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Under the net

Under the net

Helping asylum-seekers on the Isle of Lésvos


The NGO European Lawyers in Lésvos works with asylum-seekers on the Greek island – and beyond – based on the core belief that access to a lawyer is fundamental to upholding the rule of law and ensuring that human rights are respected. From first-hand experience, Cormac Little SC describes its work.

Have you seen The Swimmers? This recently released Netflix movie tells the true story of two sisters who fled Syria during the civil war and wind up living in Germany, via Lésvos. Reaching this Greek island is a key route for migrants seeking protection in Europe. It’s not just Syrians who attempt the often-dangerous sea crossing from Turkey, but (as shown in the film) Afghans, Somalians, and other nationalities also fleeing violence in their own countries. Upon arrival in Lésvos, these migrants seek asylum/international protection from the Greek authorities. This is when a non-governmental organisation, such as European Lawyers in Lésvos (ELIL), becomes involved.

Under the net

Under the net

Established around seven years ago, ELIL’s core activity is the provision of expert legal assistance to asylum-seekers in Greece (and, more recently, Poland). Underpinning this service is the core belief that access to a lawyer is fundamental to both upholding the rule of law and, also, ensuring that human rights are respected. During a sabbatical from William Fry, I was fortunate to have had the opportunity of spending three weeks working in ELIL’s office in Mytilene, the largest town on Lésvos, last September.

The sandcastle

Under the 1951 Geneva Convention on the protection of migrants, asylum is a fundamental right and must be recognised by all signatories, including each EU member state. The EU’s Common European Asylum System (CEAS) establishes agreed standards to ensure that asylum-seekers in the EU are treated equally and in a transparent/fair manner. In theory, no matter where in the EU someone applies for asylum, the outcome should be similar. An asylum applicant essentially needs to show that he/she is being persecuted based on nationality, ethnic origin, gender, religion, or sexual orientation (and so on) throughout his/her home country.

A key plank of the CEAS is the so-called Dublin III Regulation, the aim of which is to determine the EU member state responsible for examining an application, while ensuring speedy access to the relevant procedures. Normally, this is the country where the asylum-seeker first arrives in the EU. The ‘system’, therefore, places huge pressure on countries on the EU’s eastern and southern borders, particularly Greece and Italy.

Flight from the enchanter

The Syrian civil war has its origins in the Arab Spring, a series of protests across North Africa and the Middle East that occurred around a decade ago. These led to the overthrow of regimes in countries such as Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Unrest began in Syria in spring 2011, with pro-democracy marches first taking place in the southern city of Deraa.

The violent response of the security services led to nationwide protests, with many demanding the departure of President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has ruled Syria since 1971. With the Assad regime continuing to use brutal measures to suppress protests, opposition militias representing various factions, including the jihadist group ISIS, were formed. By 2012, the violence had expanded into civil war.

This conflict triggered the flight of many Syrian residents to bordering countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. In 2015, over a million migrants arrived in Europe – many of whom were fleeing the Syrian civil war. This huge increase, coupled with the distressing news regarding those who sadly perished during the often-hazardous sea crossings, was top of the European news agenda, with the result that the EU came under huge pressure to act.

The sea, the sea

In March 2016, the EU and Turkey agreed a joint approach to the migrant situation. The ‘deal’ contained three main initiatives. Firstly, Turkey would try to stem the clandestine flow of asylum-seekers to five Greek islands – Lésvos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos. Secondly, anyone who arrived on these Aegean islands irregularly from Turkey could be deported.

Finally, for every Syrian returned from these islands, EU member states would accept a Syrian who had remained in Turkey. In exchange, the EU gave the Ankara government €6 billion to improve the humanitarian situation of refugees in Turkey, while also granting visa-free travel within the EU for Turkish citizens.

While the EU/Turkey ‘deal’ did greatly reduce the numbers crossing to the five islands irregularly, very few migrants have been deported. This is because Turkey, in March 2020, began refusing to accept migrants returning from Greece, perhaps taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The chances of applicants from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh being granted asylum were significantly weakened by a June 2021 joint ministerial decision (JMD) of the Greek Government to designate Turkey as a safe haven.

When claiming asylum in Greece, nationals from those countries must first show that it is not safe for them to remain in Turkey. Only if this is proven will the Greek authorities examine the eligibility of an applicant’s claim based on the risks he/she faces in his/her homeland.

Given that Syrians, Afghans, and Somalians are among the nationalities most often seeking asylum in Greece, allied to the fact that the vast majority of asylum-seekers in Greece arrive from Turkey (with Istanbul being a key nodal point for ‘people-smugglers’), the JMD has clearly had a dampening effect on the numbers of successful applications.

The nice and the good

At its narrowest point, Lésvos lies only 5.5km from the Turkish coast. It is an obvious point of access for those seeking protection in the EU. At about 1,600 km², the island is only slightly larger than Co Leitrim. However, here the geographic comparison ends, as Lésvos has approximately 400km of coastline.

Indeed, after Crete and Eubeoa/Evia, Lésvos is the third-largest Greek island and has a population of around 85,000. Its economy is primarily based on agriculture – olive-growing is the main source of revenue. The manufacture of soap and ouzo, Greece’s aniseed-flavoured national liqueur, are also important income-generators.

Lésvos’s most famous native is perhaps Sappho, widely regarded as one of the greatest ever lyric poets, who lived on the island from around 630 to 570 BC. Although it has generally tended to attract fewer visitors than better-known Greek islands such as Corfu, Rhodes and Santorini, tourism is not an insignificant part of Lésvos’s economy.

