Written by Scott Hamilton
The First Reception Service inside Moria has started handing out papers to people who have been there for 25 days that allow them to move freely on the island of Lesvos. It sounds like great news! I was waiting for two hours at the front gate of Moria to meet with the chief of police the day that they started handing the papers out (he never came). It was really uplifting to watch people approach the open door with their papers in hand, look around suspiciously, take the first step outside Moria and then breathe a huge sigh of relief, or shout cries of joy, or wave their arms around and SMILE. I felt really really lucky to watch that happen. I had heard that these papers were going to start getting distributed soon and had been telling a lot of people about them because I think it gave them something to look forward to.
It turns out that the papers we had been looking forward to and then celebrating are deportation notices. Well, there are two papers: one is a deportation notice and the second one says the deportation notice is temporarily suspended pending the outcome of the asylum interview. The nature of these papers is more than just a legal curiosity: it draws attention to the fact that the purpose of Moria is to deport people. I want so much for everyone’s cases to be treated fairly that I often forget about this. Lately I have had a very hard time encouraging people to be patient and respect a legal process that is so clearly biased against their better interests. My friends call me after they have found alternative ways of getting to Athens and I’m happy for them because they aren’t here. On the beach last week we weren’t celebrating the contents of the paper so much as the fact that they can now leave Moria whenever they want. This has exciting implications for the nature of my work on the island but first I think it’s important to elaborate on how these papers fit into the grander scheme of things.
A couple days ago I read the European Commission’s first report on the progress of the EU-Turkey Statement and it helped to put the deportation notices into perspective. The report was hailing the success of declaration because it basically put an end to new arrivals on Lesvos and talked about the increasing capacity for processing and rejecting applications. It was a really important reminder there is a race going on right now. There are only 6 or 7 Greek lawyers working on cases inside Moria and helping to file appeals of decisions that are being handed out at an increasing rate. By the end of the month various bar associations across Europe will have mobilized lawyers and funds in order to come here and represent asylum seekers. In the meantime an ad-hoc legal coordination network works to make sure that when cases are declared inadmissible a lawyer can help them file an appeal.
At the moment, most of the decisions being handed out are inadmissibility decisions for Syrians who are presumed to enjoy greater protection and acceptance in Turkish society. The admissibility interview determines whether an asylum claim can be heard in Greece or whether the applicant has had the opportunity to apply for and receive protection in the place where they came from. The time frame to appeal this decision is 5 calendar days, which is very tight. For example: on Thursday before Greek Easter two girls with no connection to Turkey, unaccompanied minors, had their asylum applications declared inadmissible by the European Asylum Services Office which normally should be making recommendations to the Greek Asylum Services Office who makes the final decision. Not only is this a deviation from protocol, it is a flagrant violation of the rights of two people who fall under several different categories of “vulnerable people” who cannot be pushed back under international law, and it happened in such a way that because of where the holidays fell in the middle of their appeal deadline they actually only had one day to file an appeal.
If appeals are not filed on time then deportation is imminent. When people are returned to Turkey they will not be receiving a pat on the back for giving European asylum the old college try. Without sensationalizing, I can tell you that this week or next you will probably read an article about a minor who was sent back to Turkey, detained without any access to a lawyer for 7 days and beaten repeatedly until he agreed to sign papers authorizing his return to the country he originally fled from. That story is already written and it will break as soon as the person gets to a safe place and agrees to release it. What is happening right now is insane and I feel like the only reason it is allowed to continue is because the truth is unthinkable.
In Moria, the banality of every day life drives people to demand to be heard. But at the moment it simply isn’t true that getting called to an interview could bring asylum seekers one step closer to justice and coveted protection status. As long as the EU-Turkey deal is in place, the admissibility interviews which precede the asylum interviews (where applicants actually have a chance to present the substantive evidence in their case) are the next step in a process which is designed to fail them.