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Originally published Friday, April 26, 2013 at 6:53 AM

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UN: Crisis in Greece weakening human rights action

Greece is falling behind on its human rights obligations, a senior U.N. investigator warned Friday, and he strongly criticized the "excessively rigid" demands of the crisis-hit country's bailout program.

Associated Press

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ATHENS, Greece —

Greece is falling behind on its human rights obligations, a senior U.N. investigator warned Friday, and he strongly criticized the "excessively rigid" demands of the crisis-hit country's bailout program.

U.N. independent expert Cephas Lumina said a surge in unemployment and axed benefits had left a growing number of Greeks without health insurance and about 10 percent of the population living in "extreme poverty."

He said about 470,000 immigrants without proper residence permits were among the most vulnerable to labor exploitation and other abuses.

He urged Greece's bailout lenders - eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund - to include human rights considerations in Greece's austerity programs.

"(Human) rights ... are under threat or being undermined by harsh pro-cyclical policies - austerity labor reforms, liberalization and privatizations - that the government has been constrained to implement since May 2010," Lumina told reporters in Athens.

Lumina spoke at the end of a four-day visit to Athens that included meetings with government and opposition officials and aid groups, as well as representatives of Greece's emergency creditors.

Greece has been relying on international rescue loans for the past three years, with resulting austerity measures pushing unemployment up to more than 27 percent, with more than 1.3 million people out of work.

"The ostensible aim of the measures is to reduce the fiscal deficit, reduce labor costs and make the economy more competitive," Lumina said. "However, the available evidence indicates that these excessively rigid measures have resulted in a contraction of the economy and significant social costs for the population, including high unemployment, homelessness, poverty and inequality."

The government is preparing a new round of cuts, due to be voted on by parliament Sunday that will extend an emergency property tax and make it easier to fire civil servants.

The main areas of U.N. concern, Lumina said, were a surge in racially-motivated attacks against immigrants and the rapidly growing number of long-term unemployed who lost their health insurance when unemployment benefits are cut after a year.

"Due to the increase of long-term unemployment, only about 160,000 persons receive (unemployment) benefits," he said.

He urged Greece's authorities and creditors to take urgent steps to restore the country's welfare safety net and launch a major social housing program, after the crisis pushed the number of homeless up by about 25 percent to 20,000 people.

Greece has a practically non-existent social housing program, compared to rates exceeding 20 percent in some European countries including Denmark, Britain and the Netherlands, according to the European Union's statistics agency, Eurostat.

A full U.N. report on the human rights impact of Greece's austerity program is not expected until March 2014, while the bailout program has been extended for two years to the end of 2016.

Conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras renewed a pledge this week, promising to return to growth next year after the crisis saw output slump a staggering 25 percent. But unions say the recession is likely to continue until 2015 or 2016.

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