Legal aid organizations express concerns regarding the unprecedented administrative practice of the Regional Asylum Office of Lesvos, which goes against Greek, European and International law
The undersigned legal aid organizations operating on the island of Lesvos have been surprised to learn that, from 15 to 20 November, the Regional Asylum Office (‘RAO’) of Lesvos has, without any prior notice, served negative asylum decisions on 28 asylum seekers from Sub-Saharan African countries without conducting the legally mandatory asylum interview.
The Administration justified its decision on the basis of its ‘inability’ to secure interpretation for languages spoken by the asylum seekers. The reasoning of the Administration, which was repeated in an identical manner in all the decisions, was that “the asylum seeker did not attend a personal interview since repeated attempts to find interpretation services for the mother tongue and the language of communication of the asylum seeker proved unsuccessful”. What is more, in one case, the application for international protection was rejected without conducting an interview because, according to the decision of the Asylum Office, finding interpretation for . . . Portuguese, proved impossible.
However, the omission of the personal asylum interview due to the inability to provide interpretation constitutes a violation of EU law. In addition, the fact that the majority of the applicants were rejected only a few days after they lodged their asylum applications is in direct contradiction to the statement of RAO Lesvos about “repeated and unsuccessful attempts to find suitable interpretation”.
Further questions arise from the fact that all the decisions were issued urgently and were signed by the same person, namely by the Head of the RAO of Lesvos, while in many cases the applicants were served fictitious invitations to interviews scheduled for the same day that the negative decisions were issued. It must be noted that the relevant negative decisions were served in languages it is uncertain if the asylum seekers understand. Moreover, the hearings of the appeals were scheduled in just a few days and the asylum seekers were never informed about their right to free legal aid, rendering the right to an effective remedy a dead letter.
Moreover, the Administration has rejected asylum applications, despite having assessed as credible the evidence in the administrative file of applicants for refugee status. For example, the Administration rejected an applicant even though it had accepted that he had been subjected to torture by his country’s authorities. In another case it rejected the asylum claim, although it was acknowledged that jihadi militiamen had attacked the applicant and killed two of his brothers because they were Christians.
This unprecedented for national, European and international legal standards, action of the Administration to decide on international protection claims without conducting a personal interview serves the purposes of another arbitrary practice which has been ‘tested’ on the island of Lesvos since mid-2016. Specifically, 27 of the 28 rejected applicants mentioned above have been arbitrarily detained at the Lesvos Pre-removal Detention Center (P.R.D.C.) since the first day of their arrival in Greece, as part of the program of detention of applicants considered as coming from ‘low refugee profile’ countries. The purpose of this program is to complete the entire asylum procedure before the release of the applicants from detention after the expiry of the maximum time limit for detention of asylum seekers. In this way, in the event of their rejection, they can be immediately returned to Turkey. However, this practice goes directly against the principle of individualized examination of any application for international protection and the prohibition of discrimination.
Conducting an asylum interview is a cornerstone of the process of examining an application for international protection, as it provides applicants with the opportunity to fully explain the reasons why they were forced to leave their country and are unable to return. Any omission of a personal interview constitutes a violation of Directive 2013/32/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 26 June 2013 on common procedures for granting and withdrawing international protection. In addition, the importance of the personal interview is also illustrated by the severe legal consequences for asylum seekers who do not appear in person for the interview.
This unlawful practice by the Administration does not occur in a vacuum, but is part of significant regression in relation to the procedural guarantees and rights of asylum-seekers which has become apparent for some time now from the announcements of the new government, which has been sanctioned with the adoption of the new law on international protection, 4636/2019. Additionally, it coincides with the Government spokesperson’s announcement of 20 November 2019 for a new ‘operational plan for the management of the migration/refugee issue’ that will include expanding the use of detention with the replacement of current structures with closed Reception and Identification Centers (RICs) and the creation of new Pre-removal Detention Centers (P.R.D.C.).
The Lesvos RAO follows practices that do not adhere to our legal acquis and breach national and EU law, which we believe is important to highlight. Moreover, these practices expose our country to future condemnations by European and international courts and institutions.
We call on the competent Greek authorities to respect the law and take the necessary steps in order to revoke all the above decisions, to restitute the harm caused to the asylum seekers, and to refrain from similar practices in the future.
Signing organizations: HIAS Greece, Refugee Support Aegean [RSA] Greek Council for Refugees, Equal Rights Beyond Borders, Legal Center Lesvos, Danish Refugee Council [DRC] and FENIX Humanitarian Legal Aid.