A post-modern Greek tragedy - austerity and asylum in times of crisis

Louis Karaolis
3 April 2014

Greece is in a quagmire.  Its well-documented problems include the highest level of unemployment in the euro-zone, cuts to public health care, and waves of extreme nationalism including acts of violence directed at refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers.

The official line, according to the 2014 budget passed by Greek lawmakers, is that the Greek economy is set for growth at a rate of 0.6%, following six consecutive years of economic turmoil.  Yet that prospect ought not to instil a false sense of security.  Austerity - the reduction of government expenditure in a bid to redress debt levels and restore growth – has had detrimental effects on pre-existing problems.  One such problem is the Greek asylum system.

As with all member states of the European Union (EU), the Greek asylum system is governed by the so-called Dublin Regulation, which is a piece of legislation directly applicable in all EU member states.  The Regulation provides that the member state in which an asylum-seeker enters the EU is responsible for processing the asylum application.  Thus, if an asylum-seeker enters the EU via Greece and travels to the UK to lodge an asylum application, the Regulation permits the UK authorities to send the asylum-seeker back to Greece.  As an integral part of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), the Regulation is based on the presumption that member states will comply with their human rights obligations towards asylum-seekers. 

The problem is that Greece has not been abiding by its human rights obligations.  And it is not hard to discern why.  Situated at the external frontier of the EU, a staggering 90% of illegal immigrants in the EU entered via Greece in 2010.[1]  Many of these are asylum-seekers, and whether they apply in Greece or in other EU member states the end result is the same - the overloading of the Greek asylum system resulting in deplorable detention and reception conditions, and unfair procedures for handling claims.    

Cue a divine intervention by the Court of Justice of the EU (ECJ) in December 2011 in the N.S. case.  The case concerned an Afghan national who applied for asylum in the UK having entered the EU via Greece.  Resisting his return to Greece, he asked the UK authorities to exercise their discretion (as permitted by the Regulation) and accept responsibility for his application on the basis that returning him to Greece would result in violations of his human rights guaranteed by EU law.

The ECJ ruled that member states ‘‘may not transfer an asylum seeker to the Member State responsible [...] where they cannot be unaware that systematic deficiencies in the asylum procedure and in the reception conditions of asylum seekers in that Member State amount to substantial grounds for believing that the asylum seeker would face a real risk of being subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment’’. Applied to the facts of the case, it meant that the UK authorities could not transfer the Afghan national back to Greece.  Indeed, following the ECJ’s ruling all transfers to Greece by EU member states have been frozen.

The decision in N.S. was unsurprising given that the European Court of Human Rights made a similar determination in the case ofM.S.S. v Belgium and Greece in January 2011.  It held that the transfer of an Afghan asylum-seeker from Belgium back to Greece would be in violation of Art.3 and Art.13 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In January 2014, a revised Dublin Regulation came into force, as part of a recast package of the CEAS, incorporating some key changes and the salient part of the ECJ’s ruling in N.S.  Yet the revised Regulation is just a palliative measure.  It does not address fundamental problems faced by asylum-seekers who remain in Greece, but simply results in other member states assuming responsibility for asylum applications in those cases where asylum-seekers manage to leave Greece.  

 The first existential problem is Greece’s geographical location.  Add to the mix regional instability in countries like Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan and a heavy toll is placed on member states located on the southern and eastern borders of the EU to absorb refugees.  Greece’s ability to process applications and to provide dignified reception conditions for asylum-seekers is also made harder by austerity measures imposed by the Troika –as illustrated in the gritty documentary ‘Into the Fire’.  

Even worse, while asylum-seekers are entitled to the same health care rights as nationals, this is so only if asylum applications are successful.  Even then, financial cuts to public hospitals following the crisis mean that asylum-seekers seldom receive adequate health care.  In addition, austerity combined with an overloaded asylum system has given rise to extreme nationalism in the shape of the far-right party - Golden Dawn.  The driving force behind Golden Dawn’s thug mentality appears to be that if ordinary Greek citizens cannot make ends meet, then ‘outsiders’ ought to be punished.  

In terms of solutions, in November 2012 a 10.5 km fence was constructed with EU assistance along the land border between Greece and Turkey. Yet, as Amnesty International noted, this will have the effect of hindering ‘the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution’.  A new Asylum Authority was also established under Greek law in January 2011, but it has been slow to get going and, as of November 2013, only 213 applicants had been granted protection, out of the many thousands of asylum-seekers in Greece.  The European Commission has been pouring hundreds of millions of euros into Greece through various funds, yet the emphasis seems to be on insulating EU borders more than on improving conditions for asylum seekers.

All in all, in a post-modern world which eschews radical solutions to fix large-scale problems there can only be trade-offs.  If the CEAS is to function more equitably, then member states that are not overloaded ought to share the burden with their fellow member states via mandatory ‘relocation’ of asylum seekers. But whether the EU can muster an ethos of solidarity remains to be seen.  What has been seen, however, is Greece as the central protagonist in a double European crisis of debt and asylum.  Reconstituting failed asylum systems with only minor alterations may only lead to more of the same.


[1] Joined Cases C-411/10 and C-493/10 N.S. v Secretary of State for the Home Department and M.E. and others v Refugee Applications Commissioner and another [2012] 2 CMLR 9  [87]

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