No place for refugees

Greece’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers is drawing serious criticism from other European countries and international organizations. The issue, which is not widely covered in Greece, highlights the problems that pertain to the issue of political asylum in Europe as a whole but also to the structural problems that plague Greece on so many levels. On January 31, 2008, the European Commission lodged a complaint against Greece at the European Court of Justice for not meeting its obligations to carry out a substantive examination of the asylum claims of people who have been sent back to Greece from another country. (The procedure, known as the Dublin II regulation, demands that asylum seekers have their case reviewed in the first EU country they entered, which, in many cases, results in their remaining in endless limbo in Greece.) Also, on April 17, 2007, the European Court found that Greece had failed to implement an EU directive establishing minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers while their requests are being processed. Last Wednesday, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) took the drastic step of calling on other countries not to send asylum seekers back to Greece because conditions here are inadequate. In January, Norway decided of its own accord to ignore Dublin II where Greece was involved. All this is a black mark against Greece but it also shows what critics of Dublin II have been saying for a long time: The whole procedure is flawed because it is based on the false assumption that conditions for refugees are the same across Europe. The UNHCR commented that «When up to 90 percent of Iraqis seeking asylum in Sweden are recognized and zero percent get protection in Greece, they will move accordingly.» Also, Greece has often deprived asylum seekers of basic rights, such as the provision of an interpreter, legal aid, allowances and residence, the UNHCR noted. The UN (as do other organizations) acknowledges that Greece has made some progress lately but notes that this is not enough and calls on the European Commission and other European countries to help. Some other international organizations are even more critical. In February, Amnesty International published a press release titled «No Place for an Asylum-Seeker in Greece.» It detailed the charges that have been leveled at Greece and urged Athens to comply with its obligations under international human rights, refugee and European law. At the same time, it urged other countries not to return asylum seekers to Greece. A few weeks ago, the secretary general of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), Bjarte Vandvik, declared: «Greece is not a safe place for those in need of protection.» The ECRE, which represents 63 refugee-assisting organizations in 28 European countries, is at the forefront of criticism of the Dublin II procedure. Under this hail of accusations, Greece asked for the issue of political asylum to be discussed at the meeting of EU ministers of justice and home affairs in Luxembourg last Friday. There, in obvious acceptance of the EU-wide problem and Greece’s weakness, the ministers decided on closer cooperation between member-states, including the creation of an Asylum Support Office which would help move toward a Common European Asylum System that the EU envisions. The subject is complex and no one can pretend to have simple solutions. Although many acknowledge that Greece is in a difficult geographical situation and could be swamped by refugees, the exasperation of other countries and organizations is focused on Athens’s almost total rejection of asylum requests as well as the inadequate (and sometimes brutal and criminal) conditions which asylum seekers face. At present, 20,000 people have requested asylum in Greece. Last year, only eight were granted refugee status (up from five in 2006), which is 0.04 percent of requests. Is this the result of the general mismanagement and indifference of a state machinery that is incompetent at every level? Or is it perhaps a cynical tactic which makes it loud and clear that no refugee should expect anything in Greece and so should just keep moving on to another country? Either way, the situation is shameful and must be corrected. It is a blot on both our country’s past and its present.

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