The EU’s refugee registration system on the Greek islands has created a three-tier structure that favours certain nationalities over others, encourages some ethnic groups to lie about their backgrounds to secure preferential treatment, and has led to a situation calls absolute chaos.
The dynamic will increase fears over the security threat posed by the hundreds of thousands of migrants arriving in Europe amid a backlash against refugees after the Paris attacks. The who passed through Greece was found on or near the body of a dead suicide bomber.
It will also amplify calls to scale up resettlement schemes from the Middle East, which will help to improve screening of refugees and give them an incentive not to take the boat to Greece.
Syrian families arriving on the island of Lesbos, where nearly 400,000 asylum seekers have , are separated from other nationalities and given expedited treatment that allows them to leave the island for mainland Europe within 24 hours. Syrian males, Yemenis and Somalis are registered in a separate and slower camp but still receive preferential treatment and are usually able to continue their journey within a day.
But a third category of asylum seekers – including many from war-torn countries such as Iraq and – are being processed in another camp where there are roughly half as many passport-scanners. The result is a chaotic parallel registration process that can last up to a week, and which has left many non-Syrians sleeping outside in the cold for several nights while they wait to be registered.
The Guardian found families living in dire, unsanitary conditions in an olive grove surrounding the main registration centre. They said they were receiving just one significant meal a day, and had resorted to burning trees to keep warm at night. Even once they are finally processed, Afghans only receive one month’s leave to remain in , while Syrians are given six months.
The island’s mayor, Spyros Galinos, told the Guardian that the three-track process is to prevent fighting between different ethnic groups and nationalities. But the director of one of the three camps, Spyros Kourtis, admitted that non-Syrians are given lower priority because officials assume that they do not have as strong a claim for asylum.
“In the [lowest-priority] camp, there are the Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis who are mostly migrants, economic migrants,” said Kourtis, in an interview with the Guardian. By contrast, he said that the better-equipped centre was for “people who come from countries with a refugee profile”.
The system has been met with fury by some Afghans and Iraqis, who resent being treated as second-tier applicants even though they believe they have just as good a claim for asylum as many Syrians. “It is approximately seven days since we arrived here,” shouted an Afghan from Surkh-Rud province, where he said there is a heavy Islamic State presence. “Everything is done through favouritism. We Afghans seem to be worthless. What is it that we have done wrong? We are also humans. Our country is burning in the fire of war.”
The frustration has led to tensions between Afghans and other groups in their camp. “Pakistan is an insecure country?” said an Afghan to a Pakistani, incredulous that the latter had reason to leave home. “Some people [are insecure], some areas,” replied the Pakistani, perhaps referring to the , which has displaced over 700,000.
Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, spent several weeks this autumn on the Greek islands and along the Balkan route, and said the inconsistencies of the system have created “absolute chaos”.
Bouckaert said: “It has created a system where Syrians are being processed very quickly, and many Afghans and Iraqis are being left for as long as a week without enough humanitarian support.”
He added that there is legal basis for differentiating between different nationalities, since Syrians are statistically more likely to receive asylum than other people. “But what is unacceptable is that [non-Syrians] are being left without proper humanitarian support.”
Syrians also receive a comparatively warmer welcome in Germany, where the interior minister said it is , and expressed disappointment that they are not attempting to rebuild their war-torn country. In the Balkan countries between Greece and Germany, governments this week also began differentiating between nationalities, . Confusingly, however, they are still giving priority to Afghans – unlike Germany and Greece.
In Greece, the partial treatment has led some Iraqis to pretend to be Syrians in order to speed up their registration – a dynamic that highlights the security flaws in the registration process. A Syrian father who arrived in Lesbos this month said he thought his family were the only Syrians on his dinghy of roughly 40 people. He claimed that many of the rest were Iraqis who pretended to be Syrians to get preferential treatment. “Before we even arrived on the Greek shores, they were told to say they were Syrians,” said Abdallah Hassan, from Damascus. “Nobody is to say that they are Iraqi.”
Greek officials have separated and prioritised Syrians over other nationalities for most of the summer. But the bias became especially pronounced this autumn, after the EU introduced a so-called hotspot system. In theory the new scheme was supposed to streamline the process of registering asylum seekers in Lesbos, tighten up security, and ensure that a greater number of frauds are identified and caught.
But in reality, since EU countries sent less than half as many border officials as they had promised, officials do not have the resources to make the new system work fast enough.
Frontex, the EU border agency, requested 775 border guards to make the system more secure, but so far the organisation has been sent just 320 – with 67 stationed on Lesbos itself. By 4 November, two of the EU’s most isolationist countries – Poland and Slovakia – had not sent a single border guard, while a third, Hungary, had sent four. This contributed to a slowing-down of operations on Lesbos, particularly for non-Syrians, and increased incentives for people to lie about their identity.
Bouckaert said: “One of the fallouts of this policy is that this has created a huge market for fake passports in Turkey. Many non-Syrians want to pass through [the Syrian camp] so many Iraqis and Lebanese are buying fake passports to be processed [faster].”
Rights groups argue that the security and humanitarian problems with the registration system on the islands highlight the need to scale up the resettlement of refugees living in the Middle East, since this would allow Europe to screen refugees before they arrive, and also give refugees an incentive against risking death at sea.
Michael Diedring, secretary general for the , a coalition of 90 migrant rights groups, said: “This certainly amplifies calls for more resettlement schemes in the EU ... By using safe and legal channels for persons in need of international protection, one would reduce the need to resort to the use of prioritised treatment of certain nationalities. In addition, more resettlement would also disrupt the business model of human smugglers.”
A Frontex spokeswoman said that the number of EU officials on the islands is increasing all the time, and said that her agency was not involved in the decision to create a three-tier system. Izabella Cooper said that “organisation of the management of the registration and identification process is the exclusive responsibility of the Greek national authorities.”
The central Greek government did not respond to requests for comment within two days. A spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency said that since the Guardian’s visit, conditions at the Afghan camp have improved, and that the registration system there is working much more smoothly.