The Refugee Crisis Isn’t Over: Why we urgently need policy reform
Following a period of volunteering in Greece, Rhiannon Osborne shares her arguments for policy reform in Europe.
I have recently returned to the U.K. after volunteering on the Greek island of Chios. Our team works with the authorities and a medical team 24/7 to provide clothes and other essentials to refugees on arrival, and also manages longer term projects in the camp, Vial. I was shocked by the conditions facing those arriving in Europe, many fleeing persecution and violence in their home countries, and the avoidable nature of the tragedy I saw before me.
The camps in Greece have been described as humanitarian crisis zones and NGOs have documented evidence of widespread human rights violations. Vial is no exception. With an original capacity of around 1100, the camp and surrounding area now holds roughly 6000-7000 people. The living conditions for most, including young children and families, are difficult to describe in words. There are barely any blankets or tents, and thunderstorms have washed away many of the flimsy covers and makeshift shelters. There is, on average, 1 toilet between 300 people and minimal rubbish collection. Waste accumulates at an alarming rate, and the unhealthy and dangerous environment poses a threat to the physical and mental health of every resident. People who have suffered torture and abuse are facing prolonged mental health crises due to the degrading camp conditions and lack of care. This situation is replicated across the Greek islands. Several organisations have called for refugees to be evacuated in significant numbers into other countries.
Not only are the conditions disturbing, but the lack of access to asylum procedures means that people remain in the camps for extended periods of time. Barriers include lack of information on procedures, lack of legal assistance and translation, poor protection of vulnerable people and long delays in assessing asylum claims. Many refugees have lost their documentation in the arduous journey and struggle to meet paperwork requirements. As well as delays, inadequate asylum procedures often lead to unfair rejections. This leaves many asylum seekers waiting years for information, appointments, decisions and appeals, while in the meantime receiving barely any social and economic support.
In 2020, the Greek government has plans to move 20,000 people to the mainland into detention centres, despite the fact that the mainland camps are already full, and to replace the open reception camps on the islands with new detention centres. NGOs fear these will become prison-like and just as degrading as the camps, with asylum seekers, including children, detained for long periods of time without legitimate reason.
The conditions forced upon vulnerable people, usually fleeing war and persecution, are not only in breach of basic human rights, but also highlight the devastating effect of policies that fail to recognise the reality on the ground.
Source: Médecins Sans Frontiers
Creating a crisis
Looking at the situation in Greece, one could assume that Europe is facing an unmanageable number of refugees and migrants. In fact – Europe only receives around 2% of the world’s refugees. Up to 50,000 people have reached the Greek islands so far this year, and the number of people crossing the Aegean is on the rise. However, the vast majority of refugees, around 85%, are hosted by developing countries. The situation in Greece is less about volume of arrivals and much more about poor policy making.
The extreme pressure facing Greece and other EU states is strongly related to the Dublin III regulation of the Common European Asylum System, which obliges the first country an asylum seeker enters to assess their application. The EU closed the borders along the Western Balkan route in 2016 and between 2015 and 2018 there was an over 400% increase in claims for asylum in Greece. As well as overstretching the Greek asylum system, this regulation is also misused to punish refugees by denying them access to housing and services in the second or third state they apply in.
In theory, children with family members somewhere in Europe are eligible for family reunification into that country regardless of the country of entry. Despite this, the number of unaccompanied refugee and migrant children in Greece is now the highest since 2016, partly due to the slow relocation process, lack of political will and improper evaluation of claims. The conditions continue to put minors and children in danger of immediate harm.
The squalid conditions and slow processing of applications on the islands are also due to the Containment Policy, in which new arrivals are banned from travelling to mainland Greece until their asylum claims have been processed. This ‘hotspot’ approach has failed to bring about effective procedures, placed disproportionate pressure on states at the EU’s external borders and has trapped refugees and displaced people in inhumane conditions for prolonged periods of time. The policy has also increased the strain on the local people of the Greek Islands, who have often voiced frustration at the handling of the situation.
Source: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam
In the meantime, refugees are still dying at sea. Earlier in January, 11 people, including 8 children, drowned in the Aegean. EU states cannot agree on an operational plan for search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean with disembarkation in the EU, often arguing that rescues create a ‘pull’ factor for more people to attempt the crossing. Statistical analysis has found no correlation between the presence of NGO rescue boats and departures, and the ‘pull’ factor argument has been extensively debunked more broadly. The ‘push’ factors, driving people to flee their home countries, are far more powerful than the risk of drowning in the Mediterranean. States’ reluctance to take responsibility for search and rescue, as well as the policy of outlawing the work of NGOs attempting to fill this gap, has exacerbated voters’ sense that the EU has lost control of the situation.
Attempts at reforming the EU asylum system have stalled since 2018 and fair distribution of responsibility for examining asylum claims is the most controversial topic. While Angela Merkel has sought an EU-wide deal which would see the responsibility of asylum seekers spread more evenly throughout the bloc, countries such as Poland and Hungary have refused any mandatory redistribution and frequently backed nationalist, anti-migrant policies. Some progress is being made, however. In late 2019, a few EU countries, including France and Germany, announced voluntary plans to automatically relocate migrants rescued in the Mediterranean to other EU states, where their request for asylum will be processed.
