Emergency situation in Greece

Shocking fact, a humanitarian crisis is looming on European soil.

In Greece, thousands of asylum seekers are homeless, living on the streets, waiting at the end of an interminable line for their asylum claim to be heard. Their chances of success are small. At first instance, only 0.3% of asylum seekers received refugee status or some form of protection in 2009. That’s just 48 people. By contrast in Germany, UK, France and Sweden, 31% of asylum applications were successful.

In 2009 alone, 16,000 people applied for asylum in Greece. Most will not be successful, so will have to wait in limbo for the Greek government to overhaul its asylum system, so they can at least appeal the decision.   Today UNHCR insisted on the urgency of Greece accelerating the implementation of its planned asylum reform (see http://www.unhcr.org/4c98c20b6.html).

The conditions for asylum-seekers in Greece, which is among the principal entry points to the EU, are notoriously difficult. The photograph above shows the conditions that migrants and asylum-seekers face when they first arrive in Greece.  After they have registered their request for asylum, most asylum-seekers receive no assistance.

A huge worry is the number of unaccompanied children who come to Greece for all sorts of reasons, including fleeing persecution.  There is a woeful lack of child appropriate facilities for them. Many find themselves clinging to the bottom of a truck to smuggle their way out of Greece to another European country.

An EU regulation, known as Dublin II, states that the country that is responsible for determining the asylum claim is, in most cases, the country where the person first arrived. This regulation puts an undue level of pressure on Greece.  For those asylum seekers that first arrived in Greece and then moved to other European countries, UNHCR’s advice is simple (and obvious) – please don’t send them back to Greece!

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Don’t shoot!

Boat people rescued by the Italian Coast Guard near the island of Lampedusa/ UNHCR/ A. Di Loreto

On Monday evening a Libyan patrol boat with several Italian military personnel on board fired at an Italian fishing vessel.  Libya has since apologized for the incident. Fortunately, none of the 10 crew on board were injured.

According to a BBC report, Italian Minister of Interior, Roberto Maroni said, “I imagine they mistook the fishing boat for a ship carrying illegal immigrants, but will check what happened with an investigation.”

The ship that was shot at made it back to port with no-one injured. The boat you see in the photograph above would not have been so lucky. It is vital that the promised investigation into this shooting concludes that shooting at anyone at sea is unacceptable.

Gaspare Marrone, the Captain of the boat that was shot at, is an old friend of UNHCR’s.  We consider him a hero  for having saved tens of people from drowning when he found them hanging on for dear life on a tuna net off the Italian coast in November 2007. He was given the prestigious Per Mare award by UNHCR and the Italian Coast Guard in 2008 for his actions.

Beyond this incident, there is reason to be concerned about the overall management of migration from North Africa to Italy.  Italy has signed an agreement with Libya to push back migrants attempting to cross to Italy.  As a result of this policy, there has been a  drastic decrease of asylum applications in 2009  from 31,000 in 2008 to 17,000 in 2009.  In recent years, 75% of those who applied for asylum in Italy arrived by sea with around 50% receiving some form of protection.  If the door to Italy is too firmly shut, the important humanitarian principle of offering refuge to those fleeing persecution is at risk.

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Filed under Europe, Fortress Europe, Italy, Libya, Rescue at sea, UNHCR

Why are more Iraqi refugees asking for registration in Syria since June?

Douma, Syria - Iraqi children at the UNHCR registration centre. UNHCR / P. Sands

For the past several years, UNHCR has noted an increase in new arrivals during the summer months.  This summer was no different, with around 3,400 Iraqis requesting registration in August, as compared to 1326 in May.
UNHCR  registered 14,500 Iraqi refugees by end of August.  Of this number 50% noted that they fled targeted threats and attacks, mostly of a sectarian nature. General violence was cited by 20% as the second main reason for leaving while lack of medical facilities obliged 8% to leave.
Amongst the factors thought to influence the increase in demand over the summer is the closure of Iraqi schools in the summer and Ramadan. We will watch carefully the registration figures for September, when both of these reasons can be excluded.
At the moment the waiting period for a registration interview is about six weeks for all but the most urgent cases. Once we have completed these interviews we will have a better picture of how many of the new arrivals are coming as a result of the upsurge of sectarian violence following the elections. We plan an update to the media on 5 October with the results of our research.

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Why would Iranians be forced to go to Iraq?

Today I am looking into allegations that recent European flights forcibly returning Iraqis from the UK, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands may have also included Iranians. We hope our implementing partner in Baghdad will be able to investigate this fully, and if true, secure access to these people.

I cannot imagine how European governments could justify this, if true. How would they ensure their safe return to Iran? If they are being forcibly returned, what kind of dangers could they be subjected to, both in Iraq and Iran?

Here is what we had to say about these forcible returns of Iraqis at the press briefing on 3 September in Geneva:

UNHCR concerned at ongoing deportations of Iraqis from Europe

UNHCR is very concerned by on-going forced returns of Iraqi citizens from Western European countries. On September 1st, a chartered flight with 61 people on board, mainly Iraqis who had been residing in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the United Kingdom, landed at Baghdad airport. UNHCR has so far not been able to confirm reports that three Iranians were among those on board.

