Asylum in Greece: A privilege for a few

By Søren Tang

140 people, 110 m2, one toilet and one bath. These are the conditions described by a new report from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, for asylum seekers who enter Greece from Turkey. Human Rights Watch call the conditions inhumane.

A new report from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights describes how the Greek asylum system is in no condition to handle the refugees crossing the Greek/Turkish boarder.

Since northern African countries have, in cooperation with the EU, stopped the flow of immigrants to countries like Spain and Italy, the preferred route into Europe has been through Turkey and then Greece. Results are that 90% of all immigrants hoping to gain access to Europe arrive in Greece.

Only 0.04% of asylum seekers in Greece are granted asylum, because of a system that has been completely overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Those not accepted risk being send back to countries where their life may be in danger.

The Dublin II Regulation

It could seem a consequence of a country in deep financial crisis. But in fact, it is a result of the rules implemented under the Dublin II regulation.

The Dublin II regulation describes the asylum rules within the EU. The problem is it constitutes that all asylum seekers must apply for asylum in the first European country they arrive in. For 9 out of 10, this would be Greece.

“No country could manage such a stream of immigrants”, said Danish MEP Jens Rohde from the Venstre party. “Try to imagine if it had been us. If we in Denmark had 30.000 refugees a year, our system would break down as well.

Court of Human Rights: Stop sending people back to Greece

In a recent case the European Courts of Human Rights ruled that Belgium was breaching the Human Rights Convention when they send back an asylum seeker to Greece, according to the Dublin II convention.

Frontex police officer on boarder patrol. Frontex is the joint boarder-control Agency within the EU
Frontex police officer on boarder patrol. Frontex is the joint boarder-control Agency within the EU

This ruling went against a general praxis in the EU, sending asylum seekers back to Greece. The reasons given by the court was that sending people back to a system not able to handle the pressure, as well as only providing inhuman living conditions in detention camps, was a breach of article 3 and 13 of the Human Rights Convention. This also follows the recommendations of the UN Refugee Agency, who has advised all EU member states not to send asylum seekers back to Greece.

Debate in the European parliament

One of the key issues in a recent debate in the European parliament was a creation of a common asylum system for the EU.

Timothy Kirkhope, (dep. chairman ECR), argued that although Greece undoubtedly needed help, such a system would never be a success,
“”It is clear that we are dealing with a system that is broken. What is clear is that the European courts and the European legislation are in conflict,” he said and continues, “We need to support Greece, instead of just making up legislation that in the end will be overturned by the European courts.”

This is a position backed by Jens Rohde, “We need to help Greece and issue resources and personnel to help Greece. But we have already done a lot.”

What Jens Rohde is referring to, is an answer from the Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström, as to the total amount of aid given to Greece when dealing with immigrants. In the period 2007-2011, the commission has, through different foundations, donated 211,2 million EUR to help the Greek government deal with the asylum seekers.

“So the Greeks needs to stop whining as well. They are getting help, and we are not just leaving them alone to deal with the problems themselves,” said Jens Rohde.

Sharing the burden

Stavros Lambrinidis, vice-president of the parliament and Greek MEP (Social democrat) argued for reforms,

“Because of the unequal distribution of burdens, member states have been involved in a game of pingpong, throwing accusations at each other, with the poor refugees trapped in between” he said, advocating for a change of the Dublin convention.

He also explains that although Greece has made progress it is not nearly enough, because no country can handle the amount of asylum seekers that is coming to Greece alone.

“We need to ensure that we have genuine solidarity between our member states, and make sure that some member states don’t just wash their hands concerning this problem,” he said.

A point that Danish MEP Søren Søndergaard agrees with.

“The EU kept silent for a long time. This while people were thrown to the streets or even tortured. Greece cannot handle the situation, so we need to change the whole system,” Søren Søndergaard said.

Søren Søndergaard is strongly critical of the system that he feels has let the asylum seekers down. Therefore he proposes that the whole asylum system is changed, so that the asylum seekers are distributed among the countries within the EU.

Jens Rohde on the other hand, believes this will only cause more trouble.

“If we start distributing asylum seekers all over Europe, then real trouble will come. A lot of the applicants are here for economic reasons, so they need to be send back. That is a lot easier, if they are all in one place. Sending people all around Europe will only cause trouble,” he said.

NGOs highly critical

But something needs to be done, according to Benjamin Ward, Deputy Director in Human Rights Watch’s Europe.

“It (the Dublin II regulations) assumes that all EU member states provide equal access to asylum for refugees and maintains the same reception standards. But this assumption is false”

This is also shown in the number of countries within the EU, who have already suspended returns of asylum seekers to Greece. This list now includes Germany, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

The UN Refugee Agency has described the conditions as a “humanitarian crisis”. They have for a long time urged the Greek government to implement their planned asylum reforms. The Greek government has already made the legislation, but have postponed it several times, much to the disappointment of Human Rights Watch.

“Despite its formal commitments, the Greek government has utterly failed to meet its most basic responsibilities to protect refugees,” said Bill Frelick, Refugee Program director at Human Rights Watch.

Also, Amnesty International has kept focus on this area for a long time. No later than March 9, Amnesty wrote a letter to the Greek government, stressing the needs for better conditions for the asylum seekers.

While a solution is debated, asylum seekers in Greece are still stuffed into overcrowded detention facilities. Everybody can agree that something needs to be done. But as long as there is no agreement on what, asylum seekers will just have to hope, that they are among the 0.04% that is being granted asylum each year. Last year, that was 11 people.

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Fact Box:

In the period 2007-2011 the Greek government received 211,2 mil. EUR. from the EU in aid to help dealing with the flow of immigrants.

EU has set up a special boarder-control agency called Frontex to help countries like Greece dealing with illegal immigration.

Frontex helps control the Greek boarder to minimize the flow of illegal immigrants over the Greek/Turkish boarder. Frontex’s staff include police officers from all over Europe.

European Convention on Human Rights:

Article 3 prohibits torture, and “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.

Article 13 provides for the right for an effective remedy before national authorities for violations of rights under the Convention.


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