28 March 2012
In a December 2009 report, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) concluded that governments should "refrain from returning asylum-seekers to Greece under the Dublin Regulation or otherwise", and assess asylum applications "even if such examination is not its responsibility under the criteria laid down in the Dublin Regulation". The Dublin Regulation establishes that the first country through which asylum seekers enter the EU is responsible for evaluating their asylum applications, to deter multiple applications and enhance efficiency. This has led to many who would fulfil requirements not doing so in other countries (see the 2009 Migreurop report, "Europe's murderous borders", particularly the section about the France-UK border), as they risk being sent back to Greece where recognition of refugee status or of a duty of protection is low. In its "Observations on Greece as a country of asylum", while welcoming plans to reform and improve the asylum system, "UNHCR has no choice but to continue to recommend against transfers to Greece". While acknowledging the pressure by migrants arriving in Greece in an illegal manner (95,239 in 2006, 112,364 in 2007, 146,337 in 2008 and 81,777 until August 2009) and the high number of people filing for asylum (the sixth in the EU, although many who would wish to apply fail to do so), it also notes a number of concerns.
With regards to people arriving from Turkey (see section on the Greek-Turkish border in the 2009 Migreurop report), refusals of entry at land borders, push-backs at sea and deportation after arrest inland, often carried out without any formalities or access to procedures, are identified as ways in which people who may be in need of international protection are returned (particularly from Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Turkey). It has identified 27 such cases involving over 550 people including unaccompanied children in which relevant international and national legal safeguards were not applied. The returns to Turkey of people who are likely to qualify for international protection indicate a lack of safeguards as regards the non-refoulement principle, particularly in view of the risk of onward removal from Turkey to places where they are at risk of persecution or serious harm (deportations to Afghanistan and Iraq have been carried out from Turkey). Mechanisms in place in Greek border areas are thus deemed inadequate "to identify people seeking international protection" and for them not to be removed before their claims are examined.
Some people are reluctant to seek asylum because, if recorded in Eurodac in Greece (where they have a low likelihood of refugee status being recognised), they will be unable to file for asylum in other countries and be deported back to Greece if they try to do so, under the Dublin II Regulation. It is often difficult for people to submit their asylum applications even when they wish to do so, due to a lack of places where they will be registered or provided suitable assistance, at least outside Athens (where 90% of applications are lodged), whereas in theory this possibility should exist at all border points.
A further dissuasive element for those wishing to seek asylum is that the only reception facilities are administrative detention centres for illegal entrants, for which legislative amendments in July 2009 (that were accompanied by large-scale arrests of migrants) extended the period of detention from three to six months and, in certain circumstances, twelve months (increased maximum detention periods in several countries were an effect of the Returns Directive). The longer detention periods have worsened overcrowding in some centres. Even in Athens, lodging asylum applications is sometimes difficult due to the small number registered per day, that result in people having to try to do so repeatedly, lack of specialisation of staff dealing with them, the requirement to record a permanent address of residence, and the difficulty for authorities to inform applicants about developments in their cases that may result in them failing to meet deadlines, thus jeopardising their chances. A specific procedure exists in Athens airport, whereby if an application is not rejected during the first four weeks, during which applicants are held, they are released and issued a "pink card". Conditions in detention facilities and police stations are often poor and unhygienic, the latter being "inappropriate for holding people longer than a few days" but nonetheless "extensively used", and instances of abuses against them have been documented. Accommodation facilities for registered asylum seekers are described as "grossly insufficient" (811 places for 20,000 applicants in 2008) and thus they often live in "acute destitution". A makeshift camp in Patras (a key exit point towards Italy) was demolished on 12 July 2009 after conditions in and around it had reached crisis level.
The situation of unaccompanied children and minors does not differ much from that experienced by adults, without "formal age assessment with appropriate safeguards", and they are often misrecorded as "adults" or as being "accompanied by adults" without legal or family ties being established. There are provisions for them to be referred to the public prosecutors' office that should act as their temporary guardian, but this measure is only partly enacted on occasions, and they are generally detained alongside adults, often in overcrowded conditions. A hunger strike by several of the 200 unaccompanied children detained in Pagani detention centre in October 2009, prior to its closure, is also reported. Places in special detention centres for children amount to 405, whereas only in 2008, 6,000 minors in this situation arrived in Greece.
UNHCR deems that changes to the asylum procedure that came into force in July 2009 (presidential decree 81/2009) have had negative effects on "efficiency in first instance", as well as removing "important safeguards, including access to an independent administrative review at the second instance", which was replaced by "a limited form of judicial review before the Council of State" that, in UNHCR's view "jeopardize[s] the right to an effective remedy". Research conducted by UNHCR before and after the reform of asylum procedure highlighted problems including the short length and conditions in which asylum interviews take place, inconsistency in different regions, under-resourcing and poor translation, leading it to conclude that "The quality of many first instance decisions is poor". The report highlights a considerable backlog of first and second instance cases (6,145 and 42,700 respectively), the low first instance protection rate (that stood at 0.06% in 2008) that compares unfavourably with the average (36.2%) for France, the UK, Italy, Sweden and Germany, the other five EU countries that receive the most asylum applications. A positive decision was attained in 24% of cases reviewed at appeal level.
For people transferred to Greece in accordance with the Dublin II Regulation from other EU states, "UNHCR remains concerned that asylum seekers face serious challenges in accessing and enjoying effective protection in Greece in line with international and European standards". Presidential decree 81/2009 has further diminished their prospects of "having their claims deported in a fair procedure", and they face the same risks of deportation or denial of access to asylum proceedings as other asylum seekers. Hence, while offering to assist Greece and calling on other member states to do likewise to help them "address ongoing challenges", "UNHCR cannot endorse the application of the Dublin II Regulation or other arrangements for the transfer of asylum-seekers to Greece".
"Observations on Greece as a country of asylum", Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, December 2009
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