Along the border

At the Venna detention centre, talking to Syrian, Pakistani, Palestinian & Eritrean migrants. Photo: Michele Cercone

I have had an intense day in Greece, in the border areas near Turkey – Komotini, Venna, Feres and Poros. I am here with Greek minister Nikos Dendias, responsible for asylum and migration issues, and together we have visited several detention centres for migrants who have come across the Greek-Turkish border. It is always incredibly moving and emotional to hear the stories of mostly young men who have travelled halfway across the globe to Greece, in search of a better life. Some are from Syria, but the majority is from Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Somalia. Some are asylum seekers, others are not. Most of them do not want to remain in Greece but rather continue to other European countries. They have gone through dramatic ordeals on their way here.

The situation in the centres is difficult and the humanitarian conditions are very basic, in some places downright awful. Some centres should be closed down entirely, others are newly opened and quite OK. The new Greek government is facing many challenges here, but improvements have actually been carried out recently. Coordination has improved and new centres have been built. Greek personnel are being hired and an embryo for a proper asylum system is being put in place. Access to healthcare, as well as to interpretation and legal advice, is growing.

There is, of course, severe pressure on the border and we are trying to assist Greece in every way we can. A lot of funding and resources has been made available to Greece – between 2007 and 2011, 160 million Euros was made available to improve the situation. Additionally, Member States are sharing personnel and technical know-how. Frontex is here with staff from all of the EU plus Norway, and our Asylum Support Office (EASO) is working alongside Greek authorities in Athens.

One problem is that only part of the allocated EU funds is actually put to use. Now, Greece must become better at taking advantage of the help being offered.

All in all, there is still a long way to go. The humanitarian situation here needs to be improved, and handling times for asylum applications must be significantly shortened. Also, too few are granted asylum in Greece – in the EU as a whole, 25 percent of all applicants are granted asylum, while the number is only one percent in Greece.

Now, I am returning to Athens. There, I am meeting UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and having dinner with minister for European affairs Dimitrios Kourkoulas. Tomorrow, I am meeting with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, as well as with representatives from several organisations working with refugees in Athens.

More pictures from today can be viewed here, as well as a video from the visit.

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