As Greece Struggles, Asylum-Seekers Unwelcome

Thousands of asylum-seekers trying to make their way to Europe have become stranded in Greece, a country that cannot cope with the huge backlog of applications. Many of the immigrants have been in Greece for years, living in limbo and, often, in poverty.

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GUY RAZ, host:

In Greece, the government passed a law last week that's supposed to help clear an enormous backlog of political asylum cases. Thousands of asylum seekers have been waiting there for years of living in limbo and often in poverty. They're also facing rising anti-immigrant violence as the country's economy worsens.

Joanna Kakissis has our story from Athens.

(Soundbite of music)

JOANNA KAKISSIS: Here is a scene Athenians have become familiar with, about a hundred Afghanis camped outside the Neoclassical University in central Athens before Christmas. It was, they said, an act of desperation.

They'd all applied for political asylum in Greece as refugees fleeing war. Years later, they are still waiting for answers, says one of the Afghanis, Esmeray Ahmadi.

Mr. ESMERAY AHMADI: We have lived so long time in here. And we didn't have any problem to stay in here, but the most problem is getting legal document to live like human and without stress.

KAKISSIS: Greece has a backlog of more than 50,000 asylum applications. Less than 1 percent are granted. Applications are usually ignored unless something terrible happens, and the local media happens to pick up on it.

Last March, an Afghani family got asylum after a bomb in a dumpster blew up their son and blinded their daughter. In November, 12 Iranians sewed their mouths shut in protest and also got asylum.

But in most cases, asylum seekers are invisible, says Kalliopi Stefanaki. She's the protection officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Athens.

Ms. KALLIOPI STEFANAKI (Protection Officer, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees): They are very frustrated. They don't trust the system and the authorities. And they have right. They have been in a limbo situation for years. They are facing also an increase in xenophobia and racism. They have become desperate.

KAKISSIS: The government says it recognizes the problem. Deputy Labor Minister Anna Dalara says the new law will streamline the application procedure and give asylum seekers firm dates for hearings.

Ms. ANNA DALARA (Deputy Labor Minister): From now on, asylum petitions will be dealt with swiftly and efficiently but, most importantly, under the humanitarian rules. It's crucial that we solve this problem.

KAKISSIS: Dalara says the problem also lies with the European Union. Thanks to what's known as the Dublin II agreement, member countries are allowed to send back asylum seekers to the first EU country they entered. And for most undocumented migrants these days, that's Greece.

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

KAKISSIS: Many migrants live in a central Athens neighborhood called Aghios Panteleimonas. It's named after a Greek Orthodox cathedral that towers in the main square.

The deputy labor minister's husband, the popular Greek singer George Dalara, recently led a concert there to show support for refugees. Inside, the church was packed.

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KAKISSIS: But outside, a group of angry Greek men protested. They sang the national anthem and waved Greek flags. They claimed the government supports migrants, not Greeks.

Local resident Dimitris Pipikios says he understands. He grew up in the neighborhood and says it's gone to hell now. He blames the migrants.

Mr. DIMITRIS PIPIKIOS: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: I see Afghani men gang up on an old Greek guy so they can steal a hundred euros, he says.

That rising anti-immigrant anger helped a violent far-right group called Chrysi Avgi win a seat to the Athens municipal council in November. Gangs supporting the group often attack migrants in Aghios Panteleimonas.

That's what happened to Qadir Hossaini, an Afghani who has lived here for eight years. On a recent night outside the church, he says a gang of Greek men beat him until he blacked out.

Mr. QADIR HOSSAINI: Even during the day, I cannot go there, because the place that it happened this thing for me, I'm afraid.

KAKISSIS: And many migrants are not optimistic that the new law will change anything. The protest outside the Athens University continues. The Afghani asylum seekers have started a hunger strike. Six have sewn their lips shut in a demand for immediate action.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens.

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