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(Brussels) - The Greek government's failure to follow through on its promise to reform the country's broken asylum system creates an urgent need for  the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the European Commission to intervene, Human Rights Watch said today.

A presidential decree that would introduce emergency reforms, which had already been postponed until September 1, 2010, has been pushed back again for several months following the recent government reshuffle.  Full-scale reform of the system is now unlikely before the end of 2011, at the earliest.

"Despite its formal commitments, the Greek government has utterly failed to meet its most basic responsibilities to protect refugees," said Bill Frelick, Refugee Program director at Human Rights Watch. "The UN refugee agency has a mandate to protect refugees when a government is unable or unwilling. It needs to step in now and take over processing asylum claims."

The delayed presidential decree would have addressed the backlog of more than 45,000 cases and reinstated a flawed appeals procedure for rejected asylum seekers, but would not have addressed more fundamental reforms. The decree will also require review by the new minister of citizen protection, the Finance Ministry, the Council of State, and the president before it enters into force.

Substantive reforms to create a functioning asylum system, including an independent body for assessing claims and more effective appeals procedures, were expected to be introduced in late 2011. But they are now also likely to be delayed, Human Rights Watch said.

"The postponement of long-awaited, interim fixes means that Greece is not even back to square one in the process of repairing an asylum system in need of a complete overhaul," Frelick said.

The European Commission should also keep the pressure on Greece and support intervention by UNHCR, Human Rights Watch said. The Commission has taken the first step to hold Greece accountable for its violation of EU law, issuing two formal letters to Greece in a process known as an "infringement proceeding," which could ultimately lead to action in the European Court of Justice.  The letters were sent on November 3, 2009, and June 24, 2010.

Greece recently presented an action plan to the European Commission that lays out the government's reform agenda. The action plan will not improve conditions for asylum seekers, however, as long as actual changes are stalled, Human Rights Watch said. In light of the new delays, the Commission should send a reasoned opinion to Greece identifying concrete areas for improvement. A reasoned opinion would represent the next step in the infringement procedure.

"The Action Plan is empty rhetoric as long as asylum seekers have no real opportunity for protection," Frelick said. "The Commission should judge Greece by its actions."

The Greek government has repeatedly promised to overhaul the asylum system and to support those in need of protection. Its stated intention to reform, however, coincided with a severe financial crisis, which limited its ability to follow through on these promises.

Human Rights Watch highlighted the scale of the crisis in the November 2008 report "Stuck in a Revolving Door," the December 2008 report "Left to Survive," and the October 2009 report "Unsafe and Unwelcoming Shores."

The country has one of the lowest rates of granting refugee status for asylum seekers in Europe. In 2009, it granted refugee status to a mere 0.04 percent of applicants at first instance - 11 people out of almost 30,000 applicants. It also abolished the appeals mechanism in July 2009, leaving rejected asylum seekers with no way to challenge a negative decision, and leading UNHCR to suspend its formal role in the asylum procedure.

Filing an asylum application is very difficult, and interviews are typically conducted in a cursory manner, often without a qualified interpreter and by untrained police officials. In addition, the country provides almost no accommodations or other assistance for asylum seekers, with most in destitution and living in the streets.

Vulnerable groups are hit the hardest. Unaccompanied children, for instance, are left to their own devices and at risk of exploitation. Some asylum seekers in Greece have taken dramatic steps to solve their plight. A group of Iranian asylum seekers went on a hunger strike to demand refugee status. The Greek government recognized them as refugees only after their health had seriously deteriorated.

Greece faces a double burden due to its location and the European Union's Dublin II regulation, under which the first EU country an asylum seeker enters is generally responsible for examining that person's refugee claim. Migrants' fingerprints are entered into an EU-wide database so that the country of first entry can be identified.

This regulation puts an increased burden on countries at Europe's external borders, particularly Greece. Greece currently faces more than 10,000 requests by other EU member states that want to return migrants and asylum seekers there. In addition, it continues to receive a very high influx of migrants and refugees. About 75 percent of the 106,200 irregular migrants entering the EU in 2009 first arrived in Greece; that percentage has risen to 80 percent in the early months of 2010, The Economist reported.

The Belgian Presidency of the EU is currently seeking consensus on a modest but significant reform to the Dublin regulation proposed by the Commission that would allow the temporary suspension of Dublin returns in crisis situations, but the changes face significant opposition from some member states.

Currently, more than 750 requests to return people to Greece are blocked through intervention from the European Court of Human Rights, and far more are pending before national courts across Europe. Courts increasingly cite evidence of Greece's dysfunctional asylum system and lack of assistance to those seeking protection in decisions to block their return to Greece. Should Greece overhaul its asylum system and provide assistance to applicants, however, courts will be more likely to approve the returns under Dublin, and add to the country's burden again.

"Greece is seriously and unfairly overburdened," Frelick said. "EU member states need to recognize that, stop sending migrants back to Greece, and reform the Dublin regulation. Without that, the benefits of reforms in Greece will be undermined by ever greater numbers of returns from other EU states."

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