UNHCR’s guidelines for Iraq ask governments not to forcibly return people originating from the governorates of Baghdad, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninewa and Salah Al-din, in view of the serious human rights violations and continuing security incidents in these areas. Our position is that Iraqi asylum applicants originating from these five governorates should benefit from international protection in the form of refugee status under the 1951 Refugee Convention or an alternative form of protection.

UNHCR considers that serious risks, including indiscriminate threats to life, physical integrity or freedom resulting from violence or events seriously disturbing public order, are valid reasons for international protection.

Some of the individuals among the group returned on Wednesday may be destined for safer areas such as the Kurdistan Region Government Region, others may have elected to return voluntarily. Nonetheless, of the 11 individuals we were able to interview on arrival some originated from Baghdad, and at least one person was a Christian from Mosul, in the Governorate of Ninewa. The security situation in that Governorate remains extremely volatile.

Similarly in the Baghdad Governorate, the security situation remains unstable with increased attacks and several recent major security incidents. On August 25th, for example, a series of coordinated attacks throughout the country including suicide bombs resulted in 62 people being killed and 250 wounded. Car explosions, roadside bombs, mortar attacks and kidnapping remain daily threats for Iraqis.

We strongly urge European governments to provide Iraqis with protection until the situation in their areas of origin in Iraq allows for safe and voluntary returns. In this critical time of transition, we also encourage all efforts to develop conditions in Iraq that are conducive to sustainable and voluntary return.

The on-going violence in Iraq has resulted in large-scale internal and external displacement of the Iraqi population. Over 1.5 million people remain displaced within the country while hundreds of thousands of people have found refuge in neighbouring countries, mainly in Syria and Jordan. We are concerned about the signal that forced returns from Western Europe could give to Iraq’s neighbouring countries, which, despite a score of national priorities, are hosting large numbers of Iraqi refugees.

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He made it!

It took Bjorn Heidenstrom 335 days  through 35 countries to bicycle from Norway to South Africa, where he arrived on May 20, 2010. On the way he collected football shirts, which will be stitched together to create the world’s largest football shirt. He did all of this to raise awareness for refugees. He made a lot of refugees happy along his journey.

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Q&A: Working for refugees on Europe’s outer borders

Here’s my interview with Michele Simone. UNHCR’s senior liaison officer with Frontex.

Tell us about UNHCR’s working relationship with Frontex?

UNHCR and Frontex have a working cooperation established through an exchange of letters, with regular meetings and capacity building initiatives contributing to this relationship. Frontex does not have a protection mandate, nor particular expertise in human rights, although its activities should be carried out consistently with the EU’s international obligations. With the Frontex mandate review in 2010, we hope that our partnership can develop further, especially as regards more two-way information-sharing and more UNHCR involvement in operational aspects.

Are Frontex staff sufficiently trained to ensure that the basic rights of people intercepted at sea are respected?

The primary responsibility for the training of border guards lies with member states. UNHCR has contributed to some Frontex training with the aim of injecting a protection perspective into the work of border guards. Today, virtually all Frontex-led training activities for border guards include an asylum component. However, it remains difficult to evaluate the impact of training while information on operational activities at the borders, especially at sea, remains rather limited. In some countries, the Red Cross performs a monitoring function on Frontex-coordinated return operations. For those countries where this is not the case, the lack of humanitarian expertise could lead to breaches of their basic rights, including the right to asylum.

What would UNHCR like to see from Frontex during an operation at sea?

Frontex operations should ensure disembarkation of those intercepted at sea to a place where they are not only safe physically, but where their basic rights – including the rights to seek asylum and receive protection – are respected. This is spelled out in the recently adopted European Union guidelines for maritime border operations. In any event, the operations should anticipate that some of those intercepted at sea will be particularly vulnerable, notably unaccompanied children, women and torture victims. At this time, we believe there are not enough qualified staff at sea or land entry points to identify and support such vulnerable cases. To assist border guards in this identification process, UNHCR is currently discussing with Frontex the elaboration of ad hoc protection guidelines for some selected joint operations.

There are concerns about inconsistencies in asylum procedures in different states. Does this raise issues for Frontex?

Frontex only has a coordinating role in returns, with the responsibility lying with individual member states regarding the determination of asylum claims. One example of an inconsistency is the varying definition of “safe countries” by different member states. The fact that only two European countries are able to agree on a single safe country reinforces the message that individuals should only be returned after a full and fair examination of their claim.

Frontex says Greece faces the highest migratory pressure in Europe. How does UNHCR assess Greece’s asylum system?

It is no secret that UNHCR, along with a number of other observers and courts in Europe, has reservations regarding access to asylum procedures in Greece. The bottom line is that there is a responsibility to ensure that people who may wish to apply for asylum are given the chance to do so under fair conditions.

Frontex is involved in repatriating people found not to be in need of international protection. Is UNHCR involved in this process?

We support the right of states to return people who, after a fair and effective examination of their claim, are found not to be in need of international protection. While we are not actively involved in returns from Europe, we could consider supporting states in this area on request and subject to resources, through monitoring or other appropriate activities.

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