By NIKOLAJ NIELSEN/
The Greek government is giving cash incentives for rejected asylum seekers on the islands to forgo their legal rights to appeal their cases.
Some €1,000 and free plane tickets home are now part of a largely EU-financed package to send them packing as quickly as possible.
“This is quite complicated and quite immoral,” a Greek lawyer working for Save the Children, an international NGO, told EUobserver on Tuesday (2 May).
The move is part of a larger effort to return people to Turkey and free up administrative bottlenecks, but the plan has generated criticism from human rights defenders who say asylum seekers are being pushed into taking the money.
People have five days to decide whether to take the cash, with reports emerging that even that short delay was not being respected by authorities. Previously, people were entitled to the assistance even if they appealed.
The scheme only applies to those in so-called eu hotspots on the Chios, Kos, Leros, Lesvos, and Samos islands, where arrivals are screened, given that Turkey does not accept people back from mainland Greece.
Greek minister of migration Ioannis Mouzalas has said the financial bait was needed to prevent bogus claimants from abusing the asylum system.
The new rules on excluding people who appeal their cases, imposed last month, also come after the European Commission pressured Athens into shortening its appeal process and removing administrative barriers to send more people home.
The EU-Turkey deal last year was supposed to ensure that new asylum arrivals whose applications have been declared unfounded would be returned to the country.
But only around 1,500 have been sent back since its launch, with the Greek appeals system consistently ruling in favour of initially rejected asylum seekers over broader concerns that Turkey was not safe.
The Geneva-based International Organisation of Migration (IOM), which has been running the programme to assist people returning home from Greece since 2010, will now have to follow the latest change.
Also known as Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration, the programme has so far helped over 35,000 since 2010.
Most are sent back to Pakistan, followed by Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. Anyone was entitled to it, regardless of whether they had appealed their cases.
The scheme is largely funded by the EU Commission and topped off by a much smaller contribution from the Greek interior ministry.
The Commission has yet to respond to queries if it had played a part in the new rule that now excludes people who decide to appeal rejected applications. But Oxfam, an NGO, says the policy change means people are having to gamble away their future without being fully informed of their rights.
EASO, the EU asylum agency, has been accused of piling on the pressure for them to forgo their legal right to appeal before the five-day deadline.
A number of EASO agents on the Greek islands were also said to be rapidly shuffling people into an asylum procedure that squandered their chances of international protection.
NGOs told to leave islands
The whole appears to be part of bigger plan to squeeze asylum-seeker rights on the islands and get them out of Greece as fast as possible.
It also comes on the heels of a new plan that aims to boot NGOs from the islands.
“Many NGOs will longer be on the islands after July, it means there is going to be a lot less scrutiny and a lot less visibility on what is going on as well,” said Claire Whelan from the Norwegian Refugee Council, an independent humanitarian organisation.
NGOs working in the medical field in the Vial hotspot in Chios island have already been replaced by the Greek army and the Greek Red Cross.
All were informed earlier this year that DG ECHO, the EU Commission’s humanitarian branch, would no longer fund them. Instead, the money will be coming from the Commission’s interior and security department, DG Home.
“One of the biggest gaps we see, that remains, is access to legal assistance and legal counseling. And I don’t know if that will be funded under DG Home and the government,” the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Whelan said.