Athens, Greece — July 2016

Refugees and migrants in Athens, Greece are falling through the cracks of the systems designed to help them, largely due to a lack of communication from the Greek Asylum Service (GAS) and its partner from the international community, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This situation climaxed recently as the process of pre-registration devolved into chaos, confusion, and frustration.

GAS and UNHCR pre-register asylum-seekers as a necessary first step in claiming asylum in Greece and the EU Relocation or Family Reunification programs. Registrants receive an asylum-seeker’s card that protects them from detention or deportation and provides free medical care until their case is processed. During my months working in Athens alongside refugee communities, I carried a few of these pre-registration cards myself, as my younger Syrian friends feared that they might lose them while walking around the city.

Tens of thousands of asylum-seekers are left intimidated and discouraged by a system that is almost impossible to access. A detrimental message is sent to those who could not make it to pre-registration in time, encouraging some to return to their home countries despite dangerous and hostile conditions. Others choose illegal smuggling routes to Western Europe rather than waiting around for legal systems to get their act together; the first people I saw when I arrived on the Serbian-Hungarian border were two Syrian men I recognized from the port of Piraeus in Athens where I worked extensively. This means the pre-registration process is not just a bureaucratic barrier, but also has a real impact on irregular migration routes.

Pre-registration is to be inclusive for all refugees and migrants who can prove with a police letter that they arrived in Greece from January 1, 2015 to March 20, 2016. The actual number of people pre-registered in Athens was limited by gaps in information and guidance provided to immigrant communities, and by the remote location of the processing center. I witnessed this process firsthand and believe the Greek government and international community can do much better.

The UNHCR’s weekly report from July 28, 2016, said that 27,275 people had been pre-registered. Yet the UNHCR recognizes just over 57,000 refugees who have been in Greece since the borders shut in March 2016, a number that is likely an underestimate. When will the system register the 30,000+ who have not been processed?

On Monday, July 18, without any official notice from GAS or UNHCR, pre-registration for those living in informal sites began in Skaramagas Camp, thirteen kilometers away from central Athens. There was no targeted information campaign to inform asylum-seekers of this change.

That day, my co-volunteer was sent a notice from UNHCR about pre-registration opening, but this flier was not widely circulated to urban immigrant communities. Because many urban refugees and migrants are living in squats, she called other volunteers and found four squats that together house over 1,500 people had not been given any information regarding the newly opened pre-registration process.

The location of pre-registration outside of Athens also disadvantaged those who are unfamiliar with local public transport, do not speak English or Greek to navigate signage or ask for help, or do not have access to mobile navigation systems. To shorten the journey and avoid the increasingly long line in the afternoon sun, the organization’s van transported 50 people from Exarchia and the port of Piraeus. Recognizing the issue of transportation, UNHCR said it would establish a shuttle service leaving from Omonia Square, but again, no fliers were distributed to inform people.

On Thursday the 21st, only one shuttle bus left from Omonia before pre-registration was overwhelmed with people and was closed for the day. Nobody waiting for the shuttle to return was updated. UNHCR expressed a concern over security and evicted all of their staff from the premise, leaving those in line confused and angry.

A group of roughly 600 Pakistani nationals stayed in hope of being allowed to pre-register, some going days without food or water and sleeping outside the gates to the camp to be first in line the next day. Greek police refused my pleas to distribute aid to those outside the gates while they waited. When I asked those in line why they were still waiting, a Pakistani man described his people’s frustration in feeling that they did not have the same access to pre-registration as Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghan populations even though many of them meet asylum eligibility requirements. At one point, the men began to self organize by writing a list of names of the people left waiting outside to give to the pre-registration desk when it opened.

While hundreds of migrants stood outside the gates of the camp upset, disorganized, exhausted, dehydrated, and underfed, UNHCR personnel were nowhere to be found. I watched two police officers in charge stand looking at their phones under the shade of a tree.

For the next few days, pre-registration opened in the morning but was suspended early due to high numbers of Pakistanis remaining outside the camp. After the number of people diminished, pre-registration re-opened to a targeted group of refugees in specific squats.

Those who missed pre-registration in Skaramagas must call the asylum service through Skype to submit their asylum application between specific times of day depending on the language they speak. There is only one person answering Skype calls at the GAS office. To no surprise, many of these Skype calls go unanswered for weeks or months.

Multiple avenues of communication to provide instantaneous information about the asylum process were at the immediate disposal of GAS and UNHCR and should have been utilized. The inefficiency in the pre-registration process highlights the lack of planning and disregard to the rights of refugees and migrants from both GAS and UNHCR. At the very least, the pre-registration program should be reinstated with a targeted information campaign to finish what was started. Both organizations need to utilize the resources, personnel, and political power to achieve the standards set by international law they claim to follow.