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RIGHTS: Norway Finds Greece Cannot Be Trusted With Migrants

Apostolis Fotiadis

ATHENS, Feb 14 2008 (IPS) - Norway has suspended a system of referring migrants in the country back to Greece for determination of their status.

Normally asylum claims in a European member state should be assessed in the country through which applicants appear to have entered the EU.

Authorities in the first country where applicants come in contact with authorities must register their data under the Dublin II regulation. It becomes that country’s responsibility to assess their status thereafter.

Dublin II that was agreed in 2003 replaced the Dublin Convention that came into force in 1997. One of the principal aims of the new convention was to prevent applications in multiple member states and to reduce the number of “orbiting” asylum seekers shuttling from one state to another.

The new agreement has been widely criticised by human rights activists as a device to raise the walls of ‘Fortress Europe’ and for developed states to reduce their responsibilities at the expense of the border states.

Unaware of the new provision, many migrants travel deeper into Europe after they are rejected under a strict policy in Greece.

Now Norway’s Immigration Appeal Board (IAB) has suspended application of the regulation, based on “the latest information about the possible violations of the rights of asylum seekers in Greece, and on the basis of the need for more information about the conditions of the asylum seekers in this country.”

The Norwegian decision means that the IAB will not make any judgment in asylum cases that would mean that an applicant can be sent back to Greece.

“As for the asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected by the Immigration Appeal Board, and who are supposed to return to Greece according to the Dublin II regulation, their obligation to leave Norway is until further notice suspended,” the IAB said.

“This is a temporary decision aiming to win time for the authorities to gather more information in order to assess the situation in Greece,” Knut-Are Okstad, Chargé d’Affaires of the Norwegian embassy in Athens told IPS.

“We are trying with other Nordic embassies to organise a fact finding field trip, and have already asked the assistance of Greek authorities. We understand that Greece is facing a big challenge as a transit country, and we are all interested in seeing how they deal with the issue.”

The decision was based on information provided Jan. 18 by the independent groups, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC) and the Norwegian Organisation for Asylum Seekers (NOAS). It is valid until new information about the situation is gathered.

The organisations pointed to grave concerns expressed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) about the Greek practice of sending Iraqi refugees back to Turkey. According to the UNHCR, Turkey frequently deports the refugees back to Iraq, where they risk persecution.

Sixteen Greek NGOs had denounced this practice in a joint public statement in September 2006.

Concern has also risen over the practice of Greek immigration authorities of partially interrupting the process of a claim (interrupted claims) in the event that the applicant travels outside Greece. This implies that asylum seekers who are later transferred back to Greece many not have their case processed properly.

Greece has the lowest percentage of granting asylum claims in Europe, around two percent. It also issues only a very limited number of residence permits on humanitarian grounds.

According to the independent rights group Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM), only 0.5 percent of the rejected asylum claimants have been granted residence permits in Greece on humanitarian grounds. The European average for successful asylum claims is over 20 percent.

Consequently, Greece rejects many asylum claims that would lead to refugee or protection status in Norway.

The Norwegian organisations also point to serious irregularities in Greece in receiving asylum seekers and refugees, and of the denial of access to legal procedures.

“Norway’s decision is a first warning to Greece to fully revise its asylum review procedures and respect the human rights of the applicants,” Panayote Dimitras of the GHM told IPS, “lest other Dublin II countries follow Norway especially after the damning Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) report released on the same day.”

The CPT report, published Feb. 7, underlines the inhuman detention conditions and the impunity enjoyed by officials who misuse their authority. “Persons deprived of their liberty by law enforcement officials in Greece run a real risk of being ill-treated,” says the report. “Until the ministry of public order recognises the seriousness of the risk of ill-treatment to persons apprehended by law enforcement officials, it will not be possible to effectively combat this phenomenon in Greece.”

A report published in October 2007 by the German organization Pro Asyl and the Lawyers Group for the Rights of Migrants and Refugees in Greece exposed how Greece systematically violates human rights by turning away refugees at the border. It says they face arrest and torture by the Greek coastal guard.

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