Lorraine Leete is a lawyer and coordinator of the Legal Centre Lesvos, an organisation that, since 2016, has been providing free legal information and assistance to migrants arriving by sea on the island of Lesvos. In addition to this legal service, the Legal Centre Lesvos also documents human rights violations at the Greek-Turkish border. Leete, a US citizen, says she became interested in migration issues after graduating with a law degree. After graduating from law school, she worked providing legal support and representation to migrants arriving in the United States. She also worked against human rights violations by multinational companies, and it was precisely this that led her to settle in Colombia, where she lived for five years. “In Colombia, she litigated against extractive companies and US corporations that violated the rights of peasants,” she explains.
After Colombia, he spent some time in Palestine to “see first-hand what was happening, and to observe the involvement and responsibility of the United States and European countries in the violation of the rights of the Palestinian population”. In 2016, after the migration crisis of 2015, he settled in Greece, precisely when the Agreement between Greece and Turkey was signed, which aimed to control the migratory flow by returning migrants to Turkey. “I joined other lawyers who had previously worked in Calais on migration issues and we decided to set up the Lesbos Legal Centre with the aim of supporting people arriving from Turkey”. And it is from there that he and the legal team he coordinates try to shed some light on the shadows of this reality.
To this day, the Aegean island of Lesbos continues to be a testing ground for the EU’s anti-immigration policies. It is an area where the human rights of those seeking refuge are constantly violated: unfair procedures, hot returns and collective deportations, criminalisation and restriction of movement are some of the common practices.
The Greek government claims that its policy is strict but fair, but the truth is that the refugee camps, some of them already converted into detention centres, are increasingly resembling open-air prisons. While the numbers of migrant arrivals are nowhere near those of 2015 and 2016, when the influx increased due to the escalation of the war in Syria, the number of arrivals during the first months of 2022 is already higher than during the same period in 2021. Those fleeing their home countries arrive in Greece via Turkey, crossing the Evros River or the Aegean Sea, in the vast majority of cases at the hands of the mafias operating in both countries.
On Lesvos, migrants usually arrive on the northern part of the island, as the journey is shorter. Once there, they would be directed to the Moria Reception and Identification Centre, where the asylum process would begin. We speak in the past tense because the Moria camp burned down during the night of 8-9 September 2020 and was practically destroyed. Until that time it was the largest reception centre for migrants on the continent.
The asylum procedure can take different paths depending on the conditions of each person (if they have family in another European country, if they want to stay in Greece or apply for asylum in another country, etc.). The asylum procedure can take up to a year or even longer, depending on the case. In many cases, it is unsuccessful and migrants are returned to Turkey. Once there, it’s back to square one. From scratch, or even from minus one, because migrants who are returned at the border are often stripped of all their belongings: they return naked, without mobile phones and even without passports, as reports from many NGOs denounce.
Turkey, a state that does not recognise refugee status, considered a safe country by the EU and Greece, has been waging a struggle against the Kurdish movement led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for more than four decades. Since then, millions of internally displaced persons and hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees have fled their regions of southeastern Anatolia.
In this context, the refugee, the weakest link, is the scapegoat of all political groups. At first they were welcomed with open arms, and became cheap labour for local businessmen. But after years and years of waiting, in addition to growing economic weakness, nobody wants them any more: except for the pro-Kurdish HDP, all other parties promise to send refugees back to Syria.
However, it would be unfair to look only at Greece and Turkey and claim that only these two countries do not respect international conventions upholding human rights: all other European states also do so by not honouring the relocation commitments they have made in recent years.
In November 2021, the European Union announced that it would spend €12.8 billion on border control and capacity building for Frontex (the European Border and Coast Guard Agency) by 2027, far more than the €2.8 billion spent on the same task between 2014 and 2020.
An investigation by Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel, SRF Rundschau, Republik and Le Monde during 2020 and 2021 concludes that Frontex was involved in almost 1,000 cases of hot returns of asylum seekers. This was done through the Greek coast guard, but with the full knowledge of the European agency. This and other scandals at the agency led to the resignation of Fabrice Leggeri, its executive director, in April 2022. This situation was fully known to the European Parliament, which, in June 2021, published a report concluding that EU border guards condoned violations of fundamental rights and reproached them for not doing what was necessary to ensure the protection of migrants. However, “(…) The group found no conclusive evidence of Frontex directly carrying out hot returns and/or collective expulsions in cases of serious incidents”, reads the report’s conclusions. The matter does not stop there: recently a report by the anti-fraud agency OLAF has concluded that there are or have been irregularities in the management of the agency.
Where these practices are definitively demonstrated is in one of the latest reports by Human Rights Watch (HRW), which concludes that “(…) Greek police are detaining asylum seekers at the land border between Greece and Turkey on the Evros River, in many cases stripping them of most of their clothes and stealing their money, phones, and other possessions. They then hand the migrants over to masked men, who force them into small boats, take them to the middle of the Evros River and force them into the freezing water, making them wade to the riverbank on the Turkish side. Apparently, none of them are properly registered in Greece or allowed to file asylum applications”.
