Tear gas and rubber bullets for refugees in Idomeni
On Sunday 10 April, refugees and migrants, stranded at the closed border crossing between Greece and FYROM in Idomeni, gathered in front of the fence holding signs and placards protesting against the border closure. The protest remained peaceful for a few hours, but later erupted into violence, when Macedonian police started to fire tear gas into Greek territory to disperse the crowd.
According to witnesses on the ground, a small group of refugees talked to the Macedonian police, asking them to open the border. After a negative reply, some walked towards the fence and some – according to a Macedonian official – started to throw rocks at it. In response, the police fired tear gas and continued to do so for over two hours, also using rubber bullets and water cannons against refugees on the Greek side. Many people were allegedly beaten by the Macedonian police.
Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) treated over 300 people, including 30 children for injuries caused by exposure to the gas and rubber bullets. “The MSF clinic has been full all day. Three children were brought in with head injuries due to rubber bullets. People outside were shouting and many of them were carrying rubber bullets in their hands,” said Conor Kenny, MSF doctor in Idomeni, “A pregnant woman from Syria came into the clinic with her two children; she told me she was close to the border when tear gas was used to disperse the crowd, people started to run and she fell down.”
Greek authorities, including Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, condemned the violence at the border and called FYROM’s actions shameful. UNHCR also condemned FYROM’s actions.
On Tuesday, security was tightened in and around Idomeni and the Greek police arrested several foreign volunteers who have allegedly provided wrong information to the refugees and incited them to break the fence. Most of them were released briefly afterwards. Violence sparked up again on Wednesday, with refugees trying to take down the razor wire fence, and Macedonian police again firing tear gas on the crowd. On Thursday, the Greek army staged military exercises in several locations across the country, and according to some sources on the ground, war jets were seen flying over Idomeni.
For further information:
- ASGI, Idomeni, un’analisi giuridica sui diritti negati ai migranti (in Italian), 13 April 2016
- The New York Times, Macedonian police use tear gas to stop migrants at border, 10 April 2016
- ECRE, Conditions for refugees at the Greek-Macedonian border worsening by the day, 4 March 2016
- ECRE, Balkan governments streamlining border controls, 5 February 2016
- ECRE, Asylum seekers stranded at Greek-FYROM border with limited assistance, 4 December 2015
Asylum seekers trapped in “no man’s land” in Hungary
According to statistics made available to ECRE member, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, since the closure of the Western Balkans route, there has been a sharp increase in asylum claims in Hungary, with 4, 574 claims in March 2016, over ten times the figure for January. Many of these people are trapped outside transit zones on the Hungarian-Serbian border and denied access to the asylum procedure.
The Hungarian authorities set up transit zones in September and October 2015, made up of a narrow strip of container rooms at border crossing points between Serbia and Croatia, following the construction of barbed wire fences to seal these borders. This is described as a ‘no man’s land’ by Hungary, aimed at processing and detaining asylum seekers before they are officially admitted to its territory. When ECRE visited the newly created transit zone at Röszke last year, it described this as a legal fiction, untenable in international law.
Asylum seekers must register their claims at these transit zones, however, Human Rights Watch has reported that many people are denied access and have been waiting outside the zones for days without provision for their basic needs of shelter, food, water and medical care. This includes pregnant women, young children and those with medical problems who are forced to sleep outside in the cold, in uncertainty with no information from the Hungarian authorities on when and how to register their asylum claims. The procedures are described as arbitrary and random, with no measures in place to identify and meet the particular needs of vulnerable people, although this is required both by national and EU law.
“There’s no such thing as a no-man’s land where human rights can be disregarded and where access to seeking asylum can be delayed. The Hungarian authorities must ensure identification of people who are in need and provide services to them. This situation is simply heartless and unlawful.” said Márta Pardavi, Hungarian Helsinki Committee co-chair.
Although this build-up of people at the border is much lower than in September last year, it is leading to a similar situation of denial of respect for basic human rights, with people stranded in abysmal conditions, unable to access their right to asylum.
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No country for refugees: Austria shuts its doors
After Denmark and Sweden, it is now Austria’s turn to reduce the space for international protection and to make its environment less and less welcoming for refugees and asylum seekers. Two months after introducing a daily and yearly cap to the number of asylum claims the country will accept - which provoked a domino effect along the Balkan route leading in practice to its closure and to tens of thousands of people stranded at the Greek border with FYROM - the country is now in a rush to vote a change to its asylum law which would overhaul its asylum system completely.
The Austrian Parliament will vote later this month on an amendment to the Asylum Act which would, according to many organisations – including ECRE members asylkoordination and Diakonie – effectively abolish the right to asylum in the country. The amendment will introduce a new procedure at the border which allows for asylum applications to be immediately rejected if the person has arrived irregularly on the Austrian territory. Austria will only accept claims from refugees who are in danger in a neighbouring transit country or who have family members already residing in Austria, effectively derogating from the 1951 Refugee Convention and from EU law.
ECRE member asylkooordination criticised the proposed amendment as an assault on human rights standards: “The arrival of about 90,000 asylum-seekers last year has caused several shortcomings and stress on the asylum system, but we are not facing a situation of emergency that would allow the Austrian government to ignore international law”.
In another development this week, Austria has started the construction of a concrete border post at its southern Brennero border crossing with Italy, foreseeing an increase in arrivals to its southern neighbour and in an early attempt to stop any possible crossings into Austria. The move has been strongly condemned by Italian authorities, who believe that it is not in line with the general principles of the Schengen agreement.
