March 2016 forbids them from leaving the island, and some are considering turning back.

Their asylum procedures take a long time and, after months on the island, many still have not had the first interview for their application. They are frustrated and say that, while they have been appointed lawyers, they don’t know how to contact them and don’t even know their names.

The refugees always carry their papers with them in plastic folders. It’s the only proof they have to show that they’re allowed to be on the island. But Ariel Ricker, Executive Director of Advocates Abroad, a legal NGO working in Greece and Turkey, says the possession of these papers is often no safeguard against being arrested.

She once helped two men from Gambia who were arrested when drinking cappuccino at a café away from the camp. One had valid papers; the other’s had expired. ‘Because they are from a particular nation that doesn’t have a very high recognition rate, they were arrested,’ Ricker says. After a months-long legal battle both men were eventually released, though no reason was ever given for the decision.

Many refugees on the island do not have lawyers to support them in these situations; they remain in limbo, without any help to file asylum applications or submit an appeal if their applications are rejected.

Advocating for refugees

From Lesvos, Ricker runs Advocates Abroad, an organisation that works to fill this gap by giving refugees legal advice free of charge. What began as a Facebook group now draws highly-qualified lawyers from around the world, who volunteer in the field for weeks at a time to advocate for refugees who might otherwise be wrongly deported back to an unsafe home environment, or imprisoned on unjust grounds. 

Dressed in black trainers and baggy trousers, her usual outfit when visiting muddy refugee camp areas, Ricker has spent many hours over the past year working outside the walls of Moria, a Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) and one of the most infamous refugee camps in Europe. The heavily secured camp – surrounded by three barbed wire fences – is a ten-minute drive from the island’s capital, Mytilene. Ricker always wears a badge identifying her as a lawyer legally working in Greece when at the camp, and, indeed, across most of the island.

Living conditions at one of the refugee squats in Greece.

It’s extremely hard for the organisation, which consists of both foreign and Greek attorneys, to gain access to their clients. ‘Usually we are denied access at the entrance [of a camp] for a variety of reasons. Maybe we are foreigners; maybe we are not Greeks from the right bar association; maybe we are not permitted in because there was a riot that day; maybe the client couldn’t be found. It doesn’t matter who we send to these camps, they will be denied access. It has been a frustrating experience,’ says Ricker.

She points to a few picnic benches nearby, which she jokingly calls her ‘old office’. Here she used to sit day after day speaking to refugees in need of legal advice. ‘I would meet with people who were just wandering around outside. Sometimes they would have a cup of tea and come over to chat. And I’d end up with three new clients that day,’ she says.

The refugees have to meet Ricker outside of the camp’s boundaries because, even though there are rules regulating who can access the camp, they are rarely followed. ‘The rules are almost irrelevant because they are not respected. They are not understood,’ Ricker says.

As she stands outside of the camp listening to the commotion going on inside, a man walks up to her and asks her if she is a journalist. Ricker replies that she is a lawyer. ‘I need a lawyer,’ the man says. ‘Everybody needs a lawyer,’ she sighs.

A new law introduced in 2016 covers most aspects of the asylum procedures, but lawyers say it is not understood by police officers, attorneys or refugees. ‘That’s unfortunate because the law itself is very well-written – it’s very clear as to what conditions should be like in facilities; what access to healthcare should be like; what access to legal aid should be like. But again, these are not respected,’ says Ricker.

Having initially planned to travel to Syria to provide aid, Ricker instead worked in Turkey and in various places in Greece before settling on the Greek island of Lesvos. Since then, she has grown a team of volunteers that, over the past 12 months, has given legal advice to thousands of refugees stranded on Lesvos since the EU-Turkey deal  was signed, prohibiting them from leaving.

We started talking about a stranded population, people who could not move out of the island, and the population started increasing

Achilleas Tzemos
Médecins Sans Frontieres Lesvos,
Field Co-ordinator

Since the organisation started its work in February 2016, Advocates Abroad has provided legal aid to 12,000 refugees in Greece and another 2,000 outside of the country. Over 220 lawyers from around the world have volunteered with the organisation, and at any one time a team of 35 lawyers is working on the ground. Another 206 people are active members and help with research or give advice.

According to numbers based on government figures and published by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on 31 January, a total of 5,756 refugees remain on the island of Lesvos – it has capacity for 4,145.

A stranded population

‘After the EU-Turkey statement, all those who were on the islands were transferred to the mainland. The new arrivals had to stay on the islands, with restriction of liberty in the hot spots, in the reception centres, or under geographical restriction of the whole island,’ says Giorgos Dafnis, Protection Associate with UNHCR in Athens.

