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“The Slow Hell”: The Lived Experience of the EU’s Flawed Asylum System – featuring an interview with Victor Roman, from the Lesvos Legal Centre

Published 27 Mar 2017
Nina Roxburgh and Tamara Tubakovic

Introduction: The situation is getting worse

The refugee situation in Greece has taken a turn for the worse with the incoming winter conditions placing the lives of thousands of people in danger. With temperatures dropping below freezing and heavy snowfall, the makeshift refugee camps on the Greek island of Lesvos have struggled to adequately meet the needs of its growing refugee population. In a media report by the UK news agency The Independent, there are around 4,500 people still living in overcrowded conditions in summer tents on the island of Lesvos.[1]According to the report, at least one Afghan man has died due to the winter conditions.[2] NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has come out criticising the EU, stating in a tweet that ‘Europe should stop making the lives of migrants and refugees more miserable.’ In response, however, the European Commission has claimed that the current desperate situation was ‘first and foremost’ the responsibility of the Greek authorities.[3]

So whose responsibility is it?

The notion of ‘responsibility’ is what lies at the crux of the current refugee crisis. In 2015, over a million refugees crossed the EU’s borders.[4] This dramatic increase in the movement of refugees has had an asymmetrical impact on member states, undermining attempts by the EU to coordinate a collective and coherent response. The Dublin Regulation, the EU’s system for designating the member states responsible for processing an asylum claim, stipulates that the first member state through which the asylum seeker enters is the one responsible for processing their asylum claim.[5] Furthermore, according to the Dublin Regulation, an asylum seeker can only make one application for refugee status.[6]

This mechanism however, has failed due to the unprecedented number of refugees arriving in Europe and placing immense pressure on border countries, in particular Greece. We sought to find out what the reality is on the ground in Lesvos and where the notion of ‘responsibility’ lies in day-to-day practice.

In an interview with Victor Roman, who has been living and working on the island of Lesvos for 4 months at the Lesvos Legal Centre, we found that in particular issues of overcrowding, lack of medical support, poor sanitation and food supply, poor reception centres, lack of information about asylum processes, and lack of political motivation acutely impact the day-to-day life on the island for both the local Greek community as well as the refugee population.

NR: “What are some of the major issues on the ground?”

VR: “Moria is often referred to as ‘hell’ or ‘the slow hell’ by refugees and this is reflective of the slow and draining process, accommodation, food, sanitation issues and poor sense of security.”

In particular there is a lack of security for the most vulnerable of the refugees, women and children.

VR: “Women are afraid of going to the toilet late at night, they are afraid of being raped and/or assaulted. Fights break out, and there is alcohol and drug abuse.”

Compounding the widespread sense of insecurity among refugees is the lack of protection offered by the local security officials. Roman talked about how the police attitude towards refugees has increased the violence on the ground.

VR: “Reports of police violence against refugees come out frequently. There is a lot of stress in the police job, but this has definitely created an ‘us and them’ attitude. This is widespread in the local community as well: there is definitely an anti-refugee perception, that they are a drain on the local community.”

Exacerbating the situation are the appalling medical conditions on the island, with many refugees unable to effectively access medical services. One of the most visible examples of this is the agonising wait refugees are forced to endure to access any sort of medical care.

VR: “In one case there was a refugee’s daughter who was pushed on to the ground in the commotion of a fight in the queue, when she fell she broke her two front teeth. The medical attention response was to give her some toothpaste…so the medical support in the camp is really not functioning to an appropriate level.”

Often the criticism toward the lack of medical attention is directed at NGOs such as Médecins du Monde (MDM), with many refugees seeing the organisation “as an extension of the Greek government.” Roman argues, “This is wrong…they are independent of the Greek government.” Organisations such as MDM and Lesvos Legal Centre, are there “trying to fill a gap which the Greek government has failed to fill themselves.” The desperate need for such organisations demonstrates the lack of resources and capacities of the Greek government to deal with the large-scale influx of refugees.

While these are only a few of the numerous examples that Roman presented when discussing the challenges on the ground in Lesvos, it is important to bear in mind additional factors on the ground which affect the responses and attitudes of the Greek government and local population towards the refugees.

