Refugees and violenceExplosive violence and victim rights

The Refugee Explosion – Case study: Greece

This article is part of AOAV’s report, The Refugee Explosion. The whole report can be found here. Whilst the report introduction and methodology can be seen here. The key findings can be viewed here. The report overview of explosive violence and refugees can be read here, as well as on refugee destinations, here, asylum law in Europe, here, and political and economic developments, here.  AOAV’s country findings for Germany, and the UK can be found here and here, respectively. For the report’s overall findings please click here, or for AOAV’s resulting recommendations here. To read some of the interviews from refugees AOAV spoke to please see here.

AOAV identified three countries that have presented very different reactions to the crisis, as well as situations for the refugees and asylum seekers that inhabit their borders. AOAV sent field researchers to investigate how each country is responding to the refugee crisis. Refugees and asylum seekers in Greece, Germany and the UK were interviewed about their experiences in the host country as well as their reasons for seeking refuge. In total, over 250 filled in a questionnaire on such issues across the three countries.

Below are AOAV’s findings from Greece.



Greece saw 171,785 arrivals by sea alone between January and November 2016, according to the UNHCR.  The high number reflects the fact that the Turkey-Greece route is one of the two corridors into Europe. Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis refugees are known to generally travel overland using this route. Eritreans, Nigerians, Somalis, and others from Sub-Saharan Africa mostly use the Libya-Italy route.

Despite this, as noted above, the EU-Turkey deal has seen the number arriving through the Greek route drastically decline. Greece saw 11,360 first time asylum applications in 2015. In 2016, there was a significant rise in first-time asylum applicants, likely due to the border closure, blocking travel beyond Greece. In 2016, Greece registered 49,875 first-time asylum applicants. Compared to the same period in 2015, this signifies a rise of over 300%.


In 2015 Greece gave a positive response to approximately 4,025 asylum seekers, amounting to 41% of all decisions – the remainder were rejected. The number of asylum seekers that received a positive decision in 2015 reflected an increase of over 100% since 2014, or an increase of over 4000% since 2012.

In 2016 however, the number of positive decisions decreased significantly. This period saw only 2,710 positive asylum decisions, with an overall recognition rate that dropped to 24%. Compared to the same period the previous year, this was a decrease of 33%.

Countries of origin

Of the first-time asylum applicants to Greece in 2015, 29% were from Syria, 14% from Afghanistan and 13% from Pakistan. Of the arrivals to Greece in 2016, 47% were from Syria, 24% from Afghanistan, 15% from Iraq, and 5% from Pakistan.

Since the EU-Turkey deal, Syrian applications for asylum are prioritised but if it is found that they could have applied to Turkey for asylum they are inadmissible, and may be returned to Turkey under the EU-Turkey deal. The applicants from countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia are prioritised next, as they are often considered to be economic migrants. The Afghan, Iraqis and Iranians often have to wait months in poor conditions for an answer, as these cases are considered more complex.


The ‘financial crisis’ that has blighted Greece has greatly impacted the way in which refugees are been by many. Many Greeks were impoverished and made homeless – one third of the population are now said to be living in poverty – and from this wreckage an animosity between people in general has arisen, with a loss of social and community structure and a prioritisation of familial survival.

This context is needed in explaining the rise of the right in Greece. Golden Dawn is Greece’s most prominent far-right neo-Nazi group, with some of its members currently facing trial for constituting a criminal organisation, and others being held responsible for violent attacks, including the murder of rapper Pavlos Fyssas in September 2013 and the stabbings of anarchist group members in June 2008. It is now the country’s third-largest political party and represents about 10% of the popular vote.

The party often speaks out against the ‘illegal immigrants’ in the country. Golden Dawn supporters have violently targeted refugees and refugee camps. In November 2016, concerted attacks took place at the Souda refugee camp on the island of Chios. Attacks saw rocks and Molotov cocktails being thrown into the camp. Tents were burnt down and at least two refugees were injured.

A child asylum seeker allegedly beaten by police and handcuffed to a chair for four days. Photos taken by Advocates Abroad, on Samos.

Many of the squats housing refugees in Athens have also been subjected to such attacks, again using Molotovs and gas bombs, causing fires and significant damage to the squats. Golden Dawn supporters have also enacted violence against those supporting refugees. In January of this year, a Golden Dawn MP and others stormed a school providing education to refugee children. They were accused of verbally and physically attacking parents and teachers present.  Journalists covering protests have also been attacked.

Another recurring theme in these attacks is that the police stand by and often only intervene once the trouble is over.  There have even been accusations of police complicity in these events, and police brutality to asylum seekers.

