Blocked at Every Pass: How Greece’s Policy of Exclusion Harms Asylum Seekers and Refugees


 Since the start of 2020, glaring headlines have called attention to the situation at Greece’s borders. For years, Greece has hosted large numbers of asylum seekers and refugees fleeing conflict and poverty, primarily in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. In 2015, it was the main entry point for the more than 1 million people who sought safety in the European Union that year. Most individuals reach Greece from Turkey, risking their lives in dangerous sea crossings to Greek islands in the northern Aegean Sea. Although the number of arrivals has fallen significantly since the height of Europe’s so-called “refugee crisis,” thousands of people continue to arrive in Greece. At the end of 2019, the UN Refugee Agency reported it was hosting 190,900 “people of concern.”[1] The failure of Greece and the EU to establish coherent and humane refugee policies means many languish in appalling conditions as they try to navigate the asylum process and access critical protection. 

 The already dire situation has evolved rapidly in 2020. First, Greece unlawfully suspended access to asylum in response to a Turkish ploy to send refugees into the European Union. Soon after, the coronavirus plunged the world into a public health crisis that put displaced communities at disproportionate risk. Greece’s strong initial response to the pandemic helped avert a humanitarian disaster in its refugee camps. But along with the praise came damning reports of authorities using aggressive, illegal tactics to keep asylum seekers and migrants away. 

When the coronavirus eventually reached Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesvos, the government’s stringent response was met with protests. Fires broke out, destroying the camp. The EU delivered emergency relief, adding to the hundreds of millions of euros and non-monetary support it has provided Greece since 2015. The European Commission subsequently released its long-delayed proposal for a plan to address asylum and migration—the new EU Pact on Asylum and Migration. But this Pact might do more to institutionalize a de facto policy of exclusion than to improve access to and quality of European asylum systems.  

These developments cannot be seen as isolated incidents. The Greek government’s responses were hasty but not unwitting. Rather, they are consistent with a years-long effort to deter, deny, and disregard asylum seekers and refugees. To this end, the Greek authorities have also used illegal tactics at Greece’s land borders, allowed conditions to deteriorate in other island and mainland camps, failed to help struggling refugees to resettle in Greece, and undercut efforts by civil society to fill gaps in the government’s response. This approach has inflamed tensions with host communities and forfeited benefits to be gained by better integrating refugees.

Indeed, individuals seeking refuge and dignified lives confront obstacles at every step of their journey. First, Greek authorities have maneuvered to physically keep people away from Greece’s shores. Second, the government has adopted laws and policies that undermine protections owed to asylum seekers. Third, it has withheld adequate integration support from those to whom it grants refugee status. At every phase, government measures to stymie civil society efforts hinder asylum seekers’ and refugees’ access to essential support. In these ways, the government has created a patchwork of laws, policies, and practices that systematically close the space for asylum and refuge. Now, the EU’s more active role and continued financial and technical support to Greece risks legitimizing these harms. 

Examining Greece’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and tragedy in Moria is essential to understanding the government’s approach to asylum and migration. A deeper look reveals the full extent of its concerted efforts to deny or undercut access to asylum. Greece must act immediately to reverse its callous asylum and migration policies and fulfill its international commitments to asylum seekers and refugees.  

The Impact of COVID-19 in Greece 

 After several difficult months, Europe emerged from the first wave of the COVID-19 outbreak in April 2020. To some surprise, Greece’s response was quite successful—going into the summer, it maintained one of the lowest infection rates in Europe. Notably, dire predictions that an outbreak in Greece’s refugee camps would devastate an already vulnerable population had not materialized. There were still no cases of COVID-19 among the tens of thousands of refugees and migrants living in Reception and Identification Centers (RIC) on the Aegean Islands.

