Recorded interview in Mikropolis on June 21th with Dimitra Fragkou, attorney and PhD student; and "N", attorney and PhD in Philosophy of law. The interview was held by me (Kenneth), Gabriela, and Chu. "N" asked to be anonymous.
Kenneth: Can you tell me a little about your legal work regarding refugees?
Dimitra: Yes, actually me and “N”… “N” is far more experienced on the field, so you can ask him as well. N has been working with refugees
N: Three years. Three, four years
Dimitra: I have a master degree in international law, but refugee stuff was not my main field. I just heard and something as a professional you cannot not be involved. We started 3 months ago and what we did is we participated in a team of people that are trying to help the refugees that are not in camps. (unintelligible). Later on we found out that some lawyers that were in this group and other lawyers as well, we made a new team mainly focusing on the legal (unintelligible).
Kenneth: What’s the name of the group?
Dimitra: The name of the group is Refugee Law Initiative, Reflaw Initiative.
Kenneth: Is it from Greece or…
Dimitra: Yes, it’s from Greece. We have recently some contacts with other lawyers from other countries, like Italy. They came here to report the situation, but they are willing to help us and we have this goal of making it bigger but we do this for free so we don’t charge any money to the refugees. We don’t have any funds. Now, we do this only for solidarity
Kenneth: Basically, what is the plan? To meet every Tuesday? Do you call the refugees? How do they know to come here?
Dimitra: We have announced in the social media. Because most of them have internet and good connections with each other. We started by helping people that are hosting in houses of people that participate in Mikropolis, this social space. And then they brought they friends and somehow got figured, but after the registration procedure we don’t have to do much consulting because refugees are quit now they are not so much worried, UNHCR and others (unintelligible) so many of their questions in this first stage are answered. (unintelligible) Here every Tuesday from 7 to 9, us or the other lawyers, someone will be here to talk to them, to listen to them.
Kenneth: So they come knowing the basic legal stuff…
Dimitra: Most of them yes.
Kenneth: Do you know how they know about this (initiative)? Research in Internet maybe?
Dimitra: Maybe from the internet, maybe from real world, you know. I think is because, as I said before, some NGO’s and people from solidarity groups have either from social media or by distributing pamphlets have made them to understand the situation, sort of.
Kenneth: What are the basic refugee’s rights once they arrive to Greece? I’m asking a little bit about local law.
N: Is basically Geneva Convention. So you have the right to seek asylum. This is at the moment at least pretty much problematic, because you understand there is a problem of access since we have, I don’t how many people who want to apply for asylum, and the asylum of foreigners are really… they can process I don’t know about one hundred applications per day and we have 60000 immigrants at the moment requesting asylum, perhaps even more, we don’t even know.
Gabriela: When someone arrives to Greece, let’s say from Turkey, since the agreement between the EU and Turkey. Can that person that arrives only request asylum in Greece or can he come and say “hi, I’m requesting asylum but I want to go to Germany, France…”
N: Uhmm no. Things are complicated. As you probably know the EU has a uniform law of asylum. The status generally is, when you enter the EU, the country that you enter in is responsible to process and decide your application. You cannot fill an application with another country. If you do, according to the Dublin regulation, they transfer you back to the responsible country. Now, since Greece is now so overcrowded with refugees, they have made an exception. The exception is the borders were open for several months and several people enter to the EU from Greece. They ended up everywhere in Europe and Europe did not transfer them back, which was more or less a matter of agreement because of practice, simple practice.
(The interview transfers to a less noisy location)
N: Nevertheless, if you somehow manage to go to another country, another European country, they don’t send you back. They might detain you there, in the sense that you enter illegally, but they don’t send you back. This is the idea of (unintelligible) sharing with the Greeks at the moment, and the Italians and also there is the program of relocation, which is that for certain nationalities, Syrians, Iraqis, probably they are gonna exclude them again. Syrians are the most important and some African countries, Africa Central Republic, Eritrea, they have the program of relocation which is most people apply and it is decided to go to one European country, you don’t know before handed to which one. This country becomes responsible, you can gain the refugees status in there. Most probably if you’re Syrian you’re gonna get it. This is the situation at the moment. The basic idea of the European law is that when you enter a country you’re finger printed, this goes to central data place, which is called (unintelligible) wherever you apply for asylum there’s some ringing, they finger print you, when it rings it means that there is a Dublin case, you’re going to be transfer back.
