Greece hosted about 7,500 refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection in 1999. These included 750 persons with pending asylum applications, 407 persons granted humanitarian stay of removal, and 146 granted asylum during the year. Another 6,144 persons whom the Greek government recognized as refugees between 1980 and 1998 cannot be regarded as having found a durable solution because refugee recognition in Greece does not lead automatically to permanent residence, but rather to a five-year temporary stay.
Some 1,528 persons applied for asylum in Greece in 1999, a 48 percent decrease from the previous year. As in past years, most asylum applicants in 1999 were from Iraq (906), Turkey (195), and Iran (74), and most were Kurds. These three countries accounted for 77 percent of the asylum applications filed during the year. Afghan asylum applicants, numbering 116, were also a significant portion of the applicants. In 1999, Greece granted 146 asylum requests and rejected 1,570, an approval rate of 8.5 percent.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) assisted six Iraqis to resettle from Greece to third countries (New Zealand and the United States) in 1999 and helped two other refugees, a Bosnian and a refugee from Congo-Kinshasa, to return to their home countries.
Greece substantially revised its asylum procedure in 1999. In June, Presidential Decree No. 61/99, regulating the asylum procedure, came into effect. PD 61/99 assigns a specialized staff within police directorates to interview asylum seekers and says that all applications, whether or not they are submitted at entry points upon arrival, should be decided on the merits. The decree includes specific provisions for unaccompanied minors and women.
The procedures outlined in PD 61/99 specify how interviews are to be conducted, including the obligatory use of interpreters and referral of torture victims to specialized experts. The decree makes the procedure more transparent for the asylum seekers, stating that the authorities should provide them with an information leaflet that mentions UNHCR. It also advises interviewers to use the UNHCR handbook on determining refugee status.
The decree extends from 5 to 30 days the time for a rejected asylum applicant to lodge an appeal, and enlarges the Appeals Board by adding two new voting members, for the first time, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) representative from the Athens Bar Association and a UNHCR official.
The decree also provides for an accelerated procedure for claimants with improper documents in the transit zones of airports, for persons traveling from "safe third countries," and for manifestly unfounded claims. The Minister of Public Order (MPO) will decide such claims. It allows the authorities to detain persons in the accelerated procedures at airport facilities for a maximum of 15 days.
Finally, PD 61/99 establishes a temporary protected status for rejected asylum seekers who cannot be returned to their home countries for humanitarian reasons, such as civil war, natural disasters, or an imposed embargo. It also allows rejected asylum seekers to apply to the MPO for a humanitarian stay of deportation, the grounds for which include the Convention Against Torture prohibition on returning a person who might face torture.
In 1999, about half of the 407 persons granted humanitarian stays of deportation were Iraqis. Iranians, 78 of whom were granted humanitarian stays, represented the second largest group. UNHCR formally requested that Angolans and Kosovars not be deported in 1999. The government handled such cases on an individual basis, and UNHCR recorded no cases of forced return to Angola or Kosovo during the year.
Recognized refugees are issued five-year residence permits, work authorization, and travel documents. They are entitled to apply for reunification with spouses and minor children. According to Decree 61/99, dependent elders as well as children over the age of 18 with special needs are considered "dependent" family members for purposes of family reunification for recognized refugees.
In 1999, Greece arrested about 182,000 foreigners for illegal entry, of whom 154,241 were from Albania. Other significant nationalities apprehended included Iraqis, Romanians, Iranians, and Bulgarians. The 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 half from 1998 to 1999.
An estimated 650,000 to 1 million foreigners were living in Greece in 1999, the majority of whom were Albanians. This represented about one-tenth of Greece's total population.
There were unmistakable signs of xenophobia during the year, including attacks on foreigners. During the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo in the spring, pro-Serb sentiment ran high among Orthodox Greek elements, resulting in harassment of Albanians, particularly in the Buret mountain region near the Albanian border. Threats and attacks caused some Albanians to leave that region.
In July, following a second bus hijacking in which an Albanian immigrant held passengers hostage, the Greek premier called on Greek citizens not to harbor or employ undocumented foreigners. He blamed immigrants for increased crime. Following his remarks, police began "Operation Broom," a campaign of sweeping through migrant neighborhoods and work places, checking for undocumented foreigners. The police took thousands of foreigners to overcrowded holding compounds while they checked their identities and papers.
