Two days before the EU heads of state meet in Seville to hammer out an operational plan to control illegal immigration, the UN refugee agency yesterday declared that Greece is lagging behind in the implementation of EU-harmonized immigration policies, having very few refugee reception centers with even those being of dubious standard. «We need more reception centers in Greece,» declared Florinda Rojas Rodriguez, UNHCR representative in Greece, during a conference yesterday. She explained that there are only four reception centers in the country, and even those do not meet some of the standards prescribed by the EU. «These centers should not be closed camps, or closed centers. We are trying to convince authorities to comply,» Rojas Rodriguez noted. «Greece has to follow the EU harmonization process. Unfortunately it is not yet at that level.» Greece also appears to be at the bottom of the EU scale in granting asylum to refugees. According to records from the Ministry of Public Order, in the first five months of 2002 authorities received 1,857 asylum applications, of which 41 percent (772 applications) were lodged by Iraqis and 30 percent (559 applications) by Afghans. So far the ministry has approved just 18 asylum requests, which include one Afghan and two Iraqis. At the same time the ministry denied asylum to some 1,892 asylum seekers – a number which includes applications held over from the previous year – with over 1,000 of them from Iraq and close to 300 from Afghanistan. Last year Greece granted asylum to 295 refugees, 148 of them on humanitarian grounds, and rejected 1,165. That year Greece received 5,499 applications, a sharp rise from previous years. The media and xenophobia During the conference, titled «Refugee Protection and Immigration Control: The New Challenge,» speakers also focused on the role of the media in Europe in relation to the rise of far-right parties, criticizing some media outlets for cultivating xenophobic attitudes among Europeans. Hans Thoolen, a former information officer with the UNHCR in Geneva, noted that asylum protection has become a political issue, mainly during elections, stressing that the media have failed to make a clear distinction between economic immigrants and asylum seekers. Moreover, Thoolen underlined that as exaggerated stories of bogus asylum claims continue to find their way into the front pages of newspapers in European capitals such as London and Paris, far-right parties and xenophobia will be gaining ground. «The media are crucial to all these matters,» he said. «So it does matter what stories are written and what images are shown.» With respect to the Greek media, TV journalist Nikos Hatzinikolaou of Mega Channel noted that not all outlets give the same coverage to the issue, stressing that the quality varies as well. «There are media outlets that foster racism and xenophobia,» he said, referring to increasing reports by print and electronic media that focus on crimes mostly committed by foreigners. «But progress has been made.» Recent polls by Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical service, show that Greek youths are the most xenophobic in the EU. But Rojas Rodriguez was quick to note that statistics show a growing concern among young Greeks and not the real feelings of people toward those in need. «Greeks at border towns are welcoming and aiding refugees, when it should have been local authorities doing this job,» the UNHCR official declared. EU dialogue Stelios Zontos, assistant to Alternate Foreign Minister Tassos Yiannitsis, told reporters that in its discussions with EU partners Greece has to be cautious in its approach, listening to all critical voices within the group – including the extremes. «We need to be honest with ourselves,» Zontos said, adding that it would be unrealistic to disregard the voices that raised concerns over the presence of foreigners in the country. «Not all EU countries have the same sensitivities or approaches on the issue.» With respect to the measures that were discussed by EU foreign ministers on Monday in Luxembourg, Zontos explained that the EU is moving on two fronts: One is the operational measures that are meant to safeguard European borders, and the second is EU relations with the countries of origin of illegal immigrants. Zontos declared that the border patrol aspect of operational planning will be formulated at the EU summit in Seville at the end of the week, stressing that the identification of refugees and economic migrants will have to be done at the borders. Moreover, according to the Foreign Ministry official, the EU is moving to establish closer ties with refugees’ countries of origin to put a lid on immigration flow. The EU plans to inject economic aid into these countries, sign agreements for the return of illegal immigrants to their native countries, and urge them to enact laws against human trafficking. UNHCR protection officer Maria Stavropoulou stated that in the post-September 11 environment immigration and asylum issues have become closely linked with security. But she stressed that if the EU focuses only on dealing with illegal immigration without ensuring the protection of refugees, the latter group could find EU’s door bolted shut. «We know what will happen in Seville,» she said. «But Seville should not stop at control measures; it should also establish protection services for refugees and have swift asylum procedures.» With Greece taking over the EU’s rotating presidency next January while immigration remains a crucial political issue across the 15 EU nations, Zontos said that Greece will make immigration the top item on its agenda and asked non-governmental groups to submit any proposals. Myths and realities Petros Mastakas of the Greek Council for Refugees dismissed the notion that Greece needs more EU laws in order to handle immigration and protect refugees within its borders, identifying three myths prevailing in Greek society in recent months. «The first myth is that we need the EU harmonization process to protect the refugees,» he said. «That is not true. The Geneva Convention of 1951 and national laws guarantee their rights.» The second myth, according to Mastakas, is that «we can absolutely guarantee border control,» which he again dismissed as unrealistic given that Greece has over 3,000 islands and thousands of miles of coastline. «We have to accept the reality that people will keep coming,» he noted. The third myth rebuffed by Mastakas was that all foreigners who come here are illegal immigrants. «It is true that a large number of them are economic migrants, but a number of them are also asylum seekers.» The agency official underlined the daily hardships faced by island communities that receive immigrants, as well as by asylum seekers, stressing that the State should do more to help local authorities cope with the influx and deal with «the difficulties faced by local communities left with no help by the State in caring for arriving immigrants or asylum seekers,» Mastakas said.