Greece's asylum system cannot be the blueprint for EU asylum reform

Published: 3rd September 2020


The first case of the new coronavirus in Greece’s biggest refugee camp highlights the need for immediate and radical changes from the Greek government and its EU partners to the reception of people seeking asylum in Europe, the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) and Oxfam said today. The appalling conditions in Moria camp in Lesbos, where people often do not even have water to wash their hands, now risk facilitating a health tragedy for people seeking asylum, for staff and for locals on the island.

The 2016 EU-Turkey refugee deal and several reforms of the asylum system in Greece have exposed people to suffering and exploitation, and the coronavirus is another crisis on top of that. In their latest ‘Lesbos Bulletin’ update from Moria, Oxfam and GCR said they are worried the European Commission and EU governments will use the flawed Greek asylum system, which is backed by the EU, as a model for the upcoming New Pact on Asylum and Migration.

We are extremely worried that the European Commission and EU governments will use the  Greek system as a blueprint for the EU asylum reform.

Raphael Shilhav
Oxfam EU migration expert

Oxfam’s EU migration expert, Raphael Shilhav, said:

“Rather than working together to improve conditions on the Greek islands, Europe is allowing Greece to violate the rights of people seeking asylum and turning a blind eye to the results. We are extremely worried that the European Commission and EU governments will use the  Greek system as a blueprint for the EU asylum reform.”

“The woeful situation on the Greek islands shows us every day that the EU ‘hotspot’ approach established in 2015 has failed. EU member states must show solidarity by sharing responsibility for those seeking a life of safety and dignity. The ongoing relocation of children from the Greek islands to safe places in Europe, insufficient though it is, shows that a different approach is possible.”

Instead of investing in proper pandemic prevention, Greek authorities are focusing on discriminatory COVID-19 confinement rules that are much stricter for people seeking asylum than for everyone else in Greece. These measures facilitate Greek plans to turn refugee camps into so-called controlled centres that could become de-facto detention camps, GCR and Oxfam said.

These plans are based on new Greek asylum rules introduced this year, which have laid the groundwork for administrative detention to become the default for people seeking asylum, rather than the exception. Coupled with so-called expedited procedures, this approach risks undermining the basic European obligation to protect people seeking asylum and to prevent forced returns of people to places where their lives or health are in danger.

Oxfam and GCR call on the European Commission to propose an asylum reform based on responsibility-sharing between EU member states, to allow people seeking international protection to access a fair and effective asylum process. The Commission’s proposals should also expand safeguards for human rights, in line with the 1951 refugee convention and associated refugee law.

Natalia-Rafaella Kafkoutsou, refugee law expert at the Greek Council for Refugees, said:

“The coronavirus pandemic is a difficult time for many of us, and it’s even more of a crisis for those who are stranded in squalid refugee camps on Europe’s borders. Families crammed into overcrowded and unsanitary camps have no chance of keeping physical distance and following recommended hygiene practices like regular handwashing.

“The Greek government has almost exclusively focused on restricting the movement of people in these camps, rather than providing adequate prevention and response. With the first coronavirus case confirmed in Moria, this approach risks provoking a health disaster.”

At the end of August, more than 24,000 people seeking asylum remained trapped in dangerous and undignified accommodation in the Greek islands’ EU ‘hotspots’. In Moria alone, 12,000 people were crammed into a space designed to accommodate less than 3,000. In Moria’s overspill areas, thousands have access to water for only five to six hours per day while others do not have any regular access to water.

Notes to editors

  • Spokespeople available in Brussels, Athens and Lesbos for comments in English and Greek.
  • Read the latest ‘Lesbos Bulletin’, Oxfam’s and GCR’s regular update on the situation in the Moria EU ‘hotspot’ refugee camp.
  • Strict COVID 19-related restrictions for people living in refugee camps have been repeatedly extended, while they had been relaxed for the general population in Greece. Following a second spike of coronavirus cases in the country, the Ministry of Migration and Asylum has recently applied additional restrictive measures to camps, extending their lock down until 15 September.
  • As of 20 August, 634 unaccompanied and separated children lived in Lesbos. Of these, only one in five (166) had access to a shelter, while the majority (60%) were living amidst adults in overcrowded sections of Moria, and 55 were sleeping rough in the camp’s overspill area, the olive grove.
  • The European Commission will soon release a New Pact on Asylum and Migration, which will lay out the direction for the EU and member states to reform the EU asylum system and the bloc’s migration policies. The new pact risks perpetuating the humanitarian catastrophe that has been unfolding in Greece over the past years. It will also most likely suggest to use more development aid to curb migration.

Contact information

Florian Oel | Brussels | | office +32 2 234 11 15 | mobile +32 473 56 22 60

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