Since you arrived in Greece, what has been the hardest moment you have experienced as coordinator of the Legal Centre Lesvos?
I arrived in 2016, after the wave of 2015, when most people were fleeing Syria. Since 2016, the hardest time is definitely now. Since then, I have seen a continuous deterioration of the possibility to access the asylum procedure and the possibility to have a fair procedure to protect the rights of the people arriving has almost disappeared. I have seen the daily violence faced by people trying to cross borders; I have also seen increased oppression and pressure by states against organisations that defend migrants’ rights.
What makes the current moment particularly hard?
The immediate deportations. We have been documenting these collective deportations for more than two years. This is the legal term we use, but it is too abstract. People are being abandoned at sea, in inflatable rafts without engines, without telephones and in the middle of the night. It is inhumane. Many of these people die; and it is our duty to document it. We are not the only ones who do this; the UNHCR has also denounced these practices. The Greek coast guard bears a lot of responsibility for this.
And what does the Greek government say?
From the highest political spheres they deny it. The Greek Minister of Migration [Notis Mitarakis] appeared in front of the European Parliament and denied everything. Moreover, those of us who defend human rights and monitor all this are accused of being agents of the Turkish state and of collaborating with mafias. At the moment, we are not facing criminal charges, but the risk of being criminalised is increasing.
Did the Greek government take advantage of the outbreak of the pandemic to tighten conditions for asylum seekers?
Before the pandemic, the Greek government had already announced that it intended to increase the number of detention centres for asylum seekers. With the pandemic, they used the excuse of public health protection to turn many refugee camps into detention centres where people’s mobility was restricted. Much more restricted, in fact, than that of the non-refugee population. The pandemic has made it possible to implement what the Greek government had in mind beforehand.
How difficult is it to obtain refugee status?
Very, very difficult. The system as such is problematic as it is part of an exclusive migration policy, but over the last few years changes have been promoted that have aimed to further hinder access to refugee status. In Greece, since the agreement with Turkey was signed in 2016, the situation has worsened. [The agreement stipulates that all irregular arrivals to the Aegean islands, including asylum seekers, will be returned to Turkey, which is considered a safe country by the EU]. If you are from Syria, Turkey is considered a safe country; also if you are from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Somalia or Pakistan. This has blocked access to asylum.
What happens when they are denied asylum?
You can appeal. The process looks like a fair process, but there are many obstacles to appeal [such as access to a lawyer, access to the asylum office, etc.], and the result is that people don’t have access to a fair procedure. You have to think that the asylum law itself is an exclusive migration policy: it talks about protecting refugees, but in practice, it is not. The definition of refugee is in the 1951 Geneva Convention; currently it does not correspond to reality, nor to the many legitimate reasons why people are forced or decide to migrate from one country to another.
The Legal Centre Lesvos, which you coordinate, has a dual line of work.
Yes. on the one hand, we legally accompany people who arrive and try to provide legal support to defend their rights in the asylum process. We also intervene when they are criminalised or victims of abuse of state power. On the other hand, we defend migrants facing criminal charges and we also represent migrants who have been victims of violent border policies. This is related to the increase of hot returns and violence; situations that we monitor in order to denounce them and to represent the survivors of these violations in Greek and international fora.
The director of Frontex (European Border and Coast Guard Agency), Fabrice Leggeri, has recently resigned after several scandals for covering up violations of migrants’ and refugees’ rights. Do you think there could be a change of direction in this organisation?
There is evidence to show that Frontex is involved in immediate returns. It is important to shine a light on this issue and for there to be public knowledge and accountability. We want them to recognise their role in the violence against the people arriving. Nor should we forget the role of the Greek coast guard in all of this. Today, even if Frontex were to leave the Aegean Sea, the practice would not change. To the question, the answer is no, I don’t think the resignation of the director will change the direction of the agency.
In recent months we have seen how the EU has welcomed refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine with open arms. There seems to be a double standard, doesn’t there?
Exactly. What has happened with the Ukrainian refugees gives us the possibility to show that it is possible to build a fair migration regulation. It is possible to give asylum to people fleeing, and it is possible to do it legally. Legalisation of migrants is possible. This is an opportunity to show that there is a way. European countries have shown that these people can arrive in a regularised way; and this applies to people of all nationalities.
At the recent NATO summit in Madrid, several countries lifted the arms embargo on Turkey and new agreements were reached with Turkey that could lead to new refugee flows.
The situation could get worse. The tug-of-war between Greece and Turkey has been going on for years; and migrants are the first victims of the redefinitions of power relations. Turkey uses migrants against Greece and vice versa. Places like Lesbos always end up being affected by political decisions; it was evident when the sanctions against Iran took place, for example: citizens of Afghanistan living in Iran at the time were the first to feel the impact They were forced to leave Iran. The same thing happened with the regime change in Afghanistan. We suffered and will continue to suffer from the political decisions.
Are you aware of the situation at the southern border, at the Melilla fence?
More or less. This work is very absorbing and you get immersed in the day-to-day bubble. We respond to daily emergencies, but yes, we are in contact with different solidarity movements that also confront border violence. It is, at the end of the day, a shared responsibility. We should be better organised to confront these practices.