UNHCR seeks improved policy for asylum seekers

One sometimes gets the impression that the last real refugees, persecuted, weakened and exhausted, to reach Greece were the victims of the 1922 catastrophe in Asia Minor. Since then, our country has been behaving as if there are no refugees in the world, as if all those who illegally cross the Greek borders are economic migrants, if not smugglers or criminals. However, many conflicts persist in today’s world and Greece, at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, has inevitably become the destination or the crossing point for many refugees. Oluseyi Bajulaiye, deputy director of the UNHCR Europe Bureau, visited Greece late last week in order to sensitize the Greek authorities but also in order to commend them on their stance vis-a-vis disputed proposals on the setting-up of refugee camps in third countries. This was the first topic he referred to: «I was assured that Greece does not support the so-called Schily proposal. To my relief, I found out that the Greek government considers it unacceptable from a humanitarian point of view,» Bajulaiye said after he had returned from a meeting with General Secretary of the Ministry of Public Order Leonidas Evangelidis. The Nigerian UNHCR officer was referring to the proposal to set up camps outside the EU borders, where refugees could stay for as long as their application is processed. «These proposals were originally put forward by Britain in 2003 during the Thessaloniki summit, but at the time they were rejected. Now, the German minister of the interior, Otto Schily, has relaunched the debate, but most countries are not in favor,» he said. «Our position is clear. We do not support camps outside the EU.» However, he added: «We recognize that, for refugees who are already within European borders, the EU could decide on which country should process their applications. This would promote burden-sharing and relieve countries at the border.» Greece, however, which is such a country, is not overburdened with refugees. The asylum claims that are accepted in Europe, once fear of persecution is indeed established through an interview or other means, correspond to an average of 10-15 percent of all asylum applications. Statistics for 2003 with regard to Greece are appalling: Last year, Greece granted refugee status to just three persons, corresponding to a mere 0.06 percent of asylum seekers. Recognized refugees were fewer than the UNHCR personnel in Athens. «In Greece, even those who receive a positive second-instance recommendation are not granted asylum,» Bajulaiye said. «In some cases, the government should reconsider its position. It is clear that we would like to have a higher degree of harmonization among European recognition rates. Just for the record, the recognition rate is 6 percent in Spain and 20 percent in Italy.» Speedier procedures «I would like to see a clearer differentiation as to who is a refugee and who has left his country in order to find a job,» explained Bajulaiye. «For those who have genuine asylum claims, there is no legal way to enter a country.» Refugees might have left their country in a hurry, not have a passport or not be allowed to have one by their country’s authorities. «An issue for us is the training of border officials to help them understand their duties,» says the American UNHCR representative in Athens, Robert White, stressing that the problem is not with the law, since the Greek legislation «is almost exceptional. We believe that now the asylum procedure will be faster,» he added. «Both in Greece and in the world in general,» said Bajulaiye, «there has been a sharp decline in refugee flows, because some conflicts have ceased to exist but also because border controls have become stricter. What we are seeking is a balance between illegal migration controls and refugee protection.»