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Asylum-seekers head back to Greece

January 13, 2017

Germany is set to reverse a six-year-old block on the deportation of asylum-seekers back to Greece, despite a humanitarian crisis in the refugee camps there. Refugee organizations are horrified.

Griechenland Thessaloniki  Flüchtlingslager im Winter mit Schnee
Image: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/N. Economou

The German government is planning to lift a block on asylum-seeker transfers to Greece that has been in place in 2011, despite a "dire" humanitarian situation in the Mediterranean country's refugee camps.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere has asked the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) to lift the block on deportations to Greece as of March 15 in an effort to rebuild the European Union's "Dublin system" for distributing asylum applicants.

The measure would follow an official European Commission recommendation from December 8, which concluded that "Greece has made significant progress in putting in place the essential institutional and legal structures for a properly functioning asylum system."

In a letter de Maiziere wrote to the German parliament's interior committee on December 30, and seen by DW, the minister described it as a "positive signal" that Greece had been deemed ready to take more asylum-seekers.

But there are some caveats: only people who arrive in Germany after March 15 will be affected, Greece will be required to guarantee that each returnee will be given a place in a refugee shelter, and "vulnerable groups, including unaccompanied minors" will be exempt from being transferred.

Deutschland Thomas de Maiziere zum Freiburger Mordfall und Griechenland
De Maiziere thinks that Greece is ready to take back asylum seekersImage: picture alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

Humanitarian crisis

But the move has triggered outrage, mainly because it was revealed just days after the United Nations reported a "dire situation" in Greece's refugee camps, warning that refugees could die of cold. Greek media reported that at least one Afghan man froze to death in Greece in early January, and some parts of the country have seen temperatures drop to -18 degrees Celsius.

"Children are particularly prone to respiratory illnesses at a time like this. It's about saving lives, not about red tape and keeping to bureaucratic arrangements," Sarah Crowe, a spokeswoman for the UN children's agency UNICEF, told a UN briefing in Geneva.

The humanitarian agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, said the situation on the Greek islands was "particularly concerning," where thousands are living in tents in overcrowded camps.

"These families are paying the price of European cynicism and the reprehensible deal with Turkey," Clement Perrin, head of the MSF mission in Greece, said in a statement. "It is outrageous to see that despite all European promises and announcements, men, women and children are living in tents under freezing rain. We call on Greek authorities and the EU to enact emergency measures immediately to ensure that all refugees and migrants on the islands are housed in dignified living conditions."

Germany's refugee organizations were also horrified at the Interior Ministry's proposal. "Even having this idea is completely unacceptable," Karl Kopp, Europe consultant for the Pro Asyl organization, told DW. "We think it's absurd to propagate something like this in the context of the disaster in Greece."

But Kopp also accepted that this was in line with the current refugee policies of both the EU and Germany. "It's a deterrent signal, and that's how Europe is currently functioning," he said. "The reality is that refugees are still standing in the mud and the snow - where has all the money gone? How can it be that it's impossible to get this humanitarian crisis under control?"

Griechenland Schnee in Flüchtlingsunterkunft auf Lesbos
Temperatures have plunged on the Greek island of LesbosImage: Getty Images/AFP/STR

Bringing Dublin back

The EU's Dublin System, which originated in the 1990s, stipulates that the country in which the asylum-seeker first applies for asylum is responsible for processing the claim. It was suspended in Greece's case by all EU member states in 2011 following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. The court found that Belgium and Greece had violated the EU's human rights convention by transferring an Afghan asylum seeker back to Greece despite inhumane conditions in the country's refugee detention centers. The Afghan was released and ended up homeless in Greece in 2009.

The EU Commission seems convinced that transfers back to Greece can now gradually resume, but Kopp is outraged. "It's an emergency situation," he said. "We need a comprehensive protection system in Greece and a fair distribution in Europe. We will go to the highest European court to clear these questions up."

In a statement emailed to DW, the German interior ministry said it would continue to support Greece in the "great efforts" that lie ahead. The ministry also pointed out that Germany has been offering Greece the opportunity to resettle 500 asylum-seekers in Germany per month since September 2016.

Meanwhile, in Germany, more political parties are following the prevailing political winds towards more and faster deportations of asylum-seekers. Even regional government representatives of the traditionally liberal Green party released a statement on Thursday offering reserved support for the government's plans to deport people back to Afghanistan, despite the ongoing conflicts raging in much of the country.

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