Palestinian Refugees in Greece

Palestinian Refugees in Greece

by Karima Abdel Aziz* and Maya al-Orzza**

Introduction

Due to its geographical location, Greece was the first European Union (EU) member state that many refugees fleeing Syria reached. Its proximity to Syria and also to Lebanon and Turkey - two of the main receiving countries of refugees from Syria - by land and sea resulted in a mass influx of refugees into Greece. Along with thousands of Syrians, a high number of Palestinian refugees from Syria ended up in Greece.1 The exact number of refugees from Syria that have entered Greece is difficult to assess accurately, as most of them did not claim asylum in Greece. Some were unable to do so due to the overload of refugees and the inaccessibility of the asylum system, while others preferred to continue to other EU countries and claim asylum there.2

The European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX) said that only six Palestinian refugees were intercepted trying to enter Greece in January 2015, while the figure rose to 488 by August 2015.3 This number quadrupled by October 2015, when 1,747 more were intercepted and numbers were still high in January 2016, with 1,142 intercepted despite the bad weather.4 However, the actual number is probably higher as many Palestinians are not intercepted, and many others do not have any form of ID, thus, they are not being included in official statistics as Palestinians. Moreover, many Palestinian refugees claim to be Syrian in order to bypass the discriminatory mechanisms and accelerate the issuance of protection.5 The European Asylum Support Office (EASO) said that at least 19,000 Palestinian refugees had applied for asylum in the EU in 2015, compared to 15,680 in 2014 and 9,590 in 2013.6 The majority of these Palestinian refugees fled from Syria, whereas there were fewer numbers of refugees fleeing other areas such as Lebanon or the Gaza Strip.7

Legal Framework

The legal framework of Greece vis-à-vis refugees is mainly based on the 1951 Convention, its 1967 Protocol, and the European Union (EU) legislation on the Common European Asylum System.8 In 2003, the EU passed the Dublin II Regulation, which provided that the processing of asylum applications must take place in the first EU country reached by refugees.9 This meant that if asylum seekers reached Greece and travelled to another EU country from there, they would be returned to Greece as it was their initial country of entry. These regulations put Greece under a lot of pressure to process asylum applications and offer shelter to the thousands of refugees fleeing Syria, especially considering the precarious economic situation of the Hellenic country these last few years. 

In 2011, however, two rulings by the EU Court of Justice concluded that the Greek detention system amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment,10 and so, other EU countries stopped sending refugees back to Greece.11 These decisions put transfers of asylum seekers based on the Dublin II Regulation on hold due to the deficiencies in the general Greek immigration system.12 

In 2015, the EU adopted two decisions based on “the recent crisis situation in the Mediterranean,” which “prompted the Union institutions to immediately acknowledge the exceptional migratory flows in that region and call for concrete measures of solidarity towards the frontline Member States.”13 These decisions provided for the relocation of 66,000 refugees from Greece to other EU member states over a period of two years.14 Unfortunately, the relocation mechanism is not advancing as planned due to resistance by other EU states to host these refugees.15

In November 2015, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia and Croatia, located between Greece and Northern Europe sealed off their borders to everyone except for Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan nationals, stranding thousands of men, women and children in Idomeni, Greece, on the border to Macedonia.16 Since Palestinian refugees from Syria are merely issued travel documents and substitute IDs but rarely Syrian citizenship or passports, even if refugees from Palestine are born in Syria, they were excluded from the groups of refugees prioritized by European countries. Only Croatia allowed entry to Palestinians on top of nationals of the three aforementioned countries.17

Instead of granting Palestinian refugees the same rights as Syrians fleeing the same war, they were prohibited from passing Greek borders due to lack of proof of Syrian nationality, as the protection measures put in place only took into account Syrian nationals, and not any of the other ethnic or national groups residing in Syria. Thus, when Europe closed its borders to all nationalities other than Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan, many Palestinian refugees from Syria, lacking proof of their former country of residence,18 proof of, in fact, fleeing exactly the same circumstances as Syrian nationals with Syrian passports, were stranded along with thousands of other refugees fleeing from other areas at the border of Macedonia.19 