When the pandemic first reached Greece in March, these RICs held more than 37,000 people in facilities built for about 6,000. The centers are infamous for their inhumane conditions—ones conducive to rapid contagion. RIC residents live close together in tents or other makeshift shelters, with very limited access to running water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, food, electricity, and health care. A comparative analysis by the International Rescue Committee determined that the Moria RIC—Europe’s largest and most notorious refugee camp, located on the island of Lesvos—was one of the most population-dense refugee camps in the world, with 203,800 people per square kilometer in April 2020. 

The European Union and civil society had long called on the Greek government to decongest the islands. In March 2020, the European Commission launched a relocation scheme through which eleven EU countries agreed to take in about 1,600 unaccompanied minors from Greece. Countries’ pledges later rose to a total of 3,300 vulnerable asylum seekers, with Norway and Switzerland also participating. Although pandemic-related travel restrictions caused some delays, authorities gradually began relocating unaccompanied children in April. The threat of COVID-19 accelerated other efforts to decongest the camps and improve conditions there. With the help of the EU and UNHCR, authorities also delivered information about the coronavirus and improved medical facilities. After COVID-19 was detected in RICs on the mainland, swift moves to isolate affected individuals and test others helped mitigate its spread.  

By mid-August, authorities had transferred several hundred unaccompanied children to other countries and moved hundreds of asylum seekers to apartments, hotels, and camps on the mainland, despite fierce protestsfrom local communities. However, reports told of appalling conditions in the recently built mainland camps, and the government began closing hotel accommodations in August. That month, it also started offering economic incentives for individuals on the islands to return to their home countries. Those who remained in the RICs faced lockdowns that restricted freedom of movement. The government repeatedly extended the lockdowns despite there being no COVID-19 cases in those facilities and having re-opened the rest of the country. The discriminatory restrictions were unjustified and dangerous, trapping vulnerable individuals in high-risk environments. 

Tens of thousands of refugees and migrants remained on the islands in August, when a second wave of infections hit Greece. COVID-19 reached the Vial RIC on the island of Chios first and Moria RIC in Lesvos soon after. Authorities responded by intensifying camp lockdowns, creating fear and confusion. In Lesvos, protests ensued and massive fires broke out, burning Moria to the ground on September 9, 2020. Thousands were left homeless, of which hundreds have since tested positive for COVID-19. Hundreds of COVID-19 cases have also been detected in other island RICs and in September, Greek health officials said migrants and refugees accounted for many of the COVID-19 cases in Athens. Overall, infection rates among refugees and migrants do not appear to be higher than among the Greek population. Nevertheless, government statements have linked the spread of coronavirus to migrants, fueling already high anti-refugee sentiment in the country.  

Moria in Focus: More Than a Symbol 

Moria was a manifestation of the failure of asylum and migration policies in Greece and the EU. The preventable tragedy lent greater urgency to long-standing calls from civil society and some European policymakers to provide adequate, long-term solutions for asylum seekers and migrants. After all, Moria was not just an abstract symbol—it was a real place of suffering where individual lives were at risk. 

Nevertheless, even the immediate response to the fire fell short. Greek authorities argued they should not appear to reward protests by transferring people from Lesvos. They said most people would remain on the islands, used tear gas against protestors, and arrested five young asylum seekers charged with starting the fires. They did transfer unaccompanied minors to the mainland, accommodate some of the most vulnerable asylum seekers on ships, and negotiate more relocations with other EU countries. However, most people were left in the street while new facilities were built.  

The European Commission established a dedicated taskforce to implement a pilot initiative jointly with Greek authorities to build new, improved reception facilities on Lesvos and better manage asylum and migration processes. But the government is using the situation to advance its plans for closed, “controlled” centers with restricted access for lawyers, NGOs, and journalists; regulated entry and exit for residents; surveillance; and other security measures more akin to prisons. Although the government’s stated goal is to move all asylum seekers and migrants off the Aegean islands by May 2021, it considers the closed structures necessary to handle future arrivals and as deterrentsA permanent camp in Lesvos should be complete by summer or fall of 2021. The government also signed construction contracts for centers on the similarly overcrowded islands ofSamos, Kos, and Leros. 

