Immigration to challenge next premier

The next Greek government faces the urgent but difficult task of overhauling migration and refugee laws which breach international rules yet fail to slow the inflow of migrants, a United Nations official said yesterday. The Mediterranean country is struggling to cope with the rising number of migrants and asylum seekers who use it as the gateway to the European Union, taxing its resources and angering voters about to cast their ballots in the October 4 election. Greece needs to change its entire system, from better screening of undocumented migrants on arrival, to providing legal aid, improving reception centers and handling asylum requests faster and more fairly, said Giorgos Tsarbopoulos, the local head of the UN refugee agency UNHCR. «The procedures are substandard,» Tsarbopoulos said in an interview with Reuters. «It is time for a structural change.» He said the routine practice at present was the automatic deportation of migrants or their detention pending deportation, whether or not they need international protection. «This is against international standards,» he said. The task is complicated by what he said was a climate of xenophobia in a country little used to seeing thousands of foreigners without papers wander the streets of its cities. Nine out of 10 Greeks believe their country, whose population is about 11.2 million, cannot take in any more migrants, a poll published in July showed. Greece intercepted some 146,000 undocumented migrants last year, nearly three times as many as in 2003. But it is almost completely closed to asylum seekers, only 0.1 percent of whose claims have been accepted on first instance so far this year. «There is no doubt the [immigration] pressure is very big,» Tsarbopoulos said. «This creates – and it is new – a problem in big cities like Athens where thousands of undocumented migrants are without shelter, without any legal status, without any possibility to work. This creates the reaction of groups of locals and is being exploited by extreme-right elements.» After the populist far-right LAOS party had its best ever results in EU elections in June, the outgoing conservative government toughened its migration policy, including shutting down a makeshift camp in the port city of Patra and launching police raids on migrant squats in downtown Athens. LAOS has gained support in opinion polls to the detriment of the conservatives. Migration is one of the top voter concerns, though still behind issues such as the economy and education. The opposition Socialists, who are leading opinion polls ahead of the vote, are more supportive of immigrants and have promised to give Greek citizenship to children born to migrants in Greece. Such children are currently in legal limbo. Tsarbopoulos said new asylum rules must be a priority, not only to improve help for those in need but also because the current lengthy procedures are attractive to economic migrants, who gain time before they risk being expelled from the country. Changing the procedures should not encounter public opposition, he said. Building new and better reception centers is also crucial but may be more difficult, he said, stressing the European Union needed to help by financing such projects. Both the UNHCR and human rights groups have long been critical of Greek detention centers. «It’s really a horrific situation,» said Ioanna Kotsioni, deputy head of Doctors Without Borders’s migrant mission in Greece, who visited a detention center on the island of Lesvos. «Greece needs to accept that there is a problem and try to manage it in a way that respects human rights and the needs of vulnerable people.»