In July and August, the police deported about 200 Albanians per day, according to press reports. Although many foreigners, particularly among the Albanians, lacked residence and work permits, about 20 percent of the deportees reportedly had proper documents. Most were sent back via the Kapshtice (Kakavije) border crossing. Many of the returnees complained of maltreatment at the hands of Greek police, including beatings and destruction of documents.
Greece reported that about 15,500 foreigners were formally deported in 1999. Prior to deportation, foreigners were often held in jails, police stations, and other detention facilities where conditions were reportedly poor. In some cases, children were reported to have been detained along with their parents. The Greek Council for Refugees, a nongovernmental organization, reportedly had access to foreigners in detention, in part to identify potential asylum seekers among the people slated for deportation.
In response to an inquiry from the U.S. Committee for Refugees about whether apprehended Albanians had the opportunity to apply for asylum, the Greek government said, "We did not have any case of an asylum application by an Albanian citizen in 1999; no one submitted an application for asylum whose application was refused and was sent back" to Albania. Indeed, not a single Albanian appeared as an asylum applicant in the list of 1,528 who applied for asylum during the year.
Although Greece and Turkey have no formal agreement for readmitting third country nationals, 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 a dozen 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.
The Greek coast guard took an active role in blocking asylum seekers' access to the country. In December, the coast guard spent more than a week blocking a rusty cargo ship carrying 321 passengers, mostly Kurds from Iraq and Turkey. The authorities prevented the ship from docking and denied permission for Doctors of the World to board it. Finally, the Italian coast guard interdicted the ship and took it to a port in southern Italy.
Migrants also cited landmines as another danger in the border region between Greece and Turkey. Twice in 1999, on August 26 and again on October 31, Iraqi Kurds trying to cross into Greece were killed when they stepped on landmines in the border region near Nea Vissa.
Press reports throughout the year documented the dangers of the journey. On November 1, fourteen Iraqi Kurdish stowaways suffocated when the ferry carrying them caught fire. In December, three Iraqi Kurdish children reportedly died from exposure after having crossed the Evros River in a rubber dingy in the cold rain.
In April, Greek border guards reportedly shot and killed a Kosovo Albanian woman attempting to cross the border from Macedonia when she did not heed warnings to stop.
In addition to its multilateral agreements to readmit insufficiently documented third-country nationals with other European Union countries (see box, p. 207), Greece has bilateral readmission agreements with Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Italy, Poland, Romania, and Slovenia.
Greece formalized the administration of its reception center for asylum seekers, as well as certain health and welfare issues, through a presidential decree, PD 266/99, which came into effect in October. PD 266/99 assigned the Ministry of Health and Welfare responsibility for the Lavrio Refugee Center, the country's only fully government-funded reception center for asylum seekers.
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. (Foreigners wanting to apply for asylum alleged that Greek authorities required them to produce electricity bills or other documents to prove that they had steady residence before allowing them to apply for asylum.)
The Lavrio Refugee Center did not have the capacity to accommodate the number of asylum seekers in need of housing. On average, Lavrio accommodated 290 persons per month in 1999. The center was operated by the Hellenic Red Cross and funded by the Greek government. During the year, residents of the center received food, clothing, medical care, educational help, and psycho-social counseling (from International Social Services) free of charge.
Another center in Aspropirgos, funded by the European Commission in cooperation with the MPO and other Greek government agencies, served asylum seekers and refugees opting for voluntary repatriation. It is operated by an NGO, the Hellenic Institute of Solidarity and Cooperation with Developing Countries.
Médecins Sans Frontières runs another center for asylum seekers and refugees in Penteli and the Hellenic Red Cross operates a reception center for asylum seekers in Nea Makri, which accommodated about 70 people at year's end. These centers grew in response to the overflow of asylum seekers who could not be accommodated in Lavrio and who became a visible presence in Koumandourou Square and nearby parks in Athens, where about 1,000 Kurds lived in the open air in the summer of 1998.
In February 1999, the police reportedly moved about 500 Iraqi Kurds remaining in Koumandourou Square to an abandoned military base outside Athens after first trying to move them to an abandoned leper wing of a hospital for contagious diseases. Residents in the neighborhood of the hospital vigorously protested the arrival of the Kurds. After being placed at the military base, however, most slipped away, their whereabouts unknown.
Another presidential decree, PD 189/98, effective in 1998, provided work authorization for recognized refugees, asylum seekers with pending claims, and persons granted humanitarian status.
As of April, about 200,000 immigrants had 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. The government estimated that 235,000 would apply for "green cards" by year's end.