Refugees who do make it to Samos find themselves effectively detained on the island, as regulations introduced in 2016 stipulate that asylum seekers have to wait for a decision on their application before moving to the mainland. Refugees face a huge backlog in waiting for an interview with the authorities to plead their case. There are also long delays in hearing the outcome of this interview.
Mathilde Albert, co-ordinator at the Refugee Law Clinic Berlin, an NGO that provides legal assistance, has become used to a dysfunctional system. “The notification for the interview is usually for 2021 or 2022, and then usually the interview will be postponed,” she explains. “On average, people have to wait at least a year for the interview.”
The situation has not been improved by the pandemic. The Greek Asylum Service (GAS), which manages applications, paused all asylum applications during their closure from March to May. Although they used this time to catch up on outstanding applications – Albert says that hundreds of decisions were issued on Samos in just a week – interviews for most refugees are yet to resume. According to Albert, the situation is a “big mess.”
She acknowledges that clearing the backlog on decisions was beneficial, especially because some refugees had been waiting since 2018, but there are “maybe five lawyers on the island so there were many rejections and people could not appeal”.
Suspending interviews has been even more disruptive. Refugee Law Clinic Berlin has worked with one refugee from Togo who arrived in January 2019 and has still not been provided with an interview date. His interview has been cancelled four times already.
“Many people I know whose interview was supposed to happen in March or April in the previous lockdown, haven’t been rescheduled yet,” Albert explains. “They are stuck with no improvement in the situation and no results on their claim so it is a very unfair system.”
Both Jean and Victor have been on the island for around a year. Both their interviews were scheduled for December, but it is unclear whether they will go ahead.
In Samos, interviews are run by the GAS with the support of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO). According to Albert, GAS caseworkers only had access to five computers during lockdown, and there are only twenty-five employees to manage all applications from Samos.
openDemocracy put these claims to the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum but, again, received no response.
“The worst mistake I ever made”
Greece’s latest national lockdown, in which citizens can only venture outside in particular time slots, will last until at least the end of November. The UNHCR told openDemocracy that it has been advocating “for a full inclusion of refugees in Greece in the national health surveillance, preparedness and response plans” and that efforts should be focused on moving “people who are immunocompromised and at high risk”.
Yet there are no assurances that the refugees on Samos will be treated differently this time. Jean came to Samos to escape war-torn Cameroon, but he says he now wishes he stayed at home.
“I wouldn’t advise my enemy to come here. I prefer you die in a war in your country than come here.”
“It’s the worst mistake I ever made in my life.”
*Names have been changed