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.

8 January 2016
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Navigating the Maze: ECRE publishes report following fact-finding visit to Austria

ECRE has published a report this week on a fact-finding visit to Austria conducted at the beginning of December 2015. It reveals obstacles to accessing protection in the country and documents the shortcomings in the reception system.
The report finds severe restrictions on asylum seekers’ access to the procedure, stemming from severe delays in even the first stages of registration – such as the first interview with the police (Erstbefragung) – as well as from the legal formalities attached to registration. The latter may often not be completed if there is no reception place available for the applicant.
Additionally, the use of Dublin procedures, even where there is no prospect of transferring a person to another country, further impedes access to the Austrian asylum process, while people may wait for over a year for a substantive decision by the asylum authority on their claim.
This state of legal limbo is coupled with an escalating phenomenon of homelessness or inadequate accommodation, thereby running the risk of making destitution part of the asylum system itself. The report highlights that over 7,000 asylum seekers are currently residing in transit centres for a long period of time. These generally consist of big halls or tents with rows of beds; offering some sanitary facilities, but not meant for long-term use. These conditions are not in compliance with the recast Reception Conditions Directive as they offer little if any privacy, no special provisions for vulnerable persons, no trained staff and substandard sanitary conditions.
These observations are corroborated by the findings of the updated AIDA report on Austria, published in December 2015.
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New AIDA Legal Briefing on Age Assessment

ECRE’s Asylum Information Database (AIDA) has published its fifth legal briefing on age assessment. Examining the core principles governing the treatment of children in the asylum process, namely the “best interests of the child” and the “benefit of the doubt”, which together underpin all actions affecting children and requires public authorities to treat asylum seekers as children when in doubt as to their minority or majority.

An overview of practices in European countries in this briefing identifies areas where these principles are at risk of being sidestepped by asylum authorities when conducting age assessments. The over-reliance of States on medical methods of age determination exposes children too readily to intrusive examinations of dubious accuracy, which are often immune from legal challenge. At the same time, in some cases, States are treating self-declared minors as adults until their age has been confirmed, thereby exposing them to detention and deportation, as well as preventing them from accessing the safeguards that are in place for children in the asylum procedure.

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AIDA Update Italy: new rules on asylum procedures and reception and concerns over "hotspots"

The updated AIDA report on Italy documents the changes brought about by the implementation of the EU recast Reception Conditions Directive and recast Asylum Procedures Directive.

Legislative Decree 142/2015, which entered into force at the end of September 2015, details a new reception system which remains substantially the same as the previous one, and consists of two stages: at first asylum seekers are placed in first aid and reception centres (CPSA), first accommodation centres (CPA) or temporary centres for emergency reception (CAS), and subsequently, in protection centres for asylum seekers and refugees (SPRAR), being the second reception stage. Moreover, The Decree introduced an accelerated procedure for the first time, applicable to asylum claims made from administrative detention centres.

The report also documents the situation regarding relocation and "hotspots". The Italian Council for Refugees (CIR), author of the report, expresses concern at the lack of involvement of NGOs in the relocation process, where their contribution could be extremely valuable. CIR calls for an independent and qualified monitoring system to be put in place. Regarding the "hotspots", the report shows how Italian authorities have applied a pre-identification approach, whereas those identified as migrants are notified with a rejection/expulsion order and, where places are available, detained in the identification and expulsion centres. Those identified as asylum seekers are instead channeled to the Regional Hubs, where they can claim asylum and, if they are Syrians, Eritreans and Iraqis, may fall into the relocation process.

A number of issues have been raised in relation to the operation of "hotspots", such as the limitation of access to the asylum procedure for specific nationalities, mainly from West Africa; the issuing of mass notifications of a rejection/expulsion order; the lack of, or, inadequate information on the procedure and on the asylum system provided and the lack of access to the "hotspots" for NGOs and UNHCR.

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Sweden and Denmark introduce border checks

For the first time since the introduction of the Nordic Passport Union in 1957, travellers by train, bus or boat entering Sweden from Denmark are now required to present a valid photo ID in a move by the Swedish government to control the number of people crossing into the country. This move by Sweden was followed by the Danish government announcing that it was stepping up the border controls on its southern border with Germany.  

These measures, introduced on 4 January, are an attempt to reduce the number of people seeking asylum arriving in these countries, with Sweden having secured a temporary exemption from the EU’s Schengen Agreement rules after receiving some 160,000 asylum applications in 2015.

The latest temporary border controls led EU Migration Commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, to call a meeting with Sweden and Denmark on 6 January. Commissioner Avramopoulos said in a press conference after this meeting that all parties ‘agreed that Schengen and free movement must be safeguarded’, and that it had been agreed that the measures taken will be kept to a minimum and return to normal as soon as possible.

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Malta’s new migration strategy ends automatic detention

Malta has introduced a new migration strategy which ends its practice of automatic detention of people that have entered the state irregularly. It also introduces into national law, grounds for detention, and alternatives to detention.

The reform means that migrants will be accommodated, medically screened and processed in a closed Initial Reception Centre for up to 7 days, where they will be informed of their right to apply for international protection. In addition, they will be assessed for vulnerability to enable the proper support to be given, and procedures may be done to verify their age. Following this, asylum seekers may only be detained if one of the six grounds for detention set out in EU asylum law is met (Article 8, Reception Conditions Directive). Migrants may also be detained if they have been issued a return decision. Vulnerable persons will not be detained, and will be accommodated in open centres following their release from the Initial Reception Centre.

