European leaders discuss refugee deal with Turkey alongside mass public outrage
On Thursday 17 and Friday 18 March, European leaders met in Brussels to discuss the refugee situation in Europe and the proposed EU-Turkey deal. Ahead of the meeting, many organisations, including ECRE and several of its members, called on national and EU leaders to drop the proposed deal, denouncing it as illegal and immoral.
“It is a huge problem that people are being denied the chance to have their asylum claims processed and that people are being rejected based solely on their nationality rather than protection needs,” stated the Danish Refugee Council in a joint letter with 20 other organisations.
The British Refugee Council called on UK Prime Minister David Cameron to reject the deal, explaining that "a policy of blanket returns of all ‘irregular migrants arriving in Greece’ is incompatible with EU and international law and would be in complete dereliction of the principle of non-refoulement.” The same issues were highlighted by France terre d’asile, which stated that the EU, a former Nobel peace prize winner, is now dishonouring its values and treating people like merchandise. The Irish Refugee Council also called on country leaders to reject the proposed deal.
On Wednesday 16 March, the European Commission published a series of operational steps to be included in the proposed deal to ensure its compliance with international and EU law. The recommendations include, among others, the need to grant everyone an individual assessment of their personal situation and the right to appeal a return decision. Amnesty International commented that "in reality, the essence of the deal has not changed. These fig-leaf procedures won't hide Europe's guilty conscience if large scale returns of refugees start happening now." While ECRE acknowledges the Commission’s call for procedural safeguards to be respected, it remains of the opinion that Turkey does not fulfil the legal criteria laid down in EU law to be considered as a safe third country and expresses strong concerns in relation to the conflation of the concepts of relocation, resettlement and humanitarian admission in the Commission’s communication.
“No deal is better than a bad deal. Instead of racking their brains to find a legal fig leaf for measures like collective expulsions, the European Council’s members should have the courage to scrap the deal. Instead, they should adopt bold measures at the summit meeting this week that would radically shift the union’s approach to migration,” stated Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks.
ECRE published a joint statement with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International: “this new proposal is only the latest in a dangerous trend. Over the past few months, various European governments have imposed discriminatory border closures and unlawful caps on asylum applications. The result is a deepening humanitarian disaster for thousands of refugees trapped in Greece, a surge in alarmist, vitriolic rhetoric stigmatizing asylum seekers and migrants.”
At the time of publication of the Weekly Bulletin, no conclusions from the European Council were available and negotiations were still ongoing.
The “March of Hope”: refugees in extreme humanitarian conditions try alternative crossing path
Freezing temperatures, incessant rain, endless waiting, shortage of food, water and health care: this is the daily life of thousands of refugees blocked at the closed Greek-Macedonian border. Almost a month has passed since Austria decided to put a cap on the daily number of refugees and migrants allowed into its territory, creating a cascading effect on the “Balkan route” countries and leaving several thousand refugees stranded at the northern Greek border.
On Monday 14 March, hundreds of refugees blocked at the Greek border camp of Idomeni decided to try to enter the FYROM on foot using another crossing. The group appeared to be following instructions from a leaflet that had been handed out at the Idomeni camp. The march, dubbed the “March of Hope” on Twitter, set off from Idomeni and reached the Reka river where refugees attempted to cross the river in a chain with the help of a rope tied to the river’s sides. Sources reported that the Greek authorities did not try to prevent the group from crossing, while the Macedonian police arrested more than a hundred refugees and around 80 activists and journalists who managed to cross. They were fined for “irregular crossing”. The Macedonian authorities later forcibly returned all refugees back to Greece. Earlier on Monday, a group of around 20 people had tried to cross at the same spot, resulting in the death of three people, including one pregnant woman.
Both the Greek and Macedonian authorities are accusing activists and volunteers of organising the initiative and endangering the lives of refugees, and investigations are now being carried out to identify who is responsible. “The first principle of any humanitarian assistance should be to do no harm to those we seek to help. Period” commented Human Rights Watch’s Peter Bouckaert, reaffirming the importance of preserving refugees’ dignity and ensuring that they can easily access asylum procedures.
Greek Deputy Defence Minister Dimitris Vitsas recently announced that refugees will be invited to move from Idomeni to other facilities across the country where their basic needs will be met.