Deficient Asylum System

On February 2016, with the aim of reinstating the Dublin II transfers and the proper implementation of the Common European Asylum System, the European Commission urged Greece to put in place additional measures to bring the conditions of the Greek asylum system in sync with EU standards.20 The recommendation highlighted the importance of ensuring effective access to asylum procedures to all asylum seekers throughout Greece, to reinstate appeal committees, and to ensure the opening of 50,000 fully operational reception locations to receive asylum seekers and refugees and process their claims.21

The problematic asylum system is an issue of great concern considering Greece is the first EU country reached by the majority of those fleeing Syria, including Palestinian refugees. As highlighted by two EU Court of Justice rulings, the conditions of the Greek reception locations and detention centers are very poor.22 Some of the detention facilities had no artificial lighting, heating and hot water, which left refugees in the dark and cold from the afternoon until the morning during winter. They also had limited access to toilets, lack of soap and hygiene products, poor quality of food, and insufficient medical services, blankets, shoes or clothes.23 The Greek government adopted two action plans and passed legislation aiming to address these issues, yet deficiencies still remained.24 These gaps became evident following the arrival of thousands of refugees from Syria in Greece after 2011. 

The asylum process was very hazardous, often lasting two to three years and had a very low approval rate. In 2012 for example, Greece did not approve a single asylum claim by Syrians and rejected 150. Around 43 percent of all the applications were ‘closed’ without being processed, and no decision was made on the asylum claim. 

Greek authorities have also been accused of physically abusing asylum seekers apprehended in Greek territory (land and sea); arresting and detaining asylum seekers in inadequate and overcrowded detention centers without providing them with information about their asylum claims; lack of any social support to asylum seekers and refugees; and, denying permission to work while the asylum claims were being processed, resulting in many refugees being reduced to abject poverty and reliant on humanitarian aid.25 Moreover, the Greek authorities spent significant resources in increasing border controls and reducing the influx of refugees, which could have been spent on improving the asylum system instead.26 Turkey and Greece share a border of 203 kilometers, and the Aegean Sea connects both countries by sea.27 The building of a fence of barbed wire between Greece and Turkey in 2012 forced many refugees to cross into Greece by sea instead of by land, putting their lives at risk and resulting in the deaths of many. This fence is guarded by foot patrols and watchtowers equipped with thermal vision cameras to detect human movement across the border.28

Besides the inaccessibility of the system in general, Greece has also systematically denied asylum to those fleeing from Syria and sent them back to Turkey, where they had gone first before reaching Greece. The Greek government impedes the asylum claiming process for all refugees alike as no evidence is given for the presupposition that specifically Palestinian refugees are targeted. The general situation of institutional chaos makes it hard to estimate how many Palestinian refugees currently remain in Greece. 

Photo: A refugee from Syria carrying two children arrives on a boat to the Greek island of Lesbos. (Dimitris Michalakis/Reuters)

Changes Post-2013

Greece introduced some changes to the asylum system in 2013 aiming to improve its efficiency. The Greek authorities created a new Asylum Service under the control of the Ministry of Interior and allowed asylum seekers to work. While on paper this constitutes a significant improvement, taking into account the high unemployment rate of Greece it might not make such a big difference in practice.29 Moreover, the new regulations provided that Syrian nationals could only be detained for a few days to verify their nationality, not more, and their deportations were suspended.30 These changes constitute a significant improvement compared to the old system, where asylum claims were handled by the Greek police and applicants had to report monthly to them, without any exceptions  (even for medical reasons) or they would lose their asylum applicant status.31 However, these provisions do not apply to refugees who previously resided in Syria and fled to Europe, such as Iraqis or Palestinians.32

