A further cutdown in human rights aiming to reduce refugee and migrant flows to Greece and to enhance security seems to be the focus of new government. From the early days, the message became clear: abolishment of the Ministry of Migration Policy and reassignment of migration and asylum matters to the Ministry of Citizen Protection, revocation of the Ministerial Circular on the granting of a Social Security Number (so-called ‘AMKA’) to third-country nationals and reinstatement of a dangerous anti-migration rhetoric focused on returns.
Refugees as a “threat” to public order
In particular, the first deed of the new government was to merge the Ministry of Migration Policy with the Ministry of Citizen Protection; this move caused the vivid reaction of human rights groups and organizations, including the Hellenic League for Human Rights.
A press release issued on July 19 by the Campaign on Access to Asylum and co-signed by 11 organizations and collectivities, including RSA, stresses that “…Asylum and migration matters are not matters of public order and security, which by definition fall under the competence of the Ministry of Citizen Protection; rather, they are matters of international protection, reception, social integration and the rule of law, as highlighted among other things by the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR). This perspective is also seen at a European level, where such matters fall under the competence of either a dedicated migration policy department of the Ministry of Foreign Policy or an Independent Authority. Refugees and migrants are a part of the Greek civil society and should not be regarded as a threat to public order. Their reduction to a matter of public order stigmatizes these groups and exposes them to risk, by cultivating and fostering racist and violent behaviors against them…”
Granting Social Security Numbers to refugees and migrants is up in the air
The government had initially announced that the immediate improvement of the living conditions for refugees and migrants would be included in its priority list, with particular focus on vulnerable groups and a priority in protecting unaccompanied children. Only a few days after coming into power, the Minister of Labor, Giannis Voutsis, revoked the recent circular on the granting of a Social Security Number to third-country nationals . The circular, published in June 6, 2019, and co-signed by the Ministers of Migration Policy, Health and Social Security of the former government, clarified chronic problems and, among other things, made it easier for migrants and asylum claimants to obtain a Social Security Number so that they gain access to a series of rights such as health, education and work. The government announced that the procedure for a Social Security Number will be clarified with a new circular, which is yet to be issued three weeks following the revocation of the previous decree. The Citizens’ Service Centers (CSC), which are competent for the issuance of Social Security Numbers, have ceased any relevant activity and there is growing concern that a large number of asylum claimants and refugees with no Social Security Number, including extremely vulnerable individuals, will not have access to public health and medication. According to reports, the asylum claimants with no Social Security Number in the hotspot of Moria, Lesvos, can go to the public hospital only after referral from a Hellenic Center for Disease Control & Prevention (HCDCP) physician, but there is only a limited number of HCDCP physicians at the hotspot. For access to medical care, refugees with no Social Security Number should contact the Rights Protection Office at the Mytilini Hospital. Nevertheless, even if they do have access to the hospital, they won’t necessarily get the medication they need. RSA is familiar with two cases of diabetic individuals in Lesvos, a woman and a baby, who are not entitled to free insulin because they don’t have a Social Security Number.
While addressing the reaction to the revocation of the decree, the Minister of Labor talked about the previous government “arbitrarily” granting Social Security Numbers and stressed that “our country is not a free-for-all space”.
The personalized and thorough review of asylum claims is at risk
The government promised to revisit the legal framework for asylum by the end of the year and to expedite asylum claims and returns for those who are not entitled to asylum. The government also announced that it will strengthen the Appeals Committees  in the second degree and deepen its cooperation with EASO and UNHCR; in addition, common domestic and European border security, especially for sea borders, will be reinforced by a new integrated plan.
There is concern that, for the government to achieve its goal of expediting the asylum and return procedures while under a police-oriented view of the refugee issue, the fundamental principle of a case-by-case thorough review of asylum claims will be violated. This will exclude a significant number of people from access to asylum.
