Undercover Hippy Legal Services (Lesbos Update #3)

It has now been 9 days since we had a boat landing on the north coast and I am busier than ever! Since we haven't been receiving boats, I've been reading a lot about EU asylum procedures, qualifications, and returns in my tent at night and I've been making more trips to Moria with my guitar in the daytime. Some really magical things are coming together.

Last week I met an incredible group of people who fled political violence in their home country. This was on the one day when I left in a hurry without my guitar and one of these new friends told me I needed to come back and bring it with me because everyone where they come from is a singer. We spent most of the next day singing in the shade of an olive tree that straddles the fence line of the detention camp and shared a beautiful musical moment that brought us closer together. In between songs they told me bits and pieces of stories that reflected the very reasons why the international community felt compelled to protect human dignity with legal instruments like the Geneva Convention or the European Convention on Human Rights. And in spite of horrible experiences like kidnapping, torture,  murder, and now this seemingly indefinite detention that none of us understood, we were smiling, laughing, singing, dancing, clapping, tapping and whistling out all the parts we couldn't remember in an olive grove on a Greek island thousands of miles away from home.

The next day I got wind of a couple human rights lawyers coming to the island for the weekend with the intention of talking to asylum applicants about their cases. I tried and failed to put them in touch with my friends on the other side of the fence. But I did manage to pin them down for long enough to grill them about most of the aspects of EU asylum law that might help to clarify what advice we can give to people in Moria and they gave me a lot of homework that helped me understand what on earth is going on there. You will not be surprised to learn that it has a lot to do with the EU-Turkey agreement!

The EU-Turkey agreement declares Turkey to be a first country of asylum for Syrians and a safe third country for everyone else who entered the EU irregularly from there. According to the EU returns directive, Greece can declare asylum claims of applicants to be inadmissable if they come through such a place and it has the right to detain applicants for up to 6 months while it is taking steps toward their expulsion. Because mass deportations are indiscriminate in nature and therefore illegal, Greece is required to give each applicant a personal interview in a language they understand in order to assess the circumstances of their particular case; to give them a chance to review the transcript of this interview and the contents of their submission; and to submit an appeal if they are rejected or only granted subsidiary protection rather than refugee status. For non-Syrians, expulsion is automatically suspended while this process takes place, while Syrians need to ask for this specifically since they are presumed to have already received protection from Turkey. This has important implications for understanding Moria and other Greek detention centres but even more so for the asylum applicants who entered Greece irregularly after the entry-into-force of the EU-Turkey deal.

For the detention centres, it means they are legal as long as they are not found to be violating the European Convention on Human Rights. Given the extremely limited access to the detention facilities and the fact that many of the major NGOs who would normally be inside documenting these violations have pulled out in a political protest to the EU-Turkey deal, it is incredibly likely that these humanitarian concerns will start to be addressed after people start dying or when tensions boil over into chaos.

For the refugees, it means that it's incredibly important for them to understand that the asylum interviews that they are anxiously waiting to be called to are not an opportunity to tell Greek authorities why they think they should be allowed into their country. The interviews are a procedural safeguard in the deportation process that gives them an opportunity to identify exceptional circumstances which are particular to them and which render their impending deportation illegal. It is their chance to prove that Turkey is an unsafe place for them in particular or that, given the good chance of their being sent back to their home country from Turkey, the real and ongoing threat against them there is sufficient to warrant international protection.

Before Moria was turned into a detention centre, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was helping asylum applicants to tell their stories in a way that made sure they would not overlook any important details, but they have also pulled a lot of their services out of Lesbos to protest the EU-Turkey deal. My understanding is that they are present in Moria only as observers now. Today I was told that the advice oneperson got from them was to apply for asylum, which is great advice but not very thorough. In any case, literally none of the detainees who I have spoken to has had a clear idea of why they were imprisoned, how long they would be there or what would happen in their interview. So now I'm really excited to have a day job and it is this undercover hippie legal service that accidentally sprang to life over the course of the last week. Today I gave my nee friends 10 empty notebooks, a bunch of pens and the best legal advice I could muster about how to prepare for their asylum interviews. My boss told me that he would give me 500 more notebooks so we can work a little bit faster! The human rights lawyers from this weekend are coming back this week, so I'm hoping they can follow up with everyone. And now that I'm all fired up about it, I'm pretty dead set on finding a way to walk into Moria through the front door with the permission of the Greek Interior Ministry because it just seems absurd that anyone should object to the distribution of office supplies. I will keep you posted on it how that goes.