Meanwhile, despite promises from European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson that there would be “no more Morias,” a new, temporary camp was built and quickly coined “Moria 2.0.” Unsurprisingly, asylum seekers were reluctant to enter the camp. Those inside report that it has no stable electricity or running water, limited food, and insufficient space for social distancing needed to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission. Poor weather has caused severe flooding, and UNHCR warns the camp is not ready for winter. 

Unfortunately, people have few alternatives. The Ministry of Migration and Asylum issued stark warnings to asylum seekers that they would only be safe inside the new camp and could not trust outside help. As discussed below, such vilification of civil society is pervasive and has severely hampered the response. On October 30, 2020, the government defied calls from NGOs and evicted residents of PIKPA, a self-organized, award-winning facility that has provided essential services and support to vulnerable asylum seekers in Lesvos since 2012. Authorities had earlier agreed to postpone the facility’s closure, but reversed their decision without notice. The move is another example of the cruelty of Greece’s approach—the government fails to adequately provide for asylum seekers but also undermines independent efforts to fill the gaps its leaves. 

A Concerted Policy of Exclusion 

Recent developments in Lesvos are only part of a pattern of significant harms asylum seekers and recognized refugees face in Greece. These play out in four key ways, impacting individuals at every stage in their search for protection:   

1.   Access to Territory Denied 

 In late February 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan opened his country’s borders, encouraging thousands of refugees to enter Europe. It was a political move presumably intended to extract more EU support for refugees living in Turkey and for Erdoğan’s military operations in northeast Syria. Greece immediately responded by closing and fortifying its border and suspending all asylum applications for one month. Reports showed authorities harassing and arbitrarily detaining individuals, summarily returning them to Turkey, and even using excessive force to push them back. As noted by human rights groupsUNHCR, and EU leaders, neither EU nor international law allows for countries to suspend individuals’ right to seek asylum. Nevertheless, the emergency suspension remained in place until its scheduled expiration on March 31, 2020. 

 In that time, the government used the public health crisis as an excuse to keep its borders closed and further restrict access to asylum. It first ordered a general suspension of all migration and asylum services until at least April 10. Ultimately, limited services only resumed on May 18. 

 In addition to these policies, authorities use unlawfulviolent measures to physically prevent individuals’ access to asylum. Authorities carry out pushbacks at Greece’s sea and land borders,  forcing recently arrived individuals back across a border before they can claim asylum. The Greek coast guard has failed to rescueships in distress. Credible reports from multiple sources tell of Greek law enforcement officers and unidentified masked men carrying out collective expulsions of more than 1,000 refugees from the Aegean islands in the summer of 2020. Authorities reportedly forced people who had reached Greece’s shores onto faulty, inflatable life rafts that were pushed to the border of Greek and Turkish territorial waters and left adrift for the Turkish coastguard to assume responsibility. 

Similarly, maneuvers on the mainland have gone beyond pushbacks of recent arrivals. In a way not previously documented, authorities have expelled hundreds of registered asylum seekers from farther inland back across the Evros river, Greece’s northeastern border with Turkey. The reported incidents in the spring are a concerning escalation of Greece’s hardline approach. 

UNHCR called on the Greek government to investigate the incidents in June 2020 and members of the European Parliament echoed the call in July. But Greek officials dismissed the reports as “fake news” and instead touted their role in “guarding” Europe’s borders. In a joint letter to the Hellenic Parliament in October 2020, Refugees International and other NGOs urged an investigation into the most recent accounts of pushbacks and other abuses at Greece’s borders. But the government has failed to investigate or even acknowledge the incidents. It continues to deny their validity without evidence. 

The European Commission cannot investigate misconduct by Greek law enforcement officers. This gap makes a new independent border monitoring mechanism a welcome part of the proposed EU Pact on Asylum and Migration. However, the system currently proposed must be expanded and strengthened if it is to truly protect rights and hold Member States to account.

