Rights Groups: Greece Endangers Illegal Migrants

Rights groups: Greece endangers illegal migrants

The Associated Press
Published: October 29, 2007

BRUSSELS, Belgium: Greek authorities are “systematically” endangering the lives of refugees trying to reach the European Union in boats, human rights groups said in a report issued Monday. Greece denied the allegations.

The report by Pro Asyl and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles an umbrella group of 76 non-governmental organizations also denounced the European Union's asylum policy, saying its core objective is to keep out refugees rather than to protect them.

Greek Coast Guard vessels regularly engage in “life-threatening maneuvers” such as circling the rickety boats and creating large waves that could potentially swamp them, the report said.

Other tactics include pushing the boats out of Greek waters, or puncturing rubber dinghies so they cannot remain afloat, it said.

“This appears to have become systematic in recent years,” said Marianna Tzeferakou from Amnesty International Greece. “But this is not only a national matter, it is a European matter because it's a result of the EU putting pressure on the Greek government to seal off its borders.”

Karl Kopp, member of the Pro Asyl refugee rights group based in Frankfurt, Germany, said “EU nations wash their hands of the responsibility for refugees while humanitarian dramas unfold at the borders of Europe, illustrating the decreasing commitment of EU states to guarantee even basic human rights standards.”

A Greek government spokesman denied that authorities endangered migrants' lives.

“Greece categorically denies that it uses violent and inhuman means to deter the entry of illegal immigrants,” deputy government spokesman Evangelos Antonaros said. “Under no circumstances do we use methods that are incompatible with the respect of human rights and human life.”

Antonaros added that the number of people trying to enter the country illegally has spiked recently.

“Over the past two and a half months we have received an unusually high number of illegal immigrants,” he told The Associated Press. “In the past three days alone, 1,181 people were arrested and about 600 deported either for being illegally in the country or for trying to enter illegally. This is a vast number, larger than that faced by any other European country.”

The Merchant Marine Ministry said coast guards detained a total of 123 illegal immigrants on three eastern Aegean Sea islands on Sunday and Monday, and arrested two suspected smugglers. All the detainees said they had crossed over from Turkey, according to a ministry statement.

Most asylum-seekers use Greece and other south European nations such as Malta, Spain and Portugal as transit points to other EU nations such as Germany, France and Sweden.

But according to EU rules, the member state that is the refugee's first point of entry to the EU is responsible for processing the claims. If they move on, the refugees will be deported back to the receiving country.

The 27-nation bloc is due to finalize by 2010 a joint asylum system, which would alleviate the pressure on southern entry points by sharing out the refugees throughout the union.

Greece has seen a surge in illegal immigration this year. Around 18,000 people have been detained in 2007, up sharply from the 8,000 caught during all of 2005. So far this year, 44 people have drowned and 54 are listed as missing.

Asylum seekers in Greece include an increasing number of Iraqis, many of them Christians. In the first six months of this year, some 3,500 Iraqis applied for asylum in Greece, the second-highest number of any Western nation, after Sweden.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which is due to publish its own report on European asylum policies next week, has criticized Greek treatment of refugees.

“We have very serious concerns about Greek practices,” said Madeline Garlick, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Brussels.