Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you all very much for being here today, at this hospitable hall of the “Stoa tou Vivliou”.
It is not the first time that I join forces in a common effort with the UNHCR’s Office in Greece. There was – and I know that there still is – cooperation and communication between the UNHCR and the Municipality of Athens since my tenure as Mayor.
Today, we will present to you the result of our latest cooperation to show the refugee issue in its true perspective. And this perspective cannot be other than the global perspective that we so often tend to ignore, too absorbed in our own domestic problems and matters.
Based on available figures for 2008 – which do not take into account recent displacements and crises – 42 million people live away from their homes. Not necessarily out of their country’s borders; the majority of the world’s displaced, i.e., 26 million, live within their own country.
In any event, we are talking about people who live under conditions of insecurity and deprivation – and this is a polite way in which I can say this as Foreign Minister – and they always live under the fear that their everyday lives will never go back to their normal rhythm.
In contrast to what European citizens tend to believe, 80% of refugees put a strain on developing rather than developed countries.
Coming now to the details of our cooperation, the result of which is a joint public awareness campaign; I would like to mention that it is the first time that there is such cooperation between the Foreign Ministry and the UNHCR, in general.
I admit I was surprised, because before taking up office as Foreign Minister, I took for granted the existence of close relations with international and regional organisations on issues that require global consensus and cooperation. And refugees constitute undeniably one such issue.
A second point with regard to the campaign – on which I would like to insist – is the momentum in which this is all happening. This campaign is taking place a short while after June 20, World Refugee Day.
It is a campaign that we have been working on for a long time, long before the issue of illegal migration was placed high on the agenda of domestic and European politics and journalism – as it is today. And of course, long before the outcome of the European elections.
Some might ask: but is this the right time to try to touch the Greek people, particularly those who live near entry points and big cities, many of whom have reached the limits of patience? Amidst ‘clean sweep’ operations by the police and plans to return immigrants to their homes?
Dear friends, in today’s globalised environment, immigration is a particularly complex issue and this is not expected to change.People have always had reasons to leave their homes or their towns.
In the case of refugees, the reasons for their flight are of major importance. They do not simply face a problem of subsistence. They are not simply seeking a better life. They are looking for safety because they are being persecuted; because their lives are threatened.
This difference – which is not always very visible – should be clear to everyone. And by everyone, I mean both the citizens and the state. Any national and regional system on the management of migration – particularly illegal migration – should take this differentiation into account.
Our goal is therefore to have an efficient and fair system. without depriving people in need of protection of the right to request and be granted this protection.
This of course presupposes specialized resources and people. It also presupposes significant financial means at a difficult economic juncture, in order to balance the need for security and border control with the need to protect the right to seek asylum.
The latter – precisely because it leads to a different, more upgraded status of residency – is often abused by people who claim they are refugees, but are not.
The verification of their true identity is not always easy; particularly when there are no organised and reliable population-registration systems due to the lack of resources and infrastructure in the developing world. In collapsing states, this problem is even worse.
On the other hand, precisely because of the fear of persecution, refugees and their relatives cannot ask their home country’s authorities for identification papers.
Our position is – without implying that the Greek asylum system does not have its weaknesses and this is the reason why we have been reforming it with a view to faster asylum procedures – that the burden should not fall disproportionately on some countries only, those that receive the most significant migratory pressures in Europe. And Greece – we know that very well, and our European partners know that very well – is one of them.
We therefore believe that we should ensure the following at European level:
§Common views and joint action.
§Exert political pressure on third countries towards signing repatriation agreements for illegal migrants.
§Disburse the necessary financial resources on instruments and infrastructure for external-border control and granting asylum.
§Preventive intervention policies by the EU to avert violent clashes and conflicts.
§Even greater coordination towards the provision of qualitative development aid to strike the root causes of these conflicts, i.e. poverty and underdevelopment.
Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to mention an example. The European Union has still disbursed funds for Pakistan;a country faced with an internal displacement problem that has taken on huge dimensions.Unfortunately, needs are developing faster than our decision-making within the European Union.
