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U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 - Greece

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 January 1999
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 - Greece , 1 January 1999, available at: [accessed 11 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

At the end of 1998, Greece hosted about 2,800 refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection. These included about 2,300 persons with pending asylum applications, about 300 persons granted humanitarian stay of removal, and 156 granted asylum during the year.

During 1998, 2,953 persons applied for asylum in Greece, 33 percent fewer than the previous year. As in past years, most asylum applicants in 1998 were from Iraq (2,166), Turkey (308), and Iran (94), and most were Kurds. These three countries accounted for 87 percent of the asylum applications filed during the year. Afghan asylum applicants, numbering 202, were also a significant portion of the applicants.

During the year, Greek authorities granted refugee status to 156 persons and rejected refugee status for 3,748 persons, an approval rate of 4 percent. Those granted refugee status included 69 persons from Iraq, 33 from Turkey, and 22 from Iran.

UNHCR assisted 16 Iraqis and two persons from Yugoslavia to resettle from Greece to third countries in 1998.

Asylum Procedure

Presidential Decree 83 of 1993 makes the Ministry of Public Order (MPO) responsible for establishing criteria for determining the admissibility of asylum applications, for refugee status determinations themselves, for appeal procedures for rejected asylum claimants, and for procedures for revoking refugee status.

Decree 83 provides that the MPO may rule asylum applications inadmissible if not submitted immediately at a border control point or, in the case of unauthorized entry, at the nearest public authority where the applicants present themselves or are discovered. Decree 83 also authorizes the MPO to deem inadmissible applications from asylum seekers who do not arrive directly from countries where Greek authorities believe their freedom or lives are in danger.

Despite 1996 amendments to the asylum law that should have superseded Decree 83, by the end of 1998 the president had still not issued a decree to implement the new law. The 1996 amendment (law number 2452) would establish a new asylum procedure, most importantly by rescinding the admissibility step in the process. It would also require first-instance decisions on asylum claims within 90 days, and would authorize the establishment of reception centers and provide for assistance to refugees and asylum seekers. Part of the legal reform, providing for the granting of work permits for asylum seekers and persons granted humanitarian status, was enacted in 1998.

In effect, the MPO stopped making admissibility determinations in 1998 because of the new law, even though it had not been formally enacted through a presidential decree.

Rejected applicants may file an appeal with the MPO, but must do so within five days of receiving the negative decision. Appeals are decided within 60 days on the advice of a committee that includes the legal counselor to the MPO, two representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and a senior police officer. Generally, if Greece rejects an asylum seeker's application, it also withdraws his or her residence permit.

On average, the Greek police registered about ten asylum applicants per day in 1998, which did not keep pace with the number of would-be applicants. A backlog of first-instance interviews was developing, with some interviews being scheduled a year hence. Police provided inadequate documentation to claimants waiting for their interviews, failing to indicate that they were, in fact, asylum seekers known to the government and pending a status determination.

In December, UNHCR criticized Greece for the slowness of its asylum procedures and the inadequacy of accommodations for asylum seekers. UNHCR charged that the government was not providing asylum seekers with documents indicating clearly that they had asylum claims. The UN refugee agency cited the Aliens Police Department of Attica as continuously postponing the asylum claimant registration process for Iraqis because it lacked time and competent staff.

In addition to an interpretation of the refugee standard so restrictive that it resulted in the rejection of 96 percent of asylum applications, Greece issues humanitarian stays of deportation to very few rejected applicants (287 in 1998), although many of the rejected claimants come from Iraq, where they would likely be persecuted if returned. In November, Greece suspended the granting and renewal of humanitarian stays of deportation pending new procedures.


During the application procedure, asylum applicants must stay at the location they have declared as their home address or residence, or risk discontinuation of the asylum process. The Lavrio Refugee Center, the country's only state facility for asylum seekers, could not accommodate the number of asylum seekers in need of housing. The Lavrio resident population fluctuated from a low of 162 in March 1998 to a high of 256 in July. About half of the people accommodated at the center in 1998 were Turks (mainly Kurds). Refugees at the center, which is operated by the Hellenic Red Cross, received food, clothing, medical care, educational help, and counseling (from International Social Services) free of charge.

Because the Lavrio center was filled to capacity, asylum seekers and refugees in need of shelter were left on the street to fend for themselves. This was literally true in Koumandourou Square and nearby parks in Athens where about 1,000 Kurds were living in the open air. The homeless relied on soup kitchens, and one public toilet that was locked at night. According to aid workers, the homeless were not allowed to apply for asylum because they did not have an address.

Many of the homeless were Kurds, mostly from Iraq, who were often the center of controversy, as they were shuttled to various temporary quarters, but often wound up back on the street. The mayor of Athens took the initiative in 1997 to establish a camp for homeless asylum seekers at a children's summer camp outside Athens, Aghios Andreas. After Aghios Andreas was closed as a refugee camp (to be used as a summer camp again), Doctors of the World, in April 1997, established a small camp, Pendeli A, for about 150 persons, chosen for their vulnerability or as family groups, most of whom had been staying in Aghios Andreas. Kurds themselves, mostly single men, set up and ran an adjacent camp that came to be called Pendeli B, and which accommodated about 1,000 people. In December 1997, Greece closed Pendeli B camp, after it had operated for about six months, and its residents were dispersed. In 1998, Doctors of the World and local charities were sheltering about 270 Iraqi Kurds in Pendeli A, and the Hellenic Red Cross established another camp at Nea Makri that accommodated from 60 to 150 more Iraqi Kurds.