But all is not bleak. Whilst many have mobilised in support of the far-right, there has also been a respondent surge in anti-racism and refugee solidarity groups. These have sought to bridge divisions between local Greeks and refugees, and have also provided shelter through squats to many refugees, such as in the City Plaza Hotel in Athens. Despite the hardships most Greeks face, many citizens are engaged in assisting the refugees – at camps and donation centres aid from Greek citizens constantly flows in. Such small acts of human kindness are often omitted from reporters’ notebooks.


Asylum seekers in Greece have different options dependent on whether they arrived in Greece and registered with the Greek Asylum Service on, before, or after March 20th 2016 – the date of the EU-Turkey deal. Asylum seekers who arrived and registered before March 20th had the option of relocation as well as seeking asylum in Greece, being reunified with their families or being granted assisted voluntary return.

Syrians, or Palestinians from Syria, were entered into the Syria Fast Track procedure for asylum. To make an application for asylum an asylum-seeker must personally lodge an application before the asylum Office. This can be done in many areas around Greece and on the islands, as well as in the detention centres. At the Asylum Office they are asked for their personal data and some questions on their origin, journey and reason for leaving. An international protection seeker’s card is then issued that is valid for six months.

During this process, asylum-seekers are also given the date of their interview. Assistance for interviews can be sought only through non-governmental organisations. If an asylum-seeker’s reason for fleeing their country is due to a serious and individual threat to their life or person by means of indiscriminate violence in international or internal armed conflict, then they are considered eligible for subsidiary protection. If, however, there is fear that their life was in danger due to their religion, ethnic group, nationality, social group, gender, sexual orientation or political views, then there is considered due reason to grant refugee status.

In 2011, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the Court of Justice of the EU declared that the asylum system in Greece suffered from ‘systemic deficiencies,’ including a lack of reception centres, poor detention conditions, and the lack of an effective remedy.

Whilst much has changed since this declaration, the asylum system in Greece is still stretched beyond capacity, particularly given the country’s financial situation since the Euro-crisis. Whilst no procedure is meant to last longer than six months, except in special circumstances, it has been reported by those in the field that such processes usually last around nine to ten months, and there have been cases where they have lasted a lot longer. This leaves the refugees in a protracted limbo, often in ‘horrifying’ conditions for those on the islands.

Changes in law

Plans afoot to reinvoke the Dublin rule and to return refugees to their first EU port of call could place even greater burden on those member states where migrants first arrive, placing Greece particularly under further pressure. Additionally, as of January 2017, less than 1,000 asylum seekers had been returned to Turkey under the EU-Turkey deal, though a slightly higher number have been returned under a bilateral Greece-Turkey deal – over 1,000 crossed the sea to Greece in January 2017 alone. The existing deal does not seem to be working.


Provisions of support are very different in Greece compared to those provided in other European countries. This is primarily due to Greece’s position as an arrival point for refugees fleeing to Europe, but often not the final destination. Many are spread through refugee camps or housed in temporary accommodation. The conditions these refugees are living in has been widely reported on by NGOs working there, such as MSF, and by journalists.

Elliniko refugee camp at the old airport base near Athens. Jennifer Dathan/AOAV

The lack of food, sanitation, medicine, warmth and space are common observations. Someone seeking political asylum in Greece should be able to access free medical care and treatment in Greek public hospitals. However, it has been reported that though refugees are sent to hospital if there is a need, there are very often no translators available, making treatment difficult. Free treatment for refugees has also caused tension in Greece where many Greeks have lost healthcare coverage and have seen hospitals operating at dangerous levels.

As well as physical health struggles for refugees in Greece, such as deaths from hypothermia, Greece has also seen a number of suicide attempts by refugees – particularly in the island camps. The process for applying for asylum and the uncertainty and monotony this involves, has been reported by many to lead to feelings of exasperation and hopelessness. This, alongside the trauma many have already suffered and the poor conditions many refugees live in, is thought to exacerbate psychological trauma and mental instability.

Whilst psychological assessment and assistance is offered through Greek NGOs, Medicine Sans Frontieres and the Greek Refugee Council, this is primarily only offered to victims of torture and similar violence.

Others may ask for psychological support. However, due to the cultural taboo surrounding such assistance as seen by many refugees, this is not something that is often sought, or if it is, may be subject to long waiting lists. Psychological evaluations for asylum seekers who have experienced torture or rape see refugees waiting up to a month.