In addition to the planned legislative changes and their impact on the rights of the asylum claimants, there is also concern regarding the ongoing rhetoric that places refugees on a public order issue level. For example, during his visit in Vathi, Samos, only 48 hours after the governments’ swearing-in ceremony, the Deputy Minister of Citizen Protection and Head of immigration policy, Giorgos Koumoutsakos, spoke of a “besieged city” due to the overcrowding of the hotspot and noted that the government should expedite asylum as well as the distinction between those who are merely refugees and entitled to asylum from the ones who enter the country illegally. Furthermore, as he pointed out in his House speech, while reading and discussing the government’s plans, there is a will to implement a “robust and effective program for the returns of those who are not entitled to stay in the country”. He noted that there is an urgent need for a coherent and comprehensive strategy that begins with deterrence, border protection and ends with granting or not granting asylum and, ultimately, with integration policies for those who legally reside in the country”. According to the Deputy Minister, “the solution to the refugee – migration issue is democratic rigor along with respect for human rights and the effective protection of the right to safety”.
According to reports, the government has already started to intensify the review of legalizing documents throughout the country, even for individuals who reside in solidarity spaces, such as the open refugee accommodation space of PIKPA, Lesvos.
Full implementation of the EU- Turkey ‘Deal’
With regard to the EU’s contribution, the new government sees an urgent need to create a substantive solidarity mechanism, especially until the finalization of the new legal framework of “Dublin 4” and the common European asylum system. In addition, particular attention is given to bilateral cooperations on migration and the full implementation of the toxic EU – Turkey ‘Deal’.
The disconcerting announcements on closed first reception and accommodation centers seem to not be materializing for the moment, given the overcrowding on the islands, the lack of infrastructure as well as the anticipated reaction to such a development both domestically and internationally. One of the government’s priorities seems to be the completion of the new hotspot outside Vathi, Samos, formerly opposed by members of the governing party and currently opposed by residents of the island.
The new government is expected to place particular emphasis on deterrence at both sea and land borders; this raises concerns that the illegal pushback practice in Evros and the Aegean will continue unabated. According to evidence posted on social media, in early July 59 refugees, including 9 Turks, Afghans, Syrians and Somalis, were illegally pushed-back to Turkey from Evros; at the same time, in a video posted on social networks and the media, a Coast Guard vessel seems to be executing dangerous maneuvers in an attempt to force a plastic boat near the island of Kos, reportedly carrying 34 people, to change its course. The Turkish Coast Guard, also showing in the video, is simply awaiting for the boat to reach them.
According to reports, the Greek Coast Guard, in an off-the-record response, claims to have traced a boat within Turkish waters and adrift towards the Greek waters, which was shortly after received by the Turkish Coast Guard.
As of yesterday, a Zeppelin started hovering over Samos, on a pilot trial in cooperation with FRONTEX. According to Mr. Koumoutsakos’s statements, it will be used to let the Authorities know when a boat is leaving the Turkish side, to notify the Turkish authorities and the Greek Coast Guard to “approach”, but without clarifying the role of the Greek Coast Guard at that point.
The new government seems committed to rigorously implement the EU – Turkey ‘Deal’ and deterrence policies; however, it is rushing to dramatic and easy communication stunts for an issue that is anything but.
RSA is voicing concerns that, in the near future, the legal framework for the protection of vulnerable groups will subside and become rigorous, with less guarantees for asylum processes, and the dogma of deterrence at the borders and the mainland will be reinforced, while suppression will increase.
This said, the announced deterrence policy and the grave concerns rising from the implementation of such a policy are some of the most critical changes, due to the reoccurring complaints regarding the Coast Guard’s unlawful practices and the thorough refugee testimonies on how these practices put their life in danger.
- According to information, the term of the Refugee Committees has ended, pending nomination of their members. As a result, complaints can not be brought before them.↑
- It is to be noted that, according to data by the UNHCR, children count for over one third of arrivals in 2019 and 7 out of 10 are younger than 12 years old. Also, Afghanistan and Syria are the predominant countries of origin for the asylum claimants in Greece in 2019. As it is well known, individuals originating from these two countries have a high chance of being granted asylum in Greece and the rest of Europe. According to research by the Greek Council for Refugees, 20 to 30 percent of asylum claimants are also torture survivors.↑