The Commission does have oversight of EU agencies, including Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. Notably, new reports in late October 2020 indicate that Frontex has been complicit in at least several pushbacks from Greece. Frontex denies its involvement but held an emergency Management Board meeting at the Commission’s request and will launch an internal inquiry. If the inquiry finds evidence of Frontex officers’ wrongdoing, it will be impossible for the Greek government to deny the validity of allegations against it. 

Even as the Frontex board sets up the investigation, the EU Ombudsman has opened an inquiry to assess how well Frontex’s individual Complaints Mechanism handles claims of rights violations, as well as the role and independence of its Fundamental Rights Officer. To ensure credibility and accountability, Frontex’s inquiry into the pushbacks must be independent.

Greece is also creating physical barriers to entry. A plan for a floating fence to keep refugees and migrants from reaching Lesvos was ultimately abandoned. But in October, the government announced it would build a wall along the Evros River. Investing in measures that are likely to be ineffective and cause harm is a waste of critical resources. 

By blocking or returning people without examining their cases for international protection, these practices at the sea and land borders deny individuals their right to asylum. They violate central tenets of EU and international law, including the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits governments from returning asylum seekers to an unsafe country. Their effectiveness as deterrence measures is also limited, as individuals continue to attempt the crossing. 

In November 2020, authorities even arrested an Afghan man for child endangerment after his six-year-old son died in a shipwreck en route from Turkey. Criminalizing an asylum seeker after such a terrible trauma is a disgrace. People who flee across mountains, rivers, and oceans—in the midst of a pandemic, no less—do risk their lives, but only to try to save them. Greece has a moral and legal obligation to give them safety, carefully review their requests for protection, and honor valid claims.

2.   Policy Undercuts Protection 

Those who are able to reach Greece and submit asylum applications are further negatively affected by new Greek laws and policies. In November 2019, Greece passed a new asylum law that restricted the rights and protections granted to asylum seekers and refugees. Refugees International and other rights groups harshly criticized the law and called for reforms. Nevertheless, the “International Protection Act” (IPA) went into effect on January 1, 2020. 

The IPA expands the grounds on which protection can be denied and normalizes the use of detention, including of unaccompanied children. It restricts asylum seekers’ access to legal assistance and makes changes to the appeal process that make it harder to have initial rejections reversed. The law also expands the use of “fast-track” procedures to accelerate application processing. Although more prompt decision-making is desirable, these rushed procedures can deny asylum seekers a thorough review of the merits of their claims and result in unfounded rejections. 

Since the IPA took effect, a series of policy changes and ministerial directives have continued to alter the legal framework. One NGO representative told Refugees International that it felt nearly impossible to keep up with the pace of changes. He warned of the destabilizing effect of the resulting legal uncertainty. Moreover, the changes have taken a negative direction—in May 2020, the government passed amendments to the IPA that actually exacerbated rather than reformed many of its adverse provisions. In September 2020, the NGOs Oxfam and WeMove Europe filed a legal complaint calling on the European Commission to trigger infringement procedures against Greece “for its systematic breach of EU law in its treatment of people seeking asylum in Europe.” 

 One positive exception came in November 2020, when the Ministry of Migration and Asylum announced it would end the practice of holding unaccompanied minors in police custody. It is a critical decision that Refugees International and others had urged. However, it is just one aspect of what the Council of Europe’s Anti-Torture Committee (ACT) calls, “structural deficiencies in Greece’s immigration detention policy.” In a report of its findings also published in November 2020, the ACT describes abhorrent conditions in detention facilities in Evros and Samos that “could amount to inhuman and degrading treatment.” 

