Rights groups rap Greece for putting refugees in danger

BRUSSELS (AP) – Greek authorities are «systematically» endangering the lives of refugees trying to reach the European Union in boats, human rights groups said in a report issued yesterday. The report by Pro Asyl and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles – an umbrella group of 76 non-governmental organizations – also denounced the EU’s asylum policy, saying its core objective is to keep out refugees rather than to protect them. Greek coast guard vessels regularly engage in «life-threatening maneuvers» such as circling the rickety boats and creating large waves that could potentially swamp them, the report said. Other tactics include pushing the boats out of Greek waters, or puncturing rubber dinghies so they cannot remain afloat, it said. «This appears to have become systematic in recent years,» said Marianna Tzeferakou from Amnesty International Greece. «But this is not only a national matter, it is a European matter because it’s a result of the EU putting pressure on the Greek government to seal off its borders.» Contacted by The Associated Press, the Greek Interior Ministry had no immediate comment on the report. Greek authorities deny mistreating immigrants and say that most of the illegal entrants are not refugees but ordinary migrants from poor nations in the Middle East and South Asia seeking employment and a better life in the EU. «EU nations wash their hands of the responsibility for refugees while humanitarian dramas unfold at the borders of Europe, illustrating the decreasing commitment of EU states to guarantee even basic human rights standards,» said Karl Kopp, member of Pro Asyl, a refugee rights group based in Frankfurt, Germany. Most asylum seekers use Greece and other south European nations such as Malta, Spain and Portugal as transit points to other EU nations such as Germany, France and Sweden. But according to EU rules, the member state that is the refugee’s first point of entry to the EU is responsible for processing the claims. If they move on, the refugees will be deported back to the receiving country. The 27-nation bloc is due to finalize by 2010 a joint asylum system, which would alleviate the pressure on southern entry points by sharing out the refugees throughout the Union. Greece has seen a surge in illegal immigration this year. Around 18,000 people have been detained in 2007, up sharply from the 8,000 caught during all of 2005. So far this year, 44 people have drowned and 54 are listed as missing. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, due to publish its own report on European asylum policies next week, has criticized Greek treatment of refugees. «We have very serious concerns about Greek practices,» said Madeline Garlick, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Brussels.