Kenneth: I want to talk about those procedures. You mentioned relocation, then asylum in Greece, and when they look for their families...
Dimitra, N: Family reunification.
Kenneth: Are there more procedures?
Dimitra, N: Yes.
Kenneth: Which one of those you see the most?
N: Relocation is the most common at the moment. Asylum in Greece is really rare, now of course for the nationalities that are not entitle to relocation it’s the only solution, unless you have, because to make family reunification you need a close relative in Europe in some other country, which usually is not the case. So, relocation for the Arabs, Syrians Iraqis at the moment is the most common process.
Kenneth: Let’s imagine that a refugee has family in Europe. I believe the procedure to reunite with your family is the longest one. Can it take a year or a year and a half?
Dimitra: We have a case that for example applied (unintelligible) Skype, middle April (2016), her appointment with the asylum service was 13th of June and the date that her final appointment regarding her case is late December. Almost a year. And she is one of the luckiest because she was one of the first appointments in Skype, because Skype was functioning for family reunion cases only one hour a week.
Gabriela: One hour a week? Wow!
N: yes, practically you’re excluded. Most of the people have never managed to make an appointment.
Gabriela: I’ve notice there’s people living in camps, government camps, with volunteers that they’re taking them in, people living in different places. Why is this situation happening? It was from my understanding that those who are out of camps is because they’ve already receive their refugees status, or they have some sort of recognition hence they can go out. When we were in Leros that’s how it worked there , if you already have your papers you can go outside to the streets, but if you don’t have them you have to wait inside the camp.
N: No, that’s not true. Camps are not closed, they’re not detainment centers. There are some, I don’t know if you’re going there. Those are detainment centers, from there you cannot leave even if you have applied for asylum probably. Let’s say for grounds of national security, you cannot leave. From the other camps you can leave the place. The idea is that those have applied probably they have the right to an apartment, but till now this is not really happening because there are not enough apartments for them.
Dimitra: For example there is a big difference with Leros because after the agreement…
Kenneth: We are talking about the Turkey-EU agreement.
Dimitra, N: Yes, EU-Turkey agreement.
Dimitra: After this agreement, which was on March, whoever entered the border had to be held in Leros for preliminary check. This detention could last for…
N: 45 days and then it can be renewed or extended for another 45 days.
Dimitra: Yes, so there was a maximum of days that someone could be held in a center like this. These centers in northern Greece and in another places, most of them such us the camps you visited they are hosting centers, not detention camps, so they’re open and the people can leave, there’s no restriction. If you wanted to leave and if you have the money or the ability to go to a hotel for example. But, this has some impediments because you won’t have the same access to services that are offered by the state.
There’s a difference, people that come here after this 90 day period and the people that came before they have much freedom of movement, so they have a paper that says that these people cannot be expelled from the country, so they’re free to move, except the Kilkis region, it’s not valid anymore.
Kenneth: Going back to the question of the three procedures, let’s imagine that this refugee has family in Germany, but since the procedure of reunification with family takes so long, would you as lawyers recommend that refugee to use the relocation procedure?
N: With relocation there is, let’s say for Germany, practically no change to go to Germany. It’s completely random, even if you have your brother, your father, your children in another country. It’s completely random, it would be very difficult for them to arrange you to go there, because countries send positions, and this is the most important thing, at the moment you receive your application decided which positions exists, probably exist only for Canada, that’s it, everybody goes there, it’s irrelevant what language you speak, what is your specialty, everybody goes to that country. So, if you want meet your relatives again and live with them you have to do family reunification, there’s no other possibility. Yes, some people decided to, although they have relatives in Europe, they decided to apply to relocation.
Kenneth: What are some of the legal challenges that you find in your work with refugees?
N: Ufff many (laughs). At the moment I only work with vulnerable cases, mostly medical, some others, but mostly medical. It’s difficult to…There are many difficulties. First, it’s the problem of Access to the asylum. You cannot make an appointment; you cannot apply.
Gabriela: And you cannot apply because the place you applied collapsed, because is hard to make an appointment?
N: The system is collapsed, yes. The system was to handle, let’s say 2 to 3 thousand refugees in Greece, and it was already very dysfunctional.
Kenneth: This application process is by internet?
N: It was through Skype, but now they’re gonna make a pre-registration program, which means that they are gonna collect all the requests, requests not applications, and then they’re gonna try to prioritize. Vulnerability would be the main criteria.
