People in distress reaching the shore, and a mountain of bright orange life jackets. These were the images that brought the island of Lesbos into the international spotlight. It was 2015, the island located in the north-eastern Aegean sea only 5.5 km away from Turkey, became one of the main arenas of the so called “European refugee crisis”, as thousands of individuals crossed the strait every day.
Since then, the situation has changed, but it has not become less dramatic. On 18 March 2016, a joint statement by the European Union and Turkey announced that “all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into Greek islands as from 20 March 2016 will be returned to Turkey”. This meant that Greek islands such as Lesbos that had previously functioned as transit points became places of detention.
In Lesbos, most applicants for asylum cannot legally leave the island until their asylum procedure has been concluded. This means that every asylum seeker in Lesbos needs to go through a complex procedure, which includes fingerprinting at arrival, and a full registration, before even being scheduled for the interview to determine the validity of their asylum claims. Between one step of the process and the next one, however, individuals can wait for an indefinite period of time, sometimes amounting to more than 8 months.
Such delays happen while individuals live in overcrowded camps where reception conditions are deplorable and human rights often violated. For example, there are reports that individuals are detained for the whole duration of their asylum procedure on the basis of nationality. This mix of discrimination, uncertainty and maltreatment results in growing frustration, riots, fights, and serious mental health issues.
Furthermore, waiting occurs in a situation of uncertainty fed by the lack of information – or misinformation- on the asylum procedure and by the fear to be deported to Turkey, In fact, between the full registration and the asylum interview, individuals can go through an admissibility procedure, aimed at determining whether they can safely claim asylum in Turkey, regardless of the validity of their asylum claim. Turkey, however, is not considered a “safe third country” for refugees by most human rights organisations.
Read more about this topic here.
The Legal Centre Lesbos (LCL) was established in the summer of 2016 to help refugees navigate their way through the labyrinth of legal procedures they enter as they set foot on the island of Lesbos. To do so, the Legal Centre provides help with asylum applications, relocation and family reunification, as well as information and advice on any legal questions individuals may have. In addition to individual cases, the Legal Centre identifies human rights violations in order to expose them and to engage in strategic litigation and advocacy.
The strength of the Legal Centre lies in is its independence from local authorities and governmental funds. Firstly, this allows the Centre to pursue a strategy truly focused on human rights, in exposing abuses and advocating for changes in practices and procedures. Secondly, it enables individuals to talk about their legal issues without fear of repercussions on their asylum procedure.
The Legal Centre’s team includes lawyers and legally trained volunteers from across Europe, but its long-term objective is to hire Greek lawyers who are recognised within the Greek legal system and have unhindered access to the camps. This would allow the Legal Centre to become sustainable and locally driven, meaning that individuals reaching the island of Lesbos would have free and accurate legal information.
Thrǣdable & Legal Centre Lesbos
Thrǣdable visited Lesbos in October 2016 to inaugurate its partnership with LCL. We organised workshops hosted by the Mosaik Refugee Support Centre, which provides services, such as language classes, to both locals and refugees, and within which the LCL is located.
The creations of the workshops were showcased in an exhibition generously hosted by Lazy Fish Café-Bar in the centre of the Lesbian capital, Mytilini. The event was accompanied by performances from a Burundian singer and an actor from Afghanistan. The result? Refugees, volunteers and locals – making up a group from all continents of the earth – joyfully dancing and singing together. Art, music, and solidarity truly have no borders.
See the photos here!
Where does my money go?
The funds raised through the sales of the “Voices from Lesbos” line will go towards one clear long-term objective: making the Legal Centre sustainable whilst there remains a need for legal support on the island. In practice, this means having the resources to employ Greek lawyers, who are locally based and who can work in full capacity within the Greek system to make a real difference on the life of refugees.
“When you take the case of a refugee, you are taking the case of life of someone. If you want to take a job take all of it or don’t take it. And they [the Legal Centre team] take all of it. They take it from their heart”.