Germany Blacklists Greece Over Immigration

Germany blacklists Greece over immigration

Germany could be the next country after Norway to suspend the return of asylum-seekers to Greece; concern expressed over the violation of immigrants' rights in Greece.

Kathy Tzilivakis
Friday, March 07, 2008

After Norway, Germany could become the next European country to suspend the return of all asylum-seekers to Greece on the grounds that their rights may be violated. It has already suspended the return of unaccompanied minors to Greece.

The Germans are expected to announce their decision – whether to temporarily stop implementing the European Union's Dublin II Regulation (EC 343/2003) that says the first member state a migrant enters is the one responsible for examining his/her asylum application – next week.

“So far, Germany has only suspended the return of minors, but we are now waiting for the [German] ministry of interior to decide whether to extend it to all asylum-seekers based on a presentation we made based on new evidence we got concerning cases [of asylum-seekers] sent back to Athens,” Karl Kopp, spokesman for Pro Asyl, a German human rights organisation, told the Athens News.

“It is all about the problems faced by those who are transferred back to Greece. They are homeless. They have problems gaining access to the asylum department and so on. Our evidence has convinced the responsible federal agency [in Germany] to consider a general transfer stop to Greece, like Norway.”

While the German ambassador, Wolfgang Schultheiss, told the Athens News that he has no information on the matter, he did confirm that there has not been any recent return of unaccompanied minors from Germany to Greece.

“We have looked into the last 85 Dublin cases, and the practice is that no person under 18 is sent alone,” he told the Athens News.

Another blow

The news that Germany may halt the return of asylum-seekers to Greece comes as yet another blow to Greece's image in Europe.

As reported by the Athens News on February 15, the Norwegian government decided to ignore the Dublin II Regulation and examine the applications of all asylum-seekers who had passed through Greece on their way to Norway.

Norway's decision was announced on February 8 by Terje Sjeggestad, the director of the Norwegian Immigration Appeals Board (UNE), a quasi-judicial body under Norway's ministry of local government and regional development. On February 27, he told the Athens News they are currently in the process of deciding whether or not to lift the suspension.

“Such a decision will be taken on the grounds of information from Greek authorities and other parties,” he said. “We are not in a position to comment on details in this process or when a decision will be taken. Information will, in due time, be given in a press release and through the Norwegian embassy in Athens.”

Meanwhile, considerable juris-prudence has developed in EU members Austria, Finland, Italy and Sweden. The courts in these countries have ruled in favour of asylum-seekers' pleas not to be returned.

'There is no political will'

Efthalia Pappa, director of the local Ecumenical Refugee Programme – an office set up by the Holy Synod to help asylum-seekers and refugees – is one of the country's harshest critics. Echoing concerns repeatedly voiced by the Greek ombudsman and local and international human rights organisations, Pappa told the Athens News there is no political will to improve the asylum situation.

The asylum-seeker approval rate in Greece is the lowest in Europe (less than one percent). Nearly every single application for refugee status is rejected, according to data compiled by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).

According to Pappa, Greece has systematically started applying accelerated procedures for asylum claims, labelling every single case as “manifestly unfounded” and offering limited opportunities to asylum-seekers to appeal the decision.

“They [authorities investigating asylum claims] don't seem to care if someone has been tortured or why they are seeking international protection,” she told the Athens News. “Asylum-seekers are forced to sign papers stating that they have come for economic reasons. They don't know what they are signing.”

Local human rights groups, including the Greek ombudsman, are growing increasingly concerned. Last month, Deputy Ombudsman Andreas Takis sent a five-page letter to the director of the Greek police's aliens bureau in downtown Athens, Constantine Kordatos.

“During these past several months, we have discovered that the 'pink' card [a temporary residence and work permit valid for six months issued to asylum-seekers] is issued on the same day as their asylum rejection letter,” said Takis in his letter. “In the majority of cases, the asylum applications have been reviewed under the accelerated procedure.”

