Greece: Dealing with illegal immigration

As can be seen here and here , Greece is the first stop for many illegal immigrants heading into Europe.

Nowhere is the pressure on the European Union's borders mounting as insistently as in this northernmost corner of the Aegean Sea across the river from Turkey.

With the help of smugglers, dozens of migrants breach this frontier daily on foot, in plastic boats, by swimming, or crouched inside empty oil tankers or secret compartments of trucks.

In its zeal to secure the border, Greece is being accused of serious lapses in human rights and ignoring treaty pledges that bind it to give haven to refugees claiming protection - rights established under international conventions.

"There are serious problems with the asylum system in Greece," said William Spindler, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva. "It doesn't meet European or international standards."

Would-be immigrants - Iraqis, Palestinians, Afghanis and others - are arriving here in numbers bigger than ever before. Their ranks are swollen by a "huge and very sudden influx" that began in September, according to Pangiotis Papadimitriou, the border monitoring officer for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Waiting for the new arrivals are the police. Refugees' lawyers say many migrants are secretly forced back, without being given the chance to request asylum.

"It is illegal, illegal, illegal," said Evgenia Papanastasiou, a refugees' lawyer in the northern Greek city of Kavala who has 19 years of experience in criminal law.

In October, two private groups, Pro Asyl, based in Germany, and the Group of Lawyers for the Rights of Refugees and Migrants, based in Athens, made a similar accusation, adding in a joint report that the Greek Coast Guard was pushing back migrants' boats at sea.

The police and the coast guard vehemently deny the allegations and say that those who require asylum can request it. Under Greek law, it is a crime for public servants to expel forcibly any person needing international protection.

The land border between Greece and Turkey, two historically antagonistic nations, extends for 182 kilometers, or 114 miles, tracking the Evros River, which the Turks call the Meric, down to the Aegean Sea.

For 11 kilometers, where the river temporarily parts with the frontier, the soil is studded with land mines - a legacy of old enmity. That does not deter migrants, who travel from as far away as Myanmar and Bangladesh and whose bodies are occasionally found in the minefields.

"You see wars, disasters and so on, on television, and six months later they are here," said a jaded Evros border guard who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.

Tens of thousands of migrants try to cross the EU borders every year. But while the numbers of arrivals have plunged in the Canary Islands this year and stabilized in Malta and the Italian island of Lampedusa, along the Greek-Turkish border they are on the rise.

In the district guarding the southern half of the Evros border with Turkey, the border police headquartered in Alexandroupolis arrested more than 15,000 migrants in 2006, and 13,869 through Oct. 30 this year, about four times as many as in 2005, when 3,706 were arrested.

Common among Greek officials is a sense that faraway Brussels requires them to be gatekeepers for the whole of the European Union, without having to deal with the stresses or offering much support.

"This is the EU border, and our job is to help the rest of the countries that are behind," Anestis Argyriadis, chief of the border police in Alexandroupolis, said in an interview this month. "The problem we face as Greek police is the problem of the entire EU."

The influx of displaced civilians is putting Greece's humanitarian resolve to the test. In many ways the nation is ill-equipped to handle the challenge. Its coastline is dotted with thousands of islands that are impossible to patrol, while its asylum procedures are rudimentary.

Emmanuel Karlas, prefect of the border island of Samos, says the European Union could start by urging Turkey, a prospective member, to improve its border controls.

"The EU stands far from here and watches with its binoculars and doesn't find a solution," he said. "This is not the problem of Greece, Italy or Spain; it is a problem for all of the EU."

Complicating matters, the Greek police cannot work with their Turkish counterparts to address border issues because the army, not the police, has jurisdiction on the Turkish side.

Still, under an agreement reached with Ankara in 2001, Athens is entitled to send undocumented migrants with no refugee claim back to Turkey; the narrow bridge across the Evros at Kipi is the only place in the whole country where this is authorized.

According to official figures, Athens requested readmission for 2,250 such people of various nationalities in 2006, and Turkey agreed to accept 456. Delays meant that in the end, only 127 were actually sent across.

