The Representative of UNHCR in Greece, Philippe Leclerc, gives an account of the last five years in view of the end of his appointment
UNHCR Representative in Greece, Philippe Leclerc, meets with unaccompanied children in Heraklion city on the island of Crete. © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis
Interview given to Tania Bozaninou – 13 December 2020
“Efforts are needed by all ministries and actors to achieve social integration of refugees,” said Philippe Leclerc. Leclerc came to Greece in December 2015 to take over as the Representative of UNHCR when the borders to Europe were still open for asylum seekers passing through the country by the thousands. Today, his appointment is ending. Speaking to To Vima he looks back on these last five years.
What would be the one thing you would choose to speak about from this five-year period?
What touched me more was how Greeks received refugees, both on the islands and elsewhere. Simple people showed solidarity at an individual level. Despite everything that has happened, this will remain the strongest image for me. People in squares of Athens offering their bathroom to refugees to wash up. The situation is no longer the same.
How was your cooperation with the successive Migration ministers?
Until March 2016, most asylum seekers were transiting through Greece. The difficulties started afterwards, when the country was found in a position to receive and process asylum applications at a much bigger number than its 1,000 reception places. Since then, we have been assisting the Greek state to establish asylum procedures, to create reception places and ensure social integration of recognized refugees. There is still a lot that needs to be done. Islanders are disappointed by the inability of both governments to reduce overcrowding at reception centres. This finally happened due to COVID19 and the reduction of flows.
There was discontent about the fact that in the first years, EU funds were allocated directly to organizations such as UNHCR, bypassing Greek authorities.
Our goal has always been to transfer as soon as possible full responsibility to the Greek authorities. But for that to happen, services had to be set up, services that would manage the thousands of places created for asylum seekers and the rest of the programmes. At that time, the Migration Ministry did not have the staff to take them over.
Are you satisfied with the reception, the management and the integration of refugees today?
Given the situation, a lot of things have been achieved in relation to what was there in 2014-15. The Asylum Service has been enhanced with trained staff. The examination of asylum applications at first instance has been sped up, at second instance not so much. In general, there is currently a solid and decent system, as well as 27,500 places in apartments. Moreover, there are some 25,000 places in accommodation sites in the mainland. I am a lot less satisfied with the progress made, if any, as regards integration. This is the real challenge. A lot of efforts are needed by all ministries and actors to achieve social integration for refugees.
What is the main problem [to achieve this]?
The legislation is in place. Bureaucracy is the issue because it is often complicated – even Greeks need an accountant to handle the tax system. As for asylum seekers and refugees, the same situation applies for almost every step of the process in order to get access to their rights. Administration, like the unemployment office, has no clear and simple instructions about how they can deal with them.
Is there overcrowding in the mainland sites?
In some, yes, there is. The main reason is that transfers continue from the islands, which is a good thing. But we do not want to transfer someone from an overcrowded site to another overcrowded site. Overcrowding is also a result of the failure, until now, of integration. More than 10,000 people are currently hosted at sites, who should not be there. Also, refugees are hosted in apartments, who should have become independent. There are also many people inside or around the sites that are waiting to be registered.
Do you have any regrets about something?
There was often no time to think, we had to react very fast. I regret that we did not make sure from the beginning to develop the integration of refugees, to bring them into contact with programmes that would have allowed them to stand on their own two feet. We should have done that sooner.
Do pushbacks take place?
Certainly. This worries us a lot. They have been taking place for some years now, especially in the Evros. We have collected testimonies of people saying that they were pushed back. Whenever we consider these [testimonies] serious, we bring these to the attention of the Ministry of Citizens’ Protection, or the Shipping Ministry if they were carried out at sea, in order to investigate them. So far, the government denies that pushbacks are taking place.”
The Migration Ministry is blaming NGOs that they are facilitating smugglers. What do you think?
Mitarakis, speaking to foreign correspondents, said that UNHCR knows about these arrivals. Our duty is to make sure that people seeking protection have access to it. If there are cases of pushbacks, we will raise the issue to the government and the EU. These five years I saw the very important work that NGOs are doing, which together with civil society organizations are often called to cover the gaps in services provided to refugees. It is important to recognize their work and pursue synergies among all actors – national and local authorities, international organizations, NGOs.
Do you agree that Syrians can be returned to Turkey because they are not in danger there?
Asylum claims by Syrians can be declared inadmissible and applicants be returned to Turkey as a safe third country. Turkey is hosting 3.6 million refugees from Syria and has a system for their protection. As long as the Asylum Service continues examining each Syrian claim individually before reaching a final decision whether the applicant can be returned to Turkey or not, we agree with this policy. What we are asking from the Greek authorities is that those people whose claim has been considered inadmissible and are waiting to be returned to Turkey, if this return is not possible as it has been happening since March when the EU-Turkey Joint Statement stopped being applied, do not remain in detention, and instead find another solution until their return is made possible.
* This interview was published in Sunday’s TO VIMA on 13 December 2020.