Despite the changes, significant protection gaps remained in the Greek asylum system. The situation of refugees in Greece worsened further following the EU deal with Turkey in March 2016, which addressed the mass influx of refugees by allowing Greece to return to Turkey persons irregularly entering the Greek islands after 20 March 2016.33 This deal triggered an atmosphere of insecurity among those refugees who fled Syria and reached Greece via Turkey. Greece adopted a new law on April 2016 in order to facilitate the implementation of this deal.34 

This deal involves the automatic deportation of all refugees arriving to the Greek islands outside the normal transit procedures; for example, those who do not qualify or apply for asylum, or, those cases where it is determined that the asylum seeker arrived from a country where they could have claimed asylum, past 20 March 2016.35 This deal is in direct contravention of international law and the prohibition of refoulement, as it involves the blanket return of anyone arriving to the Greek Islands back to Turkey, without consideration of their individual circumstances. This issue directly impacts Palestinian refugees, as Turkey is not signatory to the 1951 Convention, and Palestinian refugees from Syria that end up there can only obtain Temporary Protection from the Turkish authorities, as they are considered as ‘guests’ or ‘temporary protection beneficiaries’ and not refugees.36 Moreover, questions were raised as to whether Turkey could be considered a ‘safe third country’ to host refugees and asylum seekers.37

No Safe Haven, No Protection

As of December 2016, unofficial statistics gave a number of around 400 Palestinian refugees sheltered in makeshift tents and halls in the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios, Leros and Kos.38 The majority of these refugees come from the Palestinian refugee camps of Deraa, Yarmouk, al-Aydeen and al-Husseiniya in Syria.39 Palestinian refugees on these Greek islands made calls to the international community and civil society over their critical situation, highlighting the poor humanitarian and socioeconomic conditions they were subjected to.40 The Action Group for Palestinians of Syria (AGPS) claimed that following the refusal of the Greek government to grant asylum to Palestinian refugees, these started a campaign for help over their delicate legal status.41 These Palestinian refugees said that Greek authorities were denying them access to medical treatment in public clinics and hospitals, forcing them to go to private clinics they could not afford. Some Palestinians sheltered in the Greek island of Chios said that the makeshift tents where they were being detained had insects and poisonous reptiles and very poor hygienic conditions, which had made the area uninhabitable.42

On top of the poor living conditions, Palestinian refugees have also been subjected to attacks by far-right wing groups. In November 2016, a group of Greek xenophobes burnt tents in one of the refugee camps of Chios Island using Molotov cocktails. At least 150 Palestinian refugees had to flee the camp following the attack. However, the Greek authorities claimed that the fire had been started by fireworks used by Palestinian refugees, and not as a result of an attack.43

This state of lack of protection has urged Palestinian refugees from Syria to call on the relevant authorities to get involved urgently and to allow safe passage to other EU countries where they can claim asylum. They also called on human rights institutions and organizations to pressure the Greek government to improve their treatment of Palestinian refugees and to put an end to the ongoing crackdowns.44 Moreover, they expressed their complete refusal to being sent back to Turkey where prospects for basic humanitarian relief and human rights were no better than in Greece.45 

These circumstances have placed refugees in very poor living conditions and a continuous state of insecurity. Rafeef Ziadah conducted several interviews with Palestinian refugees from Syria in Greece depicting the dire effects of Greece’s deficient asylum mechanisms when it comes to refugees.46 Amal, for example, is a Palestinian elementary school teacher who fled to Greece while pregnant.47 She was in Greece a full year before being able to file her asylum claim. The authorities would only take 20 applications a week and after dozens of attempts, she finally succeeded. However, her daughter, who was born in Greece, has not been registered yet since the authorities insist that the father be present. He, however, is in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.48 

Amal has not only suffered from a complete lack of assistance and protection on the part of the Greek authorities but also from harassment from right-wing political groups. Young members of these groups would come ask her questions in the park and once they tried to search Amal but they stopped after she started screaming.49 However, her legal status stopped her from taking any further action against this harassment, as she was afraid that if she went to the police she and her children would be put in jail. Since she was in Greece illegally before finally being able to lodge her asylum claim, she lived in constant fear of being reported to the police. Ziadah writes that since Amal was so afraid to go to the hospital when she went into labor, she waited until the last minute to go. Morka Tjejer Sexmassage Göteborg Källmo Kanske Gratis Live Sexchatt Swingers Gratis Live Sex Chatta Vuxen Spel Tjejer Som Visar Fittan Kaalasluspa. Moreover, Amal “was only able to leave the hospital when members of the Palestinian community in Athens donated money for her expenses.”50

