Greece, flooded by refugees, under fire for asylum policies

The UN refugee agency last week harshly criticized Athens for poor treatment of asylum seekers – a majority of whom are from Iraq and Afghanistan.

A squalid squatter camp on the outskirts of this port city stands as a stark symbol of Greece's broken asylum system.

Hundreds of young men and boys from Afghanistan – many of whom say they fled violence – huddle in bare shacks and over open cooking fires, waiting to be smuggled deeper into Europe.

If they're caught, they could face deportation back to Greece under a European Union refugee policy known as Dublin II, which requires asylum seekers to apply in the first country they enter. But conditions are so bad that few want to stay.

"If there were good facilities like in other European countries, everyone would stay here," says Ehsan Khatri, who shares a shack with his cousin and several other men in the camp.

Greece is facing mounting criticism for its treatment of people seeking political asylum. Last week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said the country's system was so flawed that other European countries should no longer return asylum seekers to Greece, raising a serious test to Europe-wide cooperation on refugee issues.

UNHCR accuses Athens of turning down asylum applications on first review regardless of merit and of failing to provide adequate facilities for asylum seekers. Greece says it is overwhelmed and needs more support from other European countries. Since 2001, according to numbers provided by the Greek government to UNHCR, the number of asylum seekers has risen from just under 1,200 people to 20,684.

Indeed, as one of the European Union's easternmost countries, Greece is increasingly a gateway for people fleeing conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most pay smugglers to take them by land across Turkey and then by boat to Greece. Many spend time in one of several government-run detention centers for illegal immigrants, where they are fingerprinted, their details entered into an EU-wide system known as FRONTEX, and given deportation orders.

Some choose to stay in Greece, either illegally or by applying for refugee status here. But most plan to continue on to wealthier European countries, like Sweden, known for their more generous asylum policies. They either don't know about the Dublin II rules, or choose to take their chances.

Mr. Khatri, a young man who claims he left Afghanistan after the Taliban threatened him for working as a translator for American troops, knows the rules. But he says he still plans to continue on to England and apply for refugee status there.

"If they ask me how I got there, I know what to tell them," he says, explaining how he avoided being fingerprinted while in Greece. "If there were good facilities like in other European countries, everyone would stay here."

But even those who want to stay often can't.

In 2007, just eight people were granted refugee status by Greece on first application. On appeal, an additional 132 were.

The acceptance rate – at 0.5 percent, the lowest in Europe – is only one obstacle asylum seekers face in Greece, however. Human rights groups also say asylum seekers, who are usually treated as economic migrants, are regularly abused by authorities and rarely informed of their rights. There is almost no infrastructure to support those who have managed to apply for asylum and little hope that their applications will be successful.

"There's no political will to have human conditions for these people," says Victoria Banti-Markouti, the refugee coordinator for the Greek office of Amnesty International.

But the flood of criticism is beginning to have an effect. Earlier this year, Norway announced that it would no longer return asylum seekers to Greece and a Swedish court refused to return an Iraqi asylum seeker to Greece.

Back in the Patras shanty, many feel they have nowhere to turn. Local authorities have cracked down, making it increasingly difficult to continue on to Italy. Police harass and arrest the Afghans when they leave the camp to try to buy food or use a nearby public toilet.

"People who come to Greece are trapped," says Christos Karapiperis, who works for the local branch of the Greek Red Cross, which has helped about 200 Afghans apply for political asylum. "Most don't want to apply for asylum here. Maybe if it was clear that they can only apply for asylum here there would be more applicants."

Mr. Karapiperis and his colleagues try to convince them their best chance is to try and apply for asylum in Greece. But the Red Cross is not trusted in the camp; they say because smugglers who control the camp have spread rumors accusing them of working with the police.

So for now, most still try to move on, despite the risks.

"I've tried lots of times, but haven't been successful yet," says Khatri. "But I'll keep trying, trying to pass this border."

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