African Asylum Seekers Had Their Claims Rejected Due To 'Lack Of Interpreters,' Non-Profits In Greece Say

Legal aid organizations are sounding the alarm after nearly 30 asylum seekers from Sub-Saharan African countries were denied asylum by Greek officials in Lesbos due to their "inability" to secure interpretation services for their cases.

In a letter signed by several organizations, including HIAS Greece, the Danish Refugee Council and Equal Rights Beyond Borders, aid groups claim that from November 15 to 20 the Regional Asylum Office of Lesbos had "without any prior notice, served negative asylum decision on 28 asylum seekers... without conducting the legally mandatory asylum interview."

The groups said the asylum office had sought to justify its decision "on the basis of its 'inability' to secure interpretation for languages spoken by the asylum seekers."

"The reasoning of the Administration, which was repeated in an identical manner in all the decisions, was that 'the asylum seeker did not attend a personal interview since repeated attempts to find interpretation services for the mother tongue and the language of communication of the asylum seeker proved unsuccessful'," the legal aid organizations claimed.

In one case, they said, an asylum application was rejected without conducting an interview because it was "impossible" to find a translator who could speak Portuguese.

"The omission of the personal asylum interview due to the inability to provide interpretation constitutes a violation of EU law," the groups claimed.

"Conducting an asylum interview is a cornerstone of the process of examining an application for international protection, as it provides applicants with the opportunity to fully explain the reasons why they were forced to leave their country and are unable to return," they said. "Any omission of a personal interview constitutes a violation of Directive 2013/32/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 26 June 2013 on common procedures for granting and withdrawing international protection."

The groups said that the majority of the applicants who received rejections had their requests denied just a few days after they had filed them.

Given the short turnaround, they suggested it was unlikely that asylum officials had made a strong effort to find "suitable interpretation" for asylum seekers.

Some asylum seekers they said, had been sent "fictitious invitations" to asylum interviews supposedly scheduled for the same day that their rejection letters were issued.

The decisions were also written in languages that "it is uncertain if the asylum seekers understand."

Lesbos, Greece
A woman and her child sit in the Moria refugee camp which was built for 3,000 people, but at the time held at least 13,000 on October 09, 2019 in Lesbos, Greece. The Greek government is seeking to shut down the camp and use detention-center-like facilities to house migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. Christopher Furlong/Getty

"Moreover, the hearings of the appeals were scheduled in just a few days and the asylum seekers were never informed about their right to free legal aid, rendering the right to an effective remedy a dead letter," the groups warned.

In addition to HIAS Greece, Equal Rights Beyond Borders and the Danish Refugee Council, the letter was also signed by Refugee Support Aegean, the Greek Council for Refugees, Legal Center Lesbos and FENIX Humanitarian Legal Aid.

It comes as the Greek government seeks to shut down refugee camps on Lesbos, Chios and Samos in a bid to see migrants, asylum seekers and refugees housed in facilities that have been described by immigration advocates as "detention centers."

The government has also already begun moving asylum seekers on the Greek islands to the country's mainland, with the goal of relocating as many as 20,000 people.

Newsweek has contacted Refugee Support Aegean, which shared the letter, and the Regional Asylum Office of Lesbos for comment.