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Asylum seekers lost to the cracks in Greece

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Pandeia continues its refugee feature with an article about Greece, third in the series (see our story on the Netherlands and EU policy for a more solid background).

Thousands of asylum seekers cross the Mediterranean Sea en route to Southern Europe in order to flee from wars and instability. More than two-thirds of the asylum seekers who entered the European Union  used Greece as a door to the continent in 2012, their final destination being the more prosperous Northern countries. However, most migrants find themselves trapped in this country that does not provide them with the expected protection. Asylum seekers who tried to move to Northern Europe were sent back to Greece because of the mechanism of the Dublin Regulation. What this system does not consider are the inadequate reception conditions in Southern countries. The case of Greece is significantly worrying: migrants can neither stay nor leave. They remain trapped.

Dublin regulation: a legislative problem

Wars and conflicts in African and Middle Eastern countries drive many people to move to Europe. More recently, the ongoing war in Syria has intensified the situation. In order for European Union Member States to examine asylum applications systematically, the Dublin Regulation was established. Under the Dublin system, asylum seekers have to remain in the first European country they entered while other Member States do not have the responsibility of their asylum application. The regulation thus allows other European countries to deport back the asylum seekers to their overburdened Southern borders, such as Greece and Italy. Due to geographical proximity these are usually the first European destinations for asylum seekers from war-torn Africa and the Middle East.

When these migrants first enter Greece, they do not intend to stay in the country, but to move to the more prosperous European states, such as Germany, the United Kingdom (UK), Sweden or Norway. However, most of them end up being caught at the border between Greece and its neighbouring countries, like Macedonia or Bulgaria, and being sent back to Greece. And even those immigrants who successfully reach their destination still face deportation because of the Dublin Regulation.

Since its implementation, the Dublin system has been a matter of controversy. While the core of the regulation is to prevent abuse of asylum procedures, the mechanism has also been severely criticised. For instance, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have condemned the system for failing to provide fair, efficient and effective protection. Considering that Greece accounted for 67% of all irregular border crossings into the EU in 2012, according to Frontex, it fails to provide minimum standard of asylum protection.

The uneven distribution of asylum claims among Member States generated by the Dublin Regulation would not be that problematic if it was not built on the assumption that all Member States provide the same standards of protection to refugees. The case of an Afghan translator sent from Belgium to Greece is just a tip of the iceberg, considering that many other lawsuits concerning Greece in terms of Dublin regulation are pending in the Strasbourg Court. In 2011, the European Court of Human Rights fined both Greek and Belgian governments when the latter did not adhere to the clause related to asylum seekers of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Belgium sent back an Afghan translator to Greece despite the warnings that he would be subjected to degrading treatment and prison-like facilities.

These cases also exemplify the problem of difference in asylum systems among the Member States. It has been some years that the EU has been attempting to establish a common ground for asylum applications through the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), which includes the Dublin Regulation. However, almost one year after the policy endorsement by the European Parliament, the system is not functioning well and uniformly yet. The up until now EU Home Affairs Commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, acknowledged in March this year that ‘we also need to implement our new common European asylum policy in a responsible manner based on solidarity’. In line with this criticism, the former Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, claimed that the system is not designed to guarantee that all EU Members States share the responsibility of asylum seekers.

A never-ending search for protection

Even if the Common European Asylum System would be efficiently implemented, the economic crisis affecting Greece is still a stumbling block. Due to the crisis, Greece has to cut its expenses on social and welfare service. Besides, the 27.5% unemployment rate in Greece makes finding a job very difficult even for the locals. The crisis has also exacerbated the problem of labour exploitation towards migrant workers in Greece. Amnesty International claims that migrant workers, especially farm workers, are faced with inhumane working conditions, long working hours, underpayment by their employers and violence from supervisors.

33 Bangladeshi workers were shot in 2013 in a strawberry farm in Manolada when they protested against their employers making them work without payment for 7 months. The unfair treatment these workers suffered led to pressure being put on Greek government to ensure humane working conditions for migrant workers and asylum seekers.

Because of the Dublin Regulation, asylum seekers are forced to remain in Greece and face discrimination, exploitation and a lack of job opportunities. However, staying in Greece is not a feasible option. Asylum seekers have to wait for years in their application of asylum status. Many are living in the country without any paper nor identity, not to mention asylum protection. A report from Amnesty International states that the Attika Aliens Police Directorate in Athens is only open one day a week, where only 20 asylum seekers are able to register their claims. The failed applicants face the risk of being arrested and sent to detention camps, where hygienic conditions are harsh. The latest version of the Dublin regulation included common deadlines for handling asylum applications, but whether it is effectively enforced in all Member States is another problem.

In order to deter asylum seekers from coming to Greece, Athens also applies ‘push back’ practices, which consists of turning groups of migrants back across the border, denying them the right to have their individual cases heard or to challenge their expulsion. Earlier this year, a boat carrying 27 asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Syrian capsized in the Aegean Sea near the Greek island of Farmakonisi. Survivors accused that the Greek coastguards towered the vessel at high speed to Turkish border and refused to help them when the boat sank. Although the Greek government denied the allegations of applying ‘push backs’, the Greek media Hot Doc unveiled documents showing that torture is used by the authority in order to create an image that life in Greece is miserable, thus to prevent migrants from entering the country. Amnesty International confirmed the ‘push back’ practice in its report ‘Greece: Frontier of Hope and Fear’. The report collects allegations from victims who encountered ‘push backs’, including violence experience in both Greek-Turkish land and sea borders, and concluded that it is not an isolated incident, but a routine and widespread practice. After the incident, the Commissioner of Human Rights of the Council of Europe, Nils Muiznieks, requested the Greek government to put an end to the illegal practice of collective expulsions and effectively investigate all such cases. In response to this, Athens agreed to carry out investigations into all recorded irregular ‘push backs’ from Greece to Turkey.

The rise of anti-immigration movement

The economic crisis has also had a negative impact on the public perception of migrants. A far-right political party in Greece, Golden Dawn, gained 18 of a total of 300 in the Greek parliament in June 2012 and opinion polls show that support for the party jumped from 6.9% to 11.5% soon after it entered the parliament. Golden Dawn denies being racist and xenophobic as claimed by media and scholars, but it advocates an anti-immigration policy.

Even after the arrest of the leader of Golden Dawn, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, violence and hate crimes against immigrants, ethnic minorities and gay right supporters are omnipresent. The rising popularity of Golden Dawn among Greek society shows the discrimination and violence migrant workers face in the country, in spite of the state’s decision to crack-down the far-right party. An annual report conducted by Racist Violence Recording Network presented that in 2013, 166 incidents of racist violence occurred, involving 320 victims and 143 cases were committed against migrants or refugees.

Despite the controversies surrounding the Dublin system, its implementation has been hindered recently by the economic crisis. The regulation does not allow asylum seekers to move to other Member States, yet remaining in Greece does not seem like a solution neither, leaving migrants fall between two stools. On the one hand, the Dublin regulation has its flaws, and requires a modification in order to ensure the rights to asylum established by the European Charter on Human Rights. On the other hand, straight enforcement of the regulation is essential to provide asylum seekers with the same level of protection in all EU countries.

By Adriana Diaz Martin-Zamorano and Chan Cheuk Yin

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