Vulnerable refugees exposed to an inhuman "deal"
The EU – Turkey “Deal” of March 20, 2016, the constant pressure from the EU for immediate implementation and its direct consequence – the confinement of thousands of refugees in the Aegean islands, combined with the new fast-track border procedure, have all dramatically aggravated the existing dysfunction and inadequacy of the system for the tracing, diagnosis and rehabilitation of vulnerable refugees arriving on the Aegean islands. As an immediate result, many refugees belonging to vulnerable groups, such as unaccompanied minors, individuals with serious health problems, people needing mental health support, and victims of torture or other forms of violence, are not identified as such by the competent Authorities.
Furthermore, the tragic conditions in the refugee camps and the confinement of a great number of refugees on the islands create new vulnerabilities or exacerbate the existing ones.
Not tracing and not diagnosing vulnerability has consequences not only on the health and the rehabilitation of refugees but also on the way and the quality of how an international protection claim is processed; it also plays an important role on whether the refugees will be returned to Turkey. More specifically, the refugees who are traced and considered vulnerable according to the law are exempt from the fast-track border procedure and from the evaluation on whether their claim is “admissible” under the prism of “safe third country”, as is the case for Syrians. Based on these exemptions, geographic restrictions are lifted for them and they are ultimately allowed to travel to the mainland.
“Refugee Support Aegean” also notes that the political requirement to implement this experimental model of return to Turkey has not only aggravated the operating system for the tracing and rehabilitation of vulnerability, but has also led to the creation of a new category of refugees, more “vulnerable”: these are the refugees who either have a vulnerability that doesn’t fall within the cases foreseen by law or have no vulnerability. The refugees falling under this category remain confined on the Aegean islands, their claims are reviewed with reduced judicial guarantees within the scope of the border procedure, without thorough examination and they are at risk of being returned to Turkey with concise procedures. Therefore, Syrian applicants, despite their true vulnerability – are at risk of being returned to Turkey because their requests are rejected as “inadmissible”, viewing Turkey as a “safe third country”, while applicants of other nationalities are also at risk of being returned to Turkey if their asylum claim is rejected through the aforementioned procedures.
The push-backs, detention, mistreatment, exploitation, impoverishment and racism that refugees have suffered in Turkey are not considered significant elements to be taken into consideration by the Authorities in charge of reviewing asylum claims in Greece and are systematically ignored. Lastly, the inadequate legislative status, structural and systemic deficiencies, overall political crisis and state of civil and political rights in Turkey and the wider region are all overlooked.
THE VULNERABILITY ROULETTE: The story of M.
M. is a 27-year-old refugee from Syria who arrived in Lesbos in the summer of 2016 with his mother, sister and her family. Upon arrival, the whole family sought international protection.
M. experienced many traumatic events both in Syria and during his attempt to reach a safe country. As a consequence of all these, he suffers from serious mental health problems. In Syria, his father, his wife and child were killed, and he was held in isolation from the outside world and tortured by the government authorities.
When he left Syria along with his other family members and tried to cross into Turkey in order to find security, he fell victim to multiple rights violations by the Turkish authorities, such as push-backs, beatings, arbitrary detention and lack of any form of protection. M. described the angst he felt: “In Turkey, I was living in fear. Me and my mother, we felt a permanent threat.”
After all these traumatic experiences, M. and his mother found themselves confronted with the miserable conditions in Moria refugee camp. M. described his experiences to the RSA researchers: “I stayed for so long in Moria without anyone being able to tell me the reason why. (…) We had a very bad time there. (…) When Moria caught fire I was forced to sleep on the street. (…) I was never homeless before…….”
His only asylum interview was conducted by the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and limited to examining the admissibility of his application and, more specifically, whether Turkey is a ‘safe third country’ for M. or not. During the asylum interview, the EASO expert also assessed the applicant’s vulnerability, and in a few lines of reasoning, he concluded that M. is not a vulnerable case. This decision was taken without M. being referred and examined by any competent or specialized first reception service, a specialized psychosocial unit or a doctor or psychologist in order to diagnose his vulnerability and his status as a victim of torture.
Following his characterisation as non-vulnerable, M.`s asylum application was examined under the ‘super’ fast-track border procedure and only for the admissibility of his application. He got rejected at first instance on the grounds that Turkey is a ‘safe third country’ for him. On the same grounds, the Appeals Committee dismissed his appeal against the original decision on admissibility. According to the second instance decision, everything that M. suffered in Syria was no longer relevant to the competent authorities for the examination of the asylum claim, as this had not happened in Turkey. Whereas what he had experienced in Turkey was judged to be non-essential. His mother’s asylum claim had the same fate.
Meanwhile, the fear of being returned to an unsafe country has become daily life for M. and his mother. He told us: “Look how we ended up. We now do not expect anymore to get asylum. We are already happy if we manage to renew our papers. Even if it has a red stamp. Month by month we live in fear. Every time when the days approach (to renew our papers), my mother and I get panic attacks. Everyone then asks what happened to us. I can not deal with it. And then I calm down, take a breath for a month, just until the next time.”
In contrast to M. and his elderly mother who are still trapped on Lesbos at risk of immediate deportation to Turkey, M.`s sister and her family were assessed as belonging to a vulnerable category of refugees. For this reason, their asylum claims were directly examined on the merits and today they are recognized refugees residing in Athens since the geographic restriction was lifted.
 The details of the refugee have been changed in order to retain his anonymity.
 Asylum Seeker’s Card.
 The red stamp is added to the asylum seekers’ cards of those persons that have the geographic restriction
“In 2017, MSF teams in Lesbos saw 275 victims of torture, with 131 (almost 50%) needing rehabilitation care who were referred to a specialist centre in Athens. However two thirds of them have still not been transferred to the mainland, due to barriers of geographical restrictions or lack of accommodation capacity in Athens. The majority still live in Moria, where conditions are certainly detrimental to their medical and psychological needs. The prevalence of torture is likely far higher than this amongst this population, and so we expect that there are many more not yet identified with this invisible suffering. There are long waiting lists to see our psychologists and doctors in Lesbos.
In the last quarter of 2017, we saw a massive increase in the number of patients needing psychological and psychiatric support, with more than 200 new psychiatric patients in October and November alone. The vast majority were referred from inside Moria by other actors. PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is the most common diagnosis amongst these patients. This population has experienced high levels of violence and trauma in their home countries as well as on transit to Europe. However, it is the living conditions in Moria – which add high levels of fear, stress and uncertainty to these already traumatised people – that results in extra layers of complex trauma. The only responsible management of such a vulnerable group is to ensure their transfer to the mainland, where they have greater possibilities for accessing appropriate care in a safe environment.”
Louise Roland-Gosselin, Head of Mission, MSF OCB, Greece
“In a country where Primary Care – also for Mental- Health has serious deficiencies, it is expected that the understaffed island hospital structures will be overloaded. Often, colleagues who work in the field and experience a deadlock in relation to the psychosocial support of refugees, choose as a last resort their referral to the hospital psychiatrist. In addition, the lack of social support framework for these refugees often leads to involuntary hospital admission.
This psychiatricisation of the fact that someone is a refugee is extremely problematic for economic, scientific but mainly ethical grounds. It is a serious backward step for human rights protection.”
Konstantina Kranou – Social Worker, specialised in psychotraumatology, RSA’s associate