(N talking in Greek with Dimitra)
Dimitra: Vulnerability will be process first, but then the regular criteria will be the date that you enter to Greece. The date that is written in your papers.
Kenneth: They have priority if they enter first, right?
Dimitra: They didn’t.
N: Till now they didn’t. It was Skype mainly and UNHCR and some NGO’s would create lists of vulnerable cases and they would request priority. Asylum Services gave some priority but you had to approach UNHCR or some other NGO’s that can forward your request.
Dimitra: And you have to bear in mind that, as we said it was already a very dysfunctional asylum procedure in Greece, this refugees crisis started about a year ago, so the appeals service now is refunctioning, so many of the services were not functioning. We don’t know, we have some suspicions, why they were so delayed, so the state did not take initiative or didn’t act strongly to make the infrastructure to function well. Something that should have started a year before is starting now, probably because of lack of funds.
N: Or probably because the crisis started in such a situation that people were entering Greece and they were going through the borders of Firon and they were getting to Germany, Sweden, Austria, another countries. So, there was not really asylum here for the institutions, it was mainly to create a safe passage, they were staying at Greece for a few days…
Dimitra: They have not foreseeing the situation.
N: Yes, but suddenly in February the borders were closing for the Iranian, for the Afghans, and then at the end for the Syrians. All this population were so to speak trap in here. And suddenly the government was of the idea that they were gonna reorganized, we had a new government her in Greece, they said they were gonna reorganized the institutions, processes and blah blah blah. They dissolved the old institution as it was, but they were unable to reorganize, even as it was. So, yes things are very difficult here.
Kenneth: Going back a little bit to what you said, what are we talking about when we talk about vulnerability.
N: Vulnerability are of several types. Medical, psychiatric, one parent family, several kids family, unaccompanied minors, and several others, LGBT persons.
Kenneth: So talking about challenges we have "access", other challenges? Legal challenges?
N: Many, for instance for family reunification generally you have to prove things to apply for asylum, even for relocation they are more informal, it is more or less what you declare, if you declare that “I’ve graduated from the university” they believe it. If you claim that you have medical problems they want to see papers, but for family reunification that is more important especially in cases when your claim is based on vulnerability, let’s say “I depend on my mother because I’m cripple, etc.,” now, you suffer from something very obvious, but your application would go to Germany and Germany cannot see you. So, they need obviously a certification from a public institution. Now hospitals are really under great pressure, if you go (now) they will tell you “you want an appointment for certification?” “Yes,” “Ok October we can give you an appointment.” So, there is even more delayed because of that.
Dimitra: There are also problems when you for example loose your papers or your passports. Mainly the papers, many people that where staying in (unintelligible) lost their free movement papers, so there are many mistakes. For example, we had cases where people that are from Syria but of Palestinian origin, because Syria was a country with many Palestinian refugees from the previous wars, they have problems because they register as Palestines. Some of them do it on purpose because they think that saying that you’re from one nationality would be better than saying that you’re from another, and they do mistakes. People are misinformed because they try to play tricks, some of them, and this causes legal problems as well, if you want to make them legal here. Also, if someone needs to get its paper back, because in order to apply in the Asylum Service you need to have the paper when you enter, so if this is lost then the procedure is very long to have it back from Lesbos for example, because even the registration authorities (the police), when you enter, are very slow, they don’t have a central data base. So, police move from Thessaloniki print out this paper and they have to wait for 2 or 3 months.
N: Another challenge, which still exist in a sense, but it was really pressing at the time the borders were closing and even 2 to 3 months later, was that refugees did not even want to enter the legal way. The idea was that, “if I’m finger printed and apply for asylum here, if the borders open, because of the Dublin regulation if I go let’s say to Germany they will send me back, or if I find some other way, illegal way.” There was a very strong rumor, that the borders would open, "Ms. Merkel will open the borders, she will order the Balkans to be open again," which of course is out of the question practically, but some still believe it. So there is a problem to persuade people to ask for international protection. Which I believe is a peculiarity of this situation. I cannot imagine in another. I don’t know another case or situation that you offer legal route to someone and they say, “no, I rather stay as I am in Idomeni, in a camp and I will wait for the borders to open.”
Kenneth: OK, we’re going to finish with just two more questions because of the heat.