Greece is still in a huge economic recession.[7] So the welfare resources much needed for the Greek people themselves are already under pressure and this trickles down to affect the services refugees and asylum seekers can access.

Moreover, there is a lack of efficiency in processing the refugees that Roman links to a cultural set of behaviours. He says this means, “…there is no willingness to take responsibility for anything. And the best part of it is that this is all confirmed by the Greeks themselves all the time.” According to Roman, the Greek administration doesn’t work, and anyone trying to assist refugee cases on the ground constantly has to push for things to happen, even if it is a standard request. There is an enduring attitude of “come back tomorrow, come back next week” which evidently affects the handling of the refugee crisis on the ground.

Greece struggles under its weight of asylum applicants: The Dublin Regulation and its disproportionate obligations

The original objective of placing one member state responsible for a claim was to ensure that applicants for asylum were not repeatedly referred from one member state to another with no state acknowledging itself as responsible.[8] With the Dublin Regulation, a clear criterion was given for which member state was responsible. This commitment was seemingly presented as a provision that would directly benefit asylum seekers by ensuring an application was processed by at least one member state. This logic may have worked when the system was created in 1990. At the time, it was impossible for the member states to imagine how the world would change, and how conflicts in the Middle East would lead to over a million refugees crossing the EU’s borders in a single year.

The problem today for Greece, and Italy, is that the main rule applied to designating responsibility is that of irregular first entry. Since the main migratory routes come from the central and eastern Mediterranean, Italy and Greece now constitute the front line for asylum applications. As a consequence, these states struggle to effectively process the unprecedented increase in refugee applications, with their national reception and integration capacities being placed under severe strain.

The desperate situation in Greece and Italy reached its climax in 2011, when the ECHR ruled that Greece was violating the human rights of a refugee by detaining him under inhumane conditions. It was further judged that Belgium violated its obligations under the GC by sending him back to a country, Greece, where he would have his rights violated.[9] This ruling effectively suspended all Dublin transfers to Greece.

In the same year, at a Council of interior ministers meeting, Italy and Malta called on the EU and other member states to activate a 2001 directive to grant temporary protection to migrants in cases of mass influx and to share the burden of absorbing newcomers.[10] With the uprisings in Libya and the outbreak of violent conflict in Syria, southern member states had begun to experience an unprecedented increase to already high refugee flows. However, the interior ministers refused to activate this directive. The Commission, in fact, argued that such a proposal was premature and that flow of migrants to Italy did not constitute a mass influx.[11]

However in 2015, the scale and intensity of the migratory pressure demonstrated that the first entry principle underlying the EU system could not function under massive inflows of refugees. The challenge today, however, is achieving a consensus among member states on how to effectively tackle the unfolding situation at the EU’s borders. On the other hand, there are those member states that are calling for the introduction of a mandatory joint processing system, in which refugees would be distributed across the EU.[12] Others, especially new eastern member states, are refusing to consider such measures, and have instead taken unilateral measures, such as building and reinforcing borders, to isolate themselves from the EU’s growing refugee problem. The decision by Council in September 2015 to relocate 160,000 persons across the EU from Italy and Greece has failed to demonstrate substantial results.[13] The events of 2015 have revealed the limits of solidarity among EU member states.

VR: “I have absolute sympathy for the Greek people who suffer a lot from its economic situation. Welfare and social services are not working very well for anyone in Greece. Yes, we must be able to demand that countries respond in an adequate manner to both its population and refugees. However, we can also demand other countries to take responsibility. All member-states of the EU have a shared responsibility with Greece. This shared responsibility is not limited to the EU. Refugee and migration issues is not a national or regional problem, it is a global issue that existed as long as mankind. All nations must look at these issues with humanity and compassion rather than fear.”

However, recent trends at the EU level, such as third country deals with Turkey, have demonstrated a more isolationist approach to migration matters with considerable support on preventing inflows from arriving at the EU’s doorsteps.

