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Greek asylum mess stops return of refugees

BRUSSELS, January 27, 2011 (AFP) - A growing number of European states have stopped sending asylum seekers back to Greece after a top human rights court denounced the squalid conditions they endure in the Greek immigration system.

The European Court of Human Rights slapped down Belgium last week for returning an Afghan asylum seeker to Greece, a ruling that prompted Finland, Denmark and Germany to suspend such action.

Switzerland joined the tide on Wednesday, citing the "unsatisfactory" situation in the Greek asylum system, while other countries including Britain, Sweden and Norway took similar measures even before the court ruling.

Under an agreement called Dublin II, European Union and near-neighbour countries including Iceland and Norway are allowed to deport an asylum seeker back to the country in which the applicant first set foot.

Greece has been overwhelmed by an influx of migrants crossing its porous border with Turkey, and is struggling with a backlog of 47,000 asylum applicants, with many awaiting approval for years under appalling conditions.

Under fire for its treatment of asylum seekers, Greece plans to block part of its border with Turkey in a bid to stem the flow of refugees, arousing further criticism.

The United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, said last year that migrants often endured "inhuman" conditions in filthy, overcrowded detention facilities in Greece.

Europe's rights court ordered Belgium to pay the equivalent of a comfortable annual salary in damages to the Afghan migrant, saying that by returning him to Greece, "Belgian authorities knowingly exposed him to detention and living conditions that amounted to degrading treatment."

Asylum seekers are systematically placed in detention facilities and often face police brutality, the court charged, while failures in the Greek system for dealing with them meant they could be arbitrarily deported.

The ruling created a legal precedent opening the door for asylum seekers to challenge their deportation back to Greece.

"Governments are scared because thousands of complaints could be filed," said a European official who requested anonymity.

Greece welcomed the decisions of countries to stop returning asylum seekers to its hands as a "positive" development on "the question of lifting Dublin II."

Greek Minister for Citizens Protection Christos Papoutsis, who is in charge of asylum seekers, said Monday the burden of dealing with refugees was putting an "unbearable weight" on his country.

With tens of thousands of migrants flooding into Greece through Turkey in recent years, Athens wants Europe to overhaul its asylum policy.

The European Commission has sought for months to to convince EU states to review Dublin II but has faced resistance from most countries led by Germany and France.

Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas said Wednesday that Athens had decided to go ahead with a barrier along the 150-kilometre (93-mile) land border with Turkey.

"We are taking action while at once preserving a human face and respecting all our obligations under international law," he said in Warsaw.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has repeatedly urged Greece to ensure its efforts to fight illegal immigration do not harm legitimate asylum-seekers, including Afghans, Iraqis and Somalis.

The EU recorded nearly 250,000 asylum requests between July 2009 and September 2010. More than 183,000 applications were filed in six countries: Britain, Belgium, Germany, France, Sweden and the Netherlands.

Three-quarters of the 41,000 illegal immigrants who were caught in the EU in the first quarter of 2010 had entered the 27-nation bloc through Greece, according to Europe's Frontex border agency.

 

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