Greek officials have said that Greece will not become a “gateway” to Europe for Afghan asylum seekers and have called for a united response to predictions of an increase in refugee arrivals to the country.
Greece’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has spoken to Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, about the developing situation in Afghanistan this week. Greek migration minister Notis Mitarachi last week said: “We cannot have millions of people leaving Afghanistan and coming to the European Union … and certainly not through Greece.” The country has just completed a 25-mile (40km) wall along its land border with Turkey and installed an automated surveillance system with cameras, radars and drones.
Asylum seekers from Afghanistan have made up 45% of arrivals to the Greek islands so far this year, according to figures from UN refugee agency.
In June, Greece declared Turkey a “safe third country” for people from Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. This provides legal grounds for ruling an asylum claim inadmissible. The decision has sparked an outcry from many NGOs and rights groups including the International Rescue Committee and the Greek Council for Refugees, who, in a joint letter, noted that most people from countries such as Afghanistan had a “high recognition rate for international protection”, and asked for the decision to be “immediately revoked”.
Afghan asylum seekers and refugees in Greece have been anxiously waiting for news from relatives back home. Ali* lives in the Lesbos refugee camp but most of his family, including his parents, are still in Kabul. The 21-year-old has recently had his asylum claim rejected in Greece. Ali said Afghans in Lesbos now hoped their asylum claims would be reconsidered. “We really hope that the situation of Afghanistan affects our asylum case,” he said. “We hope to get a positive decision about our asylum because now, you know, the situation in Afghanistan is very bad and we can’t go back.”
Marion Bouchetel from the Legal Centre Lesbos told the Guardian that Greece’s decision to class Turkey as a safe third country for refugees was “an abusive and dangerous misapplication of the safe third country concept provided under EU law”.
She said: “Turkey is not a safe third country for migrants and does not offer for asylum seekers the potential of being recognised as refugees or to be protected against refoulement. Afghans already represent nearly 75% of the population in Mavrovouni camp in Lesbos and the majority of asylum seekers in the Greek islands. Most of them are families and have already been rejected in the asylum procedure based on the assumption that Turkey is a safe third country for them.
“Given the gravity of the situation in Afghanistan, there is no doubt that more Afghans will soon flee and move via the eastern Mediterranean route through Turkey and Greece in search of safety and asylum.”
Last week, hundreds gathered outside the Greek parliament in Athens to protest the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. “We are here to raise the voice of Afghans, the millions who are left and are suffering,” said Naquib*, 32, a refugee who had lived in the Moria camp on Lesbos.
“We are here also to raise the voice of women back in Afghanistan. The Taliban are equal to terrorists, they don’t respect women or women’s rights,” he said.
Naquib, who had worked with US forces and international NGOs in Afghanistan, said it was important for Europe to take in Afghans to save lives but it must also tackle the Taliban. “We need to get to the root of the problem,” he said.
Parwana Amiri, 17, living in a tent outside Athens, said: “This is the last time they will call Afghan refugees economic migrants. Everybody’s life is in danger, it is very hard for women and girls. People are trying to reach here but there is no chance to escape because the Taliban don’t easily let people leave.
“Greece says they are not ready and they don’t want to face the same crisis as 2015. It means that other EU member states should start relocation and give a chance for new arrivals to reach here. We have been suffering in the refugee camps, but it is better than the mouth of death.”
The Guardian approached the Greek migration ministry for comment on the classification of Turkey as a safe country for Afghans but has had no response.
*Names have been changed on request to protect identities.
• This article was amended on 26 August 2021 to correct the spelling of Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s surname.