ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece has faced major problems in dealing with the refugee crisis but has made a significant effort to handle the issues, a leading European human rights official said Wednesday.
Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland told The Associated Press, however, that concerns remain about the detention of some asylum-seekers while their applications are being processed in Greece.
Greece has been the main gateway into Europe for hundreds of thousands of people, the vast majority from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, fleeing war and poverty. In March, the European Union and Turkey reached an agreement to stem the flow, under which anyone arriving clandestinely on Greek islands from the Turkish coast after March 20 faces deportation back to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece.
The deal has led to severe criticism from aid groups and rights organizations who said it was hastily put together and didn't provide guarantees for the safety of those returned to Turkey. Financially struggling Greece has also come under criticism for detaining asylum-seekers on the islands while their applications are processed, and for the length of time such applications take.
Jagland, in Athens for discussions with government officials about the refugee crisis, said the criticism for long waits for asylum applications should be balanced with the need for individual attention.
"We cannot at the same time demand an individual treatment on all the refugees and then say that all their applications should be processed during a few hours or a few days," he said in an interview.
But he added that his organization is "also worried by reports concerning detention, in particular in regard to minors, children and people who should not be in so-called detention centers."
"In principle, we believe we should not have detention of people," Jagland said.
Jagland said the Council of Europe had supported the EU-Turkey deal "provided there is an individual right to apply for asylum," something particularly important in judging who could safely be returned to Turkey.
Greece, he said, has made arrangements to ensure the procedure was followed.
"They had major problems, that is true, and that's why we are here in order to assist them," Jagland said. "We also have to look at the challenges that the authorities are having."
Balkan and European border closures since March have led to more than 54,000 refugees and migrants being stranded in Greece.