Other refugees and asylum seekers lived in makeshift shelters in public parks. They received limited help from local NGOs. UNHCR helped the Greek Refugee Council and the Social Work Foundation to provide some assistance for destitute refugees and asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are entitled to free medical care and education from the Greek government, but Greece does not have sufficient social welfare services to support them while their claims are pending.

In the final months of the year, increasing numbers of reports stated that the Greek authorities were detaining asylum seekers, sometimes in substandard conditions, while their applications were pending. In some cases, children were reportedly detained as well.

Border Enforcement Measures/ Expulsions

A stepped up border enforcement regime, including summary deportations, coupled with the low asylum approval rate, most likely caused the drop in asylum applications by about one-third from 1997 to 1998. Although numbers could not be independently confirmed, press accounts have estimated that some 50,000 Iraqi Kurds enter Greece every year, although some do so for transit purposes only, and others remain undocumented and do not enter into the asylum system.

There were numerous reports during the year of summary deportations of groups that appeared to be seeking asylum, mostly involving Iraqi Kurds and Christians. Although the government did not disclose the number of deportations in 1998, and the number of refugees and asylum seekers among them was unknown, reports from the press, human rights and refugee organizations, and from the refugees themselves provided a glimpse of the extent of this occurrence.

The catalogue of reported deportations to Turkey included: in January, 19 Iraqi Kurds who had entered through the Evros River; in April, 82 more Iraqis who had entered via the Evros River; in May, 162 persons, mostly Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, interdicted near Crete and deported at Ferres; also, in May, groups of 50 and 72, mostly Iraqis, who had entered at Carpathos, who were transferred from Rhodos and deported from Ferres; in July, 11 Iraqi Kurds apprehended in Alexandroupolis; in August, 61 Iraqi boat arrivals in Crete and 6 Iraqi Kurds arrested in Didimoticho; in September, 63 boat arrivals apprehended along the Evros River, including Iraqis, Sudanese, and Sri Lankans, who were deported via Ferres, among whom were two Iraqis who had been recognized by UNHCR-Lebanon as refugees; and in November, 65 Iraqi Kurds apprehended in the northern town of Kavala, 320 arrested on the island of Kos, near the Turkish coast, and 157 on the island of Kasos.

Along the Greek-Turkish border, the border guards of the respective countries played what Kurdish migrants have come to call the "football game" – bouncing migrants back and forth in the vicinity of the Evros River and in the frontier islands. Kurdish migrants allege that they have been forced at gunpoint to swim back to the other side of the Evros River or to board small boats to take them back. Some have alleged experiencing this up to 14 times before eluding Greek forces and finding their way to Athens. Extortion, bribery, and smugglers characterize the process, and Kurds allege that their efforts to seek asylum in the border region have been spurned.

Although their numbers were unknown, some migrants drowned while trying to cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece, according to Kurdish groups. Migrants also cited landmines as another danger in the border region between Greece and Turkey. On April 16, two Moroccans were reportedly killed when they attempted to cross a minefield in the region of Nea Vissa. Three Iraqi Kurds were reportedly killed by landmines in September 1997.


The government set a May 31, 1998 deadline for undocumented foreigners to apply for residency and work permits. "The asylum status in place until now is ending," the Greek labor minister announced on February 11. "Those who don't have a residency card after the May deadline will have to leave the country."

About 350,000 immigrants registered for legalization, which was open to employed or employable persons, but which excluded, among others, criminals, persons with infectious illnesses, persons previously deported, the elderly, and students. By NGO estimates, this represented about two-thirds of the immigrants residing in Greece. Many complained that bureaucratic backlogs kept them from obtaining required supporting health and security certificates. Preliminary data indicated that about three-quarters of the registrants were Albanians.

Legalization registrants received "white cards," which served as work permits until December 31, 1998 (asylum seekers, who hold red cards, could simultaneously apply for and receive white cards). Those with white cards who worked legally for at least 40 days were eligible to receive a green card, which constituted a work permit valid for one to three years, depending on length of stay in Greece, occupation, and other factors. Foreigners who have lived and worked in Greece for five years will be able to receive five-year green cards, which also bring the right to petition for immediate family members to join.

Readmission Agreements

Greece has bilateral readmission agreements with Slovenia, Croatia, Romania, Poland, and Bulgaria, and has signed a police cooperation agreement with the United States that includes readmission provisions. Greece also ratified the Schengen Convention in 1997, an agreement among EU countries that outlines responsibility for adjudicating asylum claims for applicants who arrive in the countries covered by the convention and provides for the removal of border controls between member states. In 1998, EU countries sought to send migrants – oftentimes, asylum seekers – to Greece, and Greece, in turn, sought to remove them to other "safe" third countries.

At the same time, Greece complained that Turkey had not signed a readmission agreement with Greece and was not accepting third country nationals caught crossing into Greece from Turkey.

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