The ECRE Weekly Bulletin provides information about the latest European developments in the areas of asylum and refugee protection.ECRE is a pan-European alliance of 90 NGOs protecting and advancing the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons.If you would like to know more about ECRE’s advocacy work, policy positions, press releases and projects, please visit our website at, find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

27 September 2019
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Keeping it Simple in the Med

A mechanism for disembarkation and relocation covering countries in the Mediterranean is crawling along, with further agreements reached this week, following the preliminary agreement reached in July. At the same time, in practice efforts have restarted with ships docking and relocation taking place. This is good progress but more is needed, particularly on division of responsibility for accepting ships, perhaps in the form of an automatic rotation scheme, which seems to be a major stumbling block. The humanitarian situation remains acute but, in addition, other asylum issues are rapidly climbing up the EU’s agenda, and particular the situation in Turkey and Syria.

The best way to advance is to keep it simple. Plans to create a disembarkation and relocation mechanism were on the table 16 months ago, as soon as the last Italian government kicked in. Delays have been created by attempts to add in unnecessary (and usually potentially unlawful and certainly unethical) elements to the agreements: controlled centres; participation of North Africa; complicated cherry-picking of rescued people. The latest agreements hints at probably unlawful rapid return processes and includes a new suggestion that state-owned vessels should “disembark on the territory of the flag State”. As well as being idiotic, the latter appears to contravene the Law of the Sea and potentially many other provisions of international law. So removing extraneous elements and focusing on the core of the needed agreement should be key. ECRE will provides its recommendations for Member States, along with partner NGOs, next week.

The two main reasons to get this done lie partly inside Europe and partly in the hellish mess that is the Syria multi-conflict and proxy war(s). First, the EU is about to “restart” after the changes in the institutions that have taken place this year. The new college of Commissioners have been nominated (see ECRE’s assessment and recommendations to them here). The two Commissioners directly working on asylum and migration will have to decide what to do with the reform of EU asylum law (drop it) and how to develop the mooted Pact on Asylum and Migration (use it to re-establish asylum in Europe and attempt to establish a somewhat rational migration policy). They will need to focus on these issues and on the following one.

This second reason to move forward rapidly on the disembarkation relocation piece, is because there is a growing risk of rapid and large increases of arrivals into Greece, Cyprus and potentially also Bulgaria and Romania, directly or indirectly, from Turkey. Idlib will fall soon and yet more people will be displaced. The politics of hosting refugees in Turkey is changing rapidly, with increasing public and political opposition (and – as should always be said– Turkey is hosting so many people already, more than doing its fair share). President Erdogan and his ministers are threatening on a weekly basis to unpick the EU-Turkey Deal. This is partly to garner support for the plan for “safe” zones in Syria and to extract other concessions but it already leads people to – understandably – try to move on. Given the fate of the previous de-escalation zones, these developments are likely to presage more displacement and in turn create panic and movement from people who fear being returned (including from other places in Europe) when Syria is not safe for them.

Europe needs to be prepared so that this coming displacement crisis does not become another all-consuming, paralysing political crisis. This will be a focus for the incoming Commission. There were alternatives in 2015/16 that allowed for a humane and decent response to the arrival of refugees, and there are alternatives now. The time, resources and systems for crisis preparedness need to be allocated and prioritised, and that means finally having a temporary mechanism in place for the Mediterranean situation. Dealing with ships rescuing 50 or 100 people who have escaped the Libya mess should not absorb so much time and effort. Doing the right thing would in fact be easier and quicker.

Editorial: Catherine Woollard, Secretary General for the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE)



Detention by Default – a Maltese Betrayal

By Dr. Neil Falzon, Director of aditus foundation.

“But why is Malta going against its own laws?”, asks a Sudanese asylum-seeker. “Back home, we don’t even treat animals like this,” pleads a Pakistani asylum-seeker. To anyone who has worked in an immigration detention centre, these expressions of utter disbelief probably come as no surprise. More than disbelief, it is the painful questioning of the world as they knew it before being stripped of their dignity when locked up for no valid reason in conditions that can only be described as appalling and revolting.

In 2015, Malta finally revised its policy of automatically detaining all migrants, including asylum-seekers, caught entering in an irregular manner. We applauded the review that introduced an individual decision-making process that could lead to maintenance of personal liberty or the imposition of detention or alternatives to detention. The policy, complementing the transposition of the recast Reception Conditions Directive, emphasised three core elements: the exceptional nature of detention; the obligation to rely on the stipulated detention criteria; and effective access to review and redress mechanisms. The Strategy for the Reception of Asylum-Seekers and Irregular Migrants also established an Initial Reception Centre (IRC) as a first-stage screening and processing facility for all newly-arrived asylum-seekers, with the aspiration of not only providing basic information but also of identifying vulnerable persons, unaccompanied minors, and victims of trafficking.