Hungarian government continues assault on rights of refugees with draft legislation
Following a number of severely restrictive amendments to its asylum law in 2015, the Hungarian government is proposing to continue its assault on the rights of asylum seekers and refugees in new draft legislation that decimates integration support, reduces the physical space allotted to individuals in asylum detention and introduces an automatic review of status at 3 year intervals.
ECRE member, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) has raised significant concerns about the legislative package, which it believes fails to meet Hungary’s obligations in international, European and domestic law and is aimed at encouraging secondary movement, undermining EU solidarity. Co-chair Márta Pardavi explained that "with the legal and physical barriers to access protection in Hungary introduced in the fall of 2015, the government intended to ensure no asylum seekers would come. Now, by eliminating state-funded integration support specific to beneficiaries of international protection, the Bill is aimed at making the few people who do receive protection in Hungary move on elsewhere."
In its comments on the legislation, which it was given just four working days to prepare in a flawed consultation procedure, the HHC states that it deprives beneficiaries of international protection from any real possibility of social integration. The proposed measures mean that after a positive decision, individuals will only be allowed to stay in state-funded reception centres for 30 days, increasing the risk of homelessness, criminalisation and social stigmatisation. Furthermore, the monthly cash allowance for those recently granted protection will be withdrawn and integration contracts will cease to exist. Eligibility for free basic health care will be reduced from 12 months to 6 months, benefits for school enrolment will be reduced and there will no longer be access to free language courses. This is likely to cause insurmountable difficulties for those seeking to find housing, employment and a new life in Hungary.
In addition, the government proposes to automatically review status after 3 years, or upon an extradition request being made. The HHC consider that this is likely to increase the workload of the Hungarian authorities with minimal effect after review, while at the same time damaging the integration prospects of protection holders by causing uncertainty about length of residence. Furthermore, it ignores the fact that certain states make politically motivated extradition requests, with some criminal charges potentially amounting to persecution.
In an attempt to reduce overcrowding at asylum detention centres, the government proposes to decrease the minimum space provided to asylum seekers. The HHC argue that overcrowding is caused by unlawful detention practices which make the detention of asylum seekers very frequent, and could be resolved by properly considering alternatives to detention and effective judicial review. Instead, asylum seekers will be held in conditions that may amount to inhuman or degrading treatment.
Another worrying development is that on 9 March the government declared a nationwide state of emergency due to mass migration, which allows the increased deployment of police officers and soldiers to the border. They will participate in registering asylum applications and border management, including crowd control. The government justified this measure on the basis that the closure of the Balkan route may result in unforeseen consequences. However the HHC have condemned this move as unlawful, illogical and politically motivated, calling on the government to withdraw the decision.
"A far-reaching measure that allows for restrictions on civil liberties must be based on law, not speculation. However, as the numbers of arrivals from the Balkan route fall very short of the legal threshold for ordering a 'mass migration crisis', the government has chosen to disregard the rule of law", said Pardavi.
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REPORTS & NGOs ACTIONS
Refugee women and girls face many obstacles to access protection in Germany and Sweden
The Women’s Refugee Commission published a report highlighting the issues faced by refugee women and girls in Germany and Sweden, the two countries which have welcomed the highest number of asylum seekers in the past few years. According to UNICEF, in February 2016 women and children made up 63% of the refugees crossing from Greece into FYROM. There is no guarantee of safety for refugee women and girls on the move in transit countries. However, once they reach Europe and their destination country, their vulnerability is too often underrated and the risks do not cease.
The report highlights that the organisation of reception centres in the two countries fails to ensure the physical and mental safety of female refugees, and rather aims at short-term solutions. Facilities are arranged in a non-gender-sensitive manner, lack separated spaces for men and women and there is no adequate system to properly identify and address the needs of gender-based violence survivors. Furthermore, incidents of sexual assault and violence have been perpetrated within the reception centres walls, the document highlights.
Even though Germany and Sweden recognise gender-based persecution as grounds for asylum, women and girls have to face a complicated legal system, hindering de facto their access to support. Both countries have recently imposed restrictions on the family reunification process: Sweden will allow family reunification only to recognised refugees, and is currently the country which has the lowest percentage of refugee status recognition in the whole of the EU.
