Since 2018, Fenix has been based on the island of Lesvos in Greece providing legal aid services to thousands of individuals and families seeking asylum. The reception conditions in Greece remain very difficult and people are confronted with administrative barriers at every turn, despite the significant decrease in the number of asylum seekers and beneficiaries of international protection on the islands.
Those voicing concern are met with denial rather than diplomacy, but accountability mechanisms at various levels continue to offer formal recognition of rights violations and persistent issues related to the national implementation of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) in Greece. The NGO community in Greece also remains very active in highlighting the realities of the asylum system. Taken together, these collective efforts around advocacy and reporting, case law, activism, and dialogue serve as a foundation on which significant improvements can be made if only the EU and national governments demonstrate the political will.
In recent months we have seen what solidarity and swift action can accomplish when our fellow global citizens turn to the EU for support. Fenix stands with all those who are fleeing persecution, but recent events have highlighted a stark contrast in the way that people seeking asylum have been received over the years. In a series of blog posts we will explore how the system has impacted people seeking asylum in Greece, the practical challenges of translating European and international laws into robust and adaptable national systems, and proactive measures that the government and European institutions can take toward durable solutions and a consistently inclusive and effective approach to international protection going forward.
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In a corner of the EU that is otherwise known for its hospitality, the Greek government’s inhospitable approach to asylum seekers on the island of Lesvos has become widely regarded as the rule rather than the exception. One of the pillars of the CEAS, the Reception Conditions Directive, outlines the expectations and minimum standards around how EU countries receive people seeking international protection, but it is no secret that reception conditions on Lesvos have been substandard and persistent issues have affected most if not all aspects of daily life for people seeking asylum.
These issues were previously attributed to the lack of capacity to host an increasing number of people and address overcrowded camps, but since the number of asylum seekers on the island has decreased they have been attributed both to deliberate policy and benign neglect. Although structural problems related to reception conditions continue to exist as a result of increased investment in closed centres and segregation policies, the material improvement of reception conditions is one way the Greek government can better meet their obligations under EU asylum acquis, and improve the daily lives of applicants while they wait for their decisions. In recent times, potential improvements have often been stalled as a result of the Greek government’s failure to properly manage service delivery contracts. In fact, over the last few years contract issues have plagued everything from basic services such as electricity and sanitation, to cash assistance and family reunification transfers.
Addressing inadequate reception conditions continues to be one of the most significant and visible challenges on Lesvos and throughout the Eastern Aegean islands. The real-life impact of gaps in service delivery for the day-to-day needs of asylum seekers cannot be underestimated. Insufficient electrical infrastructure limits things like the ability to cook or charge cell phones, use heaters or fans, or ensure a safe environment at night with well-lit washroom facilities. Further health and safety-related concerns stemmed from contract issues for the cleaning of washroom facilities and Rubb halls, as well as waste disposal. In October 2021, the government took over provision of cash assistance from UNHCR, resulting in a months-long disruption to the service that left asylum seekers throughout Greece struggling to pay for food and other essential items. This was also attributed to a contract-related issue. As another illustration, the sometimes complex process of reuniting family members was made even more complicated and stressful when the Greek government's contract with the relevant travel agency lapsed, resulting in further family reunification delays and even the cancellation of requests already approved by another Member State.
The ability to identify and address issues has been further hindered by restrictions on NGO access, which is just one of the many ways that efforts in Greece continue to be jeopardised. The prevalence of administrative issues has no doubt put a strain on the resources of NGOs and others who adjust their operations to fill the resulting gaps, but the toll these additional and repeated disruptions take on people’s daily lives is far more costly. With proper planning, communication, and efficient oversight of these processes, along with development of contingency plans to address any gaps or issues that arise, many of these problems could be avoided. The alternative has long been reflected in the reality on Lesvos, which ultimately falls short of the Greek government’s “shared responsibility to welcome asylum seekers in a dignified manner”.
Our hope for the future is that the Greek government not only prioritises the fulfilment of its obligations under international and EU legislation with respect to reception conditions, but that it will strive for transparency and dialogue in acting on these commitments. Safeguards such as an independent monitoring mechanism should be valued and encouraged rather than dismissed, and the Greek authorities should emphasise and be supported in strengthening capacity around planning and stakeholder engagement in order to make substantial improvements in reception conditions.