Cablegate: Greece: New Government Tackles Migration and Asylum Issues

DE RUEHTH #1685/01 3381608
O R 041607Z DEC 09

S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 04 ATHENS 001685


E.O. 12958: DECL: 2019/12/04


SUBJECT: Greece: New Government Tackles Migration and Asylum Issues

REF: A) ATHENS 315; B) ATHENS 1349; C) ATHENS 1641; D) ATHENS 2038

CLASSIFIED BY: Daniel V. Speckhard, Ambassador; REASON: 1.4(B), (D)

1. (C) SUMMARY: Greece’s new PASOK-led government has placed migration and asylum policy reform high on its agenda, announcing new measures to combat organized human smugglers, ease naturalization requirements for immigrants born in Greece, provide status to illegal economic migrants, and transfer Greece’s asylum process to a new independent authority. This flurry of activity, all coming during PASOK’s first two months in office, reflects the deep importance Greek officials and voters attach to immigration and its social, economic, and security implications for Greece. Prime Minister George Papandreou and his cabinet are acutely aware of the criticism leveled at Greece’s asylum process and migrant detention centers by human rights organizations. The new Greek strategy involves not only domestic policy reforms but also “Europeanizing” the issue of migration enforcement: putting pressure on the EU to provide more support on border security, urging Turkey to crack down on human smuggling in the Aegean and to take back deportees, and revamping the Dublin II agreement, which saddles Greece with responsibility for all migrants entering Europe through its borders. Despite some success in placing migration on the broader EU agenda, however, the government faces daunting challenges in toughening migration enforcement and implementing a comprehensive, effective migration policy. END SUMMARY.


Migration: A Key Geopolitical and Social Challenge ----------------------------------------

2. (SBU) Greece has become the EU entry point of choice for illegal migrants and refugees, many of whom seek residence in Western Europe and seek only to transit through Greece. Since 2004, the number of illegal immigrants arrested has surged by 325 percent, from 44,987 to 146,337 in 2008--and this number is only a fraction of the true number of migrant arrivals. Greece’s long coastline and the proximity of its islands to Turkey makes the country particularly attractive to maritime human smugglers, many of whom have shifted their operations away from more heavily patrolled Spanish and Italian waters. The undersized and ill-equipped Greek Coast Guard has struggled to keep up. Even if the migrants move on to other European destinations, under the Dublin II protocol, Greece is responsible for their asylum applications as the EU country of first entry--a situation neither the Greeks nor the immigrants like.

3. (C) While nearly half of all illegal migrants come from neighboring Albania, the more visible surge in immigrants from conflict zones in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa has Greeks particularly worried. Migrants participated in the violent protests in Athens between December 2008 and March 2009 (see REF A), and immigrant squatters have taken over some Athens neighborhoods and exacerbated “Greek flight” from downtown areas. Without legal status, lacking opportunities for economic and social integration, and chafing under Greek refusals to build an official mosque, Muslim illegal migrants--especially young men from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia--may be vulnerable to Islamic radicalization in the underground prayer rooms that have proliferated throughout major cities (see REF A). Until recently, Greece was an immigration sending country, and the rapid transition to receiving migrants has been jarring--many Greeks see uncontrolled waves of illegal immigration as a major economic and social destabilizer. In fact, there are key political implications as well: public dissatisfaction with the previous New Democracy government’s handling of migration policy and enforcement likely contributed to its October electoral loss, and LAOS, a far-right party, has surged in recent elections on a nationalist, anti-immigration platform.

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4. (S) The large number of migrants entering Greece also poses risks. As an example, in July, Greek authorities deported Iraqi citizen Mu’ammar Latif Karim (a.k.a. Abu Sajjad), a Sh’ia insurgent commander, back to Iraq (see REF B). Other reporting indicates that multiple travel facilitators for special interest aliens continue to operate in Athens. A recent operation by DHS/ICE demonstrated that a smuggling organization run by an Iraqi national could easily smuggle special interest individuals from Greece to Central America and then into the United States.


Greece to Reform Much-Criticized Asylum Policies ----------------------------------------