By putting them on the fast track, the rejected asylum-seekers have only 10 days by which to appeal.

“However, the issuing of the [pink card] on the same day as the rejection letter creates the erroneous impression that [the asylum-seeker] has the legal right to stay in the country until it expires,” stressed Takis in the letter.

He said that this confusion is also due to the fact there is no interpreter present in order to explain the situation to them. To ensure the integrity of the asylum system, the deputy ombudsman recommended authorities abandon the accelerated procedure because it severely restricts asylum-seekers' access to appeal.

On behalf of the Ecumenical Refugee Programme, Pappa has also sent a similar letter informing Kordatos of the difficulties rejected asylum-seekers in Athens face when trying to submit an appeal. In response, Kordatos denied any maladministration.

“Before issuing the first-instance rejection decision, the foreigner is informed about his right to appeal in the presence of an interpreter and in a language he understands,” said Kordatos in a letter dated January 23. He also stressed that no one is denied an appeal, even if the (10-day) deadline has expired.

A broken system

The Greek asylum system has reportedly failed one 15-year-old unaccompanied minor from Eritrea, East Africa. He showed visible signs of torture and described the torture during his interview with a police officer in Athens examining his asylum application.

“Despite all the evidence presented by the boy, authorities concluded that his claim was unfounded,” said Pappa. “The same thing happened to a woman from Somalia, who authorities actually tried to deport last month. Fortunately, the airline refused to let her board the plane. She was taken back to Korydallos prison, but we helped her so she now has a chance for her asylum claim to be heard.”

Another recent case involves a 37-year-old man from the Darfur region of Sudan whose application for asylum was put on the fast track and rejected on the grounds that it was unfounded. Authorities examining his claim reportedly concluded that he had come to Greece for economic reasons and not as a refugee, even though years of fighting in Darfur have destroyed hundreds of villages, displaced 2.2 million people and led to more than 400,000 deaths.

“After this event, I feel lost and lonely and I couldn't stay any more in Sudan,” he wrote.

Last week, the United Nations refugee agency said the already difficult humanitarian situation in Darfur has worsened as a result of new fighting and increased banditry. In a five-page, handwritten letter in English, the 37-year-old describes how his village was attacked, his mother, uncle and cousins killed and his wife raped.

Human rights wrongs

The German human rights organisation, Pro Asyl, released a shocking report in November accusing the Greek coastguard of “systematically abusing newly-arrived refugees”. The report, titled “The truth may be bitter, but it must be told”, is based on a series of fact-finding missions conducted by lawyers and human rights advocates on the islands of Samos, Hios and Lesvos in August and October 2007. It included visits to the detention centres on the three islands and interviews with migrants and local officials.

The group has alleged that members of the Greek coastguard tortured asylum-seekers, prompting the government to order an investigation.

“In one reported case on the island of Hios, the degree of maltreatment amounted to torture (serious beating, mock execution, electric shocks, pushing a refugee's head into a bucket full of water (submarino),” reported Pro Asyl. “The excessive use of force, ill-treatment and torture as carried out by the Greek coastguard constitutes a flagrant violation of international human rights instruments and violates human dignity.”

“Greece has to improve the situation,” said Kopp, the spokesman for Pro Asyl. “But Europe also has to support Greece financially to improve the asylum system, or I would say to create an asylum system… I believe the Dublin II Regulation has to change because it's not fair for external border states [like Greece] to have to take on all the responsibility.”

People seeking asylum in the EU often enter the bloc through Greece and then move further into the union. The European Union's centralised fingerprint database, Eurodac, which was designed to prevent abuses of the asylum system, has found that a “large section” of those who illegally enter Greece head for another EU country.

The head of UNHCR in Greece, George Tsarbopoulos, has also called on the government to reverse its ugly track record and to protect the rights of asylum-seekers and refugees in Greece.

Kathy Tzilivakis writes for Athens News and appears here with permission.