Legal aid is not only asylum interview preparation, but also bus tickets for medical appointments, colouring books and felt-tip parrots, conversations in 3 different languages with the help of interpreters, and lots of cups of coffee.
The asylum process doesn’t exist in isolation, and people seeking asylum continue to have a broad variety of needs, experiences and wishes, both related and unrelated to their legal status.
Nowhere is that understood better than at A.Ss.I.S.T, who work on the island of Chios. Interview preparation involves recounting some of the most traumatic stories imaginable, and collecting evidence with the help of lawyers such that these lived experiences can be recounted as accurately and credibly as the applicant remembers within their pivotal asylum interview. Children are often brought to these appointments, for lack of anywhere safe to leave them in the camps.
The very nature of a child’s family’s precarious legal status means that no aspect of their upbringing is truly secure. In practice, this might look like a child drawing houses and wobbly stick-people representing homes and family members they may never see again in one room, while in the other room their parents are recounting experiences of violence, persecution and loss in an interview preparation session. There is no stronger reminder that no parent should be forced to bring up one’s child inside a crowded, dangerous camp, and yet, this is an all-too-common phenomenon.
This isn't the only hurdle asylum seekers and their families are forced to navigate. In a meeting with A.Ss.I.S.T.’s Greek lawyers, I was told about another legal barrier which many parents face - gaining legal custody or sole guardianship of children. This may be necessary if one parent has died (which is often difficult to prove), or is separated from the family by borders, and is a notoriously complicated and bureaucratic process in and of itself.
At one time, there were approximately 7,000 asylum seekers in Vial refugee camp on the island of Chios, a camp which was designed for just a few hundred people. Now, with pushbacks* at almost every possible border leading to reduced arrivals, and most of Vial's residents being transferred to the mainland, those who remain in the camp often have been left in the most complicated and precarious legal circumstances, requiring assistance with appeals or subsequent applications, where the margin for error is non-existent. Despite this, the cruelty of the system seems, if possible, even more evident now, without the (baseless) excuse that Europe is being ‘overwhelmed with new arrivals’. This is no longer 2015, when more than 1 million people sought safety on European shores; as of October 2021, official estimates suggest ‘just’ 7300 new arrivals in Greece this year.
What remains consistent however, is the inadequacy of the current system which has led to a continual denial of asylum seekers’ basic rights.
For example, those who speak less common or tribal languages can legally be forced to conduct their asylum interviews in the ‘official’ language of the country, even if they don’t speak this language whatsoever.
Asylum seekers from Ghana who speak only Twi can be forced to conduct their asylum interviews in English if a translator cannot be found, and asylum seekers from Senegal who speak native Foula can be forced to do their interviews in French.
Another example of such inadequacies involved the case of a man who had experienced severe persecution, and as such had a very strong asylum case, but nevertheless was rejected after his asylum interview. This man spoke excellent English, but had a strong accent, which caused the caseworker, for whom English was not their native language, to miss and therefore fail to transcribe any of what the man had recounted in his interview. The transcript showed that the same questions were asked four or five times, and yet none of what the man reported that he had answered with had been written down. The caseworker even wrote a note during the interview to say that they could not understand what was being said. Nevertheless, rather than postpone the interview until someone who was able to understand his testimony, and provide a true opportunity for this person to express themselves and access their rights, he was simply rejected, blatantly violating the principle of a fair hearing.
A different story which was recounted by the Greek lawyers working at A.Ss.I.S.T. was about a family of six children, two of which were adult daughters, from Iraq. Despite the entire family having had identical profiles and shared lived experience of persecution, one of the six was rejected, seemingly without any rationale.
These anecdotes don’t even begin to address what happens to those who are rejected for asylum. On the island of Kos, people who have received second rejections upon appeal have been detained for over a year, without any knowledge of when they will be released, or whether they will be deported. Indefinite detention is a rights violation, and the law pertaining to this states that a person can only be detained for 100 days. During the pandemic, there has been no possibility or perspective of deportation, making any such rationale irrelevant, and yet detention has continued. Under the (problematic) EU-Turkey deal signed in 2016, Turkey was obligated to accept the return of anyone who crossed the border from Turkey irregularly into Greece. In practice, this was not implemented, and since March 2020 Turkey has wholly refused to accept any such returns.
In addition, through their recent Joint Ministerial Decision, Greece has unilaterally designated Turkey to be a 'safe' country for asylum seekers who have fled Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Somalia, in addition to Syria.
What this means is that asylum seekers in Greece arriving from these countries are assumed to be 'inadmissible' under the Greek asylum procedure. As such, asylum seekers arriving from these territories have to go through an admissibility process to decide whether their claim is even eligible to be considered in Greece. It is automatically assumed that Turkey would be a safe country for them, and asylum seekers are expected to prove otherwise if they wish to have their asylum claim considered admissible under the Greek system.
This is despite the fact that, for example, many asylum seekers are survivors of gender based violence, whilst Turkey has withdrawn from the Istanbul Convention (Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence), an international agreement for the protection of womens’ rights. Given that in practice, those whose claims are declared inadmissible are not deported to Turkey, many become effectively homeless, stranded in Greece with no rights to housing, education or cash assistance, sleeping in parks or in makeshift shelters. Many of those who have had their rights undermined in these ways could never have rectified these injustices, procedural violations, and willful instances of neglect without expert legal guidance. As one of the only legal actors on the island, there is no doubt that A.Ss.I.S.T.S's work is perhaps more crucial now than ever.
* (strongly alleged, with overwhelming evidence which has been denied by the authorities)
Alexa Netty is trustee and chair of the steering committee, and was SolidariTee's Executive Director from 2020-21. She wrote this account following a recent visit to A.Ss.I.S.T in Chios Greece. Alexa holds degrees in veterinary medicine, and in psychology, neuroscience and behaviour from Cambridge, which focused specifically on PTSD.