Lost in a legal maze, 10+1 stories of asylum seekers in Europe

The documentary series ‘Lost in a legal maze’, produced with the support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation Greece, focuses on eleven asylum seekers, assisted by ELA lawyers, who retrace their legal journey since arriving in Greece.

Filmed in Greece in November 2023, the video series reveals the difficulties of navigating a legal system designed to fail them, from pushbacks to unjustified rejections to retroactive laws. 

Because being a refugee is not a choice.

Independence and dignity start with the possession of legal documents. Without it, these women and men are stuck in limbo, lost in a legal maze, on their own, and deprived of access to health care, economical autonomy and education, just to name a few.

This global strategy has a purpose: to reduce the number of refugees in Europe and to keep people in exile outside of society. Already invisible and trapped in camps in Greece, vulnerable to detention, pushbacks and human trafficking, asylum-seekers have to fight for their rights to be upheld from the first moment they set foot in Europe. Every step is a battle, these refugees are sharing how this fight is impacting their mental stability, their health, and their general safety.

In the light of the recent adoption of the new Asylum and Migration Pact in Brussels, we invite you to witness how these measures, which are already being partly implemented in Greece, are shaping people’s lives, from their own words. These attempts to normalise derogations to the asylum acquis should alarm us. Instead of restricting fundamental rights, we should ensure that they are respected by every Member State. Now more than ever, and ahead of the European elections, it is crucial to challenge the misconceptions spread by xenophobic narratives and advocate for a fairer approach to refugee rights.

Europe must live up to its commitments to provide protection and guarantee the respect of human rights for all. Europe must ensure that people in danger can ask for international protection without risking their lives.

   Download our press release here.

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Simon as many (if not all) people on the move has been victim of a pushback. A pushback consists in forcing an asylum seeker back to a country or across a border that they have just crossed, where they have no protection. They are illegal and considered a criminal act under the law.

Pushbacks are a violation of international law and Europe’s own set of rules. Without safe passage, people fleeing persecutions are forced to risk their lives in order to receive protection.

For more information, read the reportViolence Within State Borders: Greece from BVMN.

Jana and her two siblings had to cross Turkey to reach safety in Greece. They underwent the admissibility procedure. Introduced in 2021, this procedure aims at assessing whether Turkey is a safe country for asylum seekers from Syrians, Afghans, Somalis, Pakistanis and Bengalis who transited there before entering Greece. Despite having the same history, journey and asylum claim, Jana and her two siblings received different decisions and ended up separated. Jana and her brother, considered “inadmissible”, are stuck in limbo.

For more information, read the latest reviews about the EU-Turkey Deal written by Refugee Support Aegan.

While seeking asylum in Greece, Muhammad and his wife were subjected to an admissibility procedure. This procedure, introduced in 2021, aims to assess whether Turkey is a safe country for Syrian, Afghan, Somali, Pakistani and Bangladeshi asylum seekers who have passed through Turkey before entering Greece. Deemed “inadmissible” despite the evidence they provided, the authorities have denied them asylum, stating that they are safe in Turkey. Without examining their reasons for fleeing their country of origin, Muhammad and his wife have been rejected and are now in legal limbo.

For more information, read the latest reviews about the EU-Turkey Deal written by Refugee Support Aegan.

After being pushed back at the Turkish-Greek border, Arash managed to reach Greece again in search of safety. Due to the pandemic and the complete suspension of the asylum system, he was forced to live on the streets for two years, which led to a drastic deterioration in his health. Having been refused asylum twice, Arash had to surrender his asylum card, losing his right to work and social security. Because he doesn’t have access to proper medical care any more, Arash’s situation is getting worse every day.

Asylum-seekers whose first appeal is rejected are faced with the complete deprivation of their rights, leaving them in an extremely precarious situation. With the rejection of their asylum claim, they lose their accommodation, access to health care, access to cash assistance and the right to work, all at once.

 Aisha presented the asylum authorities with not one, but two absolute grounds for protection explicitly recognised in international law as conferring the right to refugee status. She suffers from a serious illness that be lethal if left untreated. But there’s no available treatment in her country of origin. This alone should have been enough for her to be granted protection.

After an initial rejection, she reapplied and explained that she had also been a victim of genital mutilation. Under the Geneva Convention, survivors of female genital mutilation are considered a particularly vulnerable group, that should be specifically protected. Yet again, Aisha was rejected, as many women victims of excision, when seeking protection in Greece. 

For more information, read our legal analysis on the systematic failure of the Greek asylum authorities and courts to properly meet the protection needs of survivors of FGM.

As a human rights activist, Paul had been persecuted in his country. Recognised as vulnerable, he was followed by doctors. His first application for asylum was rejected, despite the evidence of torture. Through therapy, Paul was able to reveal the additional torture he had suffered because of his sexual orientation. He applied for asylum again, his testimony supported by medical reports. Paul’s asylum claim was again rejected a second time.

