On June 9, the Lawyers Association of Mitilini (Lesvos) sued the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) for obstructing access to asylum proceedings by its members. The lawyers claim that EASO officials and private security guards are prohibiting access to specific areas of the holding centers, also called hotspots, that host the EASO offices and the asylum proceedings.
“The [lawyers’] association will guard the rights of its members as well as refugees against anyone who creates obstacles to their representation according to law,” said Haris Petsikos, a lawyer and member of the association.
Tensions have been high on some of the islands due to almost daily outbreaks of violence among asylum seekers and concerns regarding the safety of officials deployed on the islands of Chios and Lesvos.
But the latest security measures affected access to the legal representatives of asylum seekers.
Since March 20, thousands of asylum seekers have been stranded in the Greek islands while awaiting responses on the admissibility of their asylum claims under the E.U.-Turkey deal. The deal aims to return to Turkey the Syrians and other third-country nationals who entered Greece after March 20 and whose asylum claims have been rejected.
But the returns are based on Turkey being a safe third country and Greece adhering to the European Asylum Procedure Directive’s standards. Since the deal started being implemented, the EASO has joined the Greek Asylum Service on the islands to assist Greece’s Regional Asylum Offices (RAO), which are usually situated within the holding centers.
The lawyers in Lesvos have accused the European agency of using increased security measures to deliberately limit uninhibited monitoring of how the asylum proceedings are being conducted. Reacting to questions about the unusual security measures, an EASO spokesperson confirmed that it has contracted G4S, a private global security company, to provide services inside refugee hotspots on the Greek islands due to “serious safety concerns” about their officials.
G4S is the world’s largest security company in terms of revenue and operates in 125 countries. Recent controversies involving the company include allegations of using immigrant-detainee labor in prisons, misconduct in child custodial institutions and manipulating police telephone data. Given this record, human rights groups and lawyers are understandably concerned about the rights and treatment of asylum seekers.
Civil society activists and advocacy groups such as Pro Asyl have also criticized the European asylum office for purportedly acting beyond its stated mandate. Some groups also claim that the EASO is helping impose a policy of en mass inadmissible decisions on asylum claims, in order to bolster the E.U.-Turkey deal.
European officials maintain that the reason for not allowing access to the asylum proceedings is the safety of their staff members. “Violent reaction from migrants and asylum applicants at hotspots led to repeated interruption of [the] asylum process in Lesvos and Chios. EASO personnel were forced multiple times to evacuate their working space within hotspots given that the conditions were not allowing [them] to perform their duties and ensuring the employees’ well-being,” said EASO spokesman Jean-Pierre Schembri.
Indeed, outbursts of violence have been an issue, especially in the period following the E.U.-Turkey deal, with refugees and asylum seekers being restricted to the temporary holding centers. The Regional Asylum Office (RAO) at Chios also recently closed down temporarily, citing security concerns.
The minutes of a coordination meeting that took place on May 30 in Chios and was attended by Frontex, EASO, UNHCR, various Greek authorities and a representative of the European Commission (E.C) revealed that “security” topped the list of priorities. The commission representative reporting on safety issues said, “in general the frequency and severity of fights among PoCs [Persons of Concern – asylum seekers] is increasing. Ramadan period may increase the tension.”
Still it is unclear under which mandate EASO employed a private security contractor to offer services within a public institution. An E.C. representative claimed that the Greek authorities have been consulted and are kept abreast of all developments. The EASO appointed G4S with a “directly awarded” contract, but the agency refrained from publicly disclosing financial details “due to commercial sensitivities.”
The E.U.-Turkey deal has faltered from the very start, especially given Greece’s struggle to return migrants and asylum seekers to Turkey. The latest questions about restricted access to asylum proceedings inside hotspots make the deal even more dubious.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.