The report calls on the governments of Germany and Sweden to set up a standardised system to ensure an effective response to gender-based violence and the development of a proper medical and psychosocial system to identify and support victims. It also calls on the EU to guarantee fair and comprehensive access to asylum and legal protection, facilitate family reunification and boost access to resettlement and durable solutions.
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A generation of loss and trauma: the children of Syria
As the war in Syria enters its sixth year with no sign of abating, two reports recently released by Save the Children and UNICEF highlight the dreadful conditions faced by children in the country. At least 250,000 children are currently living under siege in different areas of Syria, cut off from the outside world and effectively living in an open-air prison where vital supplies are not allowed, documents Save the Children’s Childhood under Siege. According to UNICEF, around 8.4 million children – of whom 3.7 million were born after the conflict began – are currently affected by the conflict.
“Here there are no children any more. Only small adults,” said Rihab, a woman living in eastern Ghouta near Damascus, interviewed by Save the Children. Even though the United Nations Security Council has passed six resolutions since 2014 demanding unobstructed humanitarian access, the number of people living under siege in Syria has more than doubled over the past year. Under these conditions, children die because they do not have access to healthcare or medicines, they starve as food piles up in warehouses outside of the areas under siege, they cannot attend schools and they live in constant fear of bombings.
UNICEF’s No Place for Children report documents over 1,500 grave violations of children’s rights in 2015 alone: children have no access to aid, health or education, are victims of killings and mutilations caused by explosive devices and indiscriminate bombings, and are forcibly conscripted by all parties to the conflict, with some even becoming executioners. Child recruitment is a particularly worrying trend affecting increasingly younger children, some as young as seven. The Islamic State group has filmed young children executing prisoners in their propaganda videos.
306,000 Syrian children have been born as refugees, a generation who has known nothing but displacement, hunger and trauma. Children currently constitute 35% of the total arrivals to Europe, with Syria being the top nationality among those arriving. On 30 March, UNHCR is organising a Ministerial-level meeting on Global Responsibility Sharing through pathways for the admission of Syrian refugees, to relieve the pressure on countries neighbouring Syria and currently hosting the vast majority of refugees, children included.
ECRE renews its calls to the EU to commit to the resettlement of half of the 10% identified by UNHCR as the global need of resettlement for Syrians.
Professor Goodwin-Gill calls on Europe to act as a community
At the beginning of March 2016, the Irish Refugee Council and ECRE organised a workshop on the Irish International Protection Act 2015, which will significantly change the landscape of the Irish protection system and will introduce a single protection procedure. During the workshop entitled ‘The Single Protection Procedure: Meeting International Obligations’, Professor Goodwin-Gill put the current European crisis in an historical perspective, starting with the several hundred thousand Spanish refugees fleeing to France in 1939, long before the adoption of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Europe is not facing a refugee crisis – Professor Goodwin-Gill stated - but one of attitude and perspective, coupled with a lack of commitment of Member States to the European project. The Common European Asylum System is dysfunctional and founded on the illusion of a common equivalence in terms of reception, procedural guarantees and quality of decision-making which, together with the Dublin regulation, contributes nothing to regional equity.
Europe, he stated, needs to live up to its principles and to respond to the protection needs of those at and within our borders as a regional community – not only as a matter of principle, but as one of legal obligation also.
“Short-term self-interest and blatant disregard of the EU’s organising principles are clearly driving policy and practice in some Member States, as is the woeful lack of basic decency and common humanity among many of the so-called governing elites.”
Read the full speech here.
Crowdfunding campaign to allow refugee students to attend 2016 Odysseus Summer School
The Odysseus Academic Network has started a fundraising campaign to allow refugees to participate in the upcoming 2016 Summer School on EU Immigration and Asylum Law and Policy in Brussels. The Summer School aims to provide participants with a deep understanding of the immigration and asylum policy of the European Union.
This year, the network wants to welcome around 20 refugee students to further their education and foster their integration into Europe. The crowdfunding campaign aims to have at least one scholarship funded by the public. The minimum amount to be raised is 1,500€, calculated as necessary to cover transportation, daily expenses and a part of the tuition fee.
VACANCIES / CALLS FOR PAPERS
- 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
- EASO, Asylum Processes Officer, deadline 29 March
- International Rescue Committee, Head of Brussels Office, deadline 4 April