Meanwhile, migrant numbers continue to rise. This year through November, 10,961 of them rowed inflatable dinghies to the three Greek islands closest to Turkey in the Northern Aegean; for the whole of 2006, the total was 4,024, Interior Ministry data show.

Greece sees the matter primarily as a security concern.

"The job of the police, the foremost goal, is to safeguard our border so migrants don't enter illegally, and as a consequence, to arrest them," Argyriadis said.

Undocumented migrants are held in administrative detention for three months. Members of the European Parliament who visited one such center on Samos in June described its conditions as deplorable; it stayed open for another six months. The Greek Interior Ministry would not allow a reporter access to detention centers there or elsewhere.

A number of lawyers for refugees say that the Greek police and army are secretly and illegally expelling migrants, some of whom are not even registered or given the opportunity to request protection. They say that these deportations take place at night, in small plastic boats, across the Evros River.

Mariana Tzeferakou, a refugees' lawyer in Athens, said that illicit deportations along the Evros were an open secret and had been going on for a decade.

"Now we realize it is going on much more intensely," she said, adding that a large number of people coming across in this area "are prima facie refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa."

Giorgos Tsarbopoulos, the Athens-based head of the UN refugee agency for Greece, said the agency had had several reports that this was happening.

"Our indications are that people are being made to return by unofficial means in a very short period of time," he said. "Some complained that they had tried to explain their need for asylum and were not heard."

For those who do get a hearing, Greece's overall recognition rate for refugees is low, hovering for years at roughly 1 percent. That compares with 45 percent in Italy last year and 19 percent in Spain.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees examined 305 randomly selected initial decisions on asylum claims, lodged in Greece by people from Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sri Lanka, and found every one of them negative.

About 3,500 Iraqis requested asylum in Greece in the first half of this year, the highest number for any industrial nation except Sweden. Yet a study comparing decisions on asylum claims in five EU countries, published by the UN refugee agency in November, found that the chance of an Iraqi refugee's receiving protection in Greece stood at zero. In Sweden, it was 75 percent.

In April, the European Commission sued Greece in the European Court of Justice over its asylum processes. Greece lost.

Spindler, the spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, said the agency did not want Greece to lose sight of the need to offer protection.

"We understand the need to police the borders and combat illegal immigration, but you have to bear in mind that sometimes people cross borders without documents for very valid reasons," he said. "You have to leave the doors open for those people."

Source: International Herald Tribune (English)


Fatso said...

It seems to me that the "unofficial" policy of border control in Greece is about right! Otherwise they and the rest of us would be swamped.

We in the EU need to send out a clear message that illegal, ecconomic migrants are not welcome so stay away!

Anonymous said...

If Greece allowed every illegal immigrant into the country the immigrants now would outnumber the local population. Illegal immigrants croosing evros river are hell bent on entering Greece not any other EU country. They would not be risking minefields and agean sea crossings into Greece, if they wanted to go elsewhere. They could easily enter from Bulgaria Spain Italy, Romania, All Iraqi and Afgan refugees should be taken in by the USA since they are Occupying both countries and created this refugee mess. Those lawyers and Amnesty International and the rest Of EU are just plain living in ladida land. They are absorbing or rather comprehending the grave situation Greece is going thru with illegal immigration. Also first port of call is where the immigrant is suppose to stay and that means Greece bearing the brunt of illegal immigrants, who want to stay in Greece!

Unknown said...

A country like Greece should be part of Country like Iran,China, may be part of Africa were human wright is TABU, how can a country like Greece can part of E.U, If they have head of state(president or priminister) and the news of treat asylum on human should be shamed to them. At the same time shamed to all so call E.U member them self that respect human wright but for Greece to oppose.

saint_vy25 said...

how come that the greek government allowed those illegal immigrants. They should check always the documents of the residents yearly so that they check who is legal and illegal immigrants. In addition, Most filipinos leaving and working in Greece are illegal.

saint_vy25 said...

Greek Government should call the attention of those Filipinos working in their place on that case government will know who is legal and illegal