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.

5 February 2016
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Hungary and Slovakia request the Court of Justice of the European Union to annul the relocation decision

In December 2015, Slovakia and Hungary filed a legal action with the Court of Justice of the European Union against the September relocation decision, which refers to the relocation of an additional 120,000 asylum seekers from Greece, Italy and other Member States who may potentially request it. Their moves follow the indignation of the countries after they were outvoted in the Council of the European Union: the decision was adopted based on a qualified majority voting rather than unanimity and Slovakia and Hungary, together with Czech Republic and Romania had voted against the decision.

The arguments for requesting an annulment of the relocation mechanism used by the two countries have been recently published by the Court, and they mainly concern the procedure used to adopt the relocation mechanism. Legal analysts suggest that they are likely to fail.

The countries also raised the principle of proportionality, which can give greater room for the Court to consider whether the current situation in which an increased number of people are seeking asylum in the EU constitutes an emergency or not. In light of this, the Court would subsequently decide if the measures adopted were proportionate to their aim of relieving pressure on frontline States and compatible with the principles of solidarity and fair sharing among Member States.

While waiting for the ruling of the Court, all Member States are bound by the Decision. Relocation is still taking place, though at a very slow pace. According to the latest statistics made available by the European Commission, a total of 481 persons have so far been relocated.

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Rescuing people in distress at sea is a duty placed on everyone

A new incident made the headlines last week, when an Australian rescue worker allegedly let 31 people drown in the Aegean because their boat was still in Turkish waters and the rescuers themselves were in international waters. According to his testimony, the boat did not reach international waters and the team of rescuers was thus unable to reach the vessel, as doing so would have them potentially charged of people smuggling.

In response to the arising confusion over rights and obligations of rescue workers at sea after this incident, the International Maritime Rescue Federation – the federation of maritime search and rescue (SAR) organisations with the common humanitarian aim of preventing loss of life at sea - issued a statement to clarify the actual legal situation.  “Rescuing people in distress is a duty placed on everyone at sea, that applies whether in territorial or international waters, and regardless of the legal status of the people in distress or the circumstances in which they are found”, reads the statement.  The obligation to render assistance to persons in distress at sea and deliver them to a place of safety is clearly established in the international law of the sea.

The EU Facilitation Directive imposes penalties on any person who assists or tries to assist a non-EU national to enter the territory irregularly for financial gains. As stated by a briefing of the Fundamental Rights Agency, in Greece facilitation of irregular entry can be punished by prison terms of up to ten years and fines of up to 20,000€. However, the rescue of persons at sea and the carriage of people in need of international protection is explicitly excluded from punishment.

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EU Commission adopts: Greece ‘seriously neglected’ Schengen border controls

On 2 February, the EU’s College of Commissioners adopted the Schengen Evaluation Report on Greece and a proposal for a Council Recommendation on ‘addressing the serious deficiencies identified in the evaluation report on the application of Schengen rules in the field of management of the external borders by Greece.’

The report finds that Athens has “seriously neglected” its obligation to control the frontier of the passport-free Schengen zone. As observed by EU missions in November, people arriving were not methodically registered, checked and finger-printed.

However, Greek authorities claim the visits were very brief and some improvements have already been made, instead blaming Turkey’s failure to honour the deal it struck with the EU in November
“We have made some commitments. We have made progress on these commitments. We will be completely ready with regard to these commitments in a month. What remains to be seen is whether Europe will meet its commitments toward Greece and toward an international problem. The refugee crisis isn’t a Greek crisis. It’s a European crisis and we must find European solutions for European problems,” Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told reporters last week.

The recommendations seek to ensure that Greece applies all Schengen rules related to management of external border correctly and effectively. Greece should ensure a sufficient number of staff and fingerprint scanners for registration and verification of migrants and their travel documents against SIS, Interpol and national databases. Necessary facilities for accommodation during the registration process should also be provided and border surveillance should be improved,

"Our ability to maintain an area free of internal border controls depends on our ability to effectively manage our external borders,” Migration and Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said. “The objective of the European Commission and of the Member States is to safeguard and strengthen Schengen. We will only save Schengen by applying Schengen."

Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister heading the EU Presidency, recently warned that the EU has “six to eight weeks” to save the Schengen system of border-free travel.

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Europol estimates 10,000 underage refugee children have gone missing

This week Europol released alarming figures concerning the number of missing unaccompanied asylum seeking children. Europol Chief of Staff Brian Donald told The Observer that since the start of the refugee crisis at least 5,000 unaccompanied children have already disappeared in Italy while over 1,000 went missing in Sweden. These children have entered Europe and subsequently disappeared without trace.

