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The real winners of Greece's elections: refugees

By Preethi Nallu

ATHENS, 26 January 2015 (IRIN) - Beyond all the talk of debt, austerity and welfare payments lies a less-hyped but far-reaching consequence of Greece's election bombshell: a dramatically more welcoming policy to migrants and asylum seekers.

The left-wing Syriza party, which trounced the anti-immigration New Democracy party in yesterday's elections and holds 149 seats in the 300-seat parliament, has pledged to open Greece's borders and increase support for migrants already inside the country.

'Syriza takes a strong stand against the demonizing of immigrants and undemocratic measures like concentration camps and border walls," the party's head of migration policy, Vasiliki Katrivanou, said after the vote.

"We will take steps to improve so called "ghetto areas" in benefit of everyone living there: Greeks and immigrants,' she added. "We consider our win at the polls a victory for all Greeks and all migrants."

Matthaios Tsimitakis, a Greek journalist and political analyst, said he expected a major shift in government policy.

"The previous government was based on the right-wing ideology that dominated politics…Syriza is moving in a different direction. Immigrants are not a threat to national security; they are victims of international wars. They need integration to become productive members of society and not a burden.'

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are currently nearly 44,000 asylum-seekers in Greece, in addition to 3,500 recognized refugees. According to the Greek Council of Refugees, the total number of Syrians entering Greece surpassed 30,000 in 2014.

The influx is growing rapidly: UNHCR said 43,500 people were apprehended by Greek authorities at the Greek-Turkish borders in 2014, a 300 percent increase compared to the previous year.

The country had a 19 percent acceptance rate for asylum seekers in the final quarter of 2014, far lower than the European Union (EU) of 48 percent.

Syriza is set to immediately address the backlog of asylum cases while providing protection for the most vulnerable of asylum seekers.

Pushing back on 'pushbacks'

The Syriza government has also vowed to curb security forces' alleged practice of forcing migrants and asylum seekers arriving from Turkey back across the land and marine borders.

The previous administration denied such claims, but UNHCR has recorded asylum seekers being sent back to Turkey, boats of migrants ignored by the Greek coastguard despite distress calls, and physical violence by law enforcement personnel.

Tighter border controls have pushed smugglers to take ever more extreme measures. According to the International Organization for Migration, last year at least 4,077 refugees died crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe – many heading for Greece.

Syriza MPs have been at the forefront of questioning coastguard authorities alleged to be pushing back migrants at sea, with the party's leadership publicly accusing Greek border patrol of being culpable for the boat tragedies on the Aegean Sea and frequently calling for investigations.

When asylum seekers and migrants arrive in Greece, the majority are taken to detention centers. Upon their release, the majority are given a deportation order giving them only a limited amount of time to return to their home countries.

Elektra Koutra, an immigration and human rights lawyer based in the capital Athens, has helped secure protection and asylum for such families with minors, especially from Syria in recent years. She says asylum seekers do not understand the legal repercussions of their deportation orders and often stay beyond the expiration.

"One of the children I represented saw someone die during his journey and experienced high levels of stress while on his own, yet he was given a deportation order and no support,' she explained.

Dublin trouble

One other key issue is the Dublin agreement, which Syriza has called to be renegotiated.

The agreement, signed in 1990, stipulates that asylum seekers in the EU must claim asylum in the first country they arrive in – rather than being able to travel to other European states first. As such, a disproportionate percentage of cases fall upon the shoulders of southern European countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain that are natural frontiers to migration.

Greek politicians have long claimed that the country, which has seen its economy shrink by nearly a quarter in five years, cannot cope with the asylum seekers.

"The problem with the EU system of asylum, especially the Dublin agreement, is that it is based on a flawed notion that all member states are able to provide the same level of protection to refugees," Koutra said.

While Syriza may want to reform the Dublin agreement, there appears to be little appetite in northern Europe. As such, the party may well seek to galvanise political support in neighbouring southern European states.

Koutra warned that such changes were unlikely in the short-term. "It will require calling for special support in processing asylum cases and relocating asylum seekers to other member states based on the 2001 EU Directive on Displacement," she said. The directive allows for the voluntary transfer of refugees between EU states.

Syriza's task appears mammoth. With the Greek economy still in tatters, addressing the needs of thousands of refugees, while at the same garnering support from EU members who are already lending the country its economic lifeline, will certainly test the prowess of the coming government.

Yet for thousands of migrants and asylum seekers, their election might just be a chink in fortress Europe.


Theme (s): Refugees/IDPs,

Copyright © IRIN 2015
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
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