Amnesty deplores Greece's treatment of migrants

  • Associated Press
  • December 20, 2012 - 2:02 PM

ATHENS, Greece - Amnesty International has condemned Greece's treatment of the thousands of illegal immigrants who slip through its borders every year, saying the financially struggling country is making a mockery of human rights standards.

The human rights group released a report Thursday saying the fate of migrants and asylum-seekers in Greece verges on a "humanitarian crisis."

"The current situation in Greece is totally unworthy of the Nobel Peace Prize winning European Union and so far below international human rights standards as to make a mockery of them," said John Dalhuisen, director of Europe and Central Asia for Amnesty International. "Greece needs help, but it must also accept its own responsibilities."

The U.N. refugee agency and other human rights monitors have also repeatedly criticized Greece's treatment of migrants.

Greek officials said Thursday they were aware of the Amnesty report, but had no immediate comment.

Greece is the main entry point for economic immigrants and refugees from war zones in Africa and Asia, who seek a better life in the EU. For decades, a fairly ethnically homogeneous country, unlike other western nations, it has no colonial skeletons in its closet. But after successive waves of illegal immigration that started with Eastern Europeans in the 1990s, now up to a tenth of Greece's 10 million population is not native-born.

Tens of thousands flit into the country every year from neighboring Turkey, often risking their lives to cross stormy seas in flimsy boats. Last week, 20 people drowned trying to reach the eastern Aegean Sea island of Lesvos from Turkey while another seven are missing.

The influx has placed a tremendous strain on the dwindling resources of a country struggling through its worst post-war financial crisis, with a six-year recession and 26 percent unemployment. Unchecked immigration and a related spike in crime also contributed to the meteoric rise of the far-right Golden Dawn party, which has been linked with violent attacks on dark-skinned people.

After turning a blind eye to the problem for years, Greek authorities launched a drive this summer to round up and deport thousands of migrants, in a move critics said was at least partly designed to deflate Golden Dawn.

Bizarrely named after the ancient Greek god of strangers and hospitality, the operation has so far seen nearly 65,000 people detained for identity checks, of whom more than 4,000 have been interned in former military bases. Last week, Greece also completed a 10-kilometer (6-mile) fence along its land border with Turkey to deter immigrants who had been strolling across every day in their hundreds.

Compounding the problem, while most migrants see Greece as just a stop on their way to more affluent EU countries, that is not usually the case. Under the "Dublin procedure," EU countries return illegal migrants to the first EU country they entered — most often Greece.

The Amnesty International report highlighted the "appalling" conditions in which illegal immigrants — including unaccompanied children — are detained, the vast difficulties they face in trying to register for asylum, and the rise in racist violence targeting foreigners.

It said that while the influx places a great burden on Greece, "there is no excuse for the obstacles asylum-seekers face in registering their asylum claims."

The report cited one case in which an Athens Pakistani barber shop was attacked by racist thugs in September. When police arrived, it said, they arrested two undocumented Pakistanis. In October, both were in detention pending deportation.

Amnesty also cited a reported case in which Greek police allegedly sunk a boat carrying seven Syrians across a river separating Greece from Turkey, leaving its occupants to swim back to the Turkish bank.

Despite the Dublin procedure, many European countries have stopped sending asylum seekers back to Greece, which Dalhuisen applauded.

"However, they must share responsibility for processing asylum applications and supporting asylum seekers more equally among member states," he said.

Germany announced a year ago that it would conduct asylum proceedings itself for now rather than send applicants back, and has extended that through January 2014 amid "serious shortcomings" in the Greek asylum system.

The German government's top human rights official on Thursday called the Amnesty report's findings "disturbing."

"I am distressed about the human suffering that becomes obvious in the report," Markus Loening said in a statement.

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