5. (SBU) For the last several years, international organizations and regional and domestic NGOs have roundly criticized Greece for its treatment of refugees and its failed asylum processes. Human rights organizations ranging from Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) to the UN Human Rights Council and European monitoring bodies have condemned squalid detention centers, a lack of separate facilities for women and unaccompanied minors, and alleged nighttime summary deportations to Turkey without due process. UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have criticized Greece’s 0.03 percent first-instance asylum approval rate, the lack of an independent appeals process, and rampant corruption and inefficiencies during application intake. Some European countries have even suspended the return of migrants and asylum seekers to Greece under the Dublin II protocol. During the last two years, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands have intermittently halted returns to Greece, citing human rights concerns. In September 2009, UNHCR reiterated its recommendation that EU member states not return asylum seekers to Greece.
6. (SBU) Greece’s new PASOK government has committed to addressing many of these concerns, and has moved quickly to revamp asylum processes and take measures that should improve the government’s ability to interdict migrants. It has consolidated law enforcement agencies (the National Police, fire service, port police, and Coast Guard elements) into the new, DHS-like Ministry for Citizen’s Protection. This should help the government better coordinate among security services on combating illegal migration. Fulfilling a PASOK campaign promise, Minister for Citizen’s Protection Michalis Chrysochoidis formed an asylum experts’ committee to propose reforms. The committee, composed of representatives from UNHCR, NGOs, academics, and officials, first met on November 26. NGO and government insiders expect new legislation to take up to six months to formulate, and are looking at stopgap measures to address pending asylum applications. NGOs have largely welcomed the government’s proposals to create a new, independent asylum authority separate from the police, and have lauded promises to raise Greece’s asylum approval rate to the “European average.” However, they note that the situation on the ground hasn’t changed at all, detention centers are still filled beyond capacity, and asylum processing by the Aliens Police has all but stopped pending new guidelines.


New Migration Policies and “Europeanizing” Enforcement ----------------------------------------

7. (C) The government’s dire fiscal straits may politically

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hamstring the government’s broader agenda to reshape enforcement and asylum policy, so officials have proposed additional specific migration reforms. PASOK leaders recently reaffirmed their campaign pledge to provide citizenship to children of immigrants, and Minister of Interior Giannis Ragousis told Ambassador Speckhard that the government was considering a new round of amnesties for illegal migrants. Officials admitted that it would take time to pass new legislation, but committed to allowing immigrant children born and raised in Greece to apply for full citizenship. (NOTE: Greek citizenship is difficult to obtain for individuals of non-Greek descent; citizenship criteria are not revealed to the public. END NOTE.) Over the last decade, Greece has had three rounds of amnesties, providing temporary residence permits to large tranches of illegal migrants, and Ragousis said a new amnesty might apply to up to 200,000 immigrants. To prevent an amnesty from attracting even more migrants, officials claim border enforcement would be strengthened. However, Greek law enforcement agencies, despite the recent ministerial reorganizations, remain woefully underprepared for large-scale interdiction of smugglers, and investigators and courts lack the expertise and patience to pursue the leaders of the organized criminal networks that profit most.

8. (C) Because of these domestic shortfalls in migration enforcement, the Greeks have also focused on “Europeanizing” the issue, using a three-pronged approach: putting pressure on the EU to provide more border security support, urging Turkey to crack down on maritime human smuggling and to take back deportees, and pressing for changes to the Dublin II agreement. To raise awareness on migration issues, Greece hosted the Global Forum for Migration and Development, an informal conference bringing together governments and NGOs, in November (see REF D). Over the last six months, Greek leaders have tried multiple tactics to pressure the EU: signing a four-way enforcement cooperation agreement with Malta, Cyprus, and Italy and jointly submitting an illegal migration whitepaper; bilateral meetings with EU border states focusing on enforcement and migration burden-sharing; raising migration issues at EU gatherings of foreign and interior ministers; pressing the EU to forge readmissions agreements with migration sending countries; and inviting FRONTEX, the EU border agency, to increase its presence in the Aegean (see REF C). Greek officials have tried to use the EU to pressure Turkey to live up to its 2001 bilateral protocol to readmit third-country aliens.

9. (C) The Greeks have been successful at gaining the attention of EU leaders. In July, EU Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot noted that uncontrolled immigration risked “destabilizing Greek democracy” and called on Turkey to do more to stop migration flows. Gil Arias-Fernandez, deputy director of FRONTEX, stated during an October visit that Turkey was uncooperative in stanching illegal immigration. FRONTEX has increased the number of air patrols and maritime observers in the Aegean during the year. However, the Greeks haven’t been able to change the dynamics on the ground. Western European officials have told us there is no chance that the Dublin II agreement will be revised according to Greek wishes. Papandreou has tried to foster more positive atmospherics with Turkey and has refrained from harsh criticism on migration. In November, Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent a letter to Papandreou with an offer to cooperate on migration; a response is expected soon.

COMMENT: Not Just a Greek Issue, but a European One ----------------------------------------

10. (C) As the migration doorway into Europe, Greece shoulders a disproportionate burden of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers. However, the broader political challenges posed by these waves of migration, especially from conflict zones in the Middle East, South

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Asia, and Africa, are applicable to all European nations. Migration is a key crosscutting political, national security, human rights, and socioeconomic phenomenon, and has already had a strong effect on politics throughout European countries this year--for example, right-wing, anti-immigration parties surged in June 2009 European Parliament elections. In our view integration programs are of crucial importance; in the aftermath of the economic crisis, immigration and labor policies are under increased scrutiny; and the EU’s commitment to human rights for refugees and asylum seekers is being tested by the political reality of voters fed up with illegal migration. END COMMENT. Speckhard

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