Amal’s story serves as an illustration of the current complete lack of protection Palestinian refugees from Syria stranded in Greece. Unable to access other EU member states due to discriminatory policies against them, and exposed to the protection gaps of the Greek asylum system, they are living in constant fear of being deported to Turkey or taken to jail. 

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*    Karima Abdel Aziz is a human rights activist that spent the last one and a half years working and volunteering with refugees from Syria in Germany and Greece.

**    Maya al-Orzza is a Political Science and International Relations graduate from London School of Economics, and holds a Law Degree from the Complutense University of Madrid. She currently works as a Legal Researcher at BADIL Resource Center.

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Endnotes

1    Minos Mouzourakis and Markella Papadouli,  With Greece: Recommendations for refugee protection, European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) and the Advice on Individual Rights in Europe (AIRE) Centre, July 2016, 7. Available at:  http://www.asylumineurope.org/sites/default/files/resources/with_greece.pdf

2    Cynthia Orchard and Andrew Miller, Protection in Europe for refugees from Syria,  Forced Migration Policy Briefing 10, Refugee Studies Centre, September 2014, 50. Available at: https://www.rsc.ox.ac.uk/files/publications/policy-briefing-series/pb10-protection-europe-refugees-syria-2014.pdf (herein after ‘Orchard and Miller, Protection in Europe’).

3    Andrew Rettman, Palestinians join exodus to EU, says PLO’s Erekat, EUobserver, March 2016. Available at: https://euobserver.com/justice/132587

4    IMEMC Agencies, EU Observer: Palestinians Joining Exodus to EU, according to Erekat, IMEMC news, March 2016. Available at: http://imemc.org/article/75205/

5    FRONTEX, Risk Analysis for 2016, March 2016, 7.  Available at: http://frontex.europa.eu/assets/Publications/Risk_Analysis/Annula_Risk_Analysis_2016.pdf

6    IMEMC Agencies, EU Observer: Palestinians Joining Exodus to EU, according to Erekat, IMEMC news, March 2016, Available at: http://imemc.org/article/75205/

7    Primary research by BADIL. 

8    Refugee Law and Policy: Greece, Library of Congress. Available at: http://www.loc.gov/law/help/refugee-law/greece.php.

9    Dublin II Regulation (2003/343/CE). 

10    Detention centers are where asylum seekers, refugees and migrants are kept until their status in the country is clarified. Detention centers are part of Greece’s migration policies and practices. 

11    Rafeef Ziadah, “Journeys of Dispossession: Palestinian Refugees from Syria Confronting Fortress Europe,” Darkmatter: In the ruins of imperial culture. Available at: http://www.darkmatter101.org/site/2016/05/16/journeys-of-dispossession-palestinian-refugees-from-syria-confronting-fortress-europe/ (Herein after ‘Ziadah, Journeys of Dispossession’).

12    Refugee Law and Policy: Greece, Library of Congress. Available at: http://www.loc.gov/law/help/refugee-law/greece.php

13    Council Decision (EU) 2015/1601 of 22 September 2015, Establishing Provisional Measures in the Area of International Protection for the Benefit of Italy and Greece, 2015 O.J. (L 248), 80. Available at: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=uriserv:OJ.L_.2015.248.01.0080.01.ENG&toc=OJ:L:2015:248:TOC; Council Decision (EU) 2015/1523 of 14 September 2015, Establishing Provisional Measures in the Area of International Protection for the Benefit of Italy and of Greece, 2015 O.J. (L 239), 146. Available at: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=uriserv:OJ.L_.2015.239.01.0146.01.ENG&toc=OJ:L:2015:239:TOC.

