In Greece, lack of legal aid leaves migrants and refugees guessing
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.