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Blanket detention in deplorable conditions on the Greek islands
Human Rights Watch has reported on the situation for asylum seekers and migrants on the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios, in the wake of the EU-Turkey deal, finding that they are systematically detained in deplorable conditions.
Since the deal came into effect on 20 March, open reception and registration centres on the islands have been converted to closed ‘prison-like’ detention camps surrounded by barbed wire. These are operated by the Greek authorities with the assistance of the EU border agency, Frontex. Greece introduced a law earlier this month enabling the detention of new arrivals during identification, reception and border asylum procedures.
The Human Rights Watch investigation reveals that people are automatically subject to detention, with no consideration of alternatives, no information on the reasons for detention or how to challenge this and no consideration given to vulnerable people. This means that children, pregnant women, physically disabled persons and mentally ill people are being detained without consideration of their special reception needs as required by EU law.
Furthermore, it reports that individuals have limited or no access to basic services such as medical care and legal aid. Conditions are overcrowded with unaccompanied minors kept in the same facilities as adults. There is poor sanitation, which has led to some people to develop skin problems, the food is substandard and there is a lack of privacy for women. Many of those detained have asked to seek asylum in Greece, but the system is overwhelmed and is unable to process these claims speedily enough, especially as hundreds of people continue to arrive each week.
“The current situation in Greece for desperate asylum seekers is perverse. People fleeing danger are detained in unacceptable conditions while they await a likely return to unsafe Turkey or languish in the dysfunctional Greek asylum system,” said Eva Cossé from Human Rights Watch, reiterating the organisation’s concerns regarding the flaws of the EU-Turkey deal.
ECRE shares such concerns, emphasising that the examination of asylum claims cannot be based on the assumption that Turkey is a safe third country. ECRE continues to assert the fact that the deal is unethical, illegal and unworkable. It has urged the EU and Member States to step up efforts to provide adequate reception accommodation capacity in Greece and warned that the limited capacity to register asylum claims could and is leading to a denial of access to the asylum procedure and potential refoulement, in violation of international refugee law.
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REPORTS & NGOs ACTIONS
FRA: Opinion on EU common list of safe countries of origin*
The EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) has issued an opinion concerning the European Commission’s proposal to establish an EU common list of safe countries of origin. It considers that this may be an effective tool to process applications for international protection that are likely to be unfounded, provided that all relevant safeguards, including those set out in the recast Asylum Procedures Directive, are in place to ensure that the fundamental rights of those concerned are respected. The Opinion focuses in particular on the right to asylum, non-refoulement, the principle of non-discrimination, the rights of the child, the right to good administration including the right to be heard, and the right to an effective remedy.
FRA considers that the EU common list of safe countries of origin cannot establish an irrefutable presumption of safety. As such applicants must be given an effective opportunity to rebut the presumption of safety in their case, which requires that they are afforded sufficient time to present their case and have access to legal assistance. A personal eligibility interview with trained personnel must be conducted prior to the decision in order to respect the right to be heard.
Unsafe countries should be excluded from the common list, with assessment of a wide range of sources when considering the safety of conditions in countries of origin proposed for the list. There must also be flexibility to react quickly to suspend countries from the list if there are relevant changes in the circumstances. Furthermore, FRA states that appeals against rejections based on the common list of safe countries of origin should have automatic suspensive effect and applicants should have access to legal assistance.
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* This article firstly appeared in the ELENA Weekly Update of 8 April 2016 with minor amendments.
Cities showing leadership in receiving and integrating refugees
A new report by EUROCITIES emphasises the role cities can play in the reception and integration of refugees and explores how cities are adapting their services to ensure newcomers can integrate into the local community. EUROCITIES has collected information from 34 cities in 17 EU Member States and Norway.
According to the report, although most cities did not have a legal mandate or a specific budget to care for asylum seekers and refugees, local authorities showed great leadership in coordinating different services and external stakeholders, sometimes in the absence of a national response. In fact, certain countries like Germany and the Netherlands have implemented legal changes in order to facilitate actions at the local level.
The report also found that the inclusion of newly arrived children into the education system is a priority for many city authorities, which are putting in place a wide range of additional services and projects aimed at asylum seekers and refugees. Munich’s city administration for instance, provides counselling and vocational training for teenagers.
"Cities are frontline actors in the refugee situation. Our report demonstrates their leadership in finding solutions, bringing partners together and fostering what will be the next step for refugee; successful integration in our societies. To achieve this, cities must be better supported financially and have a say in the governance of migration in Europe,” said Thomas Jézéquel, Policy Advisor at EUROCITIES, to the ECRE Weekly Bulletin.
The report argues that cities should be alongside national governments and NGOs in the list of bodies that are eligible for EU emergency financial assistance in responding to ‘migratory pressures’.
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Applications open for Odysseus Network Summer School 2016
The Odysseus Academic Network of the Université Libre de Bruxelles has officially opened the applications for its 2016 Summer School on EU Immigration and Asylum Law and Policy. The Summer School aims at providing participants with a comprehensive understanding of the immigration and asylum policy of the EU from a legal perspective. The course also provides an excellent networking opportunity: participants come from academia, NGOs, EU and Member States’ Institutions, law firms and organisations involved in social work.
The Summer School will take place in Brussels from 4 to 15 July, and classes are taught in English or French. Applications are open until 10 June 2016.
A number of scholarships for refugees are made available by the Odysseus network and through a public crowdfunding campaign.
VACANCIES / OPEN CALLS