Europol believes that 27% of the million refugees who arrived in Europe last year are children. The number of missing children in Europe doubled in the past two years. The same figures apply to the UK. This steep increase raises fears that groups of human traffickers could be involved. Europol has proof that some unaccompanied children have been victims of sexual exploitation. In Germany and Hungary the authorities have already arrested many criminals involved in this illegal activity. It is likely that many criminal organizations previously involved in human trafficking have now adapted their activities towards the more lucrative business of migrant exploitation.

“Not all of them will be criminally exploited; some might have been passed on to family members. We just don’t know where they are, what they’re doing or whom they are with” the Europol chief of staff said.

The issue of unaccompanied children is becoming increasingly of concern. The UK has been discussing the details of a £ 10 million programme to take in some of the unaccompanied children already in Europe, especially if they have relatives or pre-existing connections with the country.

Some countries, such as Germany, are discussing draft-laws that would delay family reunion up to two years. This would result in an even more precarious future for children waiting to reunite with their families, placing them at heightened risk as the current European protection system does not guarantee proper monitoring to all vulnerable children.

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Balkan Governments Streamlining Border Controls

On February 3, News That Moves reported on an emergency meeting, which gathered the Heads of Police of FYROM, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria, that led to a new agreement between their respective governments. The agreement aims at tightening security measures at the Greek border in order to reduce arrivals along the chain and streamline the exchange of information between the countries involved.

Goravco Savovski, Director of the Bureau of Public Security in Macedonia said that “The data will be stored in national databases and will be available for international data exchange”. From now on, every refugee crossing the border between Greece and FYROM will undergo a 30 minutes interview to determine their nationality through the support of interpreters. The use of interpreters is being implemented in the other countries of the ‘route’ to overcome the issue of undocumented asylum seekers claiming to be Syrian, Iraqi or Afghan nationals. Reportedly, Austria and Slovenia will also deploy interpreters speaking the languages of the refugees to enhance identification procedures. However, volunteers in Šid and in other border locations, reported that asylum seekers have been in some cases wrongly identified as non-SIA nationals. Organizations condemned the deployment of non-native speakers for the purpose of identification, and following these complaints new native speaking interpreters have been hired.

New streamlined registration documents will also be introduced. During the meeting, the Director of Police said, that the unified document should be issued by Greece and be valid for the final destination country. Greece was not represented at the meeting but will be soon contacted for a proposed co-operation.

On Wednesday 3 February AYS reported that Serbian police started sending non-Syrian (therefore also Afghan and Iraqi) from Šid back to Tabanovce in FYROM by bus, sometimes with the use of force. DRC reports that an increasing number of people are being refused entry at the border with Croatia. AYS reported that authorities in Slovenia tried to trick the refugees, and push them back after they have claimed that they were intentioned to seek asylum in Germany. Officials asked them if they had relatives in other EU countries and when they replied positively they were pushed back to Croatia together with non-SIA nationals.

It seems, therefore, that that the main goal of these new updated policies by the Balkan countries is to keep refugees out, thus overriding the rights, in line with international obligations, that should be accorded to displaced people.

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Syrian donor conference raises over $10bn – still $3bn short of urgent needs

On 4 February, a donor conference in London raised more than 10 billion US $ in international aid to support people caught up in the Syrian conflict. Co-hosted by the UK, Germany, Kuwait, Norway, and the United Nations, the ‘Supporting Syria and the Region’ conference brought together world leaders from around the globe to rise to the challenge of raising the money needed to help millions of people whose lives have been torn apart by the devastating civil war.

Germany, which took in more than 1 million refugees last year, will be the largest single donor, by pledging $2.5bn through 2018. Britain pledged $1.75bn in new aid between now and 2020, and the US committed $900m to bring total US humanitarian spending to $5bn.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron said the conference received pledges approaching $6bn for 2016 alone, and a further $5bn over the longer term to 2020. “It means millions of people will now receive life-saving food medical care and shelter in Syria and beyond,” he said.

One million children currently not in school would be given access to education by the end of the next school year. Countries in the region have agreed to open up their economies to create new jobs. The move will be backed by loans from international financial institutions and access to European markets.

A group of over NGOs, including Amnesty International, Oxfam, Save the Children, Sawa Aid and Development, and Islamic Relief, welcomed the ambition but said that overall pledges for 2016 fell more than $3 billion short of what was urgently needed. 