14    Ibid.

15    As of 8 February 2016, only 218 people had been relocated from Greece, and 279 from Italy.  Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council on the State of Implementation of the Priority Actions under the European Agenda on Migration, 11, COM (2016) 85 final, 10 February 2016. Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/european-agenda-migration/proposal-implementation-package/docs/managing_the_refugee_crisis_state_of_play_20160210_en.pdf. 

16    The Associated Press of Al Jazeera America, “Four European nations shut borders to all but three countries,” 19 November 2015. Available at: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/11/19/four-european-nations-shut-borders-to-migrants.html.

17    Ibid. 

18    Lacking proof of residence refers to many different situations in this context. Some Palestinian refugees lack any form of identity papers, because they lost them, they were unregistered refugees in Syria and did not have identity documents, they got rid of their papers to claim they were Syrian in order to have access to better protection, or other reasons; some have refugee cards from UNRWA showing them as registered as refugees in Syria, but many European countries do not consider these cards as qualifying for the mechanisms set up to protect Syrians; and a variety of other reasons.

19    The closing of borders on November 2015 left thousands of men, women and children stranded at border crossings. Many of them came from countries such as Morocco, Libya, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Liberia, Congo or Pakistan, among others. 

20    Commission Recommendation of 10 February 2016, Addressed to the Hellenic Republic on the Urgent Measures to Be Taken by Greece in View of the Resumption of Transfers Under Regulation 604/2013, C(2016) 871 final, 10 February 2016, 6-7. Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/european-agenda-migration/proposal-implementation-package/docs/commission_recommendation_addressed_to_the_hellenic_republic_2016 0210_en.pdf.  

21    Ibid. 

22    Ziadah, Journeys of Dispossession.

23    SRHRM, Regional study: management of the external borders of the European Union and its impact on the human rights of migrants, 2013, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau, Human Rights Council, Twenty-third session, Agenda item 3, 17 April, Available at: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session23/A.HRC.23.46_en.pdf. 

24    Refugee Law and Policy: Greece, Library of Congress. Available at: http://www.loc.gov/law/help/refugee-law/greece.php.

25    Orchard and Miller, Protection in Europe, 51.

26    Ibid.  

27    Ziadah, Journeys of Dispossession. 

28    Ibid.

29    Orchard and Miller, Protection in Europe, 50.

30    Ibid. 51. 

31    Ibid. 

32    Ibid.

33    Mouzourakis and Papadouli, With Greece: Recommendations.

34    Ibid.

35    BBC News, Migrant crisis: UN legal concerns over EU-Turkey plan, 8 March 2016, Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35754738; Elizabeth Collett, The Paradox of the EU-Turkey Refugee Deal, Migration Policy Institute, March 2016. Available at: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/news/paradox-eu-turkey-refugee-deal.

36    Anna Clementi, No way out: the second Nakba of Palestinian refugees from Syria escaping to Turkey, al-Majdal Magazine, Issue No.57, 2015. Available at: http://www.badil.org/en/publication/periodicals/al-majdal/item/2079-article-9.html. 

37    BBC News, Migrant crisis: UN legal concerns over EU-Turkey plan, 8 March 2016. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35754738.

38    Action group for Palestinians of Syria, Palestinians of Syria subjected to daily crackdowns on Greek islands, December 2016. Available at: http://www.actionpal.org.uk/en/post.php?id=4409. 

39    Ibid.

40    Ibid.

41    Action group for Palestinians of Syria, Palestinians of Syria in Greece launch cries for help over medical and legal negligence, November 2016. Available at: http://www.actionpal.org.uk/en/post.php?id=4221. 

42    Ibid.

43    Action group for Palestinians of Syria, Palestinians of Syria subjected to daily crackdowns on Greek islands, December 2016. Available at: http://www.actionpal.org.uk/en/post.php?id=4409.

44    Ibid.

45    Ibid.

46    Ziadah, Journeys of Dispossession. 

47    Ibid.

48    Ibid.

49    Ibid.

50    Ibid.