Asylum seekers homeless in Patras after camp is razed to the ground

Briefing Notes, 14 July 2009

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 14 July 2009, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR is concerned about the fate of hundreds of irregular migrants, including asylum seekers and refugees, following the closure over the weekend of a makeshift camp in the Greek city of Patras. Early on Sunday morning (July 12), the Greek authorities moved in to clear the makeshift camp. During the operation 44 unaccompanied minors were found and transferred to a special reception centre in Konitsa, northern Greece. A further 20-25 registered asylum seekers were identified and moved to accommodation in Patras, while an unknown number of undocumented residents of the camp were arrested and taken to Patras police station.

After all the residents were evacuated a fire ripped through the camp. The source of the fire is unknown. UNHCR has long maintained that the makeshift camp at Patras did not provide appropriate accommodation for the people sheltering there. However, UNHCR is concerned that no alternative has been provided for many of the people who had been living at the site. We understand that many former residents -- including registered asylum seekers -- abandoned the site before the clearance occupation. Their whereabouts are unknown. It is feared that many are homeless.

UNHCR has been consistently urging the Greek authorities to improve the quality of its reception facilities for asylum seekers. The lack of interpretation and legal aid services at the Patras police station limit the authorities' ability to receive and process the claims of asylum seekers. A significant number of the asylum seekers identified recently are minors; UNHCR would like to work with the Greek authorities to ensure that adequate solutions are found for this group. It is important that all the asylum seekers affected by the operation are not expelled from the country until their protection needs have been appropriately assessed.

In another development of concern to UNHCR, a new law was adopted last week in Greece which decentralises asylum decision making at first instance to over 50 police directorates across the country. It also abolishes the existing appeals commission in favor of a limited judicial review before the Council of State, which would address only points of law and not correct errors of fact. These new developments are likely to make protection even more elusive for those who need it in Greece.

UNHCR recognizes the considerable pressure which irregular migration places on Greece. UNHCR continues to reiterate its readiness to work with the Greek authorities to improve the asylum procedure in that country. During 2008 there were nearly 20,000 asylum applications lodged in Greece. In the course of the year, international protection was accorded to just 379 people.

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Refugee Protection and Mixed Migration: A 10-Point Plan of Action

A UNHCR strategy setting out key areas in which action is required to address the phenomenon of mixed and irregular movements of people. See also: Schematic representation of a profiling and referral mechanism in the context of addressing mixed migratory movements.

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Migrants are different from refugees but the two sometimes travel alongside each other.

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All in the same boat: The challenges of mixed migration around the world.

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The makeshift camp at Patras

Thousands of irregular migrants, some of whom are asylum-seekers and refugees, have sought shelter in a squalid, makeshift camp close to the Greek port of Patras since it opened 13 years ago. The camp consisted of shelters constructed from cardboard and wood and housed hundreds of people when it was closed by the Greek government in July 2009. UNHCR had long maintained that it did not provide appropriate accommodation for asylum-seekers and refugees. The agency had been urging the government to find an alternative and put a stronger asylum system in place to provide appropriate asylum reception facilities for the stream of irregular migrants arriving in Greece each year.The government used bulldozers to clear the camp, which was destroyed by a fire shortly afterwards. All the camp residents had earlier been moved and there were no casualties. Photographer Zalmaï, a former refugee from Afghanistan, visited the camp earlier in the year.

The makeshift camp at Patras

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In 2010, the Turkish border with Greece became the main entry point for people attempting by irregular methods to reach member states of the European Union, with over 132,000 arrivals. While some entered as migrants with the simple wish of finding a better life, a significant number fled violence or persecution in countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq and Somalia. The journey is perilous, with many reports of drowning when people board flimsy vessels and try to cross the Mediterranean Sea or the River Evros on the border between Greece and Turkey. The many deficiencies in the Greek asylum system are exacerbated by the pressure of tens of thousands of people awaiting asylum hearings. Reception facilities for new arrivals, including asylum-seekers, are woefully inadequate. Last year, UNHCR visited a number of overcrowded facilities where children, men and women were detained in cramped rooms with insufficient facilities. UNHCR is working with the Greek government to improve its asylum system and has called upon other European states to offer support.

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