Greek Forum of Refugees – the conditions are far from being human

ProMosaik’s Denise Nanni and Milena Rampoldi conducted their next interview — about refugees and asylum seekers in Greece —with Ismini Karydopoulou and Alice Fevre of the Greek Forum of Refugees in Athens. As stated on its website, the aim of the association is to create a Panhellenic network of individuals, legal professionals and communities, working to support asylum seekers, political refugees and stateless persons, as well as any others who may meet the criteria set by the Convention of Geneva and the protocols attached to it, or the Greek framework for the protection.

What are the main difficulties that asylum seekers have to face?
This is a press release published by the GFR on the reasons why European state members should not return Asylum seekers to Greece (It explained the asylum seekers situation). 
2011 vs. 2016:  different situation, nothing better for refugees in Greece
On the 8th of December 2016 the European Commission recommended to transfer asylum seekers, that will entered Greece after 15th of March 2017, back to Greece. According to the European Commission, “significant progress were achieved by Greece”. The Greek Forum of Refugees is wondering: what are the achieved changes for refugees in Greece?We, refugees in Greece settled here for years, can testify that the actual situation is not better than 2011, when the Dublin transfers from other Member States  to Greece have been suspended due to systemic deficiencies in the Greek asylum system¹.
2011: detention without legal ground was the rule for refugees and asylum seekers. 2016: After the Eu-Turkey deal, people are staying at the hotspots in the islands, with no possibility to leave the island apart from specific authorization. In theory, these are not detention centers but we wonder where is the freedom of movement?
In addition, the conditions are far from being human².
2011: no measures were taken by the state to accommodate refugees, leading them to live in the street being constantly harassed by the police or victim of racist attack. 2016: the European Commission congratulates the increase of the overall reception capacity. What are the conditions of these accomodations? Asylum seekers are being hosted in appalling and overcrowded reception facilities all over Greece. People are staying under tents, while a few live in containers or inappropriate buildings. The conditions are far from ideal while people are exposed to weather conditions, diseases, incidents of attacks. Vulnerable people (pregnant women, newborns, people with chronic health and psychological issues, disabled, elderly people, unaccompanied minors, victims of torture) are also living under these conditions. Furthermore it is wide known that many refugees live in the streets, the “urban area” and the shelters capacities are not increased. Due to the lack of State and European support, abandoned refugees are exposed to exploitation, we are also witnessing sexual exploitation of minors and young adults in the center of Athens with no protection. Are this accommodations acceptable regarding the standards set by the EU law?
2016: Education is an issue in Greece as very few refugee children can access schools. Even if there is legal provision on access to education, Greek schools do not have the means to respond to the challenge of the increasing number of pupils especially after the austerity measures  that Greece is facing.
2011: the asylum procedure was undertaken by the police services (Aliens Directorate), asylum seekers waited for years for a decision and many are still waiting…
2016: 3 years after the new Asylum Service was established³, its capacities were increased, however practically, refugees do not see much of a difference. The access to asylum happens only by Skype, refugees are waiting for months to get a call answer to register. Within this time lapse, refugees without their applicant card are being arrested and detained. Once they get this card, they have to wait for their asylum interview after 8 months (average). The appeal authorities and committees were established in April 2016, though many appeals are pending for a year and the applicants are still waiting for the examination of their request. In total the asylum procedure is now taking approximately a year, without taking into account the appeal procedure. Is that better than before? Is it enough to say that the the asylum system in Greece is effective?
Under the limit of a press release it is impossible to further analyse. Many reports by experts are exposing and warning against the situation. They are public and accessible.
We kindly ask EU members if they wish to have on their conscience the return of asylum seeker in this context?
¹Following judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).
² See more in the study: The implementation of the hotspots in Italy and Greece.
³ See more in  the report : Asylum policies and practices impairing the access to international protection in Greece.
What are the main obstacles to their social inclusion?
The main obstacles for refugees in Greece are the lack of opportunities to either learn the language or to find employment for them. Furthermore their social inclusion is very difficult because of the country’s economic crisis and the lack of relevant information. On our website there is a short film entitled “Integration Now“ focussing on this issue.
The campaign highlights the experience and position of refugees themselves on integration in the Greek society. The short film features the voices of refugees and community leaders discussing integration in Greek society and participation in a democratic system. The state, along with citizens through dialogue with the refugees themselves, may create a harmonious coexistence, where everyone can find his place. We’d like to thank everyone who gave their time to be part of this film, and especially all refugees who generously shared their time and stories with us for #RefugeesVoice campaign. This campaign is supported by a grant from Foundation Open Society institute in cooperation with Open Society Initiative for Europe of the Open Society Foundations.
Do prejudices of the local community have a strong role? How do you address this problem?
It is a constant struggle. During the last years, Greece faced serious racism issues expressed mainly by the Golden Dawn. Because of internal political evolution (the trial of the Golden Dawn) the most serious racist crimes decreased. When refugees were crossing Greece and borders were open, Greek society was more open and in solidarity with the refugees. Actually, with many refugees staying in Greece, reactions have been diverse. For example, in some schools refugee children are addressed to, parents react in a negative way and in some others, they even prepare a welcoming party….
During the last 2 years solidarity and support have been strong. In general, at the GFR we always try to explain the reasons, why and how people are forced to flee from their countries.
Did you develop, throughout time, a successful program, an initiative that was really effective in enabling their empowerment and social inclusion?
We are actually running such a program, more focused on inclusion. In any way our main mission is to empower refugee communities for their inclusion. For the GFR refugee communities are experts, in the sense that they know better than anyone else the main issues and problems. We are trying to provide support and promotion of their activities.
Do you cooperate with local authorities and institutions? If yes, how?
We are open to cooperation with all stakeholders willing to support refugees. Obviously it is an evolving situation and the ways of cooperation are different. At the same time, we have the necessary distance in order to be able to criticise.