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From the Margins: The Ineffective Greek Legal Aid System

Written by: Nadira Saraswati

Photo Credit: Miko Guziuk (Kos, Greece)

Migratory pathways are often rife with disorienting and illogically complex bureaucracy. It does not take long for migrants and asylum seekers to find themselves entangled in various legal charges, ranging from irregular migration to serious criminal charges. Upon being charged, they are then forced to enter the criminal justice system where they face exploitation, targeting by organized gangs, and brutality from authorities in detention without access to justice. According to a 2018 Global Detention Project report, there are over 18,204 asylum seekers who were pre-trial detainees in Greece. Observations from humanitarian aid networks in Greece have seen such numbers doubled since 2016. Despite the emergence of NGOs and legal aid clinics to provide advice and legal representation for migration-related cases, there remains a shortage of expertise and support for migrants charged with criminal offenses regardless of whether evidence exists.

Greece has long been an important route along the migratory pathway as people from various regions seek safety in Europe. With the COVID-19 pandemic, Greek authorities are capitalizing on the restrictive measures to control infection rates to systemically target forcibly displaced migrants in the criminal system. The systemic criminalization and detention of migrant populations is nothing new. A report published in 2017 by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture observed the use of systemic detention as an immediate response to the higher number of “non-citizens arriving in the country.” As a result, in 2020, there has been an 80% decrease in migrant arrivals.

The criminal justice system, as experienced by migrants, is not designed to be passed, but rather to discourage them from completing the immigration process. In confronting these violent pushbacks by authorities, residents of camps are turning to the legal and humanitarian community for ad-hoc responses to secure access to legal representation because state interventions remain ineffective. As of 2015, there is no independent quality assurance or monitoring of legal aid in Greece. Legal aid remains widely unavailable before sentencing, namely during the questioning and investigative stages. This often leaves migrants to fend for themselves throughout pre-trial detention, whether it is through tapping into their informal networks or learning the system through experience.

While responsibility for legal aid is structurally shared between the Ministry of Justice, the Courts, and the Bar Associations, there are questions as to how effective existing systems are in practice. The exclusion of non-EU nationals and non-residents from eligibility for state-supported legal aid is a major obstacle for access to justice within migrant populations. The urgency in securing access to justice for migrants is only intensifying. In early March last year, the Greek government had openly stated its intention to deport individuals without allowing them to lodge their asylum claims.

Both the legal and humanitarian community working at the margins know these challenges all too well. Without proper coordination and establishing a robust referral system between lawyers, aid workers, and local law enforcement on the ground, ad-hoc actions can only take you so far. As it stands, the Greek legal aid system is ill-equipped to handle the pressures of an overburdened criminal justice system driven by mass detention and an overcriminalization of affected populations. For migrants and asylum seekers alike, a systemic rethinking of inclusion in access to justice and charting pathways to redress wrongful convictions in the legal aid system would allow migrants a fighting chance.

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