“Of course we welcome the funds pledged today, but all the money in the world won't protect children in their beds from barrel bombs. We need action to stop the indiscriminate bombardment of Syrians, to protect those under siege and facing starvation, and those barred by violence or bureaucracy from safely accessing food, water and shelter. We urge all those with influence to exert concerted diplomatic pressure on all parties to comply with international humanitarian law and with the UN Security Council’s binding resolutions,” said Raed al-Saleh, head of the Syria Civil Defence, aka the White Helmets.

The NGOs also warned that many Syrians would continue to suffer unless more was done to ensure their protection inside and outside the country, and an end to the violence in Syria.

"The London conference is a potential turning point (…) Money for aid, although vital, will not solve the crisis. Indications that Syria’s neighbors will allow refugees to work must rapidly translate into action.  And ultimately, there needs to be an end to the massive violations in Syria. Governments in London can’t rest on their laurels when the peace talks in Geneva are faltering and the violence continues unabated,” said Andy Baker, Regional programme manager for Oxfam.

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Human Rights Watch World Report 2016: European ‘Politics of fear’ has led to rollback of rights

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has published its World Report 2016, which reviews the state of human rights in over 90 countries worldwide, covering events from the end of 2014 to November 2015. The introductory essay is written by HRWs executive director, Kenneth Roth, who argues that the fear of terrorism and disproportionate focus on refugees as a potential threat, has led to EU countries increasingly restricting their rights as well as an erroneous approach both to the increased refugee flow and to the terrorist threat.

He criticised Europe and US for ‘blatant Islamophobia and shameless demonising of refugees’ which vilified entire communities for the unacceptable actions of a few. Current European policy is counterproductive by forcing refugees to attempt to reach Europe by risking their lives at sea to claim asylum, entering in a chaotic, uncontrolled manner. Instead, increased resettlement and use of humanitarian visas would be a safer, more humane and more orderly alternative which would also allow for better security screening. Roth suggests that if all EU countries followed through with their pledges to accept asylum seekers for relocation, this could be a first step towards shared responsibility currently lacking in the refugee response in various European countries, adding that this could replace the Dublin Regulation which imposes responsibility for asylum seekers on some of the EU members least capable of managing them.

This is evidenced in the section on the European Union where HRW finds that ‘poor management and disagreements among EU member states escalated a crisis’. Among other things, it describes appalling reception and detention conditions in Greece; challenges to accommodating asylum seekers in Italy and border closures and restrictions in Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Hungary and Macedonia. Noting that as part of the EU-Turkey Action plan, Turkey had been promised €3 billion in exchange for curbing migration flows to the EU, HRW reports that at the time of writing, Turkey had all but closed its borders to Syrian asylum seekers and was summarily pushing them back as they tried to enter.

Roth considers that in meeting the difficult challenges faced by the global community today, the wisdom enshrined in international human rights law provides indispensable guidance, warning that “we abandon it at our peril”.

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MPI Europe: Getting the balance right: strengthening asylum reception capacity at national and EU levels

MPI Europe has written a report on strengthening asylum reception capacity at national and EU level, investigating the tension between guaranteeing good conditions and meeting high levels of demand. It suggests that there are three key elements for a successful reception system which may often be in conflict: efficient management of resources, flexibility, and quality standards adhered to across the European Union.

The report notes that current flows of asylum seekers to the EU are at the highest level since the 1990s which has placed significant strain on national reception facilities. Pressure in the reception capacity of one country can undermine efforts to promote solidarity at EU level due to onward movement by new arrivals, exploitation by smugglers and attempts to deflect migrants and refugees, such as by border closures.

The author puts forward the case for greater cooperation across Europe, necessary due to constantly changing migration routes which make it difficult to predict arrivals, with neighbouring countries sometimes facing divergent trends, such as increase in asylum applications of 60% in Austria alongside a decrease of 25% in Slovenia in 2014. Given the harmonised obligations set out in the European Reception Conditions Directive to meet minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers, facilitation at European level is critical in improving efficiency, but has failed so far due to a lack of mutual trust among Member States caused partly by dysfunctional reception systems in some countries. He makes a number of recommendations on how to strengthen the quality, flexibility and cost-efficiency of reception systems. Steps to improve cooperation and coordination among member States and invest in improving management systems and preparedness are necessary to restore confidence in asylum systems within and between countries.

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