Mohammed Alsweirki, a 26-year-old man originally from Gaza, has been living in Iceland for six and a half months and is seeking asylum. However, he faces deportation to Greece despite a rampant coronavirus pandemic in that country, despite requiring medical assistance that he will likely not get in Greece, and despite repeated criticisms from many international groups that even those granted “protection” in Greece most likely end up homeless and without access to basic services. His lawyer is appealing the decision.
Mohammed told the Grapevine that he chose to leave Gaza due to threats against him from members of Hamas, on account of having had a premarital relationship with a young woman. As he had studied law in Gaza, he decided to pursue a Master’s degree in international law in Turkey. He arrived in Istanbul in April 2018, ready to start a new life.
Turkey proved a difficult environment for him to acclimate himself to, and so he took the advice of others to pursue his dream in Europe instead.
“I went to Izmir and arranged a smuggler to take me to Greece for $600,” he told us. “At first, he said the boat was wooden and that we would not be more than 20 people. When we got to the starting point, we were over 50 people and the boat was rubber. On the beach, four smugglers were waiting for us, as well as two Syrians, two Kurds, and two Turkish. Two of the smugglers got on the boat with us, and the other two were following with a speedboat. When we reached the borders of Turkish territorial waters, all the smugglers left us and returned to Turkey. The engine failed shortly after we entered Greek territorial waters. A Greek coast guard approached us and asked us to head to a nearby island. They didn’t care because we didn’t know the directions or the fact that the boat crashed. They left after that.”
Imprisonment in Greece
They were able to reach the island of Farmacos, which has a military base. From there, they were all taken to nearby Leros, where Mohammed was arrested under suspicion of being a smuggler who had been operating since 2014.
After three days of beatings and interrogations, he was taken to the island of Kos, to be imprisoned there. He was fingerprinted and told that he had to apply for asylum in Greece. Despite having no evidence that he was a smuggler, at a preliminary hearing a judge nonetheless convicted him, and he was transferred to a larger prison with more hardened criminals.
“Those were the worst days of my life. It was the first time I was in prison,” the told the Grapevine. “The police informant in the cell told me that my case was inevitable, and that I would be sentenced to at least 25 years in prison. I was shattered, no longer knowing how things got here, and seriously contemplating suicide, seeing that my whole life was vanishing in front of me and there was nothing I could do to save myself.”
Six months into his sentence, he declared a hunger strike, his guards responded with more beatings, and reportedly sent people into his cell to harass and attempt to assault him sexually.
Acquittal, but more violence
Mohammed received notice in December 2018 that his trial would begin within six months. This trial took place in Rhodes, and the trial judge became convinced based on the evidence presented that Mohammed was innocent of the charges against him. He was awarded €2,500 in compensation, but told he had to pick up this money personally within ten days.
Unfortunately, upon leaving the courthouse, police were waiting. They reportedly took him into custody, spending a total of 25 days in two different prisons, and was thus unable to collect the damages awarded to him. He was also denied these damages upon release.
He went to the Kos refugee camp but was denied entry on the grounds that he had already been granted protection in Greece. This rendered him homeless, sleeping outdoors with no food or money.
Iceland knows Greece is no place for a refugee
Albert Björn Lúðvígsson, Mohammed’s lawyer, told the Grapevine that the fact that Mohammed was forced to apply for asylum in Greece does not, in the eyes of Icelandic authorities, change their decision on the matter.
“If you don’t have a legal right to enter or stay in the country, you are forced to apply for asylum,” Albert told the Grapevine. “So this is very common, unfortunately. Icelandic authorities are aware of that fact, but legally, that does not change the status of the individual. The individual legally has the right to leave Greece and not apply for asylum. But of course no one who is fleeing Syria, for example, is able to go anywhere, so this is not a real choice. The fact that the individual was under duress or did not want to give his fingerprints does not change the fact that the individual did do that, and later was granted protection in Greece.”
Albert believes it is a policy in Iceland to send individuals back to those countries that either bear responsibility according to the Dublin Regulation or have granted the person residence and protection. It is argued that the person has already received protection, and will have access to services in Greece. At the same time, Icelandic authorities are well aware that most of those who are granted protection in Greece live on the streets. It is extremely difficult, almost impossible, for them to get financial assistance. These people face many barriers for them to use their work permits. They have almost no access to health care apart from emergency services. There is also a lot of prejudice and discrimination in Greece, especially against people of a Middle Eastern background. Icelandic authorities are well aware of this; they simply believe the situation is not bad enough. The threshold for a “safe country” is extremely low, in other words.
In order to avoid being deported to Greece, you have to show extreme personal circumstances. In practice, they are interpreted narrowly and in a way that goes against the legislative will of the Icelandic Parliament. It’s very difficult to fall under them.
