Lawyers on the front line - the refugee crisis in Greece
This film shines a light on the refugee crisis in Greece in 2017, and particularly on Lesvos, and hears from some of the people involved in assisting refugees, representing legal, humanitarian and media organisations.
Ariel Ricker, Executive Director, Advocates Abroad
Efi Stathopolou, Volunteer, Advocates Abroad
Achilles Tzemos, Field Coordinator for Lesvos, Medecins sans Frontieres
Giorgios Dafnis, Protection Associate, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees
Anahi Ayala, Humanitarian Director, Internews
[00:00:09] Ariel Ricker: So here we are at Moria camp. This is the most infamous camp in Europe now and lawyers are desperately needed here.
[00:00:15] Efi Stathopolou: Even us as lawyers and Greek people cannot understand the legal procedure in Greek. So, if they do not have access to information in their own language, it's very difficult.
[00:00:27] Anahi Ayala: They've seen their families being killed. They've run away. If they get to Greece and they realise that the legal ways are not there any more, or they're too difficult, they're going to try and find other ways to do it.
[00:00:53] Refugee A: [Translated from French] We don't sleep well. It's too cold, it's too hot. There are always problems. No showers, we don't eat properly, we have problems with the police...
[00:01:08] Achilles Tzemos: The crisis started around spring of 2015 and up to the EU Turkey deal which was signed on the 20th of March of 2016, through Lesvos, more than 600,000 people came through.
After the EU Turkey deal there was a residual refugee population on the island of approximately 2,500 people. And after the attempted coup in Turkey, we saw the population increasing again. And in the following months up to the end of the year, more or less, 2016, the population doubled from three to six thousand people. Now the population on the island is decreasing - slowly.
The main challenges for the people currently stranded in Lesvos are, first of all it has been the case that the living conditions were horrible. The second big challenge has to do with the asylum procedures. The asylum services were notoriously understaffed with very confusing communication to the refugees. That was one of the main issues for mental health problems that people were facing.
[00:03:06] Ariel Ricker: The governing law in this situation is based on EU law, certain EU directives that have been transposed into Greek law. That national law is meant to guide all of us as to what the rights and obligations are for refugees in this situation.
There has been a constant struggle for access to justice, for access to legal aid since the beginning of this part of the crisis which I would say began last February. A big part of that has been the access issue for attorneys in hot spots and in the camps in and around all of Greece.
[00:03:41] Giorgios Dafnis: After the EU Turkey statement and the closure of the borders at the Balkan route, there was a gradual need of provision of other services including legal assistance and legal services because people started being on the mainland and on the islands for longer periods. After the EU-Turkey statement, all those who were on the islands have been transferred to the mainland.
[00:04:11] AR: Moria....Moria. So here we are at Moria camp. You can see that it's a quadruple secured area. This is Section B. This is the entrance registration area where the interviews take place. This is the most infamous camp in Europe now and lawyers are desperately needed here.
[00:04:25] They [refugees] don't have access to legal aid in any true sense of the word. There are lawyers in Moria but they are extremely overworked. And it's arguable that their MOU - their agreement with the Greek state is so restrictive as to be ineffective as attorneys. So under law 4375 of 2016... this is a law that was not so recently enacted, it dictates what the conditions of these facilities should be like, what the makeup of the camp management should be like, what the legal age should be like... There are laws regulating the situation but the laws are implemented so irregularly and so inconsistently that sometimes it seems that there is no law at all.
Here in Moria and anywhere where there is a border procedure implemented, the appeal deadline is five days. This is impossible for an attorney to properly review a client's case, to review their transcript, especially if the attorney doesn't speak Greek, because all the documents of the client are in Greek.
It's difficult for the Greek government to adhere to its responsibilities because it is taking on so much in terms of refugee aid. On top of a crippled economy and a very difficult situation now in the EU.
[00:05:37] AT: On one side, really bad living conditions and on the other side no clear vision of how long they should stay here. What was the next step. And this created a very explosive condition inside Moria but also on the rest of the island.
[00:05:56] GD: UNHCR has been invited by the asylum service, as it is a state obligation, to provide free legal assistance to all persons, to all of the applicants at the second instance. We kicked off this scheme after the 15th of July of 2016 and the aim is to cover, mainly, the second instance, in order to bridge the gap with the state run legal aid scheme that will soon be operational.
[00:06:30] AT: The vulnerability assessment is is a huge priority for us. It is very important for us to make sure that people who have more complicated medical vulnerabilities such as victims of torture, or people with very heavy mental health issues which cannot be easily identified with a five minute interview, will not be left behind.
[00:06:58] ES: The current problem is that many people have fled the islands, the Greek islands, like Kos, Samos, Leros or Lesvos illegally, which means that they had a restriction of movement which they violated. So they're here.
But the problem is that their files are on the islands, and those people fleeing the islands because of the bad circumstances there, they cannot do anything about their procedures.
So what we are facing here is that their procedure is quite frozen because they cannot go back because of the bad situation, and here they cannot get their papers done.
Coming here the legal procedure is not their only concern. And even us lawyers and Greek people cannot understand the legal procedure in Greek! So if they do not have access to information in their own language it is very difficult.
So, what we're trying to do is to establish a relationship with them and inform them of their rights and help them to complete the procedure.
[00:08:09] AA: The refugee and migrant crisis in Europe has been characterised by being what we can call a hi-tech crisis, in the sense that the majority of people coming, especially from Syria but also from other Middle Eastern countries, first of all were very familiar with technology, they had been already using it.
The majority of migrants and refugees, especially the first wave, were people that had more economical means than others. So they were already coming in with smartphones.
[00:08:37] The main product that we have online is a website called News that Moves.org. So attached to the website, we have Facebook pages. So we have one in Farsi and one in Arabic. And again, Facebook because we realised that a lot of migrants and refugees were already using that tool. And so our Facebook pages became very quickly very popular.
The legal framework is changing very fast. It is becoming... it is making our job more difficult because it is lowering the level of trust that people have in us as an organisation that is providing them with that information. But the problem is also that it's lowering the trust that the migrants and refugees have in the whole system.
But that also creates a situation where both migrants and refugees are trying to find other ways to be able to get to Europe. I mean, they've gone through war, they've seen their families being killed, they've run away, they've walked for days and months sometimes, they've gone through the sea and almost died there... They're not going to stop in Greece.
- IBA Global Insight June/July 2018 article: Did we manage this? - Global Insight assesses the wide-ranging responses to the ‘palpable panic’ and how effective they’ve been.
- IBA Global Insight April/May 2017 article: The unbalanced scales of refugee justice. 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.
- Podcast: The unbalanced scales of refugee justice