In September 2015, asylum-seekers from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq began reaching the eastern shores of Lésvos – from Molyvos in the north to Mytilene in the south. That year, the island saw the arrival of more than half a million migrants.

Many of those reaching Lésvos ended up living in the Moria migrant camp. This facility, which was intended for 2,500 to 3,000 residents had, by the summer of 2020, a population of around 20,000. Reputedly, this made the camp one of the most densely populated places in the world. The facility was destroyed by fire in September 2020 and not rebuilt. Many of its former residents were transferred to the Greek mainland.

Although the annual number of migrants arriving on the five Aegean islands has greatly decreased from its peak of 800,000 in 2015 to almost 13,000 last year, the islands remain an important access point for those seeking asylum in Europe.

They also constitute a buffer zone between Turkey and Europe, with asylum-seekers typically being required to remain in situ while waiting for their claims to be evaluated. This has meant that thousands of migrants have been trapped in camps with harsh living conditions.

At present, there are around 2,300 asylum-seekers living in the Mavrovouni migrant camp, just north of Mytilene. This camp is due to be replaced later this year by a purpose-built EU-funded camp, with space for up to 5,000 people, at Vastria in northern Lésvos. Critics complain that this facility is located in a remote forest area (about 4km from Mytilene) that is prone to wildfires.

Time of the angels

The vast number of asylum-seekers arriving required the Greek authorities to process thousands of applications with limited resources. The Greek State does not provide legal aid to asylum-seekers at first instance, meaning that most attend their initial interview without having consulted a lawyer.

With the overall aim of addressing this difficulty, at least on Lésvos, ELIL was founded in June 2016 by the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE) and the Deutscher Anwaltverein (DAV – the German Bar Association), with the Conseil National des Barreaux (French Bar Council) joining three years later. This NGO is supported by 47 other European bar associations, including the Law Society of Ireland.

The spirit of ELIL is driven by the belief that all asylum-seekers should receive free, high-quality assistance from an independent experienced lawyer before their first asylum interview. (ELIL does not advise on appeals to the first-instance decision of the Greek authorities).

A month after its foundation, ELIL, with support from both the CCBE and DAV, negotiated guaranteed access to the Moria camp. Overcoming some hurdles along the way, ELIL has provided legal support to over 18,000 asylum-seekers since its foundation. In 2020 and 2021, nearly 70% of those assisted have been granted asylum, compared with the overall Greek average of 32%.

ELIL’s team comprises full-time and volunteer lawyers, interpreters, and other support staff. The Greek asylum authorities operate accelerated timeframes with short notice periods, so the Lésvos team must react quickly to prepare asylum-seekers for their interviews. The full-time lawyers need to be fluent in both Greek and English, given that ELIL’s working language is the latter, but any engagement with the relevant authorities needs to be in the former.

By time with this organisation was divided into two main tasks – consultations with asylum-seekers in conjunction with a Greek colleague, plus asylum interview preparation/research.

Typically, there is the lack of a common language, so consultations must be conducted through interpreters. ELIL makes extensive use of technology – it is not uncommon to meet an asylum-seeker ‘face to face’, with the interpreter ‘dialling-in’ via WhatsApp or Zoom. Clearly, consultations using interpreters are twice as long as those without.

Moreover, as asylum-seekers are asked to recount traumatic events in their lives, ELIL lawyers need to show compassion and sensitivity while still trying to elicit the required information. For any consultation I attended with asylum-seekers from Somalia, Afghanistan or Syria, the main focus (due to the JMD) was on admissibility – that is, his/her experiences while living in Turkey and why this country is not safe.

ELIL has expanded its operations beyond Lésvos, opening offices on Samos (2020), Athens (2021), and Thessalonica (2022). These developments reflect the fact that, in 2021, for the first time since the beginning of the ongoing situation, the number of those crossing into mainland Greece via its northern land border with Turkey exceeded the numbers of people arriving on the relevant Aegean islands.

Responding to the pressure on the Polish immigration system due to the large numbers of Ukrainians fleeing as a result of last year’s Russian invasion, ELIL opened an office in Warsaw last summer. More recently, ELIL has begun assisting asylum-seekers who have crossed the Poland-Belarus border.

Message to the planet

More broadly, recognising that the overall immigration system needs repair, the European Commission proposed a ‘New Pact on Migration and Asylum’ in 2020. The purpose behind this proposed framework is to make sure that migration is managed in a humane manner, while addressing the concerns of certain member states that worry that the number of arrivals may exceed their capacities.

However, critics of the New Pact argue that this proposal focuses (like the JMD) on returns of migrants, while outsourcing controls to third countries. Moreover, its detractors also claim that the planned accelerated procedures would undermine the protection of human rights. Indeed, the big lesson that I learned during my time in Lésvos is that the EU must always remember, given the trauma that so many asylum-seekers have endured, to approach each individual situation in a compassionate and humanitarian manner.

Leaving aside the debate on how best to address it, Europe’s migrant crisis is, sadly, far from over. This means that, unfortunately, the laudable efforts of ELIL and other NGOs will likely be required for years to come. Various Irish solicitors have spent time volunteering with ELIL – it would be great to see others follow suit. To find out more, visit www.europeanlawyersinlesvos.eu/volunteer-with-us.

Cormac Little SC is a partner at William Fry LLP, the Law Society’s representative on the Irish delegation to the CCBE, and a member of the Society’s EU and International Affairs Committee.

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