Volunteers and NGO employees in the Greek camps state that many refugees suffer from intense PTSD, but despite this need, trauma and psychosocial support workers are ‘few and far between’. There is little state-sponsored support and often psychosocial volunteers must be relied upon. While these volunteers are more accessible, they can often only stay for a short duration and are extremely busy when there.

It is also believed that, as Greece is often not a final destination and more a place of transit, many refugees that might need psychological support are not ready to seek such help. They are still in ‘survival mode’ and do not yet have the stability needed to thoroughly address the trauma they have suffered. It should be noted that some NGOs have started providing psychological support to those reliving difficult memories and experiences. The NGO Advocates Abroad, in particular, has begun to roll out this support alongside their advocacy work, recognising the desperate need for this kind of assistance in the asylum process.

Mansour, an Afghan refugee, talks to AOAV outside the Elliniko camp, Greece. Jennifer Dathan/AOAV


Experience of explosive violence

Asylum seekers and refugees filled out 106 questionnaires in Greece. They came from Syria (50), Afghanistan (39), Iraq (15) and Iran (2).

92% of refugees interviewed had witnessed explosive violence in their home country. Of these, 75% had witnessed air strikes, 83% had seen shelling, and 69% had IED attacks (including suicide attacks, car bombs, and roadside bombs).

Of the Syrian refugees, 96% had witnessed explosive violence in their home country and 70% had been impacted by the violence. The most common explosive violence witnessed by Syrians was shelling at 88%. 80% had also witnessed airstrikes and barrel bombs.

Forms of violence generally perpetrated by only non-state actors had been witnessed by far fewer – 16% had seen suicide attacks, 26% for roadside bombs, though 42% had witnessed car bombs.

68% of Syrians said their home was destroyed by the violence. Most (84%) had made attempts to relocate internally before leaving Syria.

Of the Iraqis questioned, 100% had witnessed explosive violence. However, the data here is slightly skewed given that a disproportionate amount were from a group fleeing from the violence perpetrated in Sinjan in 2015 – the Sinjan massacre.

95% of those from Afghanistan had witnessed some form of explosive violence. 69% had seen airstrikes, 74% had seen shelling, 90% had witnessed IED attacks.

Reasons for fleeing

Refugees were asked to explain why they had fled their country of origin. Of all those who answered the questionnaire, 70% cited the war in their country as their reason for fleeing. 14% said they fled due to specific non-state groups, such as the Taliban or ISIS.

All the Syrians that responded cited the war as their reason for fleeing Syria. Some also gave additional reasons; 12% explained they needed to flee Syria to seek medical treatment for their child/children; an additional 14%, alongside war, said they were seeking a better future. Of those from Afghanistan, 49% cited war as a reason for leaving Afghanistan. Other reasons given by the refugees included seeking safety, and escaping the Taliban or ISIS.

Of the Iraqi refugees, 100% cited either ISIS or war as their reason for fleeing.


20% of all applicants had been offered psychological support. When broken down by refugee’s country of origin AOAV found similar results.


The situation for refugees in Greece is far from ideal. Many of the refugees that AOAV spoke to reported knowing people who wanted to return home, even to Syria, because of the situation in Greece. As one refugee put it: ‘better to die in the ashes in Syria, than live with no hope in Greece’.

The conditions in the camps have been widely reported but what is reported on less, is the frustration and loss of hope many refugees described. Numerous reported depression amongst their friends and family because their futures were so uncertain. They sought refuge in Europe and found a situation that, for some, exacerbated the trauma they had already suffered.

Skaramagas refugee camp, Skaramagas port, Greece. Jennifer Dathan/AOAV

It was clear from AOAV’s findings that the majority of those arriving in Greece were from countries highly impacted by explosive violence. This was a likely finding given that crossing the Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece is the main route for those fleeing Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite the trauma such indiscriminate violence causes to individuals, very little psychological support is given to those who have experienced high levels of explosive violence.

It is evident many aspects of the refugee process in Greece operate poorly; from the camp conditions to the asylum process itself. Whilst there have been improvements, Greece continues to receive little support accommodating so many refugees. Though funding and other assistance have been provided, Greece –  and Italy – are still overwhelmingly burdened the most by this crisis, while many countries across Europe do very little.

For example, by December 2016, the EU had only met 5% of its relocation goals. Hungary and Poland had not taken any asylum seekers from Greece or Italy. Slovakia had taken nine, and the Czech Republic had taken 12. The UK and Denmark chose not to participate in the scheme. The EU had also only delivered €677m of the €3bn promised for Syrian refugees in Turkey by the end of 2017.