Denied Nationality and the Struggle for Fair Access to Asylum

The right to seek and enjoy asylum is a human right, as defined by article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)[1]. However, asylum seekers in Greece experience an abundance of obstacles preventing fair access to asylum. In recent months, the incorrect registration of applicants’ nationality has served as a significant hindrance.

In Lesvos’ Closed Controlled Access Centre (Mavrovouni CCAC), as in many refugee camps in Greece, the registration and identification process of new arrivals is carried out by the Registration and Identification Service (RIS)[2], with the assistance of agencies, including Frontex[3]. In practice, Frontex plays a significant role in the registration procedure, including the nationality screenings of people seeking asylum[4].

Asylum applicants are typically registered with both a stated nationality and an estimated nationality, which does not always align. As many people flee their country without identification documents, or they have been lost on the journey, it is difficult for asylum seekers to prove their nationality. As a consequence, officers registering asylum seekers can use generalised assumptions about a country in order to provide an estimation. However, these assumptions often overlook individual complexities and cultural nuances, leading to unfair and inaccurate assessments of nationality.

On Lesvos, it has been observed that this practice is most commonly carried out amongst Eritrean applicants, who are registered with an Ethiopian nationality. There is no doubt that a strong linguistic and cultural overlap between these two countries exists. Eritrea only became fully independent from Ethiopia in 1991, and many Eritreans were forced to flee to Ethiopia from a young age due to war and conflict, most notably the Eritrean-Ethiopian border war which took place between 1998-2000[5]. Therefore, it is not uncommon for Eritreans to speak Amharic, which is the common language of Ethiopia, and to be familiar with Ethiopian culture[6]. This overlap of language, culture and conflict makes nationality more difficult to assess. Despite this, in recent months almost all Amharic-speaking Eritreans have had their nationality questioned, irrespective of the strength of identity documents presented.

This practice has also affected people from Sudan, who are wrongfully registered as South Sudanese, potentially on account of the linguistic overlap or familiarity with the culture after being forced to flee to South Sudan[7]. Similarly, people from Afghanistan are sometimes given an Iranian nationality, especially if they fled to Iran, where they were unable to access basic residency rights and papers, essentially rendering them stateless[8].

These oversimplified assumptions used to assess nationality fail to take into account the convolution between language and culture and how they permeate through different borders.

In all cases, the nationalities that people are wrongfully registered with represent countries which are considered to be ‘safer’. Eritrea, Afghanistan and Sudan are all countries that have a high acceptance rate due to current situations and undeniable risk of persecution. Whereas Ethiopia, Iran and South Sudan require a much higher burden of proof for a successful asylum claim. As a result, it is harder for an applicant with a different estimated nationality to provide the necessary details to show that they need international protection in Greece.

There is currently no legislation that allows this decision to be effectively challenged during the registration process. Instead, the Greek Authorities have recently introduced a nationality assessment that will be integrated into the asylum interview. It is intended to give asylum-seekers an opportunity to prove their nationality through a series of questions. However, this test is constructed from a range of arbitrary questions about a country’s geography, language and culture and fails to take into account the complexity of an individual’s situation. Lived experience varies significantly amongst asylum seekers, and many lack the necessary knowledge, education or perspective to comprehend their country of origin through a western lens, hindering their ability to answer questions.

The first nationality assessments were tentatively introduced in September and October 2023. In many of these cases, if a caseworker rejected an applicant’s stated nationality, they usually did not continue to assess an applicant’s claim under the estimated nationality, or as a stateless individual. This effectively means that an individual’s access into the asylum system was based upon an arbitrary set of facts, rather than personal experience.

Some asylum seekers were made to accept their estimated nationality in order to proceed with their asylum claim. In one testimony, an applicant recounted their first interview with the Greek Asylum Service, during which the caseworker gave them an ultimatum. The applicant was told that she must proceed with her asylum claim as an Ethiopian, or the interview would be discontinued, and her case will not be assessed. The applicant rejected the nationality assessment and repeated that she is Eritrean. Consequently, the caseworker stopped the interview and the applicant’s asylum claim was rejected; having received no nationality test or fair consideration of her case.

Since the official introduction of the nationality assessment at the beginning of 2024, it is unclear whether these practices are still happening. Yet it remains clear that asylum seekers registered with an incorrect estimated nationality face significant obstacles to access a fair right to asylum. Those who do accept their assigned nationality face a much higher burden of proof of persecution in their asylum claim. Whilst those who persist with their stated nationality are not granted access into the asylum system, nor given fair consideration of their case.

Much uncertainty still surrounds the estimated nationality process. Thus far the Greek Asylum Service has been unable to define the official procedure, and asylum-seekers are not made aware of the official process. Ultimately, the procedure is still unpredictable, and leaves many people in a state of uncertainty and doubt.


Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) emphasises the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of nationality[9]. The estimated nationality process has led to some asylum seekers to lose their nationality throughout the asylum process, and the fair consideration of their asylum claim, without a justifiable basis.

We call on the Greek authorities and the European Commission to ensure that:

The Greek Asylum Service creates and publishes a clear and defined procedure for applicants registered with an estimated nationality.
Nationality tests are assessed with an intersectional and inclusive approach, during which culture, education, age and the varied lived experiences of people prior to fleeing are taken into consideration.
Applicants who were compelled to proceed with their interview with an incorrect estimated nationality, and had their claim rejected, must be allowed to have their asylum reassessed in a subsequent application on the basis that they can now complete a nationality assessment.
Applicants whose cases were dropped because they refused to continue with their claim with their estimated nationality must have the opportunity to submit a new or subsequent application in light of the wrongful rejection. ‍

Fenix article written by Frankie Woodman, Legal Officer at Fenix

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