GENEVA (AP) -- The United Nations has sharply criticized Greece for its treatment of asylum applicants and its rate of approval of asylum claims of less than 1 percent, urging the country to reform its practices.
The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said Monday that the Greek system did not fairly evaluate asylum claims.
The refugee agency has called on European nations to "refrain from returning asylum seekers to Greece." The agency charged in a statement last week that refugees in Greece "often lack the most basic entitlements, such as interpreters and legal aid to ensure that their claims receive adequate scrutiny from the asylum authorities."
UNHCR spokesman William Spindler told The Associated Press Monday that other groups - including the European Parliament and non-governmental groups - have raised similar concerns, particularly about the low number of asylum applications granted by Greece.
Greek politicians reacted defensively to the refugee agency's suggestion that the country is failing to treat asylum seekers properly.
Interior Minister Procopis Pavlopoulos called the criticism of his country "unfair" and insisted that its immigration policy was compliant with its obligations.
"Greece is the European Union's southeastern frontier guard," Pavlopoulos said. "This is a particularly difficult role, especially during a period when peace in the Middle East is sorely tested."
According to figures from the agency, Athens only granted 146 of 25,000 asylum claims last year. Other EU countries have higher rates of recognition with Britain approving more than a third of the 27,900 applicants last year.
"The figures for Greece are really out of all proportion," Spindler said.
Spindler said the U.N. recognizes that Greece, "because of its geographical location, receives a large number of irregular migrants coming from the Middle East, North Africa and other parts of the world."
UNHCR said that its singling out of the Mediterranean country was an unusual step prompted in part by wider concerns about the European Union's asylum policy.
Current rules allow asylum seekers to lodge only one claim in the first EU country they enter. This places countries on the 27-nation bloc's coasts at the forefront of asylum claims.
UNHCR wants the EU to agree on a fairer system for distributing refugees to share the burden more evenly.
Pavlopoulos said Greece would favor a revision of the rules, adding that it receives the fourth largest number of asylum applications in the EU, but only about 2 percent of EU funding for refugees.
The European Commission is expected to discuss in September whether to increase funding for those countries harboring large numbers of refugees.
Purchase this AP story for reprint.