UNHCR urges EU investment in asylum support for Greece
Briefing Notes, 26 October 2010
This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic – to whom quoted text may be attributed – at the press briefing, on 26 October 2010, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.
It was announced yesterday (Monday) by the European Commission that the Greek Government has requested the deployment of Rapid Border Intervention Teams from FRONTEX, the EU's Border Management Agency, to assist at the land border between Turkey and Greece.
UNHCR understands the difficult situation that Greece faces. The land border between Turkey and Greece has become the main entry point into the EU for irregular migrants and asylum seekers. According to Greek government sources, several hundred people are now crossing this border on a daily basis. And the toll in human lives grows by the month. Of crossings at the Evros River we know of forty-four drowning this year, while the actual number is believed higher. A new disappearance was reported only last week.
Of those who make it across, some are returned to Turkey under an arrangement between Turkey and Greece. The humanitarian situation on the Greek side of the border is critical, with large numbers of persons detained in extremely difficult conditions, as recently highlighted by the UN's Special Rapporteur on Torture Mr. Manfred Nowak after a visit to the area. Shelter, medical care and psycho-social support are all needed in this situation.
While recognizing the imperative of controlling the EU's external border, UNHCR cautions that asylum needs must not be overlooked. UNHCR urges the FRONTEX teams to make sure that any persons who are seeking international protection are identified and referred to the competent authorities. This is currently a particular challenge in Greece, as the asylum system does not function properly. Access to the procedure is difficult at best, and according to UNHCR's direct observation, the procedure itself does not succeed in identifying persons in need of protection. For these reasons, UNHCR has been working closely with the Greek authorities and with EU partners on the proposed reform of the asylum system. UNHCR welcomes the Greek government's intention to reform its asylum procedure. However, this reform is not yet in place.
UNHCR urges the European Union and its member states to show solidarity with Greece by accelerating support to help the Government to bring its asylum system up to standard. In the meantime UNHCR continues to call on other European governments to refrain from sending asylum seekers to Greece under the Dublin II mechanism.
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
Beyond the Border
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.
Beyond the Border
Greece: Coordinating volunteers on Lesvos
To help manage an influx of people arriving on the Greek Islands by boat, volunteer organizations and hundreds of individual volunteers have stepped in. One of UNHCR's roles on Lesvos is to work with the volunteers and coordinate their efforts.
Greece: Ramping up refugee reception
UNHCR staff are working with Government authorities, NGOs and volunteers on the beaches of the Greek island of Lesvos to receive cold, wet and fearful asylum seekers making landfall around the clock. They wrap them in thermal blankets and take them to warm, safe emergency accommodation at transit sites, with power and Wi-Fi connectivity.
Serbia: Presevo Crossing from FYR Macedonia
On October 20, the number of refugees and migrants arriving in Greece passed the half million mark. Their ultimate destination is northern Europe. The majority will take a route that goes from Greece, to FYR Macedonia and then onward through Serbia. At the border point of Presevo, Serbia they must go through a registration process before being allowed to continue their onward journey.