Alianza por la Solidaridad and Action Aid denounce the legal "limbo" of 50.000 refugees in Greece

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Thousands of families fleeing the war cannot be reunited because the EU does not fulfil the right to family reunification. In 2016, the requests for reunifying families have duplicated, but only 11% of requests have been resolved.

Familia de refugiados se abraza después de reunirse por primera vez desde su desembarco en Lesbos.
Imagen: Karin Schermbrucker/ActionAid

The "Separated" report by Action Aid on the 50.000 refugees in Greece, the overwhelming majority coming from Syria, reflects serious violations of human rights by the European Union and Greece, which prevent the reunification of families who were separated in their flight from different armed conflicts, while failing the relocation with which European countries committed themselves in September 2015.

Action Aid has found, in a study that includes 50 interviews, that the EU definition of "family" prevents parents from being reunited with their descendants over the age of 18 and, what is more, that refugees are not adequately informed of their right to apply for this reunification.

Desde que se cerró la frontera entre Grecia y Macedonia, el 20 de marzo de 2016, las 50.000 personas atrapadas en Grecia sólo tienen dos formas de abandonar el primer país: mediante su reubicación en otro Estado europeo o solicitando una reagrupación familiar con alguien que ya está en la UE legalmente. Los que han llegado después de esa fecha o son devueltos a Turquía, o sólo pueden abandonar los espacios cerrados donde están confinados mediante la segunda opción. Para aclarar el “limbo” legal en el que se encuentran, Grecia les ofreció preinscribirse para recibir “protección internacional”, un primer paso para su reubicación, trámite que cumplieron 28.000 personas. Los que se encontraban en islas griegas no han podido solicitarlo.

Many of those interviewed in the "Separated" report say that they were not informed of their right to family reunification or their subsequent relocation, even though international human rights law and standards make it very clear that the family should be protected and reunited whenever possible, and that the interests of children must always be a priority. The EU Regulation 604/2013 itself, known as "Dublin III", stipulates that Member States should cooperate to ensure family reunification whenever possible, with a special concern for minors with family in the EU. But the definition of "family" used by the EU does not include siblings or adult children, or dependents such as disabled, elderly or pregnant members of the family.

Syrian woman, 53 years old, Moria (Lesvos):

“I was traveling with my niece but she left to Germany irregularly. Now I am here alone. I have two boys in Germany. They are 24 and 21 years old. I have applied for the family reunification but I have been told that they are too old and maybe I cannot go there. I am going to stay here alone? I wish at least I could be aware of the process”.

Syrian woman, 50 years old, Skaramagas (Athens):

“I am tired. I am here seven months with my two daughters 21 and 11 years old. My husband, my 16-year-old son and my ten-year-old daughter are in Germany. We left Aleppo for a better future but we haven’t found it yet. We have the asylum seeker card and we have applied for family reunification. I don’t know how long will take this situation but I cannot take it anymore. Two days ago, I was thinking of drowning myself to the sea”.

The figures on family reunification, however, are eloquent: in 2015, 1.082 people applied for asylum and 744 were accepted, while in 2016 there were 2.446 requests but only 283 achieved their objective (11%), a 62% less than the previous year. In fact, even when meeting all the requirements, the waiting time to resolve the files can be superior to eight months, even if there is a minor in another European country. If the host country refuses family reunification, there are not sufficient legal remedies for an applicant to appeal against a negative decision on their family reunification application. Instead it is up to the state (in this case, Greece) to reapply and resend the application for family unification to the respective member state for reconsideration. In practice this means that when an application for reunification is rejected, applicants have no legal means to appeal directly against this decision. A long administrative legal procedure could be started in the country where they are located, but with uncertain results. Family reunification then can be postponed for years, or never take place at all.

Relocation will take 15 years

Looking at the relocation of the 50.000 'trapped' in Greece, the situation is no better. Of the 14.667 requests made between January and September 2016, only 4.637 people were moved to another EU country - less than one third - although in September 2015, the European Union and the Member States agreed on a two-year plan to relocate 160.000 asylum seekers. According to the report, "at this pace, it will take the EU almost 15 years to relocate them”.

Of these, it is worth remembering that Spain promised to receive 17,000 before September 2017, of which only 687 have arrived until 15th December 2016.

In any case, refugees who arrived after 20th March 2016 are not eligible for this relocation. Afghans can’t either have access to this possibility, even if they are fleeing a war. Only Syrians, Iraqis and Eritreans are eligible.

On the other hand, applicants cannot choose the EU State that will examine their application for asylum. Although they are given a list to choose from among eight countries, they can actually be accepted by any country, even an unselected one. In addition, immediate relatives who want to be relocated together are rarely granted, which creates a situation of special vulnerability for women traveling alone with minors.

In all of this, among the refugees, the general complaint is the lack of information, as reflected in the "Separated" report.

Given this situation, Action Aid and Alianza por la Solidaridad require the EU and Spain, as one of its Member States:

  1. Broaden the definition of family for the purposes of refugee family reunion to allow adult asylum seekers to be reunited with their parents, siblings and adult children and grandparents, as well as recognize the role of dependents' caregivers.
  2. Ensure that all asylum seekers are fully informed of their rights.
  3. Ensure applicants have the right to an effective appeal against a negative decision.
  4. Provide Greece with the resources – financial and human – to ensure that it can meet its obligations and respect the rights of asylum-seekers in Greece.
  5. Ensure that all member states participate in the relocation scheme, fulfilling the principles of solidarity and responsibility sharing, according the quotas allocated in 2015.

To the Government of Greece, they demand:

  1. Make legal aid available for family reunification applications and make the application process clear and accessible to all interested asylum seekers; precise information should be given on the process itself and the time limits involved.
  2. Ensure that applications are dealt with swiftly to avoid people being left in limbo and with uncertainty regarding their future.
  3. Ensure that the Greek Asylum Office is sufficiently resourced and has investment to swiftly process family reunification applications.

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Photo: Karin Schermbrucker/ActionAid

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