ATHENS The European Union's top immigration official criticized Greece on Tuesday for refusing asylum to Syrian refugees and detaining other migrants that flock to its borders under "unacceptable" conditions.
Greece, the main gateway into the EU for migrants from Asia and the Middle East, arrested more than 8,000 Syrian refugees last year for illegally crossing into the country.
Most hope to make their way to northern Europe, but many have ended up trapped in the financially-ravaged nation where rights groups say they face arrest, detention for long periods and even deportation.
Greece denies deporting Syrian refugees but says it is obliged to detain anyone who crosses it borders illegally.
After meeting Greek Citizen Protection Minister Nikos Dendias in Athens, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmstrom said Greece's asylum system is still below EU standards and that access to it is "full of obstacles".
"We can all watch every day atrocities going on in Syria and in all other member countries there is almost 100 percent recognition rate of them as asylum applicants and they are given protection or some temporary permission to stay," she said.
"In Greece it is almost 0 percent. This of course has to change and I've been given assurances by the minister that this will change."
Greece rejected 150 asylum applications from Syrians last year and approved only two, the UN refugee agency has said, when thousands fled a conflict that has claimed 70,000 lives.
Malmstrom added that the Commission would be closely monitoring Greece's progress on this issue.
Greece has made progress by setting up a new asylum system and closing down some of the detention facilities criticized for shocking conditions but still needs to set up thousands of new centers for asylum seekers across the country, Malmstrom said.
"Many regular migrants and asylum seekers are still not treated in a dignified way and are kept under unacceptable conditions," she said. "In many detention centers the conditions there are still inappropriate and detention is applied to everybody without discrimination."
Greece's deep financial crisis has exacerbated its long-running struggle to handle the influx of migrants from Asia and Africa, and rising hostility towards migrants has prompted a surge in attacks against them and helped usher the far-right Golden Dawn party to parliament last year for the first time.
(Reporting by Renee Maltezou)