UNHCR Greek Asylum Reform

, by Saorlaith Ni Bhroin

UNHCR Greek Asylum Reform

Plans for the reform of the Greek asylum system, released on 20 January 2010, have been warmly received by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres and will aim to create a modern and effective migration and asylum system that fully respects human rights[1].

Under the stewardship of a recently elected Greek government, Greece has announced fresh efforts to reform their problematic asylum system. This governmental move is a visible U-turn from the previous position established by its predecessors in mid-2009, when the situation deteriorated considerably through the introduction of Presidential Decree 81/2009[2]. The new plans were commended by UN High Representative for Refugees, Antonio Guterres as ‘exciting in nature’. Guterres, who had participated in discussions with Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, also recognised that ‘migration is a human rights issue as well as a national security protection issue’.

migration is a human rights issue as well as a national security protection issue

In late 2009 a Committee of Experts on Asylum was established by the Minister of Citizen Protection. This Committee consisting of representatives of Ministries and agencies, academics, NGOs and UNHCR set out to reform the Greek asylum system. The five priorities highlighted by the Government were border protection, adoption of measures against illegal migration, appropriate management of the political refugees issue in compliance with international obligations, cooperation with UNHCR, the EU and neighbouring states and the integration of legal migrants. In concrete terms, to date this entails inter alia, the creation of an independent Asylum Agency and a new framework of operation for migrant reception centres. Greece reiterated however, that it cannot embark on these reforms alone and underlined the importance of a balanced EU responsibility sharing process.

The Greek situation is precarious to say the least. Greece is a key entry point to the EU and thus receives spontaneous arrivals by both sea and land and is subject to ‘particular pressures[3], a term coined by the European Commission to describe the inability of the Member State to provide (in terms of capacity and resources in the realm of asylum, reception and integration) for such arrivals. The political discourse in Greece, in its own right, is no stranger to controversy. The Greek asylum system has been plagued by persistent violations of international and supranational legislation. Issues which have been repeatedly raised by NGOs and UNHCR include systematic administrative detention in ill-equipped facilities, little recognition of separated children and other vulnerable groups, disregard for the principle of non-refoulement, as well as excessive delays in the asylum procedure. European Member States’ opposition to such practices has manifested in a number of countries suspending return to Greece under the Dublin II Regulation[4] following UNHCR recommendations[5].

It is fair to conclude that the issues facing Greece are multifaceted and a static solution on a European scale is untenable and unrealistic.

It is fair to conclude that the issues facing Greece are multifaceted and a static solution on a European scale is untenable and unrealistic. This new proposal is unquestionably a marked step forward and renews fresh hope of an effective and efficient asylum system being in operation. It remains to be seen however, whether or not this novel initiative will actually bring about any tangible change to the thousands of arrivals in Greece each year.

I have nothing. No rights. No friends - Stuck in a Revolving Door, HRW Report 2008


[1] http://www.unhcr.org/4b56e1f46.html

[2] This Decree failed to guarantee efficiency and fairness of the refugee status determination, and fell distinctly short of binding European and International legislation.

[3] See COM(2006) 401 final, Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and the Council establishing a mechanism for the creation of Rapid Border Intervention Teams and amending Council Regulation (EC) No. 2007/2004 regarding that mechanism, http://ec.europa.eu/justice_home/news/intro/doc/com_2006_401_en.pdf

[4] The Dublin II Regulation allocates responsibility to EU Member States to deal with an asylum claim. This usually entails returning an asylum seeker to the first EU country in which he/she arrived.

[5] These suspensions stem from reports of ineffective asylum procedures and poor treatment of arrivals.

Image: Somali refugee boat, source: Wikimedia Commons

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