4 April 2014
My stay in Athens represents the second part of my field research. The reasons for my stay here are twofold: first of all, I have family here. Secondly, during my attempt to acquire authorisation for visiting the detention centre in Orestiada, I came across a high-level employee of the newly established Greek first-reception service, which is of course located in Athens. The person concerned was kind enough to offer me an interview, which I gladly accepted.
Greece is not just any European country. With a population of just 10 million, it is far smaller than the average member state, representation merely 2% of the EU-population. Nevertheless, the country has dominated international headlines because of its sovereign debt crisis that was caused by skyrocketing interest rates following the financial crisis of 2008. Severe austerity measures, arbitrary tax increases, ineffective governance and a corrupt political elite have brought the country into a situation, where unemployment has soared to 25%, where a highly militant, radical neo-Nazi party has enjoyed great popularity (up to 15% in the polls), and where the economy has been in severe recession for nearly half a decade. On top of all that, Greece has also been the hotspot of irregular migration into the EU. No country has been in the press more the Greece when it comes to the undignified treatment of migrants. My research agenda here was very open. I wanted to know about the relationship of the Greek asylum system with the EU, and about the experience of asylum seekers of European integration.
I have been here for two days now, and some of the insights I have gained have indeed been very interesting. When I arrived on Wednesday, I had an interview at night with the employee of the first-reception service I spoke about earlier. I found out that since last year, the structure of the Greek migration management system has undergone a radical transformation. Until last year, the police was responsible for the first reception of all ‘illegal immigrants’ as well as for asylum applications. Now, two new services have been set up.
Firstly, there is the first-reception service, which screens irregular migrants. Screening means determining whether an irregular migrants is an asylum seekers, a vulnerable person, or a non-asylum seeker. About 80% of irregular migrants are part of the third group. All members of this group should in theory be brought to so-called ‘pre-removal centres’ where they wait to be deported. These centres are the most notorious aspects of Greek migration management, and there are numerous reports about human rights abuses in these facilities. Most non-asylum seekers arrive without papers, which is why nationality determination is an essential aspect of screening. Nationality is determined by asking questions about a migrants’ supposed hometown, and by listening to her accent. Recently a large number of Syrians has arrived in Greece, most of whom similarly do not apply for asylum. Nevertheless, as a war wages in Syria, they cannot be sent back home, which is why they are released, often leaving Greece for applying for asylum in another EU member state. I was somewhat confused by this, as the Dublin-procedure would foresee for these migrants would have to be sent back to Greece. However, when I asked my interviewees about that, they simply said that this does not fall within their responsibility. Another aspect of screening is a medical check-up. The vast majority of migrants is vaccinated to prevent a public health threat to the EU. Refusal to be vaccinated would result in quarantine, although this apparently has not occurred. Furthermore, Greece is overwhelmingly regarded as a transit country. This is not an official statistic, but up to 90% of Greek irregular migrants have no intention whatsoever of staying in Greece. This sheds some light on why the number of asylum applications in Greece is very low. The first-reception service is 80%-funded from the EU, which may imply that it was the EU that pushed for Greece to change its migration management.
The high-level employee of the first-reception service told me that another service had been set up to deal with asylum applications: the asylum service. This was my next clue. I have tried without success to arrange an interview with that service, but I and Alex did a little excursion to the service’s headquarters which is located right next to Greece’s national police headquarters in Athens. I was told that in the morning there is a long queue of asylum seekers outside the asylum service’s offices. When we arrived we saw an Iranian couple who were rejected at the entrance to the building, even though they arrived well within the opening hours. We immediately called the attention of the service’s security employees, because I took a photo through the fence. However, I calmed them down, and told them that I had already spoken with someone inside over the phone to arrange an interview (which was indeed the case). An employee who I had unsuccessfully tried to call earlier that day came out of the building, and we were lucky enough to be able to chat with her for a good fifteen minutes. It is much easier to remember a conversation when two people try to do so, and with Alex’s help I was able to reconstruct most of what was said. It turns out that since the asylum service had been set up in early 2013, it became the only route in Greece to apply for asylum. The police was no longer responsible, and the asylum service has only a few officers. The person we spoke to acknowledged that this makes it more difficult for people to apply for asylum, although the service is currently in the process of setting up more offices. When you beat the queue to get into the office in Athens, it does not mean that you will have the chance to apply for asylum. All it means is that you will be able to receive information about how the process works. An asylum application requires the presence of an interpreter, which is difficult to arrange, especially in more remote locations. An NGO called Metadrassi is used to provide interpretation, and teleconferencing can sometimes help to overcome logistical problems. All in all, I had the impression that the employee from the Greek asylum service was sincerely interesting in protection – this is a good thing. However, I also began to understand where the complaints that not every irregular immigrant in Greece has the chance to apply for asylum may come from. I now had a further clue – Metadrassi. What kind of organisation is this? Why pays them, who set them up, and did they also support the police?
I was to get the answers to all these questions the following morning on the phone. Metadrassi is an NGO that was set up to give asylum seekers the possibility of applying for asylum through providing interpretation services. The person on the phone acknowledged that Greece had been condemned for human rights abuses for not allowing people to apply for asylum. Metadrassi intended to change this situation. The NGO also worked with the police, but apparently there were some problems and this cooperation seized. Cooperation with the new asylum service is apparently much smoother, as the asylum service apparently does ‘real work’. Metadrassi receives its funds mostly from the EU, employing 200 active interpreters who can translate from thirty different languages.
I have to say that I am left with more questions than I had when I arrived:
· The Greek asylum system is taken out of the hands of the police – why? This question I could answer by speaking to the police. I have made arrangements for an interview to take place.
· Is it really true that the police is no longer responsible? The person I spoke to at the first-reception service used to work in the prison system, and had a police email address. Perhaps the police mentality persists. Again, the police may be able to help here. I could also speak to the first-reception service once more.
· In the last couple of years the migratory routes have changed, and Greece receives far less irregular migration. This has to do mostly with the smugglers. But why have the smugglers changed their routes? If the Greek police or even Frontex had attempted to cause the smugglers to change their routes, this would be a major international scandal. Speaking to the police/Frontex would probably not tell me anything, and I would have to speak with the smugglers themselves. I don’t have the first clue for how to do that though.
· Why does the Greek government attempt to screen every irregular migrant? Is Frontex here to make sure of that? Who requested Frontex’s presence? It is not in the Greek interest to screen migrants, as this means that Greece is responsible for their potential asylum applications. Clearly, the EU has put pressure on Greece to screen migrants, and perhaps Frontex is here to supervise this process. Interviewing Frontex officers might answer these questions.
Tomorrow I have an interview with someone from a Greek immigrants’ organisation, with the former head of the Greek coast guard in the Aegean, and I am also planning on visiting an accommodation centre for asylum seekers.