On June 7, 2021 Joint Ministerial Decision 42799/2021 (JMD) entered into force in Greece. The JMD designated Turkey a safe third country (STC) for nationals of Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. All asylum seekers in Greece from one of these five countries will be subject to an admissibility hurdle that presumes Turkey is safe for them. Only if they are successful in showing that Turkey is not safe for them, will their asylum claim be examined on the merits. One year after the introduction of the JMD, the impact of the STC concept continues to be felt by many clients of Fenix and thousands of others.
The expansion of the STC concept by the JMD comes after several years of the use of the concept with respect to Syrian nationals. 2015 saw almost one million people apply for international protection in the European Union, a large proportion of them Syrians. Following this surge, the EU struck a “deal” with Turkey known as the EU-Turkey Statement, according to which all new migrants arriving to the Greek islands irregularly and whose application is unfounded or inadmissible would be returned to Turkey. In practice, following the EU-Turkey Statement the Greek authorities began using the STC concept mainly for Syrian applicants, who would have to first prove Turkey was not safe for them in order to have their claim fully examined.
The EU-Turkey Statement had other cascading effects in terms of the treatment of asylum seekers in Greece. Policies of containment and restrictive laws including the JMD followed. Compounding the issue is the fact that Turkey has ceased accepting returns of rejected asylum seekers since March 2020, and as a result, the Greek authorities are no longer submitting readmission requests on behalf of rejected asylum seekers. Over the years, thousands of asylum seekers in Greece have found themselves caught in a legal limbo as a result of rejections on admissibility under the STC concept.
The real-life impact of these policies of containment and of the application of the JMD is profound. The five nationalities covered by the JMD continue to dominate the asylum seeker population in Greece, and in 2021 made up 60% of all asylum applicants in Greece. The following stories and characters are fictional, but based on real-life events that continue to affect thousands of people:
Mohammed and his family are from Syria and they have several vulnerabilities. Mohammed himself is a survivor of violence, his wife is a survivor of sexual assault, and both are coping with severe medical issues. They also have three minor children. These factors make their journey to find safety even more difficult.
After years of conflict in his homeland of Syria, which had been subject to a civil war for many years, Mohammed made the difficult decision to leave in 2018, escaping the persecution of the Syrian authorities for participating in the protests against the regime. Like millions of other Syrians, Mohammed and his family left for Turkey.
Upon arrival in Izmir, Mohammed and his family were immediately detained by police. After a number of weeks, an official came and asked them to sign a deportation form, to return them to Syria. Initially, the family refused. However, conditions in detention were poor, overcrowded, and not safe, and during their time there Mohammed’s wife was sexually assaulted. After another couple of weeks they decided to sign the form rather than remain indefinitely in detention in these conditions.
On arrival back to Syria the previous dangers remained, and now the family cannot return to Turkey, having signed the deportation order which contained a ban on entering Turkey for five years. They once again made the decision to leave their homeland in search of safety.
Mohammed and his family eventually make it to the island of Lesvos at the beginning of 2020. Despite the evident vulnerabilities of the family, they had a geographical restriction imposed (as does everyone who arrived on Lesvos to seek asylum), which means that the family is unable to leave the islands. Although there were some evident medical issues and vulnerabilities, they were not provided a medical or vulnerability assessment for months and were issued several rejections to their asylum application in the meantime. The family faced horrific living conditions in Moria camp, which were not at all suitable for the family’s needs. To make things worse, in the early hours of 8-9 September 2020, a fire quickly consumed a large part of Moria Camp, destroying not only the tents in which people slept, but also a substantial part of their few belongings.
The family’s first asylum claim was quickly rejected only five days after their arrival, despite the family's vulnerabilities and the dangers that the family faced in both Syria and Turkey.
The family have since been issued repeated rejections. These rejections continue to be issued despite a lack of a vulnerability assessment of the family’s medical needs. The rejections also continue to be issued despite the fact that Mohammed and his family are not able to apply for asylum in Turkey and previously faced dangerous conditions. The family’s physical and mental health has deteriorated severely after several years of being stuck in a legal limbo without adequate reception conditions.
The family lodged a subsequent application in 2021. The application was again rejected on admissibility after one month of waiting, this time the rejection was based on the new Joint Ministerial Decision. The family received a final rejection of the subsequent application (second asylum application). Per new Greek legislation, the family now has to pay a fee (€100 per person) to apply for a second subsequent application (their third asylum application). This means that Mohammed's family of five, would have to pay €500 to be able to re-apply for asylum.
Rahim lived in Herat with his family, where he worked with different international organisations as a translator, including with US personnel. Rahim and his family are Shi’a-Hazara, which makes them further susceptible to persecution from the Taliban.
In 2019, Rahim and his family started to receive threats and house searches. Incidents of this nature make Rahim realise that he and his family would need to leave Afghanistan for safety. Rahim, his wife, and their four young children leave for Turkey. The family make it to Ankara and attempt to register for asylum. Instead of registration, they are directed to register in another city. They travelled for several hours to this city and then remained there for several months. However, the family began to face danger again on account of their religion, and decided to continue their journey to Greece.
The family eventually made it to the island of Lesvos, where they spent their first months in Greece living in the overcrowded Moria camp in poor conditions. The family also has medical needs, with both Rahim and one of his children needing ongoing treatment for medical conditions, which can only be treated on the mainland of Greece. After delays with their vulnerability assessment they were finally transferred to Athens on account of their medical issues after a year. Due to a backlog of cases, they waited over two years for their first interview, which did not occur until August 2021.
Although Rahim’s family arrived to Greece in 2019, their asylum claim was only examined on admissibility since their asylum interview occurred after the introduction of the Joint Ministerial Decision, which designated Turkey “safe” for them based on their nationality. Despite the dangers faced in both Afghanistan and in Turkey, and despite having spent two years in Greece, the family received a rejection under the STC concept at both first and second instance. After lodging a subsequent application, the family received a positive decision. Although their story ended in good news, this family faced an unnecessary legal limbo for over two years, despite their vulnerabilities and the previous dangers they had faced.
In the case of both Mohammed and Rahim, their situation was compounded by the fact that Turkey has stopped accepting readmissions of rejected asylum seekers from Greece since March 2020.
Both of these families have been stuck in Greece while facing a protracted legal limbo. They have experienced a variety of problematic reception conditions and procedural violations. These families face repeated rejections on admissibility, and submitting a second or further subsequent application will now costs 100 EUR per person per application. Prior to the rejections, they did not have the dangers they faced in their home countries examined, nor their vulnerabilities (whether recognised or unrecognised) taken into account. These rejections occurred despite the fact that in the current context, Turkey is not accepting readmissions of rejected asylum seekers from Greece. The result of the application of the JMD along with the other restrictive measures outlined above is that thousands of asylum seekers in Greece today do not have effective access to asylum, which they are entitled to under international law. These problems are compounded in the case of vulnerable applicants, who must often endure inadequate reception conditions while stuck in a legal limbo.