ECRE calls on the European Council to show political and moral leadership in response to refugee issues facing Europe
ECRE is extremely alarmed by the proliferation of restrictive national and EU-wide measures aimed at containing asylum seekers and refugees in Greece and countries neighbouring the EU, such as Turkey. ECRE fears that the current “crisis” situation is being used as a pretext to push through a range of measures which undermine the right to asylum and the fundamental principle of non-refoulement. Ahead of the European Council meeting on 17-18 March, ECRE published today a Memorandum making recommendations on how to respond to refugee challenges facing Europe in a legal and ethical manner, while raising serious concerns about the EU-Turkey deal in particular.
ECRE believes that the EU is capable of offering protection to those in need and that the European Council should show political and moral leadership to agree on a collective, ethical response. It calls on the European Council to:
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- Reject the “one-for-one” principle and the designation of Turkey as a safe third country, as outlined in the meeting between EU Heads of State and Government an Turkey on 7 March.
- Establish large scale resettlement programmes for refugees fleeing Syria who are now in neighbouring countries, and commit to half of the 10% global resettlement target for Syrians set by UNHCR.
- Commit to use or develop other legal pathways for refugees such as humanitarian admission programmes, private sponsorships, humanitarian visas and flexible and refugee friendly family reunification procedures.
- Urgently assist Greece to respond to the humanitarian emergency unfolding in the country with concrete solidarity, by stepping up efforts to increase reception capacity and revising the relocation scheme to ensure that it is meaningful.
- Refrain from resuming Dublin transfers to Greece which would be premature, result in human rights violations and undermine ongoing solidarity efforts.
- Confirm their commitment to saving lives at sea by maintaining adequate search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean in light of continuing deaths.
- Strengthen the fundamental rights safeguards in the proposed European Border and Coast Guard Regulation by reinforcing the individual complaints mechanism and the role of the Fundamental Rights Officer and including systematic fundamental rights compliance in vulnerability assessment of external borders.
- Acknowledge the structural flaws of the Dublin system for allocating responsibility for examining asylum applications and support its complete overhaul replacing it with a system that is preference based, rooted in respect for fundamental rights and based on incentives rather than coercion.
- Implement a ‘Marshall Plan’ for the Common European Asylum System to improve the ability of EASO and the Commission to monitor and enforce compliance with the EU asylum acquis and to urgently provide significant financial investment into national asylum procedures and reception systems.
EU-Turkey plan endangers refugees’ safety and dignity
A one-for-one plan to resettle one Syrian refugee from Turkey to Europe for every Syrian refugee readmitted from Greece to Turkey was decided last Monday, 7 March at a meeting between the EU head of states and Turkey’s Prime Minister Davutoglu and chaired by the European Council’s President Donald Tusk.
The plan was heavily criticised by many human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, UNICEF and UNHCR. During the EP plenary session on Tuesday, the High Commissioner Grandi stated that he is “deeply concerned about any arrangement that would involve the blanket return of anyone from one country to another without spelling out the refugee protection safeguards under international law”. Returning people to Turkey without assessing their needs would constitute a violation of the 1951 Convention.
ECRE has also called on the EU to uphold its protection obligations and not to outsource protection responsibility. It was particularly critical of the dehumanising practice of exchanging people between countries. The European Union has the obligation to provide refugees with protection and safe access to the asylum system.
“We agree that it is important ‘to break the link between getting in a boat and getting settlement in Europe’ as the EU-Turkey statement says. This is why ECRE advocates for safe and legal channels for people in need of protection, including issuing humanitarian visas, large-scale resettlement programmes and application of family reunification policies” said Catherine Wollard, ECRE’s Secretary General.
The implementation of this strategy would involve the designation of Turkey as a “safe third country”, even though it is clear that Turkey cannot ensure all refugees basic safeguards. Refugees have limited access to basic services such as education, health care and employment and remain at heightened risk of exploitation and physical danger.
Deportations to Afghanistan from the UK can resume, despite worsening security situation
Last week, the UK Court of Appeal lifted the suspension on the deportation of asylum seekers whose claims were not accepted to certain provinces of Afghanistan, which had been in place since August last year. The case related to asylum seekers who sought protection in the UK on the basis that they were at risk of harm due to a deterioration in the security situation in Afghanistan. The Court upheld the correctness of a previous finding that the level of indiscriminate violence in Afghanistan was not high enough to grant protection, though it did not itself assess the country situation. This means that deportations to Afghanistan from the UK may now resume. Both applicants arrived in the UK when they were children and sought asylum as unaccompanied minors. A recent investigation shows that since 2007 the UK has deported more than 2000 unaccompanied asylum seeking children to their country of origin once they turn 18, many of whom had spent their formative years there.