With asylum services suspended or limited for much of the year, there was a dramatic drop in new asylum claims in Greece. In that time, the Asylum Service, with the help of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), worked through its backlog of about 125,000 applications. Data on decisions made in the first half of 2020 show that 69 percent resulted in grants of refugee status or a lesser form of “subsidiary protection.”[2]

This data suggests that most people arriving in Greece do have claims to international protection, despite the Greek government’s arguments to the contrary. Authorities assert that most are “economic migrants” or have come from countries that are safe to return to. Greece—as well as the EU—uses this premise to build asylum processes that prioritize returning people or simply keeping them out. But the data show that these assertions are inconsistent with the lived reality of people fleeing their homes. 

Moreover, the list of countries Greece deems safe for return is questionable. According to Minister Mitarakis, countries are safe as long as they have some safe areas within them. In a move that would further restrict access to asylum, the government is considering making asylum claims inadmissible if applicants have reached Greece by traveling through “safe” third countries—including Turkey. 

It is worth noting that the Ministry of Migration and Asylum provided this data to the EU statistical office, Eurostat. In its own publications and interviews, it has stated that positive decisions in this period fell to 44 percent. Downplaying the number of people needing protection supports the narrative described above and appeals to an increasingly anti-refugee public. The discrepancy is explained, in part, by how decisions are counted and classified (for example, whether inadmissible claims are included among negative decisions) but also by differences in reporting. The Asylum Service’s recent decision to stop regularly publishing detailed statistical data makes a proper comparison difficult and undermines transparency and accountability. 

Even if a minority, the percentage of applications denied and rejected still represents thousands of individual lives. Greek NGO Legal Centre Lesvos reports a “systematic rejection” of Syrians’ applications and describes unrealistic requirements for asylum seekers to undertake the appeals process. Indeed, the recognition rate for appealed decisions in the first half of 2020 dropped to 5.5 percent from 5.9 percent in all of 2019. There is a clear downward trend this year—from the first to the second quarter of 2020, the recognition rate fell from 8.1 percent to just 2.9 percent. 

Further re-shaping the policy framework are measures introduced as part of the pandemic response. Restrictions on individuals’ transfers to the mainland were eased as the government accelerated efforts to decongest the islands. However, the government seized on public health fears and Moria’s destruction to advance plans for closed-access reception facilities, now with additional EU support. In addition, the country’s lockdown curtailed many child-protection services, leaving unaccompanied children to fend for themselves to find food, shelter, and even water. 

The government is also using access to food to control asylum seekers’ movements. In some camps on the mainland, authorities do not provide food but instead give asylum seekers cash allowances. In other camps that do provide food, it is not available to recognized refugees. As discussed below, these individuals can no longer remain in camps or receive cash assistance just one month after receiving protective status. This means they also lose access to food assistance and are thus forced out of camps onto their own, at risk of homelessness and hunger. Although civil society organizations try to meet people’s needs, many organizations say they are unable to sustain adequate food support.  

The opposite occurs in Lesvos, where the government’s interest is in containing asylum seekers and migrants in camps. To compel individuals off the streets and into the new camp after Moria’s destruction, authorities announced that food and water would only be delivered inside the camp. Residents wait on long lines for food that is of poor quality, low nutritional value, and insufficient. With lockdowns in place, they can no longer go into the city to buy alternative or supplemental food. As a representative from the NGO Help Refugees/Choose Love warned Refugees International, the government is using food insecurity to achieve its goals and shirk responsibility.  

3.   Refugees Forsaken 

 Individuals who have managed to enter Greece, apply for asylum, receive refugee or subsidiary protection status, and escape the island RICs still struggle to settle. Greece is abandoning even those it has committed to protect.

Wary of a public backlash, the Greek government has never wanted to acknowledge that it would need to provide basic support for integration of new arrivals in the long term. It gave the appearance that the asylum “crisis” was a temporary challenge to be contained on the islands. The result has been a failure to invest in facilitating socioeconomic integration for recognized refugees. Although there are national schemes to provide basic support to the most vulnerable, refugees have difficulty accessing them. Moreover, discrimination, language differences, bureaucratic obstacles, and other barriers routinely undermine their ability to rent apartments and find jobs needed to become self-sufficient. 