Between all member states, the number of arrivals in Europe is manageable. It is the failure to share responsibility that drives the idea that numbers are unmanageable.
Out of sight, out of rights?
Unable to decide on internal policy, Europe has pushed for reforms that would increase the role of ‘safe third countries’ in hosting migrants.
A major aspect of this strategy is the EU-Turkey agreement. In short, the deal agreed that every person arriving irregularly to the Greek islands would be returned to Turkey and that Turkey would prevent boats from reaching Greek waters. In exchange, EU Member States would take a Syrian refugee from Turkey for every Syrian returned from the islands. The dramatic reduction in people reaching the EU has been hailed as a success for the deal, but the deal, in practice, has had deleterious effects for thousands of refugees and left many stranded in legal limbo in the Greek islands.
The EU, since the deal, has only resettled around 20,000 Syrians from Turkey. Few refugees, especially non-Syrians, meet the resettlement criteria and even then, are very slow to be transferred. Returns of rejected asylum seekers from Greece to Turkey are also low. Meanwhile, Turkey is receiving over €6 billion of EU funding, despite a number of concerns regarding fair access to asylum and serious human rights violations. Turkey has also frequently deported people to conflict zones including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Source: Sam Tarling/Oxfam
It is also problematic politically for Europe to rely so heavily on Turkey. Erdogan recently threated to ‘open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees’ over the Aegean Sea and into Europe if it tries to interfere with Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria. The threat is so effective, not because refugees are a threat, but because Europe’s asylum system is wholly unprepared for any major influx of people.
Apart from Turkey, a second major player is Libya. The EU has supported the Libyan coastguard in intercepting boats and facilitating their return to Libya. Support has included financing, training and equipping the Libyan cost-guard, whilst blocking non-governmental search and rescue operations. People returned to Libya face arbitrary detention, torture and slavery. Trapping people in Libya or sending them back to a country where they face ill-treatment is not only legally questionable but also counterproductive, since many later escape and attempt the boat journey again. While the number of boats arriving in Europe has decreased and the number returning to Libya has increased, the death rate for migrants has risen.
International law requires that countries abide by the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits refugees from being returned back to a situation of risk. Consequently, it seems obvious that the EU should only cooperate with countries that obey international human rights law and have a functioning asylum system. These requirements would raise serious questions about the current EU-Turkey and EU-Libya agreements.
What role can the UK play?
Within the EU, the UK already has a selective relationship with the Common European Asylum System and has opted out of agreements that improve reception conditions, family reunification, asylum conditions and qualification procedures. Compared to other EU countries, the UK has a relatively low number of asylum seekers, with UK applications representing only about 6% of asylum seekers who applied for protection in the EU. Despite this, the UK has been the largest recipient of the EU Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund. Replacing these funds, which finance support and integration for refugees living in the UK, will be essential after Brexit. Additionally, Refugee Rights Europe is concerned that Brexit ‘may lead to a weakening of protections afforded to refugees and asylum seekers’.
The UK is party to the Dublin regulations, which, despite their flaws, help to facilitate family reunion of refugees. Family reunion accounted for over 80% of incoming transfers to the UK in 2018. Withdrawal from this aspect of the Dublin system after Brexit could result in the loss of a safe and legal route for the reunification of separated families and leave applicants in legal limbo. Brexit could also result in the curtailment of the protection of unaccompanied refugee children, whose rights are weaker under UK immigration law than EU law. In the 2018 withdrawal agreement, UK participation in the Dublin System would have continued until the end of the transition period, giving enough time to negotiate new arrangements for asylum cooperation. The agreement also pledged to protect child refugees’ rights to family reunification. The new withdrawal bill has scrapped the obligation to negotiate a new deal for child refugees.
Brexit could, however, be an opportunity to re-examine the UK asylum system, as well as the relationship with the EU asylum system. The UK could learn valuable lessons from its small but successful resettlement programmes, where people are granted refugee status or protection while abroad and then brought to live in the UK. An essential part of any holistic view of the UK’s asylum policy would be to prevent harmful foreign policy that contributes to the increasing number of global refugees – the sale of arms to the Saudi-led collation in Yemen being a prime example. Rather than demonising migrants and refugees, the UK could be a proud advocate of refugee rights and fair and efficient asylum procedures.
The challenges of 2015 exposed numerous flaws in the European asylum system, which, despite significant efforts, are yet to be resolved. There is, however, no lack of credible suggestions for reform, so why has more not been done?
A larger challenge facing European politicians hoping for positive change is the perception of migrants and asylum seekers in public opinion, the media and more right-wing political groups. In order to achieve successful reform, we must cease to see refugees as a threat and instead be proud of our international duty to take in vulnerable people fleeing danger. European countries must also recognise the proven benefits of fair, integrative migration. With rapidly ageing populations, few countries in the Global North could sustain themselves without migration.
It is time for Europe and the UK to recognise the failings of their current agenda and design am asylum system that is efficient, fair, and most importantly, humane.