The ruling comes at a time when Afghans, the second largest group of asylum seekers, are facing increasing difficulties in obtaining protection in Europe. A number of Member States are becoming openly hostile towards Afghan asylum seekers, with politicians erroneously labelling them as ‘economic migrants’ and campaigns have been launched by Germany , Belgium and Norway to discourage them arriving. Last month, restrictive border policies by countries along the Western Balkans route has meant that Afghans are denied entry, leaving them and many others trapped in Greece in dire humanitarian conditions and creating a two-tier system of protection.
However, EASO has documented a rise in abductions and violence towards the end of 2015 in Afghanistan, and a recent report by UNAMA also found that civilian casualties reached a record high that year, indicating that Afghanistan is increasingly dangerous. The latest statistics from Eurostat show significant discrepancies between EU Member States in granting protection to Afghans, with the UK giving one of the lowest rates of protection. A paper leaked by Statewatch reveals that the EU institutions and Member States “are aware of the worsening security situation and threats to which people are exposed” which is reflected in an increased EU-wide acceptance rate of 60% for Afghan asylum seekers in the second half of 2015. UNHCR chief, Filippo Grandi, has also recently reiterated that many Afghans have ‘urgent protection needs’.
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At the camp in Grande-Synthe, it can always get worse
Early this year, the humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was granted permission to build a camp near the makeshift settlement of Grande-Synthe, where thousands of people were living in appalling conditions. The camp, which has the capacity to house 2,500 people, officially opened on Monday 7 March. It was built after a request from the Mayor of Grande-Synthe and is co-financed by the local authority and MSF. However, just a few days after it opened, the French national authorities questioned its adequacy and threatened to close down the camp.
Hundreds of people have already moved into the camp, and are now living in heated wooden shelters. While conditions represent a definite improvement, both MSF and refugees themselves know that it is only a short-term solution. Many refugees are still set on trying to reach the UK and, while grateful for the improvement, are wary of the sense of permanence that these new structures may bring. "We were sleeping in thick mud, we were ill, so of course this is better… but I don't know how long I will stay here," said a Kurd refugee with his mind set on the UK.
In an unexpected development this week the mayor of Grande-Synthe received an official letter from the French authorities threatening to close the camp as its conditions are deemed “harmful to the safety of hundreds of people” and do not meet the adequate standards. Fully disregarding a ruling by French courts in November 2015 which ordered the French authorities to provide adequate reception conditions to refugees and migrants in northern France, the national authorities have instead decided to actively disrupt the meagre improvements made.
“The management of the inhuman conditions facing the refugees and migrants in Grande Synthe has been completely left up to the local Mayor and a handful of NGOs and volunteers for several months,” Jean François Dubost, Head of Asylum & Migration Programme at Amnesty International France, explained to the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. “It is incredible that the State choses to intervene at this moment and jeopardize the possibility for these people to have a roof over their head. The State's intervention is supposedly based on their security concerns for the people to be re-housed but their security has never been more guaranteed than in this new camp.”
Lampedusa ‘hotspot’ shows severe deficiencies, states the Italian Senate
Strong criticism regarding the Lampedusa ‘hotspot’ has been raised by the report on the Identification and Expulsion Centres (CIE – Centro di identificazione ed espulsione) by the Human Rights Commission of the Italian Senate. The report assesses the situation after five months of the start of the Lampedusa ‘hotspot’ operations, and highlights pre-identification, access to information and registration as particularly worrying aspects.
The pre-identification phase consists of a questionnaire handed out to people almost immediately after disembarkation, in which they are asked to indicate some general details and the reason for their arrival, in a section where they can choose ‘to work’, ‘to be reunited with family members’, ‘to escape poverty’, ‘to claim asylum’, ‘other’. The answer to this question constitutes the basis for the initial separation between asylum seekers - who can then potentially enter the relocation mechanism - and irregular migrants – who are given a return decision.
While UNHCR, IOM and Save the Children are present inside the Lampedusa centre, there is no guarantee of information about the asylum procedure being provided at the moment of disembarkation. Refugees and migrants recently arrived are still in many cases traumatised by the journey and may not be in the best state of mind to respond to a questionnaire which will determine their future.