Initially, UNHCR focused mainly on providing humanitarian assistance but, since people are no longer on the move, the UN agency now also provides legal assistance. ‘After the EU-Turkey statement and the closing of the borders on the Balkan route, there was a gradual need for the provision of other services, including legal assistance, because people started staying on the mainland and on the islands for longer periods,’ Dafnis says.

The needs of refugees who, until then, had used Lesvos mainly as a transit route due to its close proximity to Turkey, changed profoundly at this time. ‘After the agreement everything changed. We started talking about a stranded population, people who could not move out of the island, and the population started increasing,’ says Médecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) Lesvos Field Co-ordinator Achilleas Tzemos.

 About 600,000 people had passed through Lesvos between Spring 2015 and the signing of the EU-Turkey agreement in 2016. After most refugees had been relocated to overcrowded camps on the mainland, around 2,500 refugees remained on the island. Meanwhile, arrivals decreased significantly, to between 50 and 60 each week, down from 35,000 at the height of the crisis.

Then, the failed coup in Turkey threw the island into chaos. For a few months numbers once again went up, with 300 to 400 people arriving weekly. But, this time, they were not allowed to leave. Soon, the infamous camp of Moria, with a capacity of 1,500 to 2,000 people, was housing closer to 4,000, according to MSF.

To make matters worse, the winter months saw heavy snowfall and low temperatures, and the government wasn’t prepared, says Tzemos. ‘Preparedness on the part of the authorities, the UNHCR and implementing partners was non-existent. Nothing was done. This cost human lives due to accidents with gas canister explosions and people dying from breathing in carbon monoxide while trying to get warm in the tent by burning charcoal,’ he says. Only as Spring arrives are the authorities moving to improve the situation, he adds.

The EU-Turkey deal

An agreement was made between the European Union and Turkey in March 2016 to control the influx of refugees fleeing to Europe at the height of the crisis. Under the deal, Turkey agreed to take back ‘irregular migrants’ – people who fled across the Aegean Sea to Greece after 20 March 2016 and did not apply or qualify for asylum. For every returnee, a Syrian refugee already in Turkey would be sent to Europe for permanent resettlement. Turkey would also prevent refugees from using sea or land routes to Europe.

Returns under EU law are permitted to countries of first arrival, a ‘safe third country’, where the individual could have claimed protection. The EU-Turkey deal is based on the premise that Turkey is a safe country. Many human rights groups and aid groups have condemned the deal, claiming that refugee protection cannot be guaranteed in Turkey.

Turkey, in return, would also receive billions of euros in aid for its refugee population. EU membership talks would be restarted and EU states promised to accelerate visa-free travel for Turks.

In response to the deal, Greece moved all refugees who arrived on the islands before 20 March to the mainland. Refugees who arrived on the islands after the deadline face a restriction of liberty and are confined to the islands.

Asylum claims filed in Greece after the EU-Turkey deal came into effect continue to be processed according to the Dublin Regulation. The Regulation allows individuals with family connections in another European country to be transferred to that particular EU member state, instead of being sent back to Turkey.

On 15 March, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu reportedly threatened to pull out of the deal after several European countries did not allow Turkish politicians, including himself, to hold rallies in support of the upcoming referendum set for 16 April. He also said visa liberalisation, which was set to be achieved by June 2016, was taking too long to materialise.

The poor living conditions and bad weather during the winter were only two among myriad challenges for refugees on the island. Their asylum applications are moving forward at an excruciatingly slow pace, and, according to MSF, have exacerbated mental health problems for many already traumatised refugees on Lesvos.

‘On one side, they had really bad living conditions, and on the other side, no clear vision of how long they would have to stay here or what the next step was. This created a very explosive condition at Moria, but also on the rest of the island,’ says Tzemos.

UNHCR says it has since stepped in to help the government fulfil its obligation under EU law to provide legal assistance for the appeal stage of the asylum procedure, that is, after an initial application has been rejected. ‘UNHCR has been invited by the asylum service, as it is a state obligation to provide free legal assistance to all applicants at the second instance, in order to bridge the gap with the state-run legal aid scheme that will soon be operational,’ says Dafnis.

Since the start of the project in mid-2016, Dafnis says the organisation has provided legal representation to 2,400 refugees, mostly in the second instance or at the appeal stage.

He says that, especially in detention areas in camps like Moria, access to justice for refugees remains a challenge, particularly for those interned in pre-removal detention centres. ‘This is a challenge, to have proper legal assistance for the detainees, so that the safeguards are in place,’ Dafnis says.

