Since March 2018 the Refugee Law Clinic Berlin is running a legal information project on the Greek island of Samos. The project aims at ensuring access to justice, also at the borders of the European Union. A team of legal counsellors is permanently present on the island, to provide workshops and individual information sessions on EU asylum procedures and refugees’ rights.
Since the implementation of the EU-Turkey Deal and the introduction of hotspots on the Greek islands, the situation of refugees has deteriorated. Along with the urgent need for improved living conditions, it is vital that independent legal support is made available to asylum seekers before they enter their interviews. The Refugee Law Clinic Berlin has taken action towards this end, sending a team of legal counsellors to the hotspot on Samos and thus providing independent legal information.
The project was initiated in March 2018 on an ad hoc basis for six weeks. Since then, the number of refugees on Samos seeking legal support has increased considerably. With generous support of the Mercator Foundation, the project was able to operate and professionalise during the past year. A team of legal counsellors is present on the island on a permanent basis, assisting asylum seekers in legal information workshops and individual sessions. Main areas are procedural rights during the interviews, rights of vulnerable people and family reunification. As the funding has not been extended, however, the project will now depend on donations and new institutional support for a long-term prospect.
The implementation of the EU-Turkey Deal and the introduction of hotspots on the Greek islands has exacerbated the situation of refugees on Samos. Due to procedural delays and the backlog of cases, refugees are forced to live in refugee camps, sometimes for several years — under inhumane sanitary and social conditions. On Samos alone there are at times over 6.000 refugees, in a camp initially designed for 650 people.
While a few organisations are dedicated to improving the humanitarian situation on the island, there is barely any access to legal information for refugees before their asylum interviews. The capacities of the few Greek lawyers on Samos are already drained by appeals against negative asylum decisions. As a result, asylum seekers often do not comprehend the asylum procedure and are unaware of their rights within it. Many are, for instance, not aware that their asylum claims will not be addressed right away if they entered through Turkey, but merely whether Turkey is a safe country for them to bring their claims. The complexity that merged interviews introduced, where the admissibility and eligibility of claims are assessed together, often comes as a surprise to asylum seekers. It is here, that independent legal information can improve their chances to a fair asylum procedure.
The Refugee Law Clinic Berlin is determined to make a contribution, so that independent legal information might not only be provided in Germany, but also at the EU’s borders.
We thereby concentrate our efforts on a clearly defined task. We perceive ourselves as a neutral actor, who provides information on the fundamental rights within the asylum procedure as well as the legal criteria that an asylum request is assessed by. Applicants are thus empowered to take the active role that any administrative procedure guarantees according to European law.
To this end, we have established a small office on the island, the Samos Legal Centre. From within our counsellors in Berlin and throughout Europe, we are sourcing teams of volunteers, so that one team will always be present on Samos. The teams are made up of one legal coordinator (minimum first state examination), two to three counsellors and three translators. Participants must have completed the legal training in migration law of the RLC Berlin or possess equivalent qualifications. In order to prepare the teams for the specificities of counselling on Samos, they receive additional training prior to their departure.
In regular workshops in different languages (e.g. Arabic, Farsi, French), counsellors present general information on the EU-asylum system and fundamental procedural rights in asylum interviews. Additionally, they schedule appointments with asylums seekers, in order to address individual questions. An emphasis is set on interview preparation, the rights of vulnerable persons and assisting in claims for family reunification according to the Dublin-III-Regulation.
On Samos, the infrastructure for the teams is provided for: RLC Berlin cooperates with numerous organisations active on the island. The costs of counsellors’ accommodation is covered as well as a compensation for the coordinator.
Since March 2018 the project was successfully implemented on Samos and sustainable structures were established. From then on the work on Samos was professionalised, thanks to funding by the Mercator Foundation. In the meantime we have managed to provide legal assistance in more than one thousand individual cases. Unfortunately the general situation of refugees on the island has deteriorated rather than improved. It is still apparent: the demand for independent legal information is overwhelming. The infrastructure to move the project forward is established. There are numerous counsellors and translators ready to dedicate their time as volunteers. With new funding, necessary from January 2020 onwards, the project could be continued and further professionalised.
In the long-term the project shall be a first step of a European network of Refugee Law Clinics. Migration and the reception of refugees are essentially a European challenge. Safeguarding the rule of law in this context is a common responsibility that also falls on the European civil society. Projects like the present shall in the future be established as cooperations of law clinics all across Europe. While local law clinics shall take charge of a project, counsellors and financial resources will be sourced from the European network. The objective is to address a European challenge with a truly European approach. This way, Europe’s civil society will not stand by, while access to justice is restricted at the European borders, but engage in action.