UNHCR chief Guterres backs planned Greek asylum reform

News Stories, 20 January 2010

© UNHCR/K. Kehayioylou
UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres (left) and Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou address the press in Athens.

ATHENS, Greece, January 20 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on Wednesday welcomed plans by the Greek government to undertake an ambitious reform of the country's asylum system and pledged his agency's full support. He called the tasks facing Greece in the area of migration and asylum "exciting in their nature" and "humbling in their scope and complexity."

Guterres had earlier discussed the interrelated issues of migration and asylum and Greece's bold reform proposals during meetings in Athens on Tuesday and Wednesday with Prime Minister George Papandreou, several key cabinet ministers and independent experts.

Papandreou stressed the complex position facing Greece, which is a key entry point into the European Union (EU) for refugees and irregular migrants, and stressed that managing the situation was among his top priorities.

He said that his government had the political will to reform its asylum system, which he intends to bring into conformity with the 1951 Refugee Convention and EU law. Papandreou said his vision was to create a modern and effective migration and asylum system that fully respects human rights.

UNHCR has in the past pointed out many failings in Greece's asylum system. But the High Commissioner welcomed the government's plan to undertake ambitious reforms as part of a comprehensive approach to asylum, migration and integration, "which will make the system fully compatible with international law and the Greek tradition of hospitality."

Guterres noted that the broad measures planned, including legislative proposals relating to naturalization, would contribute to human rights and social cohesion and were squarely in Greece's national interest.

He offered UNHCR's unwavering support and pledged to do his best to attract EU solidarity for this task. Pending the implementation of the asylum reforms, however, UNHCR would maintain its recommendation to other European states not to send asylum-seekers back to Greece (as the first point of entry into Europe) under EU or other regulations.

A situation where asylum-seekers and migrants were obliged to live in a clandestine manner was not in anyone's interest, noted Guterres, who supported proposals for a system for reception and screening of new arrivals, with the referral of asylum-seekers to a fair and efficient asylum procedure managed by an independent asylum authority.

Refugees and others in need of international protection should be identified rapidly, he said, noting that states have the right to send back to their countries of origin people who are not in need of protection, although such readmission remains a "huge challenge." He stressed the particular problem of unaccompanied children, both asylum-seekers and migrants, and called for special measures to ensure their protection and well-being.

By Ketty Kehayioylou in Athens, Greece




UNHCR country pages


UNHCR advocates fair and efficient procedures for asylum-seekers

The High Commissioner

António Guterres, who joined UNHCR on June 15, 2005, is the UN refugee agency's 10th High Commissioner.

Asylum and Migration

Asylum and Migration

All in the same boat: The challenges of mixed migration around the world.

Refugee Protection and Mixed Migration: A 10-Point Plan of Action

A UNHCR strategy setting out key areas in which action is required to address the phenomenon of mixed and irregular movements of people. See also: Schematic representation of a profiling and referral mechanism in the context of addressing mixed migratory movements.


Numbers are important in the aid business and UNHCR's statisticians monitor them daily.

International Migration

The link between movements of refugees and broader migration attracts growing attention.

Mixed Migration

Migrants are different from refugees but the two sometimes travel alongside each other.


Advocacy is a key element in UNHCR activities to protect people of concern.

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

France is one of the main destinations for asylum-seekers in Europe, with some 55,000 new asylum applications in 2012. As a result of the growing number of applicants, many French cities are facing an acute shortage of accommodation for asylum-seekers.

The government is trying to address the problem and, in February 2013, announced the creation of 4,000 additional places in state-run reception centres for asylum-seekers. But many asylum-seekers are still forced to sleep rough or to occupy empty buildings. One such building, dubbed the "Refugee Hotel" by its transient population, lies on the outskirts of the eastern city of Dijon. It illustrates the critical accommodation situation.

The former meat-packing plant is home to about 100 asylum-seekers, mostly from Chad, Mali and Somalia, but also from Georgia, Kosovo and other Eastern European countries. Most are single men, but there are also two families.

In this dank, rat-infested empty building, the pipes leak and the electricity supply is sporadic. There is only one lavatory, two taps with running water, no bathing facilities and no kitchen. The asylum-seekers sleep in the former cold-storage rooms. The authorities have tried to close the squat several times. These images, taken by British photographer Jason Tanner, show the desperate state of the building and depict the people who call it home.

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

George Dalaras

George Dalaras

The makeshift camp at Patras

Thousands of irregular migrants, some of whom are asylum-seekers and refugees, have sought shelter in a squalid, makeshift camp close to the Greek port of Patras since it opened 13 years ago. The camp consisted of shelters constructed from cardboard and wood and housed hundreds of people when it was closed by the Greek government in July 2009. UNHCR had long maintained that it did not provide appropriate accommodation for asylum-seekers and refugees. The agency had been urging the government to find an alternative and put a stronger asylum system in place to provide appropriate asylum reception facilities for the stream of irregular migrants arriving in Greece each year.The government used bulldozers to clear the camp, which was destroyed by a fire shortly afterwards. All the camp residents had earlier been moved and there were no casualties. Photographer Zalmaï, a former refugee from Afghanistan, visited the camp earlier in the year.

The makeshift camp at Patras

Jordan: Winter Camp VisitPlay video

Jordan: Winter Camp Visit

Syrian refugees living in Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan are still trying to overcome the damage done by the storm that hit the region last week. On his second day visiting Jordan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres visited the camp to see the impact of the damage. He was also able to hand them the key to their new home, a caravan that arrived part of a convoy to help those living in tents at the camp.
UNHCR: An Appeal for AfricaPlay video

UNHCR: An Appeal for Africa

The High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, called for more attention and help for African nations dealing with new and old displacements.
Lebanon: UN Agency Chiefs Visit Bekaa RefugeesPlay video

Lebanon: UN Agency Chiefs Visit Bekaa Refugees

The heads of UNHCR and the UN Development Programme visited Syrian refugees and joint projects in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. High Commissioner António Guterres said that the Syria crisis had become the worst humanitarian tragedy of our times.