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.

23 January 2020
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Op-Ed: Refugee Mental Health - Normal Reactions to Abnormal Situations

By Niki Papadogiannakis, programme development officer at SB OverSeas. SB OverSeas is a non-profit organisation based in Belgium dedicated to providing humanitarian aid to refugees and victims of conflict. Their operations support refugees’ access to education and inclusion in Brussels and Lebanon focusing on education, emergency aid, awareness and empowerment.

“Normal reactions to abnormal situations.”- It was only until I heard this characterization by a trauma specialist that I began to understand the mental health concerns of young refugees. This concept becomes even clearer when considering the reports from places like the Greek islands where adolescent asylum seekers have begun to act violently against each other. Attacks are common in an unsafe and deeply precarious camp setting and even some with fatal consequences. When you place their actions in the context of their situation, their behavior, while not excusable, becomes understandable. As described by researchers and practitioners, these reactions are normal when faced with stressors as severe as a migration journey, isolation and uncertainty. Moreover, they’re exacerbated by a lack of community whether familial or cultural. Yet mental health services are not accessible for most people living at the Moria camp, and remain out of reach for many refugees across Europe.

Psychologists and researchers have noted that without proper intervention, “refugees are at considerable risk of developing common mental disorders, including depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” This aspect is simple to grasp; individuals who are fleeing persecution, violence and unsafe living conditions have experienced trauma that impacts their mental health. However, further studies have indicated that post-migration stressors are just as, if not more harmful for mental health. Stressors including: “cultural integration issues, the loss of family and community support, discrimination and adverse political climate, loneliness and boredom, extensive waiting time during the asylum procedure, prohibition to work, disruption of education for children.” These stressors are associated with increasing uncertainty about the future, strongly connected to the asylum-seeking process.

Mental health services for refugees are often not a priority upon arrival. Given that even the immediate need for a safe place to sleep, something nutritious to eat and clean water to drink is sometimes not met in arrival camps at the European border, mental health services becomes an afterthought. This is not only a problem in camps at the European borders, often there is also a lack of support in medium and long-term accommodation facilities inside Europe. In Brussels, where SB OverSeas operates in support of young refugees living in accommodation centres in the city, the governmental accommodation service FEDASIL has been at the verge of capacity for almost two years. As a consequence authorities announced in January that reception services would not be available for asylum seekers who have applied for protection in another EU country; a decision that deprives these individuals of their rightful access to standard reception conditions. In this context of imbalance between available resources and needs, also confirmed by our observations and feedback, the focus from FEDASIL is on the material support for asylum seekers arriving: increased numbers of beds in rooms, adding tents in centres or installing containers. While understandable, this comes at the risk of neglecting other vital support.

Since 2016 SB OverSeas has been active in centres run by FEDASIL as well as the the Red Cross hosting unaccompanied young refugees.  We have worked to engage the youth in activities by bringing artists to teach, organising sports events, visiting places in the city together with a group of local volunteers among other things. These actions are aimed at improving mental health and resolve stressors by decreasing isolation and allow for social interactions and physical activity to overcome trauma. This is evident in our interactions:  When we start our activities the youth are isolated and non-social (most have never interacted with each other), but by the end they are more receptive and engaging as a group, building trust. These activities are a positive step for their mental health—but by no means can they be a replacement for professional psychological support.

Mental health interventions for asylum seekers and refugees must be individualised and sensitised to cultural and situational contexts. Such interventions require the training of mental health professionals in the local community where individuals are arriving or settling. It is vital to use evidence-based methods to address culturally-specific indicators of stressors, learning how to conduct therapy sessions through an interpreter, or better yet, involving a cultural mediator.

Across the world asylum seekers and refugees are of the most vulnerable to mental disorders. However, it is clear that the process of claiming asylum and the legal blockades that are presented to these individuals further exacerbate this pre-existing vulnerability.

Therefore, to address the mental health concerns of this population, it is not only necessary to expand access to culturally sensitive and situationally appropriate mental health services. The abnormal situation is one created by European governments and poor reception systems. Without a change to a more humane policy and the clear implementation thereof any positive steps forward for an individual’s mental health made by the support of therapists, professional psychologists, community action or other, will be reversed.

Op-ed: 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.



Mediterranean: Rescue Operation and Hope for Sophia’s Ships

While an NGO ship could disembarked 39 rescued people in an Italian port, a meeting of EU foreign ministers raised hopes that Operation Sophia will see the return of its ships and boost rescue capacity on the Mediterranean.

On Tuesday, the rescue vessel Ocean Viking disembarked 39 people, including 19 minors, in the Italian port of Pozzallo. The ship, operated jointly by the NGOs SOS Mediterranée and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), rescued the group last Friday off the coast of Libya. France, Germany and Luxembourg agreed to welcome 20 of them.