Italian ECRE member ASGI, in exchanges with the ECRE Weekly Bulletin, stated that “We consider the so-called 'hotspot' approach illegitimate: it is not foreseen in any legally binding EU document and, as the report shows, the actions taken in the framework of the 'hotspot' are allegedly in violation of the recast Asylum Procedure and Reception Conditions Directives.”
Fingerprinting and registration are also issues of concern, as some people do not want to be fingerprinted in Italy. Fingerprinting by force is not allowed under Italian legislation, therefore those who refuse – which they are entitled to do – are left in a state of legal limbo and are not allowed to leave the ‘hotspot’ centre.
The centre itself foresees a very short stay of a maximum of 48 hours and provides no activities besides access to basic services. In many cases, however, people are held for much longer times, even exceeding 30 days.
The report suggests, as a measure to increase the speed and efficiency of the relocation programme, to take into account the preference of the asylum seeker as per the country of relocation, based on family or community links. At present, many people do not want to enter the process because they are not allowed to choose where to go.
For further information:
- Commissione Straordinaria per la tutela e la promozione dei diritti umani – Senato della Repubblica, Rapporto sui Centri di Identificazione ed Espulsione in Italia (in Italian), February 2016
- ECRE, AIDA Update Italy: new rules on asylum procedures and reception and concerns over “hotspots”, 8 January 2016
- ASGI, La verità sul sistema Hotspot: le violazioni e illegalità a Lampedusa denunciate dalle associazioni (in Italian), 2 January 2016
- ASGI, Il diritto negato: dalle stragi in mare agli hotspot (in Italian), 26 January 2016
- ECRE, Italy: a worrying trend is developing in the ‘hotspots’, 20 November 2015
UNHCR proposes a 6 point plan towards solving refugee situation in Europe
Ahead of the meeting on 7 March between EU Heads of State or Government and Turkey, UNHCR proposed a six-point plan for EU Member States to solve the refugee situation in Europe. It calls for better implementation of the ‘hotspot’ approach and relocation measures, increased support for the emergency response in Greece, improved compliance with EU asylum law, more safe and legal routes to Europe, safeguards for individuals at risk, and a European-wide system of responsibility for asylum seekers.
High Commissioner Filippo Grandi considers that the ‘collective failure’ to implement agreed measures has led to the current escalation in the crisis, with around 30,000 people currently in Greece, thousands of whom are sleeping in the open in Idomeni. In light of this, UNHCR recommends that the relocation scheme is fully applied, as well as ensuring the effective return of those not in need of international protection. It adds that the Dublin Regulation should be used to transfer asylum seekers eligible for relocation back to Greece so that they can enter the relocation process. However, ECRE believes that this would be premature and has urged the EU and Member States not to resume Dublin transfers to Greece, due to ongoing shortcomings of the Greek asylum system and the need to alleviate pressure on Greece.
UNHCR reiterates its call for States to increase admission pathways for Syrian refugees, such as resettlement, humanitarian admission and family reunification. It invites States to make admission commitments at its upcoming meeting on March 30. UNHCR also advocates for a new approach to ensure solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility between Member States by establishing European Registration Centres in the main countries of arrival, with asylum seekers distributed among Member States according to a distribution key. After being granted protection, they should be allowed to establish themselves in another EU Member State after six months. Grandi adds that ‘there is really no other option than working together to solve this’.
For further information:
- 2 March – 9 April, Brussels, Cycle Récits d’Exil, Le p’tit ciné and Goethe-Institut Brussels
- 11 March, London, Women of the Move Awards 2016, Southbank centre
- 18 March, Brussels, Perilous journeys – Vulnerabilities along migratory routes to the EU, Red Cross EU Office
- 15 April, Luxembourg, Tackling Statelessness: exchange of experiences and good practices, Luxembourg Contact Point of the European Migration Network
VACANCIES / CALLS FOR PAPERS
- STAR – Student Action for Refugees, Equal Access to University Campaign Co-ordinator, deadline 14 March
- Freedom from Torture, Communications Officer, deadline 14 March
- IOM Regional Office Brussels, Project Assistant, deadline 22 March
- Irish Refugee Council, Information and Referral Service Co-ordinator, deadline 23 March
- Irish Refugee Council, Youth Worker, deadline 23 March
- Irish Refugee Council, Youth Advocacy Project Co-ordinator, deadline 23 March
- International Rescue Committee, Head of Brussels Office, deadline 4 April