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Irregular Migration and Asylum | Greece |

Greece Current Developments in Greece's Refugee and Asylum Policy Historical Development The Immigrant Population Recent Developments Migration Management Citizenship and Integration Policies Irregular Migration and Asylum Current and Future Challenges References

Irregular Migration and Asylum

Anna Triandafyllidou

/ 6 Minuten zu lesen

During the past five years, Greece has become "famous" in Europe for its failing asylum system which was characterized by inappropriate processing of the applications.

Illegal immigrants in a Greek detention center. Since 2012 Asylum seekers may be detained up to twelve months. (© picture alliance / dpa)

During the past five years, Greece has become “famous” in Europe for its failing asylum system which was characterized by inappropriate processing of the applications:

  • impossibility to access the relevant services and file an application,

  • no information given at border areas or when apprehended,

  • once an application was filed, decisions were mainly taken on the basis of the (safe or unsafe) country of origin,

  • no substantial asylum interviews,

  • overall process mishandled by untrained police officers,

  • no political will to improve the situation.

In addition there was major concern with the inhuman and degrading conditions of detention of pending asylum seekers and about the fact that when they were released with a pink card - a temporary permit (renewable every six months) allowing them to reside in Greece while their application was processed - they were left to their own devices. Greece had come under the spotlight because of its continuing inability to provide effective protection to asylum seekers arriving at its shores and having to be handled on Greek territory in line with the Dublin II Regulation. Already on 31 January 2009, the European Commission had started infringement proceedings with Greece because of its failure to implement the Dublin II Regulation, bringing the country in front of the European Court of Justice. The infringement concerned mainly the fact that Greece lacked legal guarantees for a substantial examination of the application of asylum claimants. On 21 January 2011, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found that Greece's broken asylum system and appalling detention conditions meant that Belgium's transfer of an Afghan asylum seeker to Greece in 2009 under the Dublin II Regulation had breached the prohibition on ill-treatment and denied him an effective remedy.

Reform of the Asylum System

The socialist government that came into power in November 2009 introduced Presidential Decree 114/2010 in an effort to process the backlog of asylum applications that had formed during the previous years and which exceeded 45,000 at the end of 2009. In addition, Law 3907/2011 passed by the Greek Parliament in January 2011 established two separate agencies, the Asylum Agency and the Agency for First Reception. It thus set new standards concerning the first reception of irregular migrants, the distinction between irregular migrants and asylum seekers, the processing of asylum applications, and the time to process an application. Most importantly, Law 3907/2011 took the asylum committees out of the authority of the Greek police (which had basically taken over the whole asylum system since 2008).

Asylum agency and first reception centers

The new asylum agency is autonomous and decentralized. There are several regional offices; the first one started operating with a 2.5 year delay in June 2013. First Reception Centers are being constructed in selected places where there is a notable inflow of immigrants. The first of these centers started operating in March 2013 at the northeastern land border of Greece, near the Evros River. One more mobile reception centre is currently in preparation and will most likely to be deployed on the island of Lesvos.

These first reception centers receive irregular migrants upon their arrival and refer asylum seekers to the regional asylum office that should be attached to the local reception centre. The regional asylum offices (yet to be created) will be responsible for receiving and processing the applications, conducting interviews, and issuing decisions at the first instance, within a time limit of 30 days.

New permits

Law 3907/2011 also implemented two kinds of new permits for irregular migrants and asylum seekers: a formal toleration status for people who have been issued a return decision but cannot be returned to their country of origin, and a new type of permit for exceptional reasons that is given to irregular migrants who have been living in Greece for twelve years or more and in particular continuously for ten years prior to their application for such a permit. The same law also introduced the possibility of voluntary return for irregular migrants. When a migrant declares that s/he will return voluntarily to his/her country of origin, the new law allows him/her to stay for a period of up to one year in Greece, so as to make voluntary return feasible for the migrant.