Previously, recognized refugees had a six-month “grace period” during which they received basic support, accommodation, and cash assistance through the Emergency Support to Integration & Accommodation (ESTIA) program. This EU-funded scheme was managed by UNHCR in partnership with municipal governments and NGOs. It offers a critical lifeline to refugees making the difficult transition to integrate into their host communities. 

In March 2020, the government reduced the grace period to 30 days, affecting about 11,000 individuals in the program. Authorities argued they had to free up space and resources for asylum seekers trapped in overcrowded RICs. However, in July 2020, the government took over responsibility for ESTIA’s management from UNHCR and cut its budget by 30 percent. Under “ESTIA II,” implementing partners receive even less of the already minimal funding needed to provide refugees with accommodation, undermining the quality of services and even forcing some to drop from the program. 

The Hellenic Integration Support for Beneficiaries of International Protection (HELIOS)—another EU-funded program implemented by the UN Migration Agency (IOM)—could help people exiting ESTIA. It provides integration support, including language courses, job readiness, and up to 12 months of rental subsidies for independent housing. However, advocates have long warned that the program is not up to par. The difficulty of finding leases and even qualifying for the program means its reach falls far short

UNHCR and NGOs warned that the change to ESTIA would cut off aid prematurely and leave ousted refugees facing poverty, hunger, and homelessness. They further cautioned that HELIOS was unprepared to handle an increase in beneficiaries. They were right. 

With 2,000 people transferred from the islands in June and thousands more asylum seekers and refugees set to move after the Moria fire in September, demand for reception and integration support rose quickly. Capacity in reception centers was strained. Soon after transfers to the mainland began, refugees from Moria ended up sleeping outdoors in Athens’ Victoria Square. Authorities evicted inhabitants of the makeshift camp and moved individuals to facilities in and around Athens. There, refugees report living in tents with little access to food and no electricity. An NGO representative described a resulting vicious cycle—refugees leave the dire camp conditions to return to the city streets, only to be rounded up and forced back again. 

 At the same time, the government began ending access to special accommodation in hotels and apartmentsthat it had offered during the pandemic. With nowhere to go, local media reported that 20 to 30 refugees were even returning to Lesvos each day because of the dire situation they encountered

In late September, the government announced a new pilot as part of the HELIOS program to provide refugees with two months’ accommodation. Although a positive step, it is unlikely to suffice. One NGO worker lamented that the effort seems mainly meant to resolve the public image problem that Victoria Square created. Two months is simply not enough time for newly arrived refugees to establish themselves. 

The start of a second strict lockdown in early November will only limit refugees’ opportunities to find homes and jobs. Cash assistance—an effective tool to quickly help vulnerable people meet their basic needs and withstand socioeconomic shocks—is critical in this context. Governments around the world adopted and expanded innovative cash assistance practices as part of their pandemic responses. But in Greece, recognized refugees stop receiving cash assistance after 30 days. Moreover, new rules took effect in September 2020 that reduce cash allowances for individuals staying in camps where food is provided.[3]Beginning in December 2020 or January 2021, cash beneficiaries will also be limited to withdrawing just 20 percent of assistance in cash form—the remaining 80 percent must be spent in stores or online. 

Meanwhile, authorities have opened offices to help refugees secure travel documents to go to other EU countries, where EU law allows them to stay up to three months. The hope, some suspect, is that they will not return. The message is clear: refugees are not welcome in Greece.  

4.   Undermining Civil Society 

Even as the Greek government neglects its obligation to protect asylum seekers and refugees, it undermines others’ efforts to help. A new NGO law announced in November 2019 specifically targets organizations in the field of international protection, migration, and social inclusion. It requires NGOs and their staff and volunteers to enroll in a new “NGO transparency registry.” Amendments and ministerial decrees introduced in February, April, and May 2020 only added requirements and reduced eligibility for registration. They also established a new oversight body. A study commissioned by the European Parliament asserts the government also waged “smear campaigns” against NGOs to strengthen its “vague justifications” for the new rules.  