Many refugees have moved out of Moria, saying living conditions were just too poor, and now live in unofficial housing. Police raids often target these squats and, as a result, refugees living in them are wary of outsiders. Many of them have been beaten by police officers but are too afraid of retaliation to go to a hospital or file a claim against their abusers. In one of the squats, refugees sleep in cramped tents perched on a cold, cement floor and wash themselves over a  small bucket of water. One refugee combs his hair into place while holding a shard of broken mirror.

NGO disorganisation

UNHCR estimates that there are about 15 organisations in Greece providing legal aid to refugees, including organisations that do not focus on legal aid exclusively. However, several NGOs working in Greece said that cooperation between the groups is extremely low. They explained that cooperation similar to that in place for humanitarian and health provision agencies would benefit refugees and allow for the creation of a better referral system. Now organisations say they often depend on informal referrals through personal relationships.

Whenever refugees arrive on Lesvos, Médecins du Monde conducts vulnerability assessments, with conversations often not lasting longer than five minutes. It is the only organisation whose certificates are officially recognised by the government. However, MSF believes this process is far from watertight. MSF, unlike Médecins du Monde, started conducting its own independent vulnerability assessments at its clinic on Lesvos.

‘There is a rush against time, because the asylum services have increased their capacity. It is very important for us to make sure that people who have more complicated mental vulnerabilities, such as victims of torture or people with heavy mental health issues, will not be left behind,’ says Tzemos. 

Though the certificates given out by the aid organisation are not recognised by the government per se, they do add to the value of statements made by refugees and increase the chance of their concerns being recognised by the asylum services.

From 15 March, pressure on Greece’s legal institutions is set to mount further, as the returning of refugees to Greece under the Dublin Regulation will gradually resume. The Dublin Regulation requires the first EU country an asylum seeker reaches to process their claim and permits other EU countries to return them there if they move on.

Transfers were suspended in 2011, following rulings of the European Court of Human Rights and the Court of Justice of the European Union, which found deficiencies in the Greek asylum system. Vulnerable populations and unaccompanied minors will continue to be exempt.

Only people who enter Greece irregularly from 15 March onwards will be affected. Refugees who were already present in other member states will not be affected, according to the European Commission website. ‘In most cases, the member state where they currently reside and have made an asylum application will now be responsible for handling their asylum claims under the existing Dublin rules,’ a European Commission fact sheet states.

For refugees without lawyers, it is a struggle to find out what procedures they have to follow, especially because most legal documents are in the Greek language.

‘Even us lawyers don’t understand the legal procedure in Greek. Without access to information in their own language, it is very difficult,’ says Efi Stathopoulou, a Greek volunteer with Advocates Abroad in Athens and a law student currently in her senior year.

Almost every Thursday, Stathopoulou accompanies clients to the asylum office in the neighbourhood of Katehaki, Athens. As a Greek speaker, she is often able to navigate the bureaucracy quicker than her foreign colleagues.

The team in Athens has the tough job of helping refugees who came to the mainland from the islands illegally. ‘They had a restriction of movement which they violated. They’re here, but the problem is that their files are on the islands. Their procedure is frozen because they cannot go back due to the bad situation [on the islands] and here they cannot get their papers done,’ says Stathopoulou.

A man and a woman are waiting at the metro station as Stathopoulou arrives. After checking whether they have all the necessary documents, the trio crosses the busy road and walks towards the faintly yellow government office. A long line of people eager to find out about the status of their applications or to file a new claim has already been forming there for hours.

Advocates Abroad helps asylum seekers not only to file their claims, but also prepares them for their interviews. The organisation’s lawyers inform refugees of their rights, including to ask for an interpreter, and instruct them on how to structure their stories so that the interviewer will understand why they have left their home country.

Interview preparation is important, says Monika Bar, a volunteer barrister with Advocates Abroad, because many people are unable to state the reasons for leaving their country in terms that will help with their asylum application.

Bar has just spent six weeks volunteering with Advocates Abroad and spoke to refugees prior to their interviews. Livelihood is a pressing concern for most refugees, she explains, but talking about jobs and money alone may not get them recognised as refugees and would risk the asylum officer rejecting their application. ‘For these people, that there are no jobs is more important than the bombs that are falling,’ she says.

Applications of eligible applicants could be rejected for multiple reasons, including cultural differences, such as the inhibitions felt by many women when presented with a male interpreter, Bar emphasises. Another obstruction is that many refugees ‘don’t understand the crucial nature of the interview,’ she says. They have talked to so many people, told their story so many times and are so unsure about the procedure, that they don’t realise this is it, the moment someone will decide whether they can stay.