The ad-hoc agreement comes amid a decision by EU foreign ministers on Monday to reinstate the navel assets of EU NAVFOR Med operation Sophia to enforce a potential cease-fire in Libya and a UN arms embargo. Operation Sophia was set up in 2015, also to “combat people smugglers operating from the Libyan coast”. It was suspended as a naval mission in March 2019, after Italy repeatedly objected to letting rescued asylum seekers land in its ports. The operation is currently limited to aerial surveillance but its mandate is up for review and expected to be extended beyond its official ending in March. Although not a rescue mission, operation Sophia saved over 50, 000 people in the Mediterranean between 2015 and 2019.

Joseph Borrell, High Representative of the European Union, who was leading the meeting of Foreign Ministers, declined to say whether the vessels in the future framework will save people trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean. By international law, any ship is obliged to rescue people in distress at sea.

As of January 21 IOM recorded 63 deaths in 2020 of people trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean.

For further information: 



Serbia Shows European Solidarity in Greece - France Follows up on Mixed Promises

Local media reports that Serbian and Greek authorities have reached an agreement to relocate 100 unaccompanied children from Greece to Serbia. France is following up on promises to relocate 400 people from Greece with particular priority to families and vulnerable individuals.

At a meeting in Athens last week, George Koumoutsakos, Greek Alternate Minister for Immigration Policy, Domna Michailidou, Greek Deputy Labour and Social Affairs Minister, and Serbian Ambassador to Greece Dusan Spasojevic reached an agreement on the relocation of 100 unaccompanied children from Greece to Serbia. The selection will be managed by the Greek National Centre of Social Solidarity and the relocation by UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). According to Koumoutsakos the Serbian example should inspire EU member states: “The participation of Serbia – a country that does not belong to the EU yet – in the relocation program for unaccompanied children is the start of activation of European countries for similar commitments.”

Following a meeting with Koumoutsakos in Athens on Monday January 20th French Deputy Interior Minister Laurent Nunez confirmed that French specialists will arrive in Greece to prepare the relocation of 400 vulnerable people from Greece, with the relocation expected to be completed by the summer. The French relocation initiative is part of a broader package of measures. They include increasing the number of French officials aiding the European Border and Coast Guard Agency Frontex from 176 to 200, merging return flights from France and Greece, the issuing of return permits from the French Embassy in Greece and the stationing of additional French officials at Greek airports to link secondary transfers within the EU.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) as of January 12th Greece has received a total of 1756 new arrivals in 2020. In 2019 the total of arrivals by sea and land to Greece was 74,613.

For further information:



Italy: Updated Report on the Reception System with a Focus on the Situation for Dublin Returnees

This week the Swiss Refugee Council OSAR published an updated report on the situation of asylum seekers and beneficiaries of international protection in Italy. The report is part of a broader project of monitoring the Italian Asylum System with a particular focus on difficulties faced by people transferred under the Dublin III Regulation.

Given its geographical position, Italy is the main destination for transfers from Switzerland under the Dublin regulation, receiving 35 per cent of all transfers. The so-called Salvini decree restricted the access to second-line reception centres (SIPROIMI) in Italy to people with international protection and unaccompanied minors, leaving Dublin returnees including vulnerable people in the first-line reception centres. Most of these centres were originally established as emergency centres (CAS) and the quality of services according to the report: “have further deteriorated significantly.”

There is no standardized procedure at the national level for Dublin returnees to reenter the reception system, people often face bureaucratic difficulties in accessing the legal and reception procedures, often finding themselves irregular and homeless. Further, the weakness of social welfare, housing, employment and integration programs contribute to generally challenging conditions for refugees and asylum seekers in Italy.

Finally, particular attention is given to the conditions of vulnerable people. The report denounces the systemic deficiencies in the recognition of the victims of human trafficking and the impact of the recent reform on vulnerable asylums seekers (including families), no longer entitled to second-line accommodations.

The Swiss Refugee Council recommends states participating in Dublin not to transfer vulnerable people to Italy. In any other cases, responsible authorities should conduct a detailed individual assessment, including asking Italian authorities for accurate information about the reception facility allocated to the person.

For further information:


Spain: Two Persons Pushed Back to Morocco after 300 attempt to Cross Border Fence in Ceuta

On 19 January, the NGO ELIN reported the summary expulsion by Spanish authorities of two people who managed to cross the border between the Spanish enclave Ceuta and Morocco.

According to the NGO based in the Spanish enclave, a few hours before the Moroccan authorities had blocked the attempt of over 300 people to climb the border fence. Witnesses reported that the Moroccan police brutally repressed the crossing and many people were brought to the hospital later.