The strategy has been welcomed by Maltese civil society, including ECRE member, aditus foundation and JRS Malta. aditus Director Neil Falzon said “it is positive to see Malta finally moving from a system of automatic detention to one based on individual assessments of each case”. 

However he also pointed out various shortcomings of the strategy. It seems that only those arriving irregularly by boat, and not those arriving by regular means who subsequently seek asylum, will be channelled through the Initial Reception Centres, possibly due to the false and discriminatory assumption that they are more likely to carry infectious diseases. This also raises issues as to the identification of vulnerable people and age assessment of those who entered regularly, who bypass these centres. The situation of migrants denied entry to Malta at the airport also remains unclear, particularly in relation to their detention and their possibility to challenge it. The strategy also confuses the concept of alternatives to detention, which should only be considered where a ground for detention is applicable, and not in all cases as the strategy indicates. 

aditus foundation and JRS Malta are now looking forward to assessing the policy’s impact on the ground.

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Asylum reforms in Ireland will fail refugees

A controversial reform to the asylum law in Ireland, the International Protection Act 2015, has been signed into law just 6 weeks after it first came before the legislature. The commencement date for the new law is yet to be announced.
It streamlines procedures, creating a single application process for all applicants of international protection aimed at speeding up waiting times and reducing time spent in the Direct Provision system of reception. However, ECRE Member, the Irish Refugee Council, raised concerns that there are insufficient safeguards to allow full and proper consideration of claims which risk incorrect decisions being made at first instance. This could lead to people wrongfully being deported to countries where they face persecution, or lengthy and costly appeals at the higher courts, which could prolong the process contrary to the stated aim.  In addition, the procedure lacks a mechanism to quickly identify and assess the needs of vulnerable applicants. Harsher detention measures are also now available in the Act.  Furthermore, the reform contains more restrictive provisions in relation to family reunification with dependent extended family members and those who have gotten married after the submission of their application for international protection now excluded.

The Irish Refugee Council views the new legislation as a ‘step backwards’ as compared to the previous regime. It was also criticised for the way in which it was enacted, ignoring widespread concerns by NGOs and others, with minimal time allowed for political debate and amendments. Many of its recommendations were not taken into account, making it a missed opportunity to address failings in the previous system, such as the failure to embed the principle of the best interests of the child or issues surrounding reception facilities in the system of Direct Provision

Its CEO, Sue Conlan stated that “at a time when Ireland should be increasing the role that it plays in response to the refugee crisis, this Act will mean that many will not get the protection that they need.”

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Western Balkan Brief: Refugees waiting day and night in snowy winter conditions

Winter conditions in late December have made it extremely difficult for refugees crossing the Western Balkans. Refugees arrived on foot, in the snow and the cold, to Tabanovce in the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), after having waited for hours, sometimes for a day and a night in difficult conditions, ECRE reports in the latest Western Balkan news brief, from 12 to 31 December.

Reception capacities have improved but are still insufficient. Once they crossed the border many refugees were forced to continue the journey on foot, in the snow, as they had no access to transport; a taxi strike in late December also caused refugees to wait out in the snow for 24 hours.

Refugees have been gathering at a gas station beside a bus terminal near Idomeni, on the Greek side of the Macedonian border. As they waited to cross the border, some of them spent a day and night, out in the cold and snow. Volunteers distributed food and other necessities. There is an evacuated camp near Idomeni, but it seems that refugees are not as yet allowed access to the camp by the police, and have to remain in the gas station.

Refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan (SIA) are still the only ones getting access to the Western Balkan countries, as authorities deny entry to all other nationalities. Non-SIA refugees have started avoiding Idomeni, exploring new routes to enter the FYROM on foot, many of them very dangerous.
Martina Smilevska, MYLA President, remains concerned that selected border and registration practices will expose refugees at higher risks of smuggling and trafficking.

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UK Government urged to do more to address refugee crisis

A coalition of 27 aid and refugee agencies has called on the UK to improve the government’s response to the refugee crisis, while a report from the House of Commons International Development Committee (IDC) has released its conclusions and recommendations on the Syrian refugee crisis.

In an open letter from NGOs, coordinated by ECRE member the British Refugee Council, the British government’s response to the refugee crisis was described as ‘clearly inadequate’ and it was said that the UK’s commitment to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years, while welcome, was ‘too slow, too low and too narrow’.

The letter urges that the UK takes a fair and proportionate number of refugees, that safe and legal routes to the UK, as well as to Europe, be established, and that there should be fair procedures to determine eligibility for international protection.    

The recommendations from the House of Commons committee also included suggestions for further action from the British government, namely that 3,000 unaccompanied children are resettled in the UK on top of the current resettlement commitment of 20,000 people. It also branded the substantial reduction in state funding of English language classes as ‘counterproductive’ to the integration of refugees, and called for these cuts to be reconsidered.

The report’s conclusions also commended the UK’s commitment to funding humanitarian assistance in Syria and the neighbouring region, and asked the government to ensure that other donors honour their financial pledges made in Addis Ababa, with only 4 EU countries currently meeting agreed aid targets.

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