Keeping the door open: The UNHCR struggles with the continuing flow of refugees seeking asylum

Thousands of asylum seekers arrive in Greece every year to solicit refugee status, only to find that the application process is a mess. Few voters seem to mind, as long as the system keeps most foreigners out. And it does. The recognition rate for asylum has dropped from 32.2 percent in 1999 down to 0.9 percent last year. Greece is naturally near the bottom of the table among its ever more reluctant EU peers. «This is a significant and very concerning decline,» says Karen Farkas, the Australian-born representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Greece. But government reluctance to grant refugee status under the 1951 refugee convention is by no means the only roadblock that this most sensitive group of people has to overcome. Notwithstanding some progress over the last three months during which recognition statistics moved up to 5 percent, Farkas says, the UN refugee agency remains preoccupied with the absence of an independent appeals process, also known as the second instance review. This means that both the initial decision and the appeal are considered by the same authority, in this case, the Ministry of Public Order. This legal policy with no safeguards obviously defeats the purpose. The importance of the appeals stage is underscored by the fact that the answer by the ministry in the first instance is given almost by default: «No.» Is it that there are too many bogus applications? The Cold War days when Western states welcomed the ideologically charged victims of communism are over. Now people increasingly say to hell with the noble-undertaking stuff. To be sure, many economic migrants are tempted to attempt a free ride in applying for asylum. Some states are hoping that a hard-liner reputation will keep the boatloads of would-be refugees away. Greece has sometimes been accused of following a policy of malevolent neglect. By being totally insensitive toward refugees, critics say, the state hopes that they – and the problem – will go away. Farkas is not convinced: «No one is gaining anything from the current situation. The tendency to give a negative response to every first application has not solved anything, it has just extended the time period in which everybody pursues legal recourse.» The truth is that the long legal process means that newcomers are more likely to find employment and integrate into the host society. And in Greece, where the bureaucracy can take up to six or seven years, people who apply for asylum know that they can have six or seven years of legal employment before the final decision. Even if they eventually receive a deportation order, they can just become illegal immigrants. It is no coincidence that reception camps are mostly packed with women and children, as the more flexible male adults quickly make their way into the labor market. Besides, there is good reason to believe that even a systematic snubbing of asylum seekers would fail to curb Greece’s huge backlog. Most rejected applicants would most likely turn up again. Under the Dublin II regulation, should an asylum seeker who has sought refugee status in Greece be detained in another EU country, he or she would be returned to Greece. «It’s actually not really in anybody’s interest that there is a policy for people to leave, for they will be sent back under the regulation,» says Farkas. After all, she points out, the number of arrivals in Greece has been fairly stable over the years, whether the recognition rate was over 30 percent or the current almost 1 percent. Being too harsh on newcomers won’t do. If Greece really wanted to curb the flow, it would have to make it more difficult for people to reach its shores. Hardly a humanitarian approach. No quick fix So what’s to blame for the mess? Successive incompetent or unwilling governments is a quick answer. But not the full answer. «It is a very complex situation,» Farkas explains, since the refugee issue is part of a much larger equation. First is the economy. Greece has to more than halve its budget deficit to under 3 percent of GDP by the end of 2006 to comply with eurozone limits and meet a deadline set by the European Commission. «It is difficult to cut public spending and increase assistance to migrants and refugees when you also need to make improvements to the Greek social welfare system.» Second is migration. The conservative government is currently drafting a new migration bill aimed at streamlining the often chaotic migration laws and reducing the red tape faced by migrants, who make up a tenth of Greece’s population of 11 million. Asylum seekers and refugees number some 13,000. «It’s all new for a country like Greece,» says Farkas. Its geography is also a problem. Greece lies on the EU’s external border, it sits at the crossroads of three continents, and it has very porous sea borders. All these make it one of the main transit routes to Europe. «It’s a bit of myth that Greece is only a transit country and that migrants are actually heading somewhere else. That has changed considerably over the last 10 or 12 years,» says Farkas. «It is becoming more and evident that many people would be only too happy if they could just stay. All they want is a safe place to live.» Greece is rightfully pressing for an EU asylum policy that will share the burden with other countries. And, of course, there’s the «T» word. The US-led war on terrorism has brought about tighter border controls that have inevitably taken their toll on people who really need to flee their countries. Greece has itself closed the door even more with the danger of keeping out people who are at risk of persecution. To-do list There is little doubt the system is begging for a radical overhaul. «The current procedure is too labor-intensive, time-consuming, costly and inefficient,» says Farkas. Toward securing that there is a viable asylum procedure in place that meets international standards and the requirements of the 1951 convention, to which Greece is a signatory, the UNHCR has established a working group with the Ministry of Public Order to look at key aspects in need of reform. A UNHCR report published in June called for proper screening, legal counseling, appropriate reception facilities, an interview process conducted by qualified people in a timely manner, an independent appeals process and acceleration of the final decision. The UNHCR message is clear: Reforms, reforms, reforms – the sooner the better. The situation is at a bottleneck; 13,000 asylum seekers are currently in the pipeline. Some 4,500 new applications were submitted last year. Reception places hold no more than 1,200. The system might actually work if the rotation in and out of the reception facilities was able to function more efficiently. But the problem is that most times when the six-month period is up people still don’t know where they stand. The gap in basic services, such as healthcare, psychological support and legal counseling, needs to be covered. And if the goal is proper integration, then there is the need for language classes, jobs or job training. «Fortunately, in Greece, when you have applied for asylum you are allowed to work. You may not find work but, at least, you are allowed to work.» A good way to justify the absence of benefits, one would think.