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The new law on asylum in Greece

The new controversial law on asylum that has been introduced in Greece includes sweeping changes that narrow the criteria for eligibility for refugee status and introduces several stringent provisions that, if not strictly followed, would render one’s asylum’s application void.

The government is arguing that the majority of people arriving in Greece are economic migrants who should be deported and that Greece is no longer facing a refugee crisis. According to UNHCR, however, 85 percent of people arriving are from Afghanistan, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, or other countries experiencing violent conflict.

The law is the latest in a series of measures taken by the New Democracy government to crack down on asylum-seekers. This summer, the government made it impossible for non-EU nationals to get a national health care number that would grant them access to health care. Yet, asylum-seekers no longer have access to national health care numbers. The new law will allow them to obtain foreign health cards that belong to a system that “has never been operational”.  The legislative came as refugee arrivals to Greece continue to increase to their highest numbers since 2015 — many Afghan and Syrian nationals are fleeing renewed violence at home. And conditions for refugees on the islands continue to worsen: currently, tens of thousands of people languish in overcrowded camps on islands in the Aegean Sea. Many people live in tents without access to regular health care, water, or sanitation.

Moreover,  the new law imposes continuous traps for asylum-seekers under the fear that they will not have access to the process. The law also changes the definition of “vulnerable.” Victims of violence, pregnant women and unaccompanied minors have specific protections and procedures. However, under the new law, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is no longer explicitly qualified as a vulnerability.

Victims of torture, rape or other significant acts of violence are still identified as vulnerable, but require certification from a public hospital, military hospital, or other public health care provider.

Another worrisome factor for human rights groups is that the new law introduces amendments that increase opportunities to detain asylum-seekers whose initial claims were rejected. The new law extends the amount of time that an asylum-seeker can be detained from three up to 18 months, the maximum time allowed by the EU. 

Most human rights organizations including Amnesty International - Greece have criticized severely the new legislation. According to them, the new law will result in major rights violations, making it more difficult for people to access protection, leaving thousands in limbo, and doing nothing to improve the situation for almost 100,000 refugees and migrants in Greece.

It is noteworthy that United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR)- Greece stated that this law could lead to denied rights, and asylum applications being denied without people getting full access to international protection. The new law also makes the process of appealing a rejection more difficult. Asylum seekers will need to provide complicated legal documents to find out why they were turned down, and they have no access to free legal counsel from the state to navigate the process. 

Under the previous system, the committees hearing appeals to rejected asylum claims were composed of two Greek judges and an independent expert trained by UNHCR. Now, the committees will only be made up of one or two judges – a change that UNHCR and the Greek Bar Association warn will create further delays and make more of a backlog. 

To summarise, this law is going to aggravate the system, since a lot more people will be left without documents and there will be a lot more obstacles for anyone to access asylum. And that will mean added pressure on services already at breaking point.

ANTIGONE - Information and Documentation Center on Racism, Ecology, Peace and Non-Violence Greece