Trans, queer, bisexual, gay and lesbian asylum seekers face the same difficulties as straight refugees, but carry a double burden: homo- and transphobia from other asylum seekers and Europeans, as well as from asylum officers. Worse, it is not uncommon for protection officers to ask very intimate questions about the applicant’s sexuality and sexual practices in order to check whether the person is really lesbian or gay. In the event that the applicant does not covey the classical stereotype that asylum officers expect that a queer person should present, their claims are instantly questioned and often rejected.

For more information, read the co-signed letter about the concerning trends that SOGIESC asylum seekers continue to face in Greece, coordinated by Fenix.

Ali and his wife arrived in Greece in 2017 with their children, to seek protection. They quickly integrated into society. When their asylum application was rejected, the asylum authorities referred their case to the Ministry of Migration for a humanitarian residence permit.

Indeed, the law reserved the right to apply for it for foreign nationals who are particularly vulnerable or well integrated. Ali and his wife collected all the necessary documents and submitted their application in November 2020. In early 2021, the Greek government passed a law with retroactive effect, stating that applications submitted after May 2020 wouldn’t be examined by the authorities. Ali and his family’s application was rejected.

The rejection of the family’s application violates an important principle in the justice system: It is forbidden to apply a new law to an event that occurred in the past, except if the retroactive application benefits the person. The family has made an appeal against this unfair decision. 

Layla arrived in Greece in her late 50s and, despite her vulnerability, had to wait many months before she was officially admitted to a refugee camp and started the asylum procedure. After two failed asylum applications, Layla applied a third time and revealed an important part of her story: that she had also been a victim of human trafficking in Turkey, a traumatic event she hadn’t been able to disclose before. Despite the evidence, she was rejected a third time and she complains of disdainful behaviour by asylum officials.

At 65, Layla is determined to make a fresh start. Between volunteering at a women’s shelter, learning English and Greek, and enrolling in a sewing course, she is doing much to integrate in Greece. But after six years of struggle, she remains in legal limbo, while her mental and physical health deteriorates.

Zakariya’s case is a Kafkaesque one that has left his family in a situation of extreme vulnerability. Zakariya and his two children were granted refugee status in Belgium in 2015. In 2017, the family was the victim of a pushback while on holiday in Greece.

Arrived in Turkey and deprived of all their documents, they have been disregarded by the Belgian consulate for two years. After resigning to smuggle themselves back to Greece in 2019, they found themselves in a new legal nightmare: Belgium refused to grant them a visa because they had lost their address in Belgium, and the Greek asylum service refused them access to the asylum procedure because they were already recognised refugees in Belgium.

While living in a refugee camp, the family has no access to proper education or health care.

After spending 11 months in France during his asylum procedure, Michael, who has a serious health condition, decided to return very briefly to his country of origin to collect additional evidence of his persecution for his political activism. As a result, he lost access to his asylum procedure in France and had to smuggle himself into Greece.

After his first rejection, Michael was unable to lodge an appeal as he was very ill and in hospital at the time. As he is eligible for a humanitarian residence permit, the asylum authorities referred his case to the Ministry of Migration. In fact, the law reserved the right to apply for it for foreigners who were particularly vulnerable or well integrated. Michael submitted his application in September 2020.

In early 2021, the Greek government passed a law with retroactive effect, stating that applications submitted after May 2020 wouldn’t be examined by the authorities. Michael’s application was immediately rejected. This rejection violates an important principle in the justice system: It is forbidden to apply a new law to an event that occurred in the past, except if the retroactive application benefits the person. Michael has made an appeal against this unfair decision. Although the judge ruled in favour of Michael, the authorities have still not complied with the decision. Seven years after applying for asylum in Greece, Michael is still undocumented, homeless and struggling to get medical care. His legal battle is far from over.

In 2016, 16-year-old Zoe and her family applied for asylum in Greece. After two rejections, they appealed twice against the negative decisions. The hearing of their second appeal was postponed six times and is still pending today, eight years after their arrival. In the meantime, Zoe and her brother have integrated into Greek schools and have succeeded in continuing their education. But there’s still no decision in their case, and Zoe remains an asylum seeker in a precarious and uncertain situation, unable to make any plans for her future.

Zoe faces a legal dilemma: Her asylum case is still pending after 8 years, and she’s now eligible for a residence permit. To apply for it, she’d have to abandon her asylum procedure, and she’d be prohibited to work for a year, hence losing her livelihood. Under these conditions, she’d be unable to continue her university studies.

 The 11 videos are published progressively on social media from 6 May to 8 June 2024.

Production: Heinrich Böll Foundation – Thessaloniki Office 
Executive production: Equal Legal Aid
Director: Sideris Nanoudis – Homo Ludens Productions 

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