Lessons from Australia: Externalising its responsibilities

Unable to resolve the burden sharing flaws of the system, the EU has instead focused on externalising its responsibilities. The EU-Turkey deal is the EU’s latest attempt to tackle the critical situation and manage the flow of refugees entering Europe. However, there has been severe criticism of the agreement by NGOs and some member states. The return of asylum seekers to Turkey under the legal provision that Turkey is a safe third country is contrary to EU and international law, as Turkey does not provide all refugees with protection in accordance with the 1951 Geneva Convention.[14]

In fact, not all refugees have effective access to the asylum procedures and there have been reports of onward refoulement and returns of refugees to Syria.[15] If these reports were proven true, then the EU would be violating the international principle of non-refoulement by which a country cannot return people to a place where they may be in danger. By returning refugees to Turkey, which is also guilty of human rights abuses, the EU is in effect in breach of the principle of non-refoulement. Turkey’s human rights abuses include discrimination of minorities, and the denial of access to fundamental services such as health, education, social services, and employment.[16]

NR: “So what do you think are the impacts of the EU-Turkey deal in Lesvos?”

VR: “The conditions for refugees in Turkey are terrible. It should be mentioned that Turkey hosts almost 3 million refugees, which is an enormous humanitarian task.[17] It [the decision to send refugees to Turkey] all comes down to political incentive, so any day there could be a massive movement of lots of people at once to Turkey, and this is a scary prospect for many refugees living in Lesvos. There will be no automatic return but the risk of being sent back to Turkey remains.”

“I think there are similarities to the Australian approach when you think about the EU-Turkey deal. Australia has a policy of Sovereign Borders – and like this policy, Greece and the EU are trying to create a deterrence using people [refugees]. First is mandatory detention, and then you are imprisoned on the island (whereas before the EU-Turkey deal refugees could travel to mainland Greece) so they send a message of ‘don’t come here, because you wont be able to leave the island, and then you will just be sent back to Turkey anyway’…

“…Boats are being towed back, like in Australia, by the Turkish navy, meaning that some people attempt the voyage to Lesvos four or five times before they are successful. But this deterrence method has worked. Arrival rates to Lesvos have clearly and quite incredibly changed since the deal. For example, in December 2015 just under 66000 people arrived. In February 2016, at the time of discussing the EU-Turkey deal, these numbers dropped to around 31000, and then in March 2016 down to 14000 and every month since there are less and less so you see that it’s a significant change since the deal cam into effect. Other factors may be the coast guard intercepting more vessels, but this shows to some extent the success of the deterrence method of the EU-Turkey deal. A signal across the water of ‘Don’t come here’…it’s also important to note that the deal itself is illegal since Turkey is not a signatory to the refugee convention”

The dangers of an unfair system

Perceiving the rules to be unfair, member states have protested against the lack of solidarity in the EU by intentionally not complying with their obligations. This includes the failure to fingerprint refugees and the permissive attitude taken by some member states, such as Italy and Greece, toward secondary movement. Other measures include lowering reception standards or misapplying EU rules on qualification.[18]

According to Roman, there is also a persistent incentive on the Greek side of the crisis to find a way to reject asylum claims. This sometimes manifests in cursory interviews, in not supplying any kind of legal aid or in some cases where applicants are vulnerable, the aid of a psychologist. Roman explained that this is problematic because the responsibility of making a refugee claim lies with the refugee, but many refugees need guidance and assistance. Yet, there is a worrisome lack of accessible information.

VR: “If you are not able to explain yourself properly, and your interviewer doesn’t have the energy or resources to dig deeper, this means you wont get properly assessed.”

“A main problem in Moria is really the lack of information. When people arrive they are registered, then they wait many, many months (sometimes 7 plus). The first registration is called Simple Registration, and then 7 months later they get Full Registration. Legally, you have not lodged an asylum application until your full registration. Meaning you do not get the full rights that come with asylum seekers until your full registration: that is when you receive the asylum identity card called the International Protection Applicant Card. If you don’t have this card, it means you are waiting for full registration, not your interview for asylum, which many refugees don’t know.”

It is apparent that there is no information available which clearly outlines the registration and asylum application process, meaning that many refugees think they are registered and waiting for their interviews, when in fact they are actually in basic registration and waiting to be fully registered before they can proceed to the next step of their asylum claim.

