When Vahid Pejman, a former journalist from Afghanistan, arrived in Greece with his wife and 11-year-old daughter, he anticipated a brief stay before heading somewhere more welcoming.
“I knew about the financial crisis here, but I wasn’t planning to stay more than a week,” he told IRIN, nearly a year later. “I didn’t mind where I went, as long as they accepted me and looked at me like a human.”
But an attempt to board a ferry to Italy using fake EU passports failed, costing him the last of his money. Out of options, Pejman decided to apply for asylum in Greece.
Considered a gateway to the rest of Europe, Greece receives an estimated 130,000 undocumented migrants a year, most of them via its land border with Turkey. Many have become trapped since - under pressure from its European neighbours, Greece has tightened controls at previously popular exit points like the port at Patras.
Greece is ill-equipped to host the estimated 810,000 irregular migrants now living in the country. Deeply embroiled in a debt crisis, the government has accepted a bailout package from the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank (collectively known as the Troika) in return for implementing drastic austerity measures, including widespread public sector job and salary cuts. Youth unemployment in Greece now stands at 55 percent, while close to 25 percent of the general population is out of work.
Some of the stranded migrants, with no other recourse, apply for asylum, clogging the system with a backlog of 30,000 applications.
“Pink cards” - proof of asylum application - protect holders from arrest for six months and allow them to work, but only about 20 are issued per week to the hundreds who queue outside the Attica Aliens Directorate in Athens every Saturday.
Pejman managed to secure a card; the next hurdle was an interview with the police, who grant refugee status to just 2 percent of applicants. An appeals level has a higher recognition rate - around 35 percent - according to UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) spokesperson Ketty Kahayioylou. But reaching this stage can take years. Pejman did not get that far.
He was summoned for the police interview four times. Each time, he waited hours before being told to return a month later.
“The last time, I didn’t bother going,” he said. “I’ve let my [asylum-seeker] permit expire, and I’m waiting for repatriation back to Afghanistan.”
An overhaul of Greece’s asylum system was passed into law in 2011 and set to become operational in January 2012; it would have moved the adjudication of asylum applications from the police to a new, autonomous asylum service. But the government’s austerity measures have since frozen public sector recruitment, delaying the overhaul. Meanwhile, the current system is so problematic that many migrants with genuine asylum claims do not bother applying.
“This is the paradox,” said Kahayioylou. “Those coming from refugee-producing countries don’t want to apply because they don’t trust the system, and they want to get to other countries.”
Previously, migrants who applied for asylum in Greece but then travelled to other European countries risked being returned to Greece - a result of the European Union’s Dublin II regulation, which makes the member state where an asylum seeker first arrives responsible for handling their application.
But two 2011 rulings by the EU’s Court of Justice found that asylum seekers should not be returned to countries where they could face inhuman or degrading treatment - Greece was judged to be one such country, mainly because of its notoriously poor detention conditions. Most EU countries have stopped transferring asylum seekers there.
These poor conditions are another deterrent for potential asylum seekers; those who apply are often kept in detention for up to six months while their application is considered.
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“Some would rather be deported than remain in detention,” said Maria Papamina, an attorney with the Greek Council for Refugees, an NGO offering free legal advice to migrants and assistance to those with genuine asylum claims.
Pejman, like other migrants IRIN interviewed, has applied for voluntary return to his country through an International Organization for Migration (IOM) project aiming to help 7,000 irregular migrants stranded in Greece return home over the next 12 months.
“I think they’ve come to the end of the road,” said Daniel Esdras of IOM’s Greece office. “In the past, it was easier for them to go to another European country. Now it’s next to impossible, so they’re trapped here. Now on top of that, they have the threat of detention, so I think the only really humanitarian solution for them is voluntary repatriation.”
But since the programme began in September, only 605 migrants have returned home and 8,000 applications are pending. “We have people queuing outside the office every day,” said Esdras.
Successful applicants must wait up to a month for their home countries to issue identity and travel documents before they receive 300 euros and the flight home.
“It’s my only way,” said Hamid, a 16-year-old Afghan who has been sleeping in an Athens park for the last 15 months and is now awaiting repatriation.
“I’ve spent over a year like this and all of my family’s savings. Greece is different than what I was expecting - from the earth to the sky.”