From Arrival to Rejection in One Week: The Dramatic Impact of the New Joint Ministerial Decision on Asylum Seekers in Lesvos
August 13, 2021
On 7 June 2021, the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Migration and Asylum issued a Joint Ministerial Decision designating Turkey as a “safe third country” for asylum seekers originating from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia and Syria. Following this decision, applicants from the above-mentioned countries, who enter Greece via Turkey, have to undergo an admissibility procedure to determine whether they can “safely” be returned to Turkey. The assumption that Turkey is a safe third country is based, in part, on the idea that Turkey can offer protection to nationals of such countries, and therefore applicants should continue the asylum process there. As a consequence, nationals from these countries, who account for almost 70% of asylum seekers in Greece, have to demonstrate that Turkey is not safe for them during an admissibility interview. Only if they can overcome this presumption would the asylum process continue. If they cannot, applicants will be returned to Turkey without an opportunity to express the substantive reasons for seeking international protection in Greece.
Pursuant to a restrictive policy on new arrivals, an increase in pushbacks in the Aegean Sea has been documented between March and December 2020, with approximately 321 incidents involving 9,798 people. Amid several criticisms raised by international actors such as the European Council of Refugees and Exiles and the UN Special Rapporteur on The Human Rights of Migrants, Greek prosecutors were required to begin investigations of 147 pushbacks.
In parallel, since March 2020, Turkey has stopped receiving rejected asylum seekers from Greece and has declared that they will only reassess the situation once the pandemic is under control. This has left hundreds of rejected Syrian asylum seekers in limbo, without the possibility of continuing their asylum claim in Greece or being readmitted to Turkey. In response to questions on the subject, Commissioner Ylva Johanssen declared that “Greece will need to take into account the circumstances at the time of (re) - examination of the individual applications …” Six days later, the Joint Ministerial Decision was issued extending the admissibility procedure that was only applied to Syrian applicants, to four other nationalities.
In 2020 alone, the Greek Asylum Service issued 11,099 first instance decisions regarding applications submitted by Syrian applicants. The majority of the applications that were assessed under the concept of Turkey as a “safe third country” were rejected as inadmissible; meaning that the applicant was not able to overcome the presumption that Turkey is safe. Specifically, 2,812 applications were rejected as inadmissible (90%), whereas only 306 applications were considered as admissible under the same concept. As further proof, in the last 2 years, only one of Fenix’s clients was successful in establishing that Turkey was “not safe” for them. Against this backdrop, admissibility interviews are conducted disregarding procedural and substantive safeguards.
The inherent contradictions of admissibility procedures
The practical implication of the current admissibility procedure is a more limited - or almost impossible- access to international protection by introducing an additional administrative step preceding the examination of asylum applications on the merits. Those who cross the sea putting their life at risk are denied the possibility to access the asylum system in Greece and immediately ordered to be sent back to Turkey. As emphasized by ECRE, “negative first instance decisions, qualifying Turkey as a safe third country for Syrians, are not only identical and repetitive but fail to provide an individualized assessment”. Furthermore, it has been reported that admissibility decisions issued are short and standardized, without fair assessments of individual circumstances or personal vulnerabilities, limiting the chances for a successful review.
The destiny of new arrivals
At least one group of new arrivals from Afghanistan have experienced the harmful impact of the new Joint Ministerial Decision. In June, 24 persons, including adults and children, arrived on the island seeking international protection after being forced to flee their countries of origin. Less than one week after their arrival, they were issued with rejections of their asylum applications. They were not informed about their legal rights and they did not receive a medical examination until after their interview or decision. Systemic violations of the right to due process of law such as the right to submit evidence to clear themselves before the competent authority (art. 32 of the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees) alongside the violation of the right to be informed as well as the right to receive a medical assessment (art. 39 and art. 43 of the law 4636/2019) have been registered. Furthermore, it has been reported that new arrivals from Afghanistan have not been informed comprehensively about the content of the asylum interview, in breach of art. 43 of the law 4636/2019. Most of these new arrivals did not receive a medical assessment or psychological support at their arrival, despite the considerable number of minors and people presenting vulnerabilities. Asylum seekers were notified one day before the interview, with no possibility to access legal support. One applicant described how they were only asked about Turkey in a concise and perfunctory way, without any reference to the country of origin. Accordingly, the case worker did not collect sufficient information in order to verify whether Turkey can be considered as a safe third country for the applicant. Another applicant described how the interview merely lasted 30 minutes, making the ability to assess the claim practically impossible. Applicants further stated that they were asked misleading questions during the interview, in an identical and repetitive way. Most of them did not receive the transcript at the time of writing, and all of them received rejections four working days after their interviews. Overall, the asylum process lasted 8 days in total, from their arrival until the first rejection.
In this context, it is evident that the new Joint Ministerial Decision aims at externalizing asylum responsibilities, remitting to Turkey the duty of assessing requests for international protection, regardless of the almost unanimous condemnation of human rights organizations of the Turkish International Protection regime. The alarming situation produced by the new Decision fails to comply with international law and Geneva Conventions, and turns the whole procedure into a mere staging.