The two men were the only ones able to reach Spanish territory, one by climbing the barbwire and the other one by bypassing the breakwater. Once in Spain, the men received medical aid by the Red Cross before the national authorities pushed them back to Morocco, preventing them from applying for asylum or being returned through a fair process.

In 2019, arrivals to the Spanish enclaves dropped significantly because of the reinforced cooperation with Morocco and the strengthening of border controls. Even those who manage to cross are subject to accelerated “border procedures”.

The push-back operation is the first one at the enclaves since the coming into power of the new Spanish government. The coalation deal signed between the parties Podemos and PSOE stated: “We are going to promote a fair European policy for migration, putting in place legal and secure paths, in the respect of Human Rights and the universal freedoms and the principles settled by the EU (unofficial translation)”. ELIN is calling the new government coalition to live up to its promises to eliminate these illegal practices that have been going on for decades without legal consequences.

For further information:


Germany: Dublin Transfer to Denmark despite Church Asylum

The ecumenical network Asylum in Churches in Germany reported that on January 13, 2020, German immigration authorities have taken a young Afghan man out of “Church asylum” and transferred him to Denmark under the Dublin III Regulation, where he may face deportation to Afghanistan.

The man’s parents and minor brother also received Church Asylum until November 2019 and are now in an asylum procedure in Germany. By providing sanctuary the church hoped to prevent the family’s transfer to Denmark and a subsequent chain deportation to Afghanistan. With his transfer, the family was separated. In North-Rhine Westphalia, the regional government guaranteed not to intervene in cases of church asylum as a matter of principle since 1995. The instance is the first time public authorities forcefully intervened in such a sanctuary in four years.

In Germany, Church asylum is the temporary sanctuary offered by religious institutions to people facing deportations to protect them from undue hardship. Most cases concern the transfers to another European member state under the Dublin III Regulation, where people face homelessness, inadequate support, inhumane and degrading treatment and deportations to their country of origin. There are currently 425 cases of church asylum in Germany, providing sanctuary to 678 persons including 147 children; 382 of the cases are Dublin transfers.

2019 already saw a stark decline in Church Asylum cases. By August 2019 the Germany Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) accepted only 5 out of 304 cases, meaning that only 1,6% of the parishes requests were accepted, a further decrease from 2018, when 14% (77 out of 570) were accepted. In 2016, the acceptance rate was as high as 80%.

The pastor of the church hosting the young man, Manuel Linke, is stunned by the decision of the German immigration authority to break with the accepted form of sanctuary for asylum seekers. His community is convinced that it is correct and legitimate to protect asylum seekers from deportations, when facing hardship.

Last week, in a show of solidarity from civil society, dozens of German municipalities asserted their willingness to welcome asylum seekers and demanded action from the German government to take in more people rescued in the Mediterranean or stranded in Greece, Italy, or Libya.

For further information:



Human Rights Committee: Effects of Climate Change Can Trigger Non-Refoulement Obligations

On 7 January 2020, the Human Rights Committee (the Committee) published its views on an alleged violation of the right to life as a result of the effects of climate change.

The applicant, a national of the Republic of Kiribati, was denied international protection status in New Zealand and was subsequently removed to his country of origin. He claimed that the effects of climate change and sea level rise had resulted in the contamination of fresh drinking water, and prompted increasingly violent land disputes. The Committee observed that the primary issue to determine in this case was whether the State had arbitrarily or erroneously evaluated the applicant’s complaint that his return violated his right to life.

No violation of the individuals’ right to life was found in this case. However, the Committee noted that without robust national and international efforts, the effects of climate change in receiving states may expose individuals to violations of right to life and therefore give rise to non-refoulement obligations of returning states in future.

A general situation of violence is only sufficient to establish a real risk to the right to life in the most extreme cases. The Committee found that the applicant had not demonstrated a clear arbitrariness or error in the domestic authorities’ assessment of a real, personal and foreseeable risk of threat to life resulting from violence due to land disputes. Amongst other things, the Committee observed that the timeframe of 10 to 15 years before the island becomes uninhabitable would allow for intervening acts and affirmative measures by the States and the international community to protect and relocate individuals.


Correction Weekly Bulletin 16 January 2020
The article “Safe Ports in Italy for 237 People but 1000 Returned to Detention in Libya” featured in the Weekly Bulletin sent out 16 January included the information that IOM had suspended its voluntary return programme - in fact the programme was temporarily interrupted because of intensified fighting but is now running again.



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.

#FairLassen …: For independent legal assistance in the asylum process. Against isolation.  The Austrian legal reform of May 2019 jeopardises dignified asylum procedures in line with European law. We demand the provision of independent legal assistance, dignified reception conditions and integration instead of isolation for people seeking protection in Austria.





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