The especial difficulties faced by child refugees and the ongoing debate about how to deal with Europe’s burgeoning immigration problem was the key focus of yesterday’s press briefing in Athens by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) ahead of World Refugee Day tomorrow and today’s launch of a European Union summit in Halkidiki. The harmonization of EU asylum and migration procedures is on the agenda of talks at the summit. Children, who are often unaccompanied when they arrive in Greece and other countries where they hope to gain asylum, should receive special humanitarian assistance, the UNHCR’s representative in Greece, Robert White, told participants. However in Greece, they have had to suffer the repercussions of a fall in the recognition rate of refugees – from 22 percent in 2002 to 0.3 percent this year, according to White, who noted that the 5,600 applicants for asylum in Greece last year included 247 unaccompanied minors. Of these 247 children – mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan – the majority were denied asylum, with very few (the exact number was not confirmed) being taken in by a special reception center that has been operating in Anogeia, Crete for the last two years. A total of 65 child refugees have passed through the center which is the only one of its kind in Greece, the center’s director, Nikos Dramoudanis, said. The center, which offers accommodation, leisure activities and educational lessons to children waiting for their asylum appeals to be processed, has been widely praised for its work but «it remains a pilot project, which is not enough to tackle a huge problem,» Dramoudanis said. The Greek Council for Refugees and the Social Work Foundation both provide support for young refugees attempting to carve out a life for themselves in Greece. «We try to give young migrants the first push they need to make their first steps in the difficult challenge of starting their life in a foreign country,» the council’s vice president, Hari Brisimi, told delegates. The Social Work Foundation also provides support for migrants – especially single mothers with children – looking for jobs, the foundation’s social services director, Evi Pouleli, said. Cooperation among state bodies, non-governmental organizations and the UNHCR has improved greatly over the last year, Robert White noted, adding that Greece has also made progress in sensitizing the public to the refugee problem. The UNHCR has organized an essay competition on the refugee problem at Greek schools, has signed a letter of intent with Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos to send Greek athletes on visits to refugee encampments, and has cooperated with media organizations and with firms, including McDonald’s, for awareness campaigns, White said. However, the less positive aspects of Greece’s performance in dealing with refugees were also noted. White emphasized the drop in the recognition rate of refugees in Greece over the past year, while state NET television reporter Tassos Telloglou described a more general problem. «There is no individual treatment of asylum applications, let alone a distinction between political and economic refugees,» Telloglou remarked. Another key focus of the briefing was the EU summit starting today in Halkidiki, where member states are due to discuss progress toward shaping a common asylum policy, including crucial practical matters, such as how the responsibility and financial burden will be shared both within the EU and in the countries of migrants’ origin. «The UNHCR’s key concern is with improving asylum and immigration procedures in regions of origin,» White told Kathimerini English Edition. «The idea would be that migrants from Somalia could be accommodated in Kenya, Iraqi migrants in Turkey, and so on,» he said, noting that the refugees would then be repatriated, integrated into the neighboring country or – in special circumstances – resettled to a third country. Questioned about recent proposals by British Foreign Minister Jack Straw for a system of «transit camps which would be within wider Europe (and)… zones of protection in the area from which some of the asylum seekers originate,» White said the UNHCR had rejected the idea of transit camps but was open to discuss «protection zones» in regions of origin. But when asked whether the UNHCR would accept the practice of migrants being deported to such protection zones after arriving in third countries, White said it was too early to comment on undeveloped proposals. «The EU summit is unlikely to examine in detail Britain’s proposal, which has in any case since been modified,» White noted. «We hope that attention will be given to the approval of crucial draft EU directives on immigration.» The approval for the «qualification directive» – which is to determine who can be classified as a refugee – has a June 30 deadline and so we hope that some progress on it will be made at the summit,» the UNHCR’s protection officer in Greece, Maria Stavropoulou, told Kathimerini English Edition. «It had been due for approval at the beginning of June but a stream of queries and objections by various member states stalled the process,» she said. «Another EU directive – to harmonize asylum procedures – has a December deadline for approval but we expect it to be discussed at the summit,» Stavropoulou added. A European Commission communication on «more accessible, equitable and managed asylum systems» is very encouraging, White and Stavropoulou agreed. «The next step is to see whether it will be welcomed or merely noted at the summit,» Stavropoulou added. Meanwhile, reports from Geneva said the UNHCR’s special envoy for Iraq has issued an appeal to European governments to delay sending hundreds of thousands of Iraqis back to their homeland because the situation in the postwar country remains too unstable for large-scale returns.