Seeking asylum in Greece -- an interminable waiting game

Athens (AFP) –


It can be months or even years before the thousands of migrants waiting in camps on Greek islands or on the mainland finally receive the prize they crave: asylum.

Omar Singh, a young man from Burkina Faso, arrived on the island of Lesbos over a year ago.

And he may have to wait until December 2021 before he is granted an interview to determine his right to stay -- a long drawn-out procedure he says is "driving me mad."

"When I arrived I wasn't even 18. I was living in horrible conditions in the Moria (camp) -- I fled the fire there in September and now I am in a new camp where my tent leaks when it rains," Omar says.

But it is the interminable waiting that is worst. "West Africans and single men are not priority cases," he complains.

Nadir Sawaf, from Syria, is living in a container at the Skaramangas camp outside Athens and says he has been waiting four years for papers to remain in Greece.

He has a scheduled meeting with immigration authorities next week. "I hope it won't be cancelled" owing to the coronavirus lockdown now in force until the end of the month.

Nadir found himself stranded on Lesbos weeks after Turkey and the EU signed an agreement in March 2016 on managing the flow of migrants.

His first asylum application was rejected on the grounds that, under that deal, Turkey was deemed a safe country.

But "Turkey is not a safe country for Syrians -- they are forced to return to Syria," Nadir protests.

Unable to appeal because he was unable to afford a lawyer, he complains that he remains "stuck in Greece -- without papers, without work, without my family."

- Sharp drop in arrivals -

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Greece hosted approximately 186,200 refugees and asylum-seekers at the end of 2019.

In November last year, the Greek government voted through a law designed to speed up procedures.

And according to the ministry for migration, 87,622 asylum claims were filed in October, down 38 percent from a year earlier.

But "this improvement is above all the result of fewer arrivals this year," which were down by 73 percent, says Stella Nanou, UNHCR's spokeswoman in Greece.

Spyros-Vlad Oikonomou of the Greek council for refugees says migrants' rights must be upheld even as procedures are streamlined.

"Often there are procedural mistakes -- an interview is botched or an asylum seeker did not explain himself well. It is vital that candidates (with claims) thrown out have appeals dealt with correctly."

While the process is being speeded up for new arrivals, asylum seekers who came last year can find themselves waiting for years for their cases to be dealt with.

"The long wait has a strong psychological impact on refugees. For two years they have no access to education, the labour market. Instead of integrating they are isolated in the camps," says Oikonomou.

- 'Tired of waiting' -

Greece has welcomed EU efforts to set up a bloc-wide response to the migration issue, with "tough controls" on external borders and the rejection of migrants deemed unlikely to win their claim to stay.

As Brussels looks to get to grips with the issue, conservative Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has stressed the need for a "balanced" approach and the "fair" sharing out of responsibilities across the bloc.

Like Italy and Spain, Greece's geographical position on the EU's southern edge has made it one of the major points of arrival in the bloc for migrants.

Abo Ahmad, a 28-year-old Syrian, says he grew tired of waiting in Greece.

And after two and a half years, he left and made his way to Hanover in Germany, instead.

"In Greece I had no financial assistance, no right to a place to live and couldn't get work.

"In Germany, I had my own room, a monthly allowance of 300 euros and I've been working in a restaurant for a week. I believe in my future again," he says.