Registering refugees

Farhad, knows all about the difficulties refugees face when trying to access information helpful for an asylum application. It was only after six months in Greece after fleeing persecution in Iran that he found out how to file his asylum application. Along with his young family, he spent the first months after making the harrowing boat journey from Turkey to Greece in uncertainty.

‘One day, one of my friends asked me if I wanted to register myself as a refugee. He told me it was now possible to request asylum via Skype,’ Farhad says. He started his application that day.

But it wasn’t simple. Farhad and his family were transferred to another camp more suitable for families, outside of Athens – where he had been scheduled for an interview. He missed the interview and rescheduled his appointment at another office near the new camp. However, uncertainty and bad living conditions in the new camp forced him to return to Athens, and again he could not make it to his appointment. Finally, months later, he underwent interview in Athens, where he now continues to wait for a decision.

Realising the process would take a long time to be finalised, Farhad applied for permission to work and was hired by INGO, Internews. There, he uses his experiences of living in limbo for the benefit of other refugees unsure about their rights in Greece. As part of Internews’s ‘News That Moves’ team in Athens – set up during the crisis with the sole purpose of providing information to refugees – he is an important liaison between refugees and the organisation.

In similar past situations, Internews has worked with local radio stations and journalists to provide people with much-needed information. When the massive influx of refugees into Greece began, however, they were faced with a situation in which people were constantly on the move as they traversed the Balkans. Setting up local networks in all these countries would have been a near-impossible task, so the organisation chose another approach. ‘We realised that this was a very different environment from where we were working before, because people were really moving. They were physically moving from one country to another,’ says Anahi Ayala, Humanitarian Director at Internews.

Lesvos residents relate to the refugees

On the seafront of Lesvos, near the 6th-century Castle of Mytilene, stands the statue of a woman. Two children hold on to her skirt and in her arms she cradles a baby wrapped in a blanket.

According to locals, it is the statue of a refugee mother who lost her children when fleeing Turkey after the country expelled its Greek population following the Greco-Turkish war of 1919–1922.

At that time, hundreds of thousands of refugees of Greek origin are said to have crossed the sea between the two countries. Thousands of Turks fled in the opposite direction. In an exodus similar to the current crisis, hundreds of thousands of people fled using the same route, and the journey had a fatal end for many.

In September of 1922, a delegate from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) arrived on Lesvos and was told that 250,000 refugees had already arrived, ICRC recalls on its website. Many more would follow.

‘In this place, exactly on this spot, was the reception of refugees coming from Turkey, when the Greek communities were expelled in 1922,’ says MSF Lesvos Field Coordinator Achilleas Tzemos, while pointing to the area outside a newly-established MSF clinic in Mytilene.

‘There was a huge refugee crisis back then, an exchange of population between Greece and Turkey. Thousands of people passed through here. Many of the current residents in Lesvos are the offspring of these refugees. This is maybe one of the reasons why this island has a lot more compassion to the plight of the refugees compared to other places in Greece, but also elsewhere,’ says Tzemos.

The Greco-Turkish war started over a dispute about the borders of Greece and Turkey shortly after World War I. The Turks resisted advancing Greek troops and an armistice was signed on 11 October 1922.

As the name ‘News That Moves’ suggests, Internews decided to provide information that would move with the refugees as they travelled across Europe. They would connect with refugees via the internet, through a specially set-up website, Facebook and other messaging services, which was a unique possibility that other crises often do not allow for. ‘This was very much a high-tech emergency. A lot of the refugees had mobile phones. A lot of them were using WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook to look for information,’ Ayala says.

The organisation goes into the field to talk to refugees about questions they have and rumours, of which there are always plenty, that are doing the rounds. On their website, which is published in Arabic, English, Farsi and Greek, and contains some information in French and Urdu, questions and answers are published, along with a ‘Rumour sheet’. The organisation has people answering questions via Facebook on a full-time basis.

‘People were travelling to Europe through Greece, often based on very patchy information, and we were there to provide factual information that has been verified by organisations that are experts in every category needed,’ says Siobhan McEvoy, Humanitarian Liaison Officer for Internews in Greece. 

Like other organisations working in Greece, Internews is adapting to the changing situation as less refugees move across Europe following  the closure of the Balkan route. The information now increasingly focuses on resettlement procedures, how to obtain Greek citizenship and other legal matters. In close liaison with expert organisations, ‘News That Moves’ writers aim to translate complicated legal procedures into comprehensible, practical website posts that will help asylum seekers to navigate Greek bureaucracy.