Kenneth: According to Olga (a Greek Lawyer that also works in Reflaw), there were many legal changes on these months. Do you think these legal changes were positive or negative for the refugees? And, do you know some of these legal changes?
N: Yes, they are pretty complicated. All changes now have to do with the application of the implementation of the EU-Turkey agreement. They'll be sending back Syrians specially, refugees generally to Turkey without examining their application. I don't know how much refugee law you've studied, but it is considered a straight violation of the non-refoulment principle which is basic for refugee law. Of course the idea is based on the premise that Turkey is a safe country. Which exist in European law, even in international law is not per se a violation of refoulment. As far as I know exist in Canada.
Gabriela: Yes, I read that this morning. If you apply for asylum for example in Canada and Canada cannot take you in, they would consider sending you to a foreign country that is not where you are from but is a country that is considered safe.
Dimitra: It's actually a matter of facts, because Turkey cannot be considered a safe country.
N: Yes and the thing is even more complicated because here in our case your asylum application is not examined, it is considered inadmissible. The asylum service does not even render your application to its merit, to assist to its merit, so is considered inadmissible. Turkey has not ratified the Geneva convention, only for the Europeans but not for the rest. Of course they don't expel you back to Syria, as far as we know, still you're always in danger.
Dimitra: What is very odd is that even Greece was not considered a safe country because for some years since Dublin II Regulation since 2004. There were some cases in front of the European Court of Human Rights, for example MSF versus Belgium and Greece. Belgium was condemned of violating human rights because according to Dublin Regulation brought back to Greece a person who was in fear of being...
N: The point of this is that. The Convention in its 3rd article says that nobody is send back to a country or place where it can be tortured, executed, can suffer capital punishment or suffering human mistreatment. At the moment we have this detainment of the asylum seekers in Greece and detainment centers were in awful condition so European Court of Human Rights said that this is inhuman treatment, you cannot send them back to Greece.
Dimitra: So even Greece considered country where people can receive inhuman treatment.
Chu: I have one question. When we were in Domini. Every day people leave Greece illegally by the help of Smugglers. How would they solve their legal problem if they go to other country.
N: If they go to another country they would apply to asylum there. Most probably they would not be send back to Greece for the moment as things are. Legally is possible but they will not do it. They might be detained. They detain you if you enter with illegal documents, they detain you for few weeks and then let you. If you have relatives closer, if your children are in Germany, in two weeks they're gonna release you. Is a matter of practice.
Chu: What kind of situation they would face?
N: They would apply for asylum in Germany.
Dimitra: You are asking about EU countries?
N: Yes, they would go to Germany, Sweden, Poland maybe...
N: Yes, because some people speak French. But they will not send them back to Greece. They would allow them to apply for asylum there. You face criminal punishment or something like that, but that's it.
Chu: That's worth it for them.
N: Yeah, but it is very dangerous to go using all those trafficking methods. Most probably they would take your money and leave you somewhere.
Dimitra: This is the best case scenario.
N: People can be beating, raped, killed...
Dimitra: The Balkans has a long history of trafficking, a very violent one which is mostly girls from Russia or former Soviet Union countries were traffic in Greece and to other countries, Italy for example. This web has been now functioning with refugees. There is a rumor, I don't know if it is accurate of 4000 missing accompanied minors since the situation started. After the evacuation of Idomeni 4000 people were lost. Only half of people that were in Idomeni were transferred. It is unknown where these 400 people went. They should try the legal routes.
Kenneth: I have one last question. Refugees have the right to free movement with some restrictions, and then we have detention. I know about migrants detention, we know that migrants do not have the same rights as asylum seekers. My question is about what's the case in Greece, can refugees here be detained? Do they have some restrictions to that right?
N: Yes, when you are recognize as a refugee then you have the right of free movement to the whole country but you don't have the right of free movement as a European citizen. As a European citizen you can go wherever you want, you can move without the passport. Now with the refugee's passport allow refugees to go to other European countries without the visa but he can stay there about 3 months with no rights to work, then he should come back.
Dimitra: He has similar rights to a US citizen coming here.
Kenneth: Can a refugee be detain in Greece?
N: After that he is recognized as a refugee, no. Unless there are reasons of national security...
(talking in Greek with Dimitra)
N: If you're recognized you can't be detained.
(The interview ends with a small talk about how refugees don't want to stay in Greece because of the economic situation)