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Dozens queue every week in Athens to apply for asylum

News Stories, 23 March 2012

© UNHCR/K.Kehayioy
Lines of people sleep rough on Petrou Ralli Street in Athens, hoping to get an interview date and a pink card in the morning.

ATHENS, Greece, March 23 (UNHCR) Every week more than 100 people, including a few women and children, wait for hours overnight outside a police building in Athens, hoping to apply for asylum.

The moment they have been waiting for comes at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday, when staff at the Aliens Police Directorate in the Greek capital's Petrou Ralli Street allow just 20 people into the building, where they can register their asylum application. Sometimes there are fights to get to the front, but the whole process is over in minutes.

The chosen 20 are given an interview date and issued with a pink card that identifies them as asylum-seekers with the right to remain in the country, seek employment and receive minimal assistance while their application is processed and considered.

The unlucky ones are dispersed, though many return the following week. Some have been trying for months, despite the risks of being deported if they are caught without a pink card. Earlier this month, Greece's Minister of Citizen Protection Michalis Chrissohoides warned that some 1,000 undocumented foreigners would be moved from Athens to a facility run by the police in Kozani, northern Greece.

The ritual on Petrou Ralli Street has been taking place every week for several years, but UNHCR and other humanitarian groups have been raising their concerns about the treatment of the asylum-seekers, believing they should all have unhindered access to the asylum procedure.

The Long WaitPlay video

The Long Wait

Every week dozens of foreigners queue for hours outside an Athens police building hoping for a chance to apply for asylum.

They also worry about the conditions that the asylum-seekers must endure, including having to wait in line for many hours without access to toilets and other basic facilities. Many sleep surrounded by piles of litter.

When UNHCR visited Petrou Ralli Street one recent Saturday morning, people from several sub-Saharan countries, including Burundi, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Rwanda and Senegal as well as nationals of Iraq and Syria, were waiting in line, hoping that this would be their week.

In Rome, Laurens Jolles, UNHCR's regional representative, expressed concern at the situation. He urged the Greek authorities to address "this long-standing issue and ensure that access to the asylum procedure is guaranteed."

UNHCR is helping Greece to reform its asylum system. Unhindered access to the asylum procedure through proper registration of claims and efficient processing constitute is an integral part of the needed improvements.

A newly established Asylum Service envisages such improvements once it becomes fully operational. But there is an urgent need for immediate measures to improve conditions for those waiting each week outside the Aliens Police Directorate.

Nge from Cameroon told UNHCR she had tried five weeks in a row to get an interview at the aliens directorate since arriving in Greece in December. This time, after the police had selected the 20 to be allowed in, she desperately called out "I beg you." It made no difference and she left in tears.

Another lady, Sara from Ethiopia, has been living in Greece for 18 months. She asked for UNHCR's help, while complaining that she could neither return to her country nor go to another country in Europe. Three teenagers from Syria, who said they were in Greece without family members, each managed to get a precious pink card after failing the week before.

By Ketty Kehayioylou in Athens, Greece




UNHCR country pages


UNHCR advocates fair and efficient procedures for asylum-seekers

Asylum and Migration

Asylum and Migration

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


Numbers are important in the aid business and UNHCR's statisticians monitor them daily.

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

France is one of the main destinations for asylum-seekers in Europe, with some 55,000 new asylum applications in 2012. As a result of the growing number of applicants, many French cities are facing an acute shortage of accommodation for asylum-seekers.

The government is trying to address the problem and, in February 2013, announced the creation of 4,000 additional places in state-run reception centres for asylum-seekers. But many asylum-seekers are still forced to sleep rough or to occupy empty buildings. One such building, dubbed the "Refugee Hotel" by its transient population, lies on the outskirts of the eastern city of Dijon. It illustrates the critical accommodation situation.

The former meat-packing plant is home to about 100 asylum-seekers, mostly from Chad, Mali and Somalia, but also from Georgia, Kosovo and other Eastern European countries. Most are single men, but there are also two families.

In this dank, rat-infested empty building, the pipes leak and the electricity supply is sporadic. There is only one lavatory, two taps with running water, no bathing facilities and no kitchen. The asylum-seekers sleep in the former cold-storage rooms. The authorities have tried to close the squat several times. These images, taken by British photographer Jason Tanner, show the desperate state of the building and depict the people who call it home.

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

The Faces of Asylum

Everyone has a right to be treated humanely and with dignity. But asylum-seekers can sometimes be detained for years, forced to exist on the edge of society and struggle for their right to protection, while in some cases suffering human rights abuses. Their temporary new homes - a long way from the ones they left behind - can be sports halls, churches, closed centres, makeshift shelters or simply the street. Lives are put on hold while people wait in the hope of receiving refugee status.

Although it is the legitimate right of any government to secure its borders and prevent irregular immigration, it is important that anyone seeking asylum in a country have access to it. According to international law, states are obliged to provide protection to those in need, and must not return a person to a place where their life or freedom is threatened.

This photo set looks at the faces of people seeking asylum in industrialized countries - the real people behind the numbers, crossing land borders and oceans in search of safety, work or just a better life.

The Faces of Asylum

George Dalaras

George Dalaras

Greece: The Refugees' Grandmother in Idomeni
Play video

Greece: The Refugees' Grandmother in Idomeni

From her small house in Idomeni, Greek grandmother Panagiota Vasileiadou, 82, saw first-hand the bare need of refugees desperate for food to feed their children or clean water to shower and wash their clothes. As a daughter of ethnic Greek refugees herself - who left Turkey in a population exchange after the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish war - she is now doing all she can to help the latest wave of refugees by giving out food and clothes.
Greece: Health risk to refugee children in IdomeniPlay video

Greece: Health risk to refugee children in Idomeni

Some 10,000 refugees and migrants remain camped out at an informal site at Greece's northern border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The makeshift home is also home to an estimated 4,000 children, the majority of whom are under the age of five. Doctors warn conditions in the camp are becoming dangerous for children.
Christmas tree a gift of love for refugees in GreecePlay video

Christmas tree a gift of love for refugees in Greece

For children spending Christmas at the Idomeni refugee reception centre in northern Greece, Congolese asylum seeker Michel Kamusha has "a gift of love." Drawing on his skills as an artist he decorates a Christmas with tree with socks, toys, shoes and clothes to give the youngsters "hope for Christmas."