Equal Rights Beyond Borders is a legal aid organisation headquartered in both Greece and Germany.
In response to the EU-Turkey Statement of March 2016, we founded our first office in Chios in 2017. From the very beginning, close cooperation between Greek and German lawyers was central to our work. We based our approach on the concept of European solidarity, because the European asylum system and the EU’s external border concern all Europeans. Our work has expanded over the years: we currently work from offices in Berlin, Athens, Chios and Kos.
On 20 March 2016, the EU-Turkey Declaration came into force.
Part of this agreement was that Greece should deport all asylum seekers arriving on the Aegean islands to Turkey. The basis for this was that Turkey was classified as a safe third country and was considered the state responsible for carrying out the asylum procedure for people who entered the islands via Turkey. However, what this return would look like was not defined. The EU hotspots on the Greek islands thus became centres for detention and deportation.
In May 2016, several young lawyers from various refugee law clinics in Germany travelled to Chios to evaluate with Greek colleagues whether they could be of assistance on the islands. Among them were the founding members of Equal Rights Beyond Borders. What united them was the conviction that qualified legal advice is necessary and that German-Greek cooperation would be an expression of inner-European solidarity. As a counterpoint to the EU authorities such as EUAA and Frontex, which implement the European construct of "hotspots" on the islands, a balance should thus also take place at EU level through civil society.
Soon, these founders managed to win the Diakonie Deutschland and the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD) as supporters.
In May 2017, we opened the first office on Chios, as the lack of legal assistance there was particularly great. This year, the area of family reunification in the Dublin procedure was identified as an area in urgent need of Greek-German cooperation. This area became the focus of Equal Rights Beyond Borders. Building trust with asylum seekers and refugees housed in the EU hotspot camp was crucial.
Equal Rights Beyond Borders was already more than a short-term project. Our network of migration lawyers and NGOs in Greece and Germany grew steadily. We are especially grateful for the support of the Churches' Commission for Migrants in Europe (CCME). From now on, we were also financially supported by the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP).
Concrete successes in 2018 were the opening of our legal aid office in Athens and the first successful enforcement of a Dublin family reunification case before a German administrative court. This success was key to further work on Dublin family reunification. The dispute was about whether asylum seekers residing in Greece have a legal remedy in German courts if their individual right to family reunification was denied by Germany. The Administrative Court ruled that the fundamental right to effective legal protection must also be granted across intra-European borders. Since then, we have been successfully litigating such cases. This shows the effectiveness of strategic litigation.
We expanded our scope of work, and started to challenge unlawful detention practices as well, as filing more complaints with the European Court of Human Rights.
In 2019, we opened our office in Berlin. The colleagues there are mainly involved in fundraising, social media, accounting and coordination activities.
The office is also responsible for conducting the Dublin family reunification process. In addition to scientific publications, numerous workshops and trainings are offered to support the project.
2020 was a particularly challenging year for Equal Rights Beyond Borders.
After the Turkish president announced that he would "open the borders" and thus allow "millions" into the European Union, the Greek government immediately responded by "closing" the borders. The right to asylum was "suspended".
In addition, we had to deal with the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic. The pandemic, with its discriminatory containment policy, had a disastrous impact on people living in Greek camps for asylum seekers. Advocacy work was particularly hampered by this policy.
At the same time, however, we also recorded successes in 2020. In Berlin, together with our cooperation partner IRAP, we launched a UNHCR-funded project on family reunification. With this, we expanded our work beyond the EU, as the focus is on unaccompanied minors from East Africa and the Middle East who apply for family reunification in Germany.
In January 2021, we opened our office on the island of Kos. Systematic detention was a constant issue and the situation was further exacerbated by the ongoing Covid 19 pandemic.
Access to asylum became more and more difficult. Push-backs and violence at the borders increased drastically and the situation of asylum seekers and refugees further worsened.
Together with our colleagues from #LeaveNoOneBehind, we made the systemic problem of unworthy living conditions in the camps a focus of our office in Athens. We deal with the situation of asylum seekers as well as people who have already been granted protection.
In 2022, we consolidated the work around the issue of detention and extended this to our work on the Greek mainland.
The extension of the application of the mechanism behind the EU-Turkey Declaration to the mainland led to an increase in systematic detention there as well.
At the same time, the EU-funded Closed Controlled Access Centre (CCAC) was opened on Kos, which includes a large detention facility. The political tightening and the fact that Turkey no longer "takes back" people implies that they are often detained for an indefinite period of time under inhumane conditions.
We expanded our work to include a project on sexualised and gender-based violence. Our office on Chios is increasingly taking on the representation of women who have survived such violence. In parallel, the project is accompanied by scientific work.
At the same time, the political atmosphere in Greece continued to deteriorate. In addition to a law that imposes illegal registration obligations on NGOs, which we are fighting against in the highest court together with our partner HIAS, there is an increasing general criminalisation of NGOs.