Posts Tagged 'HRW'

Unwelcome guests: HRW deems crackdown on Greece’s immigrants ‘abusive’

By Harry van Versendaal

Greek authorities must review the procedures of an extensive crackdown on suspected irregular immigrants, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Wednesday, criticizing police sweeps as abusive and ineffective.

The allegations were made during a presentation of the international organization’s latest report, “Unwelcome Guests: Greek Police Abuses of Migrants in Athens,” in the Greek capital on Wednesday. The report highlights invasive police checks and arbitrary detentions within the contours of an ongoing operation dubbed Xenios Zeus, bizarrely code-named after the Greek god of hospitality.

The 52-page report documents frequent police checks of individuals with a foreign-looking appearance, unjustified searches of personal belongings, derogatory verbal language and occasional physical abuse. According to the HRW study, which is based on more than 40 interviews with Athens-based immigrants, tens of thousands are held at police stations pending verification of their legal status.

“There is definite lack of training which gives rise to discrimination from police,” said Eva Cosse, a Greece expert at HRW and author of the report, who said that racist attitudes inside the force are a “chronic” problem.

“Such methods, however, are also a way to send the message and put it across that these people are not welcome,” Cosse said, slamming Greece’s conservative party, now head of the government coalition, for its heavy-handed approach to immigration.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has in the past pledged to “take back our cities from migrants,” while his New Democracy party recently turned down a more inclusive anti-racism bill supported by junior coalition partners PASOK and Democratic Left, proposing its won legislation to tackle discrimination instead.

Many of the abuse victims interviewed by HRW said they felt that they were repeatedly targeted by police because of their skin color or other physical characteristics.

A 19-year-old asylum-seeker from Guinea, identified only as Tupac, said that in early February police officers forced him and other black and Asian passengers off a bus in central Athens shouting “All blacks out, all blacks out.”

Abuse often seems to go beyond ethnic profiling and insulting language. “Body pat-downs and bag searches during immigration stops appear to be routine, even in the absence of any reasonable suspicion that the individual is carrying unlawful or dangerous objects,” the HRW report says.

Gateway

Greece is the main gateway into the European Union for migrants from Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The majority hopes to reach one of the more prosperous states in Western Europe, but many become caught up in this debt-wracked country. On top of being exposed to a burgeoning wave of racially motivated attacks, at least partly attributed to the rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, immigrants also face arrest, lengthy detention and deportation, as documented by several human rights groups. Asylum-seekers fleeing persecution at home are not spared from the crackdown either, activists say.

The conservative-led government, though, says that its tougher approach to illegal immigration, including more stringent checks on the Evros border with Turkey, where an extra 1,800 guards have been deployed, has led to the number of undocumented migrants trying to reach Greece dropping substantially. Greece reported more than half of all detections of irregular border crossings in the EU from July-September 2012 but only 30 percent between October and December.

“Greece has a right to control irregular migration,” said Veronika Szente Goldston, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director for HRW, adding that Dublin II regulations are weighing the country down with an uneven share of the burden. “But the country still has to ensure it does not violate human rights,” she said.

Almost 85,000 foreigners were forcibly taken to police stations for verification of their immigration status in the seven-month period between last August, when Xenios Zeus was launched, and this February, according to police figures cited in the report.

“However, 94 percent of those detained had a legal right to be in Greece,” said Goldston, suggesting that police are casting their net too far and too wide.

Evidence, not stereotypes

The very small percentage of those who were found to be in the country without permission should also raise doubts about the effectiveness of the crackdown, HRW warned. Investing so many resources just to catch the wrong people and release them afterward is a huge waste of time and money, the group said.

“Operations must be based on evidence and intelligence, not stereotypes,” Cosse said.

HRW called on authorities to review the police’s general stop-and-search powers and to take steps to ensure that the identification of clandestine migrants is conducted in line with Greek and international laws on discrimination, ethnic profiling and arbitrary deprivation of liberty.

Worryingly, Goldston said, the HRW findings and recommendations appear to have so far been mostly snubbed by officials at the Public Order Ministry.

“We have met with denial,” she said, adding that government officials have cast doubt on the HRW research and data.

“It is in the DNA of Greeks not to be racist,” Goldston quoted one unnamed Greek official as responding.

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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.

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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