Pressed by human rights activists, Greece pledges to stop deportations of Syrian refugees

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By Harry van Versendaal

Greece on Wednesday pledged to halt deportations of Syrian refugees, as human rights activists called for measures to ensure that asylum seekers from the war-torn Middle Eastern state have access to Greek territory and safety.

“No Syrian refugees will be detained or returned,” Manolis Katriadakis, who is responsible for migration issues at the Ministry of Public Order, told a conference organized in Athens by the United Nations Refugee Agency.

“Deportation decisions on Syrians will be suspended and reviewed every six months,” he said, adding that authorities were trying to improve access to asylum services for them.

Two years since the uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, it is estimated that more than 70,000 Syrians, mostly civilians, have died while tens of thousands of political prisoners remain unaccounted for. The UNHCR reckons that over 1.3 million refugees, 71 percent of whom are women and children, have fled Syria and a further 2 million have been displaced within the country as the Arab Spring-inspired protest movement degenerated into an increasingly sectarian conflict.

“The Syria situation is one of the most complex and dangerous in the world and the largest and most quickly deteriorating humanitarian crisis on the planet,” UNHCR regional refugee coordinator for Syria Panos Moumtzis said.

“The situation is desperate and is becoming explosive,” he said.

Greece, a key transit point for Asian and African immigrants seeking to sneak into the European Union, has been relatively unaffected by the Syria crisis, figures suggest.

Last year, about 8,000 Syrians were detected entering or residing in Greece illegally. A total 1,623 Syrian nationals were arrested in the first quarter of 2013. There is no official number of the Syrians living in Greece at the moment.

“Greece must remain on standby, but it is by no means faced with a [humanitarian] crisis, said Giorgos Tsarbopoulos, head of the UNHCR office in Greece, adding that the brunt of the refugee exodus has been borne by Syria’s neighbors.

Lebanon has received an estimated 417,827 refugees while 432,263 have fled into Jordan. An estimated 400,000 Syrian refugees are in Turkey and Iraq has provided refuge for 130,379 people.

Strengthened security in the Evros region, including a 10.5-kilometer barbed-wire fence along the Turkish frontier, has led to a spike in arrivals on Greece’s eastern Aegean islands only a few kilometers from the Turkish coast. Would-be immigrants pay smugglers thousands of dollars for space on a packed rubber dinghy. Dozens drown in the sea every year. Those who manage to get a foot on the ground have to deal with messy asylum and immigration systems and the growing menace of far-right thugs.

Like all other immigrants, Syrians are subject to arrest, detention, rejection of asylum, pushbacks and deportations, activists say.

In 2012, the number of Syrians granted asylum in the first instance was just two. Because of Greece’s bad reputation, most don’t even bother to apply for protection status – only 152 applications were submitted last year. Meanwhile, at least 55 have been deported since last year according to Human Rights Watch, although Greek authorities deny the allegations, saying these concerned voluntary repatriations.

“Detention is problematic and conditions are inappropriate,” Tsarbopoulos said of the overcrowded and underserviced migrant camps across the country while stressing the problems caused by the lack of interpreters and qualified interviewers to even establish if the asylum seekers are Syrians or not.

“Clearly, they are not treated the way they should be by the authorities,” he said.

Greece’s much-criticized asylum system is finally set for a revamp. In 2011 the country, which has often complained of unfair burden-sharing to its peers in the 27-member bloc, was found in breach of the Convention on Human Rights over detention conditions at immigrant camps. The new asylum system, which will not involve the police, is to go into effect on June 1, Katriadakis said.

“That will hopefully solve most of the problems,” he added.

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