In July 2020, the Council of Europe’s Expert Council on NGO Law issued a critical opinion that the new rules violate EU law. By “rais[ing] both procedural and substantive difficulties with respect to freedom of association and the protection of civil society space,” and failing to consult NGOs in the process, the legal changes do not comply with European standards. The Council warns that “the provisions will have a significant chilling effect on the work of civil society,” which, in turn, “may produce a worrying humanitarian situation, given […] already existing gaps in service provision by the government and others […].”  

Indeed, the damage was already done. In June, 22 of the 40 organizations working in RICs had to suspend their operations. Local authorities in Lesvos similarly used regulatory procedures to force Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to close its COVID-19 clinic. Small- and medium-sized organizations have especially struggled to meet the burdensome requirements and manage other red tape.

Billed as an effort to improve transparency around NGO operations and finances, the rules instead curb these organizations’ ability to independently monitor government action. They also stigmatize civil society in a country where skepticism of NGOs already has a long history. Stifling independent voices is counterproductive at a time when the government is trying to defend itself against accusations of wrongdoing. In fact, although authorities have attempted to cast doubt on NGOs’ financial management, it is the government that has long been under investigation by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) for fund mismanagement. Most importantly, limiting civil society’s ability to operate does most harm to vulnerable people. Debilitating and vilifying organizations that provide essential support makes little sense—particularly in the midst of a public health crisis and when the government refuses to deliver the services itself. At a LIBE Committee debate in October, Greek and European officials alike expressed thanks for the important work of NGOs. Yet, the government had issued another directive exacerbating its harmful policies just the month before.  


Experts predict that the humanitarian and economic costs of the pandemic will drive more asylum seekers to the EU. Others warn that rising bilateral and regional tensions with Turkey could lead to a repeat of the February crisis. Greece must prepare now to handle these likely increases in asylum seekers.

In addition to improving asylum procedures and reception conditions, Greece must provide integration support for recognized refugees. Denying people critical assistance is an abdication of responsibility that creates new crises and foregoes opportunities to benefit from refugees’ contributions. Rather than spend resources on pushing refugees out of Greece, the government should prioritize access to housing, jobs, healthcare, and education. The problem is not a lack of funds, which the EU has provided. Rather, it is a question of political will and cooperation with non-governmental actors. The government should recognize civil society for the critical role it plays and facilitate—not impede—its operations. 

 Certainly, Greece cannot handle this alone. The EU and its Member States must also share the responsibility of caring for asylum seekers and refugees in the region. The proposed new EU Pact on Migration and Asylum provides an opportunity for the region to show solidarity with Greece. But effectively managing the situation requires a permanent, mandatory mechanism to support frontline countries like Greece and better distribute responsibility for asylum seekers.  

Closing the space for asylum and diminishing protections for vulnerable people in the midst of a pandemic is unlawful and inhumane. But as shown, these efforts are part of a concerted approach that precedes the pandemic. Without change, it is likely to persist. The Greek government must take immediate steps to prevent more harm and fulfill its obligation to protect asylum seekers and refugees. 


For the Greek government:

  • Investigate allegations of human rights violations at land and sea borders. Pushbacks, collective expulsions, use of force, and other reported incidents amount to unlawful returns, arbitrary deprivation of liberty, breaches of the prohibition on inhuman and degrading treatment, and failure to respect and protect the right to life. Parliament should immediately launch an independent and transparent investigation to ensure compliance with Greek, EU, and international law on the rights of asylum seekers. Any officials found to be involved must be held accountable. 
  • Decongest Reception and Identification Centers (RICs). Authorities should transfer vulnerable asylum seekers, including unaccompanied children, out of camps in the Aegean islands and ensure they receive adequate support in safe accommodation on the mainland or timely relocation to other EU member states. 
  • Improve conditions in RICs to ensure asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants have access to basic rights and services, including testing and treatment for COVID-19. The provision of adequate food and water, freedom of movement, access to sanitation and hygiene services, and mental and physical healthcare are more critical than ever during the ongoing pandemic.   
  • Reverse provisions of the new asylum law that obstruct access to asylum, and improve the capacity of the Greek Asylum Service to process applications in a timely but fair manner. Authorities must do their due diligence, giving thorough consideration of each individual’s circumstances to determine applicants’ need for asylum or international protection. They must allow sufficient time for applicants to provide the necessary information and facilitate access to legal assistance and translation services. These are necessary to help applicants navigate the complex asylum process and prevent rejections on arbitrary technical grounds.
  • Increase capacity and funding for socioeconomic integration programs for refugees. The government should restore the six-month grace period for beneficiaries of the ESTIA II program and funding for its implementing partners. It should also ease eligibility requirements for rental subsidies under the HELIOS program and increase capacity to help refugees secure accommodations.

  • Expand the quantity and type of support available to refugees, at least during the public health emergency. The government should extend, not restrict, access to cash assistance and special temporary accommodations in hotels, apartments, and other safe facilities. 
  • Eliminate burdensome restrictions and registration requirements for NGOs. The government must uphold civil society’s right to freedom of association. Officials should facilitate and cooperate with NGO efforts to provide services to asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants and refrain from toxic rhetoric and criminalization of NGOs.   

For the European Union: 

  • EU Member States should agree to relocate more unaccompanied minors and vulnerable asylum seekers from Greece. The new EU Pact should establish a predictable and equitable mechanism that requires Member States to share responsibility for asylum seekers and refugees, including by moving asylum seekers from overcrowded countries of arrival, like Greece. However, EU Member States should not wait for agreement on a new arrangement before offering to take in more asylum seekers from Greece. 
  • Investigate allegations of Frontex’s complicity in rights violations at Greece’s borders. The Frontex Management Board should immediately launch an independent and transparent investigation to determine if Frontex officers were involved in unlawful pushbacks and/or fail to report allegations of rights violations committed by Greek officers.
  • Establish an independent border monitoring mechanism. Final negotiations over the new EU Pact should establish an independent mechanism to ensure protection of fundamental rights at Member States’ borders. It should have a broad enough mandate to monitor and investigate allegations of all rights violations; be adequately funded; remain independent of national authorities; and involve independent organizations, such as NGOs. It should have the ability to take concrete action and hold authorities accountable.  
  • Increase oversight and transparency of Greece’s use of EU funding. Significant and persistent deficiencies in the quality and quantity of services for asylum seekers and refugees raise questions about how EU funds are being used. Impartial needs assessments and access to spending data should be regularly and readily available. 
  • Take legal action against Greece for its mistreatment of asylum seekers. Given extensive documentation of actions and decisions that violate EU law, the European Commission should exercise its oversight capacity and launch an infringement procedure against Greece. This is necessary to ensure the Greek government promptly takes corrective action to bring its policies and their implementation into compliance with EU law.


[1] “People of concern” include refugees, people in “refugee-like situations,” asylum seekers, and stateless individuals. 

[2] In Greece, refugees and beneficiaries of subsidiary protection have many of the same rights and obligations, including a 3-year residency permit and access to primary healthcare, education, work, and welfare benefits. Recognized refugees have the right to be reunited with family members in other countries and can apply for Greek citizenship after living in Greece continuously and legally for three years. Those with subsidiary protection status do not have a right to family reunification and can only apply for citizenship after seven years. All foreign nationals seeking citizenship must also meet “relevant conditions of social integration,” including citizenship exams. Source:

[3] In Greece, cash assistance is provided through the Greece Cash Alliance (GCA)—a group of NGOs led by UNHCR with funding from the European Commission and in cooperation with the Greek government. Refugees receive a “CGA cash card” that can be used to make direct purchases or withdraw cash. 

Cover Photo: An asylum seeker in Lesbos Island, Greece. (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)