These very welcome legal and policy changes came after years of concerted national and international advocacy efforts, including a series of harsh judgements against Malta by the Strasbourg court. Interestingly, they coincided with a period where Malta was experiencing a lull in arrivals of asylum-seekers by sea. This effectively meant that, for years, the new regime was largely untested by the very circumstances for which it was created. In fact, our applause for the review was underpinned by an understanding – a prediction – that it would entirely collapse at the first boat arrivals.

Fast forward to summer 2018. With Italy closing its ports to rescued migrants, Malta’s fledgling reception regime is put to the test with the sudden arrival by sea of hundreds of asylum-seekers. Here there’s no pleasure in wagging our fingers, no satisfaction in chanting “We told you so!” The IRC soon surreptitiously provided de facto detention services to all residents and most NGOs were – and remain – barred from entry. As numbers of arrivals increased with no corresponding improved allocation of reception resources, Malta regressed to a situation where it now feels entitled to illegally detain hundreds of asylum-seekers under national health legislation.

It is not clear at which precise point the Human Rights Convention and the recast Reception Conditions Directive were thrown out of the window. What is clear is that Malta now relies on a 1982 provision enabling the authorities, in cases where there is “reason to suspect that a person may spread a disease”, to “restrict the movements of such person” for not more than four weeks, extendable up to ten weeks “for the purpose of finalising such microbiological tests as may be necessary.”

All new arrivals are detained and such mass detention requires space that is not available at the small IRC. Safi Detention Centre has provided the solution and is now largely used as a theoretical extension of the IRC. Many people we have interviewed have been detained for up to 100 days, if not more. Most underwent health screening – and probably obtained clearance – days after their arrival, but remain detained. Procedural guarantees? It seems that, for the authorities, since nobody is actually being detained, the standard procedures are inapplicable. Also, the distinction between ‘restriction’ and ‘deprivation’ of liberty might be too subtle for some, and we cannot stress enough that ‘reasonable suspicion’ of a contagious disease may not automatically include all asylum-seekers arriving by boat.

Recent protests in Safi Detention Centre have once again put Malta’s aptitude for immigration detention under the spotlight. The authorities’ stubborn unwillingness to immediately step up reception capacity in order to guarantee dignified living with respect for the right to personal liberty has led to a flagrant disregard of fundamental legal norms. These breaches have not gone unnoticed.

More importantly Malta insists on causing the suffering of hundreds of people as they struggle to come to terms with a betrayal of their idea of a Europe of values, human rights and dignity.

ECRE publishes op-eds by commentators with relevant experience and expertise in the field who want to contribute to the debate on refugee rights in Europe. The views expressed are those of the author and does not necessarily reflect ECRE positions.



Operation Sophia: Ships Remain Suspended while Support of Libyan ‘Coast Guard’ Continues

EU talks in Malta and a more lenient policy of the new Italian government stirs hope for an end to Stand-offs for civilian rescue ships. Amid further rescues by national authorities, no EU-led Search and Rescue (SAR) operation is in sight. With the extension of the mandate for Operation Sophia training of the so-called Libyan coastguard continues.

The NGO Alarm Phone reports that, on Thursday, 40 people were rescued in Italian waters and brought to the island of Lampedusa after the NGO had alerted the authorities of a boat in distress.

The same day, Spanish sea rescue authorities reportedly rescued a boat carrying 37 people off the Spanish island of Gran Canaria. They had been on the Mediterranean for three days trying to reach Europe. Earlier this week, Spanish authorities rescued 115 people from two boats in distress in the Alborán Sea and in the Strait of Gibraltar and disembarked them in the Andalusian port cities Motril and Cádiz. On Tuesday, a British cruise ship picked up 20 people from overcrowded inflatable boats on its way from Cadiz to Barcelona and disembarked them in the port of Almeria.

According to the Armed Forces Malta (AFM), 265 people disembarked in Malta early on Saturday. 229 migrants from Saturday's arrivals were rescued directly by the AFM from three boats in distress in Maltese water. Another 36 were transferred to an AFM patrol boat from the civilian rescue vessel Ocean Viking.

