UNHCR urges Greece to strengthen safeguards in draft asylum law

A young woman and her two daughters, all refugees from Iraq, play together in their bedroom inside their apartment in the town of Trikala, central Greece. © UNHCR/Orestis Seferoglou

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, appreciates efforts by Greece to overhaul its strained asylum system but is deeply concerned that proposed legislative amendments will weaken refugee protection in the country, and are being rushed through Parliament.

UNHCR agrees that Greece’s asylum system must be strengthened as a matter of priority. However, a draft law submitted to parliament this week – after just four working days of public consultation – will reduce safeguards for people seeking international protection and will create additional pressure on the overstretched capacity of administrative and judicial authorities.

“The proposed changes will endanger people who need international protection,” said UNHCR’s Representative in Greece, Philippe Leclerc. “Greece has the opportunity to adopt a robust law through a genuine and constructive consultation to ensure fair and efficient asylum procedures in the country. This is an objective we are here to support.”

Instead, the draft law puts an excessive burden on asylum seekers and focuses on punitive measures. It introduces tough requirements that an asylum seeker could not reasonably be expected to fulfil. For instance, if they do not observe certain procedural formalities, their asylum claim will be considered implicitly withdrawn and rejected, without being fully examined. In some circumstances, it would be so difficult to appeal against a rejection that the right to an effective remedy enshrined in international and EU law, would be seriously compromised.

This may lead to asylum seeker’s rights being denied or without the ability to access them and applicants’ international protection needs not being examined. It may also jeopardize a person’s protection from refoulement, if he or she is, ultimately, returned to a country where his or her life or freedom would be threatened.

A significant number of the draft law’s provisions will add to the burden on administrative authorities which already face serious difficulties to respond, and so increase delays. For example, the draft law introduces four types of asylum seeker cards with multiple validity periods – varying from 15 days to 30 days. This would increase the workload for authorities to issue decisions and cards but mainly to renew them in such short timeframes.

UNHCR notes with concern that some provisions may severely limit the right to family unity. This includes the narrowing of the definition of “family members” to exclude families established after people left their country of origin, during or after flight or in refugee camps. It would exclude, for example, children born under these circumstances from the legal guarantees. UNHCR considers that this provision disregards the circumstances of forced displacement in which applicants may have stayed for a protracted period of time outside the country of origin before reaching the EU.

UNHCR is further concerned that the draft law introduces extensive provisions for the applicants to be detained, and increases the maximum time limit of detention from three to 18 months. The detention of asylum-seekers should be a measure of last resort, apply only for as short a period as possible, be justified on a limited number of grounds, and only when necessary, reasonable and proportionate. Alternatives to detention should always be considered first, based on an assessment of the individual’s particular circumstances. Failure to do so could render detention arbitrary.

UNHCR notes with concern that unaccompanied children and other vulnerable asylum-seekers could be examined under accelerated procedures. UNHCR recommends that specific consideration be given to the situation of unaccompanied children and vulnerable groups and that their cases are prioritized and referred to appropriate services.

Despite the need for strengthening the integration and self-reliance of refugees through longer-term solutions, UNHCR is seriously concerned that a draft provision forces recognized refugees to leave their accommodation within two months of the new law coming into force. This is a drastic departure from the present policy of six months accommodation from recognition and the possibility to extend vulnerable categories or due to the schooling of children. In the UNHCR-managed ESTIA programme alone, up to 7,000 beneficiaries of international protection could be affected in the middle of winter and would leave large numbers of refugees without any support and at risk of homelessness. Moreover, certain categories of people face extreme risk due to their physical or mental condition and if they are not received by a relevant state institution, their life could be in danger.

At present, the three-member Independent Appeals Committees is composed of two judges and an independent expert with expertise in refugee law. A proposed amendment replaces the expert with a third judge. The current composition of the Appeals Committees, with the combination of judges and independent experts in refugee law, adds value and contributes to the efficiency of the appeal stage, allowing the faster examination of cases while maintaining high quality standards. The proposed change is unnecessary and carries the risk of creating further delays in the functioning of the Committees and lead to an increased backlog.

“We call on the Greek government and the Hellenic Parliament to allow for a meaningful and inclusive process to ensure that the new asylum legislation guarantees, both in theory and in practice, the fundamental right to seek and enjoy asylum,” Leclerc said.

Greece, with crucial EU support, must also prioritize the rapid increase in the asylum authorities’ capacity and introduce a mechanism for the continuous evaluation of the asylum system’s efficiency.

UNHCR stands ready to work with the Greek government towards the establishing of fair and fast national procedures which would allow for an efficient asylum system in line with international and EU standards.