Greece told to reform dysfunctional asylum system

By Harry van Versendaal

People who are at risk of suffering severe human rights abuses if they are returned to their home countries are not receiving fair consideration of their asylum claims in Greece, groups who lobby for refugees’ rights have warned, calling for urgent reform of the country’s near-defunct asylum system.

Persistent failure to overhaul Greece’s dysfunctional system for granting asylum to refugees has created a mammoth backlog of some 46,000 applications – more than 16,000 people bid for asylum last year. But only a small fraction, 0.04 percent of applicants, were granted some kind of protection in Greece compared to an average of 30 percent in countries in western Europe.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees last week urged the European Union to take immediate action to help Greece grapple with the burgeoning numbers of would-be refugees sprawling in the streets of the country – what is more at a time of rising hostility toward foreign migrants.

“This is a humanitarian crisis situation which should not exist in the European Union,” UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists in Geneva.

The UNHCR appeal followed a Human Rights Watch (HRW) shaming of Greece’s Socialist government for failing to make good on its promise to finally streamline the country’s flawed asylum system.

“Despite its formal commitments, the Greek government has utterly failed to meet its most basic responsibilities to protect refugees,” said Bill Frelick, HRW’s refugee program director, calling on the UN agency to step in and take over processing asylum claims.

Pattern of neglect

Human rights organizations have repeatedly slammed what they see as a pattern of incompetence and neglect.

“In practice, issues related to asylum were never high on different governments’ agendas and appointing the police to determine the status of refugees was not the most appropriate policy,” Ketty Kehayioylou, public information officer at UNHCR Greece, told Athens Plus.

“But let us look ahead of us,” she added, welcoming a recent pledge by the administration to carry out a far-reaching reform of the asylum system.

The government, which has put most of its energies into pulling the country out of a gaping fiscal hole, was expected to pass a presidential decree to introduce emergency reforms by the end of September. But the changes, designed to guarantee a fairer and more efficient examination of pending asylum applications, appear to have suffered a setback following a Cabinet reshuffle announced earlier this month by Prime Minister George Papandreou.

“The postponement of long-awaited interim fixes means that Greece is not even back to square one in the process of repairing an asylum system in need of a complete overhaul,” Frelick said.

The Citizens’ Protection Ministry recently granted asylum to six Iranian men who had been on hunger strike for several weeks in Athens in protest at long delays in the processing of their asylum bids. But it did note that recognition was granted on a one-off basis “for humanitarian reasons.”

Unfair burden

While urging Athens to accelerate reforms, the UN refugee agency and other refugee rights groups admit that Greece has been made to shoulder an unfair burden as compared to its EU peers. Under the European “Dublin II” regulations, asylum seekers found moving within the continent can be sent back to the state where they first fielded their application. The condition is highly unfavorable for cash-strapped Greece, which happens to form a particularly porous border for Europe.

“Greece is struggling to deal with what is essentially an EU problem,” said the UNHCR’s Edwards. He made an appeal to the EU “to step up its assistance to help Greece comply with its international and European obligations.”

Kehayioylou warned that, given the problems of Greece’s asylum system, persons who are sent back to Greece under Dublin II have little chance of being granted protection. “The absence of accommodation and other support for asylum seekers, as well as poor integration prospects for those who will be given refugee status, also create enormous hardships,” she told this newspaper.

“Therefore, UNHCR continues to reiterate its recommendation to other European countries not to send asylum seekers back to Greece and supports the proposal made by the Belgian presidency of the EU for a ‘temporary suspension’ for states facing significant pressures on their asylum systems,” Kehayioylou said.

EU hand

The European Commission on Monday promised debt-choked Greece financial assistance and technical know-how to reconstruct its asylum system. But even that may not be enough, as bureaucratic snags have in the past prevented Greece from fully absorbing the EU’s asylum funds.

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