With a team of only 20, ‘News That Moves’ speaks to about 300 people in person and reaches hundreds of thousands through its website and Facebook pages every week. The Farsi language page generates the most traffic. 

However, constantly changing EU and national regulations are threatening the work of organisations like Internews, as refugees become increasingly frustrated about the uncertainty and long wait times.

‘It becomes extremely complicated for us to provide information because one day you go to a person and say “this is how the process works”. Two weeks later, you go back and say “well, actually, now the process works this way”. But then they have already started the previous process,’ says Ayala.

‘These constantly changing regulations are destroying the trust that people have in us, but it is also lowering the level of trust in the system,’ she adds, emphasising that it encourages refugees to take the illegal route.

Fear, nationalism, closing borders

Changing regulations are not only an issue in Greece, but all across Europe, and especially in countries along the Balkan route. In March 2016, the Balkan route was declared closed and borders were erected along parts of the Austrian, Bulgarian, Greek, Hungarian, Latvian, Macedonian, Serbian and Slovenian borders.

Populist, right-wing politicians have also exploited the refugee crisis to sow fear at home. In some countries, governments have adopted legislation and practises directly in conflict with EU treaties and international conventions.

‘Many nations fail in their legal obligations. The nations of the world need to share the responsibility fairly. And we need processes that are just. Not ones that encourage a culture of disbelief when refugees tell their stories of persecution,’ says Baroness Helena Kennedy, Co-Chair of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute.

A bleak picture of responses to the crisis by five Eastern-European countries – Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia – was painted in a report published earlier this year by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a Budapest-based human rights group. ‘The political discourse shaping legislative and policy measures in [these] countries is centred around issues of security and terrorism, while little or no room is left for the obligation to grant the right to asylum and protection,’ the group says. 

In Hungary, populist leader and Prime Minister Victor Orban fuels racial discrimination and anti-Muslim sentiment. Gyorgy Schopflin, a member of his right-wing government, once suggested that severed pigs’ heads should be hung along Hungary’s border to deter Muslim refugees and migrants from entering the country.

A referendum to close the door on refugees, however, failed to get the minimum turn-out in Hungary and was declared invalid. But, in March of this year, there was an outcry from human rights groups after the Hungarian parliament voted for a law that will allow for the detention of all asylum seekers, including children, for the duration of their asylum applications.

‘This new law violates Hungary’s obligations under international and EU laws, and will have a terrible physical and psychological impact on women, children and men who have already suffered greatly,’ says UNHCR spokesperson Cécile Pouilly.

Systemic violations of the non-refoulement principle, or push-backs, have reportedly taken place at the Hungary-Serbia border and the Václav Havel Prague airport in the Czech Republic, where officials refused to register asylum claims. Hungary legalised push-backs to Serbia, thereby denying people the right to seek international protection and breaching obligations under international and EU law. Slovenia has been moving to legalise push-backs but, thus far, no such laws have been adopted.

According to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, 19,219 migrants have thus far been denied access at the Hungary-Serbia border.  Only ten asylum seekers are allowed to enter Hungary per working day. The organisation also reports a high number of abuses by ‘personnel in uniforms’. 

Many nations fail in their legal obligations. The nations of the world need to share the responsibility fairly. And we need processes that are just

Baroness Helena Kennedy
Co-Chair, International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute

Controversial policies to keep out refugees have also been adopted in the United States since Donald Trump assumed the presidency earlier this year. Fanning fears of terrorism and Muslims during his election campaign, Trump acted on promises made on his campaign trail when he signed an executive order that would prohibit people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US. After his first ban was blocked by federal judges who viewed it as targeting Muslims, Trump signed a new ban in March that would ban immigration from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – thereby removing Iraq from the order. Several states are again challenging the ban in court.

Jörg Menzer, Head of Central and Eastern European Offices at Noerr, and former Vice-Chair of the IBA’s European Regional Forum, says accountability is a major issue that should be safeguarded, especially in the case of refugees and human rights. ‘We are tied to fundamental principles and guidelines of international refugee law. The basis for a working policy already exists. We don’t lack tools or legislation, we lack conscience of keeping promises that we made to ourselves decades ago.’ 

Meanwhile, some organisations are exploring the possibilities for strategic litigation in response to the mounting death-toll among refugees in Greece, the unlawful push-backs in the Balkans and the inhumane conditions in which refugees are forced to live around Europe.  

Yola Verbruggen is Multimedia Journalist at the IBA and can be contacted at yola.verbruggen@int-bar.org