Greece lacks a coordinated policy on refugees

For the past three years, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Florinda Rojas-Rodriguez has been monitoring the way Greece handles the problem of refugees and asylum seekers entering the country. In this interview with Kathimerini, the Commissioner said she had found that despite the considerable progress made, the Greek system still leaves much to be desired. Do you believe that the fear of terrorist acts will hamper the process of granting asylum to refugees in Europe? I do not believe that refugees are part of any terrorist activity; they are people in need of international protection. Seventy percent are women and children. I don’t believe that states should feel threatened by people looking for a safe place. Do you think that states are willing to take that on board at the moment? States are aware of how difficult the situation is right now. Their priority is to control the movement of migrants, to avoid possible terrorist acts, which is legitimate. The problem lies in the practice, as people are becoming more xenophobic, and in how this can affect refugees and asylum seekers. Right now, economic immigrants and asylum seekers are trying to have some [documentation] in hand so as not to be considered a terrorist. On the other hand, there are also people that attempt to take advantage of the asylum system and apply even though they are not genuine refugees. This is nothing new. What has changed since September 11 is the visibility of the migration flows around the world. Governments therefore have to ensure that the asylum system is fair and fast so that people who are not refugees do not take advantage of the system. At the EU’s Laeken summit, there will be a debate on harmonizing the procedures for asylum seekers. Some countries, such as Greece, have very slow bureaucratic procedures and others, such as the Netherlands, aim at speedy social integration. Which do you believe is the best model? Greece is still far from being the best model, although I feel quite positive about what Greece is doing. For example, when I first came to Greece, the government was operating only one reception center. Now there are seven -some supported by the government and others by international bodies. As far as the common model is concerned, the Netherlands definitely has a very good system but there are others in France, Britain and Spain. The important thing is that there is a structure where it is the responsibility of the government, not of the UNHCR, to take care of a refugee in terms of security, asylum and integration. How difficult would it be for Greece to implement a common model? It is not difficult; it is a question of making the decision and going ahead in order to set up the structure. The structures are inadequate, however, and the system is encumbered by bureaucracy. I agree that it is very complex; the Minister of Health and Welfare is responsible for these peoples’ reception, and the Minister of Public Order for the asylum procedure. There is no real integration program handled by the government. One of the problems is that when talking about facilitating refugees’ integration into the country, people think we are talking about thousands of people – Albanians or people from the Balkans. We are not talking about this kind of economic migrants who are already in the country. We are talking about refugees. If we continue to work on disseminating information about who is a refugee and who is not, the public will realize how easy it is to integrate refugees. What immediate steps do you think the Greek government should take? The most immediate action should be to create some kind of ad hoc committee to deal with the emergency situation that exists now due to the lack of coordination, resources and reception facilities. A link between the central authorities and local authorities, and between the ministries is important, and already exists for other activities. This body, under the Interior Minister, for example, could work very easily with one department for the asylum procedure, one for integration, with social workers for the most vulnerable groups and others on various projects. Instead of supporting refugees with funds from different ministries and the EU, all economic resources for refugees and asylum seekers would be managed by one unit. This is not a structure for all people coming to Greece, so we shouldn’t be afraid that creating such a structure will attract refugees here. What should the second step be? I think that support in the border areas is a very important issue. Greece’s geography makes it difficult to control the flow of people and it cannot be taken for granted that all the people coming into the country will continue with their original plan of [moving on] and not staying in Greece. People who arrive on a Greek island, for example, should be allowed to be registered and screened. For security reasons of course, there are people who will be excluded. We respect this; it is according to the Constitution of the country. But if there are not proper facilities for receiving people, I think we are violating one of the most important parts of the Convention, which is reception. Everybody has the right to apply for asylum under dignified conditions. What about the reaction of local communities? These centers will be absolutely temporary until procedures are completed. What should not happen is that people are allowed to stay in the country without any kind of documentation. Therefore it is better to have the facilities for reception. Recently Greece and Turkey signed a protocol on the return of illegal immigrants. What do you think Turkey should do to fulfill its obligations? UNHCR is of the opinion that every effort to regulate by law issues relating to the readmission of irregular migrants is useful to the extent that it reduces the chances of informal or irregular expulsions from one country to the other. However, UNHCR also believes that readmission procedures should be conducted in a manner that guarantees the human rights of migrants, including irregular migrants, and with respect for their dignity. The protocol should have included a specific reference to the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees. Let me give you an example of a similar agreement between the USA and Mexico. There was a reception facility for economic migrants who entered the USA illegally and were arrested by police. Within 48 hours, there were buses to take them back to Mexico. The system is working, maybe not perfectly, but I see that the authorities are working on that. As for the [Greek-Turkish] protocol, I am optimistic. I believe it is a question of experience and practice and above all, policy.

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