Asylum action needed

There needs to be an improvement in infrastructure in Greece to adequately handle an increase in asylum applications, and also greater political will to ensure that new initiatives and legislation are actually implemented, politicians and representatives of immigration groups agreed yesterday at a press conference organized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Athens. The main aim of the press conference was to present the UNHCR’s recommendations to the Greek government on how to bring its existing asylum policies and practice into line with European standards, the UNHCR’s representative in Greece, Robert White, said. The proposals include improving the implementation of existing asylum laws (including effectively instructing border guards so that people in need receive protection), enshrining EU directives within national legislation, and improving facilities for the reception of immigrants in Greece. This means increasing capacity (there are currently places for 1,300 refugees while there have been more than 5,427 applications for asylum this year) as well as improving conditions (the UNHCR is also urging «minimum» detention criteria at centers, such as providing necessary medical care and legal representation). All the above should be carried out alongside efforts to provide more assistance for refugees in their countries of origin, according to a statement by UNHCR Chief Ruud Luubers at the organization’s executive committee meeting last week in Brussels. Top on the government’s list of priorities should be determining ways of better facilitating the social integration of asylum seekers in Greece, as more than half are currently from Iraq and Afghanistan and so repatriation is not a viable option for them, White’s deputy Bart Leerschool added. But there was no real consensus among the political speakers at the conference about the government’s readiness to increase protection for refugees. PASOK MP and former Deputy Health Minister Foivos Ioannidis said he believed the current problems in adequately tackling the refugee problem in Greece (including a drop in the recognition rate of refugees – only three applications out of a total of 5,427 this year were accepted, according to the latest UNCHR figures) «is due to practical and economic barriers rather than a lack of political will.» (Last year, Greece only approved 1.1 percent of applications for political asylum, compared to an average among EU states of 20.1 percent.) New Democracy MP Anna Psarouda-Benaki (also a deputy speaker of Parliament and former justice minister) countered that the problem was precisely a lack of will in the government: «On paper, Greece is not reproachable, it approves the legislation and launches the initiatives, but the will is not there to pursue their implementation.» A circular recently issued by Greek Police Chief Fotis Nasiakos to all police services in the country regarding the treatment of refugee detainees «is encouraging but it is not enough in itself, it needs to be implemented,» she added. Greek Communist Party deputy Nikolaos Gaztis had more radical proposals. «The entire legislative framework of the country needs to change,» he said, adding that his party would support the establishment of an independent body for coordinating the reception of immigrants in Greece. Synaspismos Left Coalition deputy Fotis Kouvelis, a former justice minister, said there should be legislative reform obliging the State to provide an explanation after rejecting appeals for political asylum. «A government can use the excuse of national security if it wants to reject appeals for political asylum,» he said. The importance of thoroughly assessing all applications for asylum protection was highlighted by Maria Piniou-Kalli, a representative of Athens’s Medical Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims, who said the center had a verified list of 107 refugees who had been subjected to torture following repatriation after their applications for political asylum had been rejected. Piniou-Kalli demanded an explanation from the attending politicians as to why these applications had been rejected. None even knew such a list existed.