Over 5,000 migrants died attempting to reach Europe in 2016. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports an average of fourteen people lost their lives each and every day. Most of them were travelling the central Mediterranean route, often crammed into run-down boats and enduring horrific conditions.
It’s true that, in absolute terms, the number of migrants and refugees coming to Europe has fallen dramatically from its high-point of over one million in 2015. However, if anything, the crossings are now more fraught with peril than ever; in 2017, the number of people making the trip more than halved compared to 2016, yet the death rate has doubled. As the Prime Minister of Malta warned in 2013: the Mediterranean is becoming ‘a cemetery’.
Some EU countries are moving to allow legal ways to apply for asylum before crossing by sea. At an August 2017 summit in Paris, the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, and Spain agreed to a plan to open migrant processing centres in African countries such as Libya, Chad, and Niger. The move has been condemned by left-wing politicians because Libya does not have a functioning government and parts of the country are still effectively conflict zones.
In order to take a closer look at the local impact of the refugee crisis, we launched our ‘Cities & Refugees‘ project – aimed at fostering a Europe-wide dialogue between citizens, refugees and asylum seekers, NGOs, politicians, and European leaders. The emphasis will be on connecting local, everyday life at the city level to decisions made in Brussels and national capitals.
This week, we are looking at Athens, Greece. Greece currently hosts 63,000 refugees and asylum seekers, with approximately 14,000 of them on the mainland (including in reception centres in Athens). Despite significant sums of money being spent by the European Union (by some estimates over €675 million), conditions have been described by human rights groups as “unfit for humans” in Greek camps. Many arrivals have by now fallen outside the formal asylum system (with 2,500 people estimated to be living in squats or informal housing), meaning their request for asylum cannot be processed.
What do our readers think? We had a comment from Francesca, arguing that if the EU really wants to end the tragedy of migrant deaths at sea then it needs to “invest money in managing safe and legal ways for refugees to access protection in Europe and in establishing a mechanism for resettling refugees among ALL the 28 Member states”.
To get a response, we spoke to Judith Sunderland, Associate Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. What would she say to Francesca’s comment?
I would say that I completely agree, and that’s in fact one of the major recommendations that Human Rights Watch and virtually every other human rights and humanitarian organisation – as well as policy experts and think-tanks – have been making for the past countless number of years. More safe and legal channels for asylum seekers, refugees, and indeed migrants hoping to improve their opportunities, would be a significant way to minimise the recourse to dangerous migration.
No amount of safe and legal channels will eliminate dangerous migration, because the offer will never fully meet the demand, and there will always be people on the move and willing to take dramatic risks to find places of safety and to improve their lives and the lives of their loved ones. But if the EU countries together, or even individually, were to expand existing safe and legal channels, and increase the number of humanitarian visas given to people in embassies and consulates around the world so that they can travel lawfully and safely to an EU country in order to apply for asylum here; if they were to dramatically increase the number of recognised refugees – currently living in camps around the world – being resettled to European countries; if they were to facilitate family reunification so that people already here in Europe with some kind of status can bring their family members from their countries of origin or neighbouring countries where they have fled to join them in a safe and legal way; if EU countries were to do all those things that would help significantly to reduce the number of people who currently find themselves obliged to put their lives in the hands of unscrupulous smugglers and fate.
We also had a comment from Lidija, who argued that the refugee crisis has “exposed not only the inadequacy of its external borders, but the consequences of not having a uniform system for screening new arrivals or common criteria for determining who may stay. Someone rejected at one border might be accepted at another.” Is she right? How would Judith Sunderland respond?
Well, she is pointing to one of the bigger conundrums in all of this, which is that the EU does have a common asylum system, and binding EU law that requires all EU Member States to provide fair and efficient asylum procedures and certain material reception conditions for asylum seekers, and a whole range of guarantees and rights to which asylum seekers are entitled. Those rights should be guaranteed across all EU countries, but the fact of the matter is that they are not, and there are huge disparities in the kinds of procedures that are implemented and the entitlements and the rights that asylum seekers and refugees enjoy in different EU countries.
One of the things that the most recent crisis – which really flared up in 2015 – has laid bare is the fallacy of this common European asylum system, which is in reality not at all harmonised. You have that on the one hand and on the other you have what are called the Dublin Regulations, which generally insists that it is the first country of arrival in the EU that has to take responsibility for an asylum application. What that does it put an unfair burden on countries on the EU’s external borders, and particularly countries like Greece and Italy, and to a far lesser extent Spain, which are all exposed to land and sea arrivals. And, of course, there are countries on the Eastern border of the EU which are also subject to land arrivals.
So, it is a big issue that many experts and officials at both the EU and national level are trying to sort out. In the long run, we argue that there should be a concerted effort to bring all countries up to quite a high minimum standard laid out in EU law and in conformity with international law and human rights law. But what we’re seeing instead, in an effort to harmonise procedures, is actually more of a race in the other direction, a race to the bottom. It’s part of an effort to make Europe a more hostile environment for asylum seekers, according to this rather bizarre logic that this might discourage people from coming. So, in various countries across the union you have efforts to reduce benefits, reduce entitlements, change procedures in ways that limit peoples rights within the procedure, including to appeal negative decisions…
Should there be legal ways for refugees to enter Europe? Would that help cut down on the number of migrant deaths each year? Would it discourage people from risking their lives to reach the EU? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!