Refugees feel trapped as Greek government tightens asylum policy

Greek authorities are criticized for making life difficult for refugees and endangering asylum seekers. A tougher approach is to see refugee camps closed – and stays reduced in government-supported housing.

There has been a sharp drop in arrivals from Syria and other war-torn countries since a peak in 2015, when more than 860,000 people landed in Greece. The country is considered a gateway on the migrant route to Europe.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), arrivals last year amounted to around 9,100. It is estimated that there are currently around 120,000 refugees remaining in Greece.

Refugees land on the island of Lesvos, Greece, after crossing the Aegean Sea on September 17, 2015.
Refugees disembark after crossing the Aegean Sea on September 17, 2015 in Lesbos, Greece. More than 860,000 migrants and refugees landed in Greece that year from war-torn Syria and other countries.

Trapped and unsupported

Life is tough for many of these people, including 19-year-old Sedriki, who does not want his full name published for security reasons. He says he feels trapped in an unwelcoming environment.

Sedriki fled conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo two years ago after the rest of his family was killed. In Greece, he benefited from housing dedicated to asylum seekers awaiting the outcome of their application.

In July, he received a notification that his candidacy had been successfully recognized, but he was shocked afterwards.

“I was told to leave my apartment in a month and return the key,” says Sedriki. New procedures allow asylum seekers to stay in public accommodation for just one month instead of six.

Sedriki, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who was told to leave the center for asylum seekers in a month.
Sedriki, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, says he was told to leave the center for asylum seekers in a month.

Sedriki has little education, no professional skills and does not speak Greek. He tries to find a job, without success.

“I need money to rent an apartment. But it’s almost impossible to find a job and earn a living without education and without language skills. I don’t know where to turn,” he says.

Sedriki fears soon becoming homeless: “Should I sleep in a park, all alone in Europe, without family or friends? This thought keeps me up at night.

A facility in Athens where asylum seekers can stay while awaiting asylum procedures.
A facility in Athens where asylum seekers can stay while awaiting the outcome of their application.

A stressed economy

The Greek government’s approach comes at a time when the country’s economy – already badly hit by the 2009 economic crisis – has been brought to its knees by the coronavirus pandemic.

Closed shops and offices are commonplace in Athens as well as in the smaller islands. Greece’s unemployment rate is at 12 percent high.

In a series of measures affecting refugees, camps have been closed and replaced with new European Union-funded settlements on Samos and other islands. Critics have compared the facility to a prison because of its three-meter high walls and surveillance cameras.

Accelerated asylum procedures, such as Sedriki’s shortened stay in the asylum center, are based on laws that came into force in 2020.

Government officials say the tougher measures are aimed at helping refugees integrate more quickly and effectively into Greek society.

Shops and offices closed in Athens.
The Greek economy has been hit hard by the pandemic, and closed shops and offices are commonplace in Athens.

Vulnerable people at risk

The policy is intensely debated. Some claim it puts vulnerable people at risk.

“Once they are recognized as refugees, state assistance ends and they are expected to integrate very quickly,” says Louise Donovan, UNHCR’s head in Greece. “We have seen that it can be very difficult for people.”

A former Greek immigration minister, Yannis Mouzalas, also spoke.

“This government is cutting various refugee-related expenses. It believes that the harder it makes life for asylum seekers, the more it will work as a push factor.”

Former Greek Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas during an interview.
Former Greek migration minister Yannis Mouzalas accuses the current government of deliberately making life difficult for asylum seekers.

UNHCR is continuing its work in Greece as the war in Ukraine and global food shortages could trigger a new wave of migration from Africa and the Middle East.