The 182 people remaining on the Ocean Viking were granted permission to disembark in the Italian port of Messina on Tuesday. They had been rescued by the ship jointly operated by the NGOs SOS MEDITERANEE and Doctors without Borders (MSF) at the Mediterranean in the course of last week. France and Germany agreed to take 50 people from the ship, Portugal 20, and Ireland and Luxembourg two each. The Italian Catholic church agreed to accommodate the remaining 58 people, without support from the Italian state.

On Thursday the Council of the EU officially extended the mandate of EUNAVFOR MED Operation Sophia by six months, until 31 March 2020. Naval ships remain suspended with reference to on-going negotiations on disembarkation procedures. However, an EU-led SAR operation has not been part of the negotiations on disembarkation and relocation arrangements in Malta this week. Although the core mandate of operation Sophia is to “disrupt the business model of migrant smugglers and human traffickers in the Southern Central Mediterranean”, the operation had saved around 50 000 lives of people trying to reach Europe. Part of the mandate is also continued training of the so-called Libyan Coastguard that has been implicated in numerous  incidents of abuse and human rights violations of people they intercepted at sea, including the death of a person upon disembarkation last week.

For further Information:


Commission Express Commitment to Turkey Agreement as Situation Continues to Worsen in Greece

While the EU Commission signals awareness of the increase in arrivals to Greece and principle willingness to assist, it also underlines that the current number of arrivals remains 91 per cent lower than during the period prior to the EU Turkey agreement in 2016. Despite weekly transfers to the mainland the hotspots and migrant centres in the Greek islands hosting 29,000 people are severely overcrowded with Moria on Lesvos hosting 12.000 people or four times its capacity.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) arrivals in Greece have reached 41,940 in 2019, as of September 22. Spokesperson Natasha Bertaud confirmed that the Commission has: ”noted with concern the large number of arrivals reported in Lesvos over the past weeks, which is undoubtedly putting additional pressure on a system that is already under great strain, but we did underline that the arrivals over the summer remain just a fraction of what they were in the months preceding the EU-Turkey Statement”. The Commission also confirmed that it was still committed to the EU Turkey agreement and is currently negotiating to resolve recent tensions with Ankara over the funding of assistance to and hosting of refugees under the deal.

The Greek government have announced a draft law that reportedly will be ready by October introducing changes to the Greek asylum procedure to speed up decisions and returns to Turkey. However, allegedly ideas of abolishing the right to appeal negative asylum decisions has been dropped.

The Greek government already begun emergency transfers of people from the islands to the mainland. However, the situation in the hotspots and centres not least in Moria on Lesvos is increasingly critical. The severe overcrowding has resulted in increased mental health challenges further worsened by lack of medical resources: “We see more severe cases recently and this affects our team as well because we only see severe cases we cannot help everyone.  The more people [in the camp], the more stress, and the more stress the more mental health issues,” stated Katrin Brubakk, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) mental health activity manager. MSF further expressed concern over an increase in suicide attempts including by children. The death of a five year old child near Moria camp was reported this week the circumstances are not yet clear.

On 19 September 2019 the Greek National Commission on Human Rights released a statement calling on the Greek state to comply with the immediate measures indicated by the European Committee of Social Rights regarding the situation of migrant children in Greece.

For further information:



Sweden: Deportations on the Rise and Self-harm Widespread

2600 rejected asylum seekers have been deported from Sweden by plane between January and August 2019. In September 50 Afghan nationals were deported to Kabul in a single day. Information from the Swedish Migration Agency (Migrationsverket) reveals that self-harm is wide-spread among asylum seekers in Sweden.

With 2,600 deportations in the first seven months of 2019 the number of deportations from Sweden is likely to increase despite a significant decrease of arrivals since 2015, when a total of 2,810 people were deported. The number of escorted deportations is also rising - cases where rejected asylum seekers are reported to the police as at risk of disappearing or refusing deportation.

Upon receiving a rejection on his asylum application after four years of waiting a young Afghan man committed suicide this week allegedly fearing deportation. Information from the Swedish Migration Agency confirms that there has been 116 cases of self-harm, suicide attempts and verbal threats of self-harm in the first part of 2019, 292 in 2018, and 316 in 2017. The number of incidents should be seen against the background of a fall in the population of rejected asylum seekers in the reception facilities from 13,365 in the beginning of 2018 to 10,677 in the beginning of 2019 as well as underreporting of incidents.

