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Politics Trumps Health to Confine Asylum Seekers to Greek Islands

Pressure from the E.U. to cap the number of refugees and migrants allowed to leave the islands has broken the system meant to identify torture victims and other vulnerable cases.

Written by Daniel Howden Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A refugee girl looks at the Souda refugee camp on the island of Chios. AFP/LOUISA GOULIAMAKI

The bullet wound on Mohamed’s back is only the most visible sign of the young man’s trauma. The abuse he suffered at the hands of the security services in Syria before the war left other, hidden scars.

Based on his account of this ordeal, he was accepted into a support group for torture survivors in Athens. His problem, as for many asylum seekers on the Greek islands, is that he cannot travel to the capital, or anywhere else on the mainland.

A year has passed since the young Syrian arrived on Lesbos but he has still not been classified as “vulnerable” – the only way the restriction keeping him on the Aegean island can be lifted.

He is just one of the victims of intense political pressure being applied inside the European Union to cap the number of asylum seekers who arrive on the Greek islands and are then allowed to travel onward.

What should, under Greek law, be a medical determination of Mohamed’s mental and physical condition has become subject to politics. Many asylum seekers who meet the criteria of vulnerability – including victims of torture and people with less obvious disabilities – are being confined to the islands, according to medical charities Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and Doctors of the World (MdM).

“The E.U. considers these people as mere numbers, ignoring their protection needs,” said Emina Cerimovic from Human Rights Watch. “The aim is to reduce the number of people identified as vulnerable and to increase the numbers returned to Turkey as quickly as possible.”

The struggle over who qualifies as vulnerable comes a little over a year since the E.U.-Turkey statement came into effect and typifies the behind-the-scenes conflicts that the controversial deal has triggered. The agreement, under which the majority of refugees and migrants arriving by sea in Greece would be returned to Turkey, pits the European political priority of deterring further large-scale flows of people against the imperative to safeguard individual rights under asylum law.

The implementation of the deal called for the creation of a fast-track border procedure – a heavily truncated version of standard Greek asylum rules designed to confine new arrivals to the islands and speed up returns to Turkey. Since the expedited regime came into force in December 2016 the only exemptions given are to those people considered “vulnerable.”

This is the category that some E.U. officials claim has been too broadly defined, leading to too many cases who would otherwise have been simple to return across the Aegean, instead being referred to mainland Greece.

In private, E.U. officials have complained that as many as half of all refugees and migrants who received an initial decision on their asylum claim on the Greek islands were identified as vulnerable. The Greek asylum service, which makes the determinations, found 2,906 asylum seekers to be vulnerable during 2016. Figures for 2017 are not yet available.

One E.U. official told Human Rights Watch that the number of vulnerable cases was “unacceptable” and blamed the broad definition of vulnerability under Greek law.

Vulnerable status applies to: unaccompanied minors; the disabled and chronically ill; pregnant women and new mothers; victims of trafficking; and “victims of torture, rape or other serious forms of psychological, physical or sexual violence or exploitation; persons with a post-traumatic disorder; in particular, survivors and relatives of victims of ship-wrecks.”

MSF argues that far from over-identifying vulnerable cases, the reverse is happening. An internal report from the medical charity on the situation on Lesbos, the island with the largest number of asylum seekers, found that 80 percent of the mental health assessments it conducted met its criteria of severity to be taken into care; two-thirds of mental health patients reported having been victims of violence before arriving in Greece, while a fifth said they had been tortured.

Despite this, fewer than 15 percent of the mental health patients MSF saw on Lesbos had been identified as vulnerable, while more than two-thirds of torture victims had not been identified.

Rights groups complain that a series of communiques from the European Commission – the executive body that shapes E.U. policy and determines funding – have put pressure on aid and asylum officials to reduce the number of vulnerable cases.

“Vulnerable people’s health and well-being are being put at risk by a grossly deficient vulnerability screening system and policies aimed at returning as many people as possible to Turkey,” concluded an internal report from MSF on Lesbos.

While Greek and E.U. officials deny that the identification of vulnerable cases is subject to politically motivated caps, a leaked letter from Greece’s migration minister to his German counterpart suggested collusion over another area – reuniting asylum seekers with family elsewhere in Europe.

“Family reunification transfer to Germany will slow down as agreed,” Yiannis Mouzalas wrote to German interior minister Thomas de Maiziere in May. In the letter Mouzalas asked that the two countries agree on a common excuse of “technical difficulties” to explain the slowdown.

New arrivals to the Greek islands in June of just over 2,000 people are low compared with the 26,971 people who arrived in the last month prior to the full implementation of the E.U.-Turkey deal in March 2016. But even the comparative trickle, when combined with the geographic restrictions, means there are nearly 13,000 asylum seekers confined to five islands.

The politically driven overcrowding comes just as the E.U. humanitarian agency, ECHO, withdraws from the islands, taking with it the main source of funds for international charities. The Greek government is meant to step into the breach but there are serious doubts over its ability to do so.

Refugee Support Aegean (RSA), a non-profit group that monitors the legal rights of refugees, is one of a chorus of concerned voices: “Huge gaps have been observed and the mental health of refugees is deteriorating severely due to being stuck and under constant threat to be readmitted to Turkey.”

A report this month noted that the vulnerability assessment system was “breaking down” and it was unclear whether the Greek state “will be able to replace the work the NGOs had provided until recently.”

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