The head of the Public Order and Citizen Protection Ministry's recently established Asylum Service, Maria Stavropoulou, is confident that things are getting better on this thorny front.
“The situation is clearly more manageable. We still have a large number of claimants, but there is a sense of calm, while the rackets are no longer around,” she told Kathimerini recently, referring to organized groups that offer asylum papers to applicants through the back door in exchange for often exorbitant fees.
The Asylum Service is relatively new, taking over the process from the police in June in a bid to improve the country's immigration policy record.
The differences between then and now are striking, especially in the Greek capital, where the previous regime was a source of national shame. The Attica Aliens Bureau on Petrou Ralli Street accepted applicants just once a week, on Saturdays. Hundreds of foreigners would gather at the gates – sometimes days in advance – hoping to be among the lucky few – usually around 20 – who would manage to make it inside and submit their applications. Rackets that would sell a good spot in the queue were allowed to run rampant, while violent altercations between applicants were frequently reported even though police were supposed to be supervising the crowds.
Another huge problem was the absence of local aliens bureaus at popular points of entry for migrants around the country, meaning that all asylum applicants had to make their way to Athens, compounding an already difficult situation. The delay in processing claims stretched to years, while the backlog had grown to 45,000 cases when the Athens bureau was shut down.
Stavropoulou's resume spoke for itself when she applied for the job of revamping the asylum system. A graduate of the University of Athens, University College London and Harvard, with some 20 years' experience at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and fluent in four languages, the 48-year-old lawyer has the know-how and the drive to get things done.
For Stavropoulou it is all about management. Experienced staff, recruited with no small amount of effort because of bureaucratic obstacles and hiring restrictions, as well as longer operating hours, have made a difference, she says.
The new Attica service alone takes in some 40 claims a day, while another 10-20 are accepted by the service's branches around Greece.
One high-ranking police officer told Kathimerini on condition of anonymity that there is nothing but relief in the force that this task has been taken off its hands, though the Petrou Ralli bureau continues to process the applications that were submitted to it before the new service opened.
The backlog at Petrou Ralli, according to Stavropoulou, is now down to 27,000 claims and she estimates that it will be cleared by the end of the year.
The change has not come without its critics, however. In a joint announcement published in December, groups involved in immigration issues mentioned “long queues” at the Asylum Service's Athens headquarters on Katehaki Avenue and said that the new system lacks mechanisms to identify the most vulnerable applicants and has insufficient translation services. They also argued that the new service is doing nothing to ensure that asylum seekers are not kept at migrant detention centers by the police for extended periods of time.
“Our priority is to process the applications of detainees as fast as possible,” Stavropoulou responded. She says the criticism is unfounded and notes that decisions for such applications are processed within 43 days in the first phase, significantly faster than the target of 90 days. She says that improvements have been made in the system for dealing with vulnerable claimants such as minors or torture victims, as well as on the interpretation front, where nongovernmental organizations such as Metadrasi have played a crucial role.
The biggest problem, Stavropoulou says, is the time it takes for the NGOs that play such an important role to receive European Union funding through the Labor Ministry so they can continue their work.
“The departments that manage European funds are the oil in the machine. They should not be allowed to act like the rust,” siad Stavropoulou. “We can't blame everything on the crisis and the memorandum. At the end of the day we will all be judged by the results we bring.”
Since the start of operation on June 7, 2013, to the end of January, the Asylum Service took in 5,577 applications from migrants coming from 77 different countries. More than three-quarters were from men.
The asylum approval rate ranges from zero (for applicants from Albania and Georgia) to 99.1 percent for Syrians and 100 percent for Somalis. The average time it takes to get a preliminary decision on a claim is 63 days.
According to Stavropoulou, improvements in the service have also led to the “rationalization of demand,” as people fleeing war zones know they have better chances of being accepted and those who have come to Greece for financial reasons only become less optimistic.
Another big difference between then and now is that a lot more applications are being approved. On a preliminary basis, from June 2013 to January this year, 11.6 percent of applicants were granted asylum and 5.2 percent were granted subsidiary protection. In total, one in six applicants – from Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Eritrea and Sudan – received the protection they were deprived of in their country and are entitled to under international law. In 2012, just 0.9 percent of claimants were granted asylum.
In addition to Athens, branches of the Asylum Service are currently operating in northern and southern Evros, on Greece's northern border, and on the eastern Aegean islands of Lesvos and Rhodes, while teams have been dispatched to process the claims of applicants at migrant detention centers in Thessaloniki and in Amygdaleza, northern Attica.
Stavropoulou aims to have additional branches operating by the end of the year on Samos, in Iraklio, Crete, and in Patra, which will be staffed mainly by civil servants transferred from other departments.
The Asylum Service today employs a staff of 207. The majority – and particularly those who interview claimants and offer recommendations as to whether they should be accepted or rejected – have university (mostly masters) degrees in law, politics or humanitarian studies.
Another important facet of the work being done by the service, one that does not show up in the numbers, according to Stavropoulou, are the so-called “Dublin” cases, or asylum seekers that Greece wants taken in by other countries in the European Union, usually in order to bring families back together.
“In 2013, 674 people were accepted by third countries at our request, based on the Dublin II treaty,” she said. Of course, the terms of a succession of Dublin treaties lead mainly to migrants being sent back from third countries to Greece, something that Stavropoulou says indicates the “hypocrisy” of the country's European peers.