“That fact is, ÚTL is refusing almost everyone,” Albert says. “Including extremely vulnerable individuals, many with serious physical and mental conditions. The strange thing is that last spring, when the pandemic started, the Appeals Board and ÚTL stopped all deportations back to Greece, citing the uncertainty of the situation. But last autumn, they resumed the process of sending individuals back to Greece, citing that the uncertainty had dropped. The reason for this was vaccinations were on the horizon, and that the Greek government had managed to handle the outbreak. It’s not quite logical, at least in my view, I think simply that this is a policy. It’s not based on the premise of the law having humanity as a guiding principle. That the Icelandic authorities feel it is the most effective practice to send people back to Greece. I personally would argue that it is not effective to send individuals back to a country that is taking most of the burden already and is not providing services to the individuals who have already been granted protection or are seeking protection.”
Indeed, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control shows Greece to be considered a coronavirus hotspot.
“What I’ve argued in my legal arguments is that the uncertainty is still there,” he says. “We still don’t know whether these vaccines will provide immunity to coronavirus variations. There are a lot more infections going on right now in Greece than last spring. So the uncertainty hasn’t decreased; if anything, it’s increased. But this is nevertheless the decision from ÚTL. I don’t think it’s valid but that’s what their decision is.”
“I think in his case, he’s shown a lot of special circumstances,” Albert says, referring to how Icelandic law allows for the Icelandic government to take over responsibility of the asylum case on the grounds of ‘special circumstances’. “For his instance, his treatment in Greece, and medical documentation here in Iceland showing he has health problems included in his case. This is what is most likely to give him a positive result here in Iceland, if he can provide documents showing he is in need of further treatment here in Iceland, and we are gathering those documents. I think that he has a chance, but I’m afraid that this policy is so strong that they may still refuse him protection.”
However, Minister of Justice Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir has been submitting to Parliament changes to the law on foreigners which would remove the “special circumstances” exception.
“What the Minister is effectively doing is taking away the chance for individuals like Mr. Alsweirki to get protection in Iceland,” Albert told the Grapevine. “Those who have been able to avoid deportation back to, for instance, Greece and Hungary for the last few years have been given that chance due to this clause in the law about special circumstances. Both ÚTL and the Immigration Appeals Board have found it necessary to use this clause; they have found special circumstances in certain cases even despite their extremely narrow interpretation of the law. This makes it even more odd that the Minister would now want to remove this clause from the law unless it is simply a part of this policy. You would think this would shorten or simplify the process. This is not the case at all. The fact is that each and every case would still require an individual process because of other obligations in the law. The non-refoulement principle being the most important. So every asylum seeker still would need to go through the same process as before, but the new proposal would only take away the greatest chance for an individual to succeed in that process. Even a new clause that has been proposed about the possibility of receiving a ‘humanitarian residence permit’ is not enough. It would complicate the process and it would discriminate against those who have already proven to be refugees because the ‘humanitarian residence permit’ does not, for instance, include a work permit here in Iceland. I simply don’t see the need to remove the possibility of special circumstances from the law and I refuse the argument that this will make the process shorter or more simplified.”
“Protection without protection”
Furthermore, being granted “protection” in Greece is a deceptive term. As Albert points out, those granted protection actually receive less assistance and resources than refugees.
“Individuals coming from Greece who are still in the asylum process and fall under the Dublin Regulation have some support in Greece,” he told us. “The UN and the EU have programmes for them. When you get protection in Greece, you lose all that support. So what is very common for individuals coming from Greece is that they were receiving some assistance as asylum seekers. They received some allowance and could live in crowded refugee camps. At least they had a tent or a roof over their heads and could seek some basic medical assistance. But when they receive protection, they lose these few services they had. All the documents and reports we have, and have submitted to the Icelandic authorities, show that most recognised refugees with protection in Greece live on the streets. We call it ‘protection without protection’. That is something that I think is important is that Mr. Alsweirki faces a lot of obstacles in Greece, it is very unlikely that he will be able to seek medical assistance, and unfortunately it’s most likely that he’ll be homeless if he’s deported.”
The atrocities and hardships in Greek refugee camps are well-documented. The fact that those granted protection are cut off from services, and more often than not end up homeless and subjected to violence is also a matter of public record.
Albert will be appealing the case to the Immigration Appeals Board. For Mohammed’s part, returning to Greece is simply out of the question.
“Greece has not provided me with any help to stay there, no housing, work, food, money, or healthcare,” he tells us. “I hope to stay here because it is impossible for me to go back to Greece again, and if I am rejected from residency, I will kill myself in order to be relieved of the suffering. I will do anything so that I will not return there.”
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