Border Controls

Alongside improvements in its asylum and irregular migration management policy, Greece has improved its border controls. Indeed, the rising number of apprehensions generally indicates not only irregular migration or asylum seeking pressures at the borders of Greece (or the presence of irregular migrants within the country) but also the enforcement efforts of the authorities. In fall 2007, the Greek border guard employed 200 new officers in the Aegean Sea. In addition, Frontex has been operating in Greece since 2006 albeit with increasing intensity in the last couple of years. The joint operation Poseidon has now become the largest Frontex operation in the Mediterranean. For the first time ever, Frontex’s Rapid Border Intervention Teams (RABIT) have been deployed: 175 officers were sent to the Greek-Turkish land border in late October and November 2010 and stayed there until March 2011.

In 2012, in response to pressures from the EU but also the continuous arrivals of irregular migrants, Greece further tightened border controls through Operation ‘Shield’ (Aspida). This operation involved the transfer of 1,800 border guards to the region of Evros. In addition, the erection of a border fence across those 12.5 km along the Greek-Turkish border that were used as the main entry point was completed. Passport controls were increased and the harbors of Patra and Igoumenitsa, the main exit points to Italy, were technologically upgraded.


In 2012, a total of 30,433 irregular migrants were apprehended at the Greek-Turkish land border alone. Most of the migrants apprehended at the Greek-Turkish border are released after a few days or weeks with an expulsion order at hand, asking them to leave the country within 30 days. Most migrants, however, make their way to Athens in order to find their co-ethnic networks or their smugglers’ contact people. Some do this with a view to finding a job and accommodation in the country’s capital and apply for asylum (this holds especially true for people coming from war-torn countries like Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, or Palestine). Others seek to leave for Italy and then travel further on to some other EU country.

Table 5: Apprehensions of irregular migrants, per border, 2007-2012

Note: data refer to apprehensions, not to people. Hence, the same person if apprehended twice counts twice.
* Due to their small numbers, apprehensions in 2011 and 2012 are most likely included in the “rest of the country” category.
Apprehensions 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Greek-Albanian border42,89739,26738,16433,97911,74310,927
Greek-Macedonian border2,8873,4592,3551,5891,0031,168
Greek-Bulgarian border9661,7951,258983636365
Greek-Turkish land border16,78914,4618,78747,08854,97430,433
Greek-Turkish sea border16,78130,14927,6856,204N/A*N/A*
Rest of the country29,79954,24545,03740,23729,37231,151
TOTAL 112,364 146,337 126,145 132,524 99,368 76,878

Source: Greek police data, Externer Link:

Standard practices of interception both at maritime and land borders include disembarkation, first aid and health checks, transfer to police stations for identity checks (for those without documents) and detention. Detention is a hotly debated issue in Greece. The country was heavily criticized for its detention facilities on the islands , particularly in Lesvos. It has also been criticized for detaining asylum seekers. This practice was strengthened in 2012 through the modification of Presidential Decree 114/2010. Asylum seekers may now be detained up to twelve months rather than – the previous three and six months under special circumstances. This practice is unlikely to contribute to the efficient processing of asylum claims. Instead, it aims at deterring migrants from lodging an application.


Since 2008, Greece has in total deported (i.e. expelled without consent) 86,934 persons, primarily to Albania but also to countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. In fact, in 2012 alone, Greece both voluntarily and forcefully (through police) returned 11,034 persons, with another 4,759 readmissions, making altogether 15,793 persons returned to their countries of origin. Returns remain significantly lower than apprehensions, though. This is due to two reasons: Firstly, irregular immigrants apply for asylum as a way of circumventing deportation. Considering the Greek asylum system (as outlined above), the migrant is likely to remain in the country for at least a couple of years before being reconsidered for expulsion. Secondly, many apprehended and detained immigrants fail to receive travel documents from embassies of their countries of origin which means that they will eventually be released with a ‘pending’ deportation order and will likely remain in the country undocumented.

This text is part of the country profile "Interner Link: Greece".



  1. Triandafyllidou and Dimitriadi (2011).

  2. See also Triandafyllidou and Maroukis (2012).

  3. For the situation in Greek detention centers see ProAsyl (2007), Human Rights Watch (2008), Frontex (2011), Fundamental Rights Agency (2011).

  4. UNHCR (18 October 2012).


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Anna Triandafyllidou is professor at the European University Institute in Florence and Fiesole, Italy. She is Director of the Global Governance Programme’s research area on Cultural Pluralism at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies. Her main areas of research and teaching are the governance of cultural diversity, migration, and nationalism from a European and international perspective.
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