VR: “This is the void we [the Lesvos Legal Centre] are trying to fill. The centre tries to provide information about the asylum process and where they are sitting in the procedure. When there is no information, there is a lot of room for speculation and rumors. For example, there was a rumor going around the camp that on Christmas day there would be a lottery for 3000 visas for refugees in Greece… The level of knowledge of the EU law and human rights definitely varies from person to person. Many people have no idea what they mean legally (the Refugee Convention). Some people believe that Greece and the EU are the same thing. People within the camp feel the EU and Greek services are equally bad too. I don’t think I’ve met a single refugee on the island that feels good about the EU as a political entity.”


VR: “I think people in Europe experience the refugee crisis highly differently. Countries like Greece, Italy, and Bulgaria have become entry points into the EU. I believe all people have in some way seen or come in contact with the refugee crisis. When you are, however, in a hotspot like Lesvos, you become a witness daily to not only the refugee crisis but also its symbolic extension of numerous political, economical and social instabilities around the world.”

It is clear that the refugee crisis has taken on many facets between international and regional discussions, to the realities faced on the ground in Lesvos and Greece more broadly. The reality in Greece is but one example of a global problem. The lack of international, regional and even national solidarity has made the current global refugee crisis a problem for only a small number of countries. These countries are often those at the periphery, with weak financial and administrative capacity to deal with such high numbers of refugees. The failure of responsibility sharing in Greece, and its consequences on the lives of refugees, is representative of the global failure to help the world’s most vulnerable.


[1] McKernan, Bethan, (2017) “Refugees in Greece ‘could freeze to death’ in snow due to inadequate winter preparations, warn aid groups”, in The Independent, 9 January.

[2] McKernan, Bethan, (2017) see note 1.

[3] European Commission, (2016) “Commission reports on progress made under the European Agenda on Migration” Press Release, 8 December.

[4] Sabbati, G (2016), ‘Recent migration flows to the EU’ European Parliamentary Research Service,, viewed 14 March 2017.

[5] Fratzke, Susan (2015), ‘Not Adding Up: The Fading Promise of Europe’s Dublin System’ Migration Policy Institute Europe, March, p. 15.

[6] Regulation 2013/604, Article 3.

[7] Smith, Helena (2016) ‘A year after the crisis was declared over, Greece is still spiralling down’, The Guardian, viewed 14 March 2017

[8] The Dublin Convention (1990), Preamble, Available from:

[9] M.S.S. v. Belgium and Greece, App. No. 30696/09 (Eur. Ct. H.R. Jan. 21, 2011),

[10] Monar, Jorg (2012), ‘Justice and Home Affairs’ Journal of Common Market Studies, vol. 50, pp. 117.

[11] Economist, The (2011), ‘The next European Crisis: Boat People’ The Economist,, viewed 14 March 2017.

[12] European Commission (2016), Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and the Council, ‘establishing the criteria and mechanisms for determining the Member State responsible for examining an application for international protection lodge in one of the Member States by a third-country national or stateless person (recast)’ 2016/0133(COD), Brussels, p. 13

[13] Knaus, Gerald (2016), ‘Refugee crisis- A breakthrough is possible’ European Stability Initiative,, viewed 14 March 2017.

[14] Human Rights Watch, (2016) EU: Don’t Send Syrians Back to Turkey: Lack of Jobs, School, Health Care Spures Poverty, Exploitation, visited 8 February 2017

[15] Human Rights Watch, (2016), EU Policies Put Refugees at Risk, visited 14 March 2017.

[16] Human Rights Watch, (2016) note 12.

[17] UNHCR (2017) Syria Regional Refugee Response: Inter-agency Information Sharing Portal, visited 8 February 2017

[18] Pastore, F and Henry, G (2016) ‘Explaining the crisis of the European Migration and Asylum Regime’ The International Spectator, vol. 51, no.1, pp. 44-57; Trauner, F (2016) ‘Asylum Policy: the EU’s “crises” and the looming policy regime failure’ Journal of European Integration, vol. 38, no. 3, pp. 311-325.