The recognition rate for Afghan asylum seekers varies across Europe and statistics compiled by the Asylum Information Database (AIDA), managed by ECRE, shows that in the first eight months of 2019 it was as high as 95,3 Czech Republic, 71,9 Greece and 63,3 per cent in Germany while Sweden offered protection to 47 per cent of Afghan asylum applicants.

For Further information:


UK: Report Catalogues Fifteen Years of Home Office Failures

A new report entitled “Lessons not Learned: the failures of asylum decision-making in the UK” compiles findings from over 50 publications issued over the last fifteen years on the quality of decision-making processes in the UK Home Office. Responding to the upcoming publication “Windrush Lessons Learned review” by the Home Office, the Refugee Council, Freedom from Torture and six other organisations warn that the Home Office is instead set to repeat the mistakes made in Windrush.

Built on an analysis of over 1800 asylum cases and 140 interviews, the report charts the consistent failure of the Home Office to implement recommendations to improve procedures. A negligence with devastating impact on individual asylum seekers. It documents flawed credibility assessments and finds that the current system places an unrealistic and unlawful evidential burden on applicants. It also describes a starting point of disbelief for applicants and a broader ‘refusal culture’ in the approach of the Home Office.

Maurice Wren, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council, stated “That those who have looked to Britain for protection from the violence, persecution, rape or torture they have endured, should be treated so unfairly and insensitively at the hands of the UK Home Office, is simply unacceptable.” The report describes the current approach of the Home Office as a “legal and a moral failure with a high human and economic cost for applicants” and calls for radical reform.

For further information:


Italy: Decree Sets Out Areas for Application of Border Procedure*

The Italian Ministry of Interior adopted a decree on 5 August 2019 to determine the areas in which the border procedure will be applied.

The border procedure was introduced in Article 28-bis(1-ter) of the Procedure Decree by the 2018 reform and foresees a 9-day examination of asylum applications where an application makes an application directly at the designated border areas or transit zones after being apprehended for evading or attempting to evade controls or comes from a safe country of origin.

According to the decree, the border procedure will be applicable in the following border areas:

Trieste and Gorizia in the north-east of the country; Crotone, Cosenza, Matera, Taranto, Lecce and Brindisi in the south; Caltanissetta, Ragusa, Siracusa, Catania, Messina, Trapani and Agrigento in Sicily; Cagliari in Sardinia.

The decree also establishes two new sections of Territorial Commissions for International Protection in Matera and Ragusa, which will be competent for the border procedure.

For further information:

*This information was first published by AIDA, managed by ECRE.



Guidance to Respect Children’s Rights in Return Policies and Practices

This week, an extensive guidance on respective children’s rights in return policies and practices was published by UNICEF, the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Save the Children, the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM), the European Council for Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) and Child Circle.

The document provides guidance for state authorities on the design and implementation of return procedures that are child rights compliant. In particular, it sets out concrete measures necessary to ensure respect for the rights of every child, including children in families, when implementing return legislation and policy in Europe. It provides guidance to bring policy and legislation in line with international law obligations, in particular the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and the EU Return Directive where applicable. Accordingly, the guidance is targeting those designing and implementing return procedures.

The guidance is based upon the existing legal and policy framework, including the EU Return Directive and the revised Return Handbook. It also takes account of recommendations and actions in the 2010 – 2014 EU Action Plan on unaccompanied minors, and Commission Communication on the protection of children in migration of 12 April 2017. The guidance has been developed through a process of consultations, first among United Nations agencies and civil society experts on migration and children’s rights, and then with EU agencies, the European Commission and member state representatives. It aims to serve as the basis for dialogue with state authorities in the context of EU return procedures from EU member states, complementing the 2017 revised Return Handbook.

The best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration in all actions concerning them. The precondition to any return of a child – whether unaccompanied, separated or within a family - is that their best interests have been examined and return is found to be in their best interests. This requires specific procedures to be implemented in every decision making process that could lead to the return of a child. Consequently, this guidance addresses how to design these procedures, what factors should be considered, possible outcomes and how to implement a decision when return is found to be in the best interests of the child. It does not address how to implement the decision when an alternative durable solution is found to be in the best interests of the child as a result of the procedure.

For further information:




Choose Respect: Together We Can Tackle Anti-Migrant Hate Speech. Hate speech against migrants and refugees is all too common, both online and in the real world. But it isn’t always easy to know how to react effectively – and it’s even harder to respond in a way which changes attitudes. In the run-up to elections, politics is a frequent topic of debate. But if the discussion turns nasty – either around the dinner table or on your social media feed – here are some tips to help you make a constructive contribution to a more positive discourse.




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