Refugees form a queue in Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border. Photo by: Natalia Tsoukala /  Caritas International / CC BY-NC-ND

Most questions that international nongovernmental organizations get from refugees and migrants sheltering in Greece these days have to do with how they can get out. Aid officials working on the ground told Devex they often are asked, “How long will I be here? When can I get out of Greece?” or “ What is going to happen to me and my family?”

Now several years into the refugee crisis in Europe, basic humanitarian needs such as food and shelter are no longer the primary concern. Instead, many of the 60,000 migrants and refugees in Greece need legal help. Protection, including counseling, dissemination of information and legal representation have now become a fundamental requirement for the refugees. Asylum-seekers need to learn how to file and support their claims, which can take years to process. Victims of crimes need to know how they can seek justice. Nearly everyone needs to know what rights they have to move on from Greece.

“We all see the situation now evolving more towards being a protection crisis, rather than a humanitarian crisis,” Kiriakos Giaglis, director of Danish Refugee Council Greece, told Devex. “There are not enough possibilities to give individual refugees access to free legal aid, if they need one.”

For organizations seeking to help, legal aid poses an enormous challenge. NGOs must confront language barriers, limited funding, logistical obstacles, and an overwhelmed court system. In that context, many are focusing their efforts on appeals alone, hoping to pick up the most difficult or needy cases.

A difficult context

Refugees in Greece are scattered across camps and cities throughout the country, each settlement with a different social, political and legal scenario. There are currently over 60,000 persons of concern in the country, spread out between approximately 50 sites.

The crisis has been subject to major political changes. In March, the European Union signed a deal with Turkey in hopes of stemming the inflow of migrants to the continent. Arrivals intensified in the months leading to implementation of the deal and some NGOs pulled out in protest, removing their support from the Greek authorities.

Migration and asylum policies changed as a result of the agreement, but the decentralized Greek geography impeded the information from flowing out systematically. Many migrants and refugees didn’t have access to information about how the deal would impact them.

There is also a different understanding about the asylum processes in each island as well as on the mainland. “You have many sites, but many of them don’t have the right capacity to provide legal aid and information”, said Giaglis.

Claire Whelan, protection and advocacy adviser at Norwegian Refugee Council, offers one example of the variation: there are almost 3,000 refugees in Chios, where she is based, and only seven lawyers, not including volunteers.

Giaglis believes that the Greek government has increasingly prioritized the dissemination of information and legal aid by partnering with international and local organizations to increase their effort. Once the EU-Turkey deal became clearer at operational level, for example, the Greek authorities generated information products (such as how to apply or eligibility criteria, process) and worked with the support of the U.N. humanitarian agency and NGOs to disseminate it to asylum-seekers.

Legal aid so far

The Greek government has limited capacity on the ground for legal aid and relies on UNHCR and NGO capacities. Although the Greek asylum department has increased its technical and human resources to process faster applications, the process remains slow.

Some relief groups are prioritizing legal aid for the refugees at appeals level. The UNHCR has provided 52 lawyers to help with refugees’ and migrants’ cases in the appeals stage, said UNHCR spokesperson Roland Schoenbauer.

Meanwhile, Whelan of NRC said other protection priorities are falling into a legal gap. “There are very few actors that are supporting civil documentation process that people need assistance with” she said.

For many situations that haven’t yet reached the appeals level “it is about relying on someone who speaks the language” and passing the message on to the other refugees with questions, said Gauri van Gulik, deputy director for Europe at Amnesty International.

Micheal Kientzle, co-founder of the Mobile Info Team, a team of volunteers who provide information on practices and asylum procedures, adds that receiving legal aid or information often depends on “how insistent the people are.”

To address language barriers, authorities and NGOs are providing translators and interpreters, some volunteers, and partnering with local NGOs.

DRC, for example, has partnered with local rights NGO Aitima to “expand their capacities to provide counseling and protection assistance to vulnerable asylum-seekers and migrants.”  

Another example is METAdrasi, a local NGO that has worked with UNHCR and the Greek authorities, among others, to provide interpretation services for approximately 342,687 people of concern.

Implications for refugees

The lack of a systemic approach to provision of legal aid has affected the most vulnerable groups of refugees. A recent report by Human Rights Watch on unaccompanied minors found that Greece “lacks a comprehensive protection system for child asylum-seekers and migrants,” often resulting in the detention of these children. None of the children interviewed by HRW while in police custody were aware they had a legal representative.

Kienztle, who has been working on the ground for almost two years, recounted the story of a pregnant woman who, at pre-registration level in June 2016, was not informed that mentioning her pregnancy to the authorities would have secured her an early interview. The consequence of not receiving the right information resulted in her having to wait until March 2017. She approached the Mobile Info Team to get more information, which she received, but it is not clear whether her case was taken up by lawyers or not. For the moment, she is living in a crowded camp that poses a number of health and safety concerns for a pregnant woman.

Refugees may also miss vital legal opportunities if they lack clear information. For example, a pre registration exercise conducted by the Greek Asylum Service with UNHCR’s support last June was misunderstood, civil society groups told Devex. About 28,000 people were registered, or approximately 50 percent of the number of refugees present on mainland Greece at the time.

Schoenbauer of UNHCR in Greece told Devex that in an “environment marked by uncertainty and terribly long waiting periods for the people who want to restart their lives, there were rumors”. Misinformation and lack of information resulted in two outcomes: Too many people went to pre-registration places, making it impossible to serve them all efficiently. Meanwhile, many others avoided pre-registering altogether for fear of being deported or detained.

“Many people decided not to pre-register, because they were not informed of what that meant,” Giaglis said. “Some were scared they could be detained”.

Possible solutions

Giaglis believes that the best way forward is to direct funding toward local integration programming.

“What we need is more long-term funding that can support the Greek asylum system and speed up the process and cover the gap that exists with local integration”.

Increasing the numbers of lawyers and staff could increase the chances of tackling individual cases and protecting vulnerable groups such as children and disabled people. It would additionally aid the authorities to speed up processes of relocation and family reunification.

Organizations such as DRC and UNHCR have been intensifying efforts to involve local organizations, such as METAdrasi and Aitima, that are familiar with the Greek legal system and can provide expertise on the local context.

Yet while organizations working on the ground now recognize that legal aid and information is a priority, the impact is unclear. Advocates hope to see more and better coordination between organizations and authorities as well as more and clearer communication to the people of concern.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

  • Virginia Vigliar

    Virginia is a freelance journalist and editor based in Barcelona. She has worked in the development sector in Malawi and Kenya and Somalia before returning to Europe, where she gained experience in the United Kingdom, Norway and Spain. She is the managing editor of Words in the Bucket, an online platform discussing human rights, gender, development and environment issues.