No access, no hope
By the Refugee Network of the Greek Section of Amnesty International
9 February 2012
Amnesty International joins the scores of asylum seekers queuing in the early hours of a Saturday morning hoping to have their applications submitted to the Greek authorities.
On a freezing winter night we find ourselves in a deserted neighbourhood of Athens not far from the Aliens’ Police Directorate.
Deserted but for a fifty meter queue – around 100 people. Men and women sitting or lying down amidst the mud and garbage.
Some people have blankets. Some have hats and gloves. Others have to resort to newspapers or bits of cloth in a bid to keep warm.
These people are asylum seekers and they’re queuing up as part of a weekly ritual – the chance to be one of the 20 received by the Greek authorities at 6am each Saturday.
Toward the front of the queue we hear shouting. Greek Police, who ask us for our ID when we get there.
We talk to some of the asylum seekers. A man from Syria tells us: “I’ve been in Greece for around 6 months. I come here every week but I cannot apply for asylum. They receive only 20 persons each Saturday at 6:00 in the morning. They say to the rest to come again next week; and then again next week; and so on.”
Such is the desperation in the queue fights can break out as people jostle for a good position.
“Sometimes they end up in hospital,” says a man from Bangladesh.
An asylum seeker from Congo describes how he has already been waiting for four days and nights . “Day and night here, on the ground, in the cold, under the rain, we are waiting patiently and then they send us away. Why do they accept only 20 persons?”
A woman asylum seeker from Eritrea told us that they only have bread and water.
It is impossible to abandon your place to go to the toilet behind a nearby wall because, if you are alone, then you lose your position in the queue.
Some also complain that the selection of the people who do get to submit their application is entirely arbitrary, ignoring how long asylum seekers have actually waited in line.
An asylum seeker from Egypt confides: “I came here around 20 times, and every Saturday I was sent away. So I stopped trying. I lost my hope. Today I’m here again after 6 months. I have no papers, I daren’t leave my home, I’m afraid. They can arrest me on the street, and detain me for months, just because I have no papers. I don’t do any harm, I don’t steal.”
The head of the police unit says that officers are there to maintain the order. He admits that there is no priority system and that the access to asylum is limited.
The Head of the Asylum Department comes out there each Saturday morning and chooses 20 people – and not necessarily the first. The rest are sent away without any papers. The failure to register claims promptly increases the risk of their arrest, detention, deportation and ultimately violations of the principle that no-one should be returned to a country where they face persecution – non-refoulement.
In a recent statement Amnesty International revoiced its concerns over the plight of asylum seekers in Greece.