Bearing all this in mind, there will always be a need for raising public awareness and taking a calm and informed perspective; and looking at these issues in their true light.
And this goes beyond governments and international organisations. It touches all of you media representatives.On the other hand, I think – and I’ve said this before – that the Greek people have themselves experienced the problem of refugees and immigration.
I myself was privileged enough – I was one of those who went to France as a political refugee.And I think that there is always a reason why we should show a human compassion, even when we don’t have all the things that we ourselves need.
One thing is for sure, that solidarity is a very good foundation but we still need political consensus and will and even more policies. What is certain is that the path to an efficient migration management system – particularly for illegal migration – both in Greece and in Europe goes through a fair asylum procedure.
It is not easy to do this in reality. But it is the only way, in which we will be able to limit abusive asylum claims and the field of action for the networks that shockingly take advantage of these people, transporting them illegally and putting their lives at risk.
Once again, I would like to thank the Greek Office of the UNHCR. I would like to stress that we counting on their cooperation, particularly now after the recent legislative amendments.
I know that you are not enthused about them, but I know that we need your help in order to be able to grant asylum protection quickly to those who really need it and to get Greece to the point where we want it to be.
Thank you very much.
JOURNALIST: (away from microphone) …We saw a lot of confused people whose homes have been destroyed, and seen that no provisions had been made for those people. Is that an example of what we’ll see more of now?
D. BAKOYANNI: Well, may I just repeat what I already said when you met me upstairs. First, Greece can never be accused of inhumane policy towards people who are arriving in Greece.
Secondly, what we had in Patras was unacceptable. It was unacceptable for the Greek culture and for the Greek way of behaving. These were not their homes; they were a situation which was unbearable. It was destroyed and the people who need the help and the shelter will have it in the different shelters the Greek government is providing. That’s why all the children, as you know, went already at a shelter home up in Yannena.
So no, we will deal with our problem. We will deal with it on the level which every sensitive person wants, with full respect to the human rights. But on the other side I must repeat that we need also the solidarity of our European partners. We need a solidarity which must be shown, not just in the rhetoric but also in practice.
N. ITANO (CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR): Does Greece intend to make immigration issues part of Turkey’s accession to the EU talks? I mean is this an issue that you are going to bring up in the context of talks about whether Turkey should join the EU or be allowed to join the EU?
D. BAKOYANNI: Well, Turkey is a candidate country to the European Union, as you well know. One of the obligations Turkey has towards the European Union, one of the criteria, is to meet and to honour existing agreements with the European Union and of course with European Union countries.
Now, Turkey has a readmission agreement signed with Greece, a readmission agreement which she is not honouring. We strongly believe that Turkey must honour this readmission agreement, and when I had the opportunity to talk to your colleagues in Turkey, I said that it is very important for both countries to honour the agreements, to work together in trying to fight organised crime, and we are speaking about slavery, which means organised crime.
And on the other side the European Union has also to help Turkey sign readmission agreements with her neighbours, which is important also for Turkey, for her problems which she is facing with the emigrants.
K. BATZAKI (ATHENS INTERNATIONAL RADIO): Recently the government has been sort of criticized that it is following a conservative policy in terms of immigration and recent reports about a sweep operation that the Minister of Interior has denied. Is this a policy that you are planning to follow in the future, a conservative policy? And are you going to continue with kind of sending immigrants back to where they came from, illegal immigrants, I mean.
D. BAKOYANNI: I just tried to make it clear. All immigrants are not the same. There are the refugees. Refugees need our immediate different approach, which means that the refugees need asylum. And the Greek government has decided to make these processes even quicker than they are now.
The other one is the emigrants, which are mainly economic emigrants. They want to seek a better future. They don’t want to come to Greece, practically. They want to go to the United Kingdom, they want to go to Germany. Greece is just the first stop for them.
So there we have to implement the European policy of readmission, voluntary readmission, which means help them go back. Help them make up their homes, give them jobs in their countries.
It is not easy. I am not saying that this is something which will solve the problem from one day to the other. We are fully aware of our responsibilities, being a frontier country to the European Union.
That’s why we are asking also for help from the rest of the European countries in trying to face this problem.