The EU needs a humane policy on asylum and borders that can obtain majority support in elections and produce an immediate impact in the Mediterranean. To get there it needs to learn from what has worked and what has failed, and apply it in Greece and Italy.
The state of EU policy on asylum, borders and migration at this moment is as follows. EU member states have never made the Dublin system, which has been in force for decades, work in practice. Most member states have been unable to set up and maintain fast and quality asylum procedures. All member states are failing to return a majority of those who have no claim to remain in the EU to their countries of origin. The EU and its member states are also failing to enforce humane reception standards for asylum seekers on its own territory. They were unable to implement the relocation scheme announced in September 2015, which has now come to an end. The whole of the EU resettled fewer refugees in 2016 than Canada.
The EU needs to take concrete steps towards a better system, starting with the current crisis in the Mediterranean. To succeed it needs to learn lessons from what has worked in the past two years.
Lessons from the Aegean – a Tsipras plan for the EU
In March 2016 the EU-Turkey statement laid a basis for diffusing the refugee crisis in the Aegean. Crossings fell from 115,000 in the first two months of 2016 to 3,300 in June and July 2016. The number of people who drowned in the Aegean fell from 366 people in the first three months of the year to seven between May and July 2016. This was achieved without pushing refugees towards more dangerous routes and without any mass expulsions from Greece. In fact, more people (967) had been sent back from Greece to Turkey in the three months pre- ceding the agreement than in the first twelve months after it was concluded (918).
Today there is nonetheless a growing risk that the EU-Turkey statement will fail, largely because the Greek asylum system is unable to decide on asylum claims within a few weeks. Reception conditions on the islands do not meet European standards. And relocation of refugees from the mainland to other EU countries has come to an end.
The key to ensuring the continued success of the EU-Turkey statement lies in processing asylum applications quickly. What is needed is an initiative by the Greek government. First, reception conditions on the Greek islands must improve immediately. One way to achieve this is to set up EU reception and identification centres (RIC) fully funded by the EU, with clear management. Such EU RICs must meet all legal standards concerning accommodation, social services and security. In parallel there needs to be a commitment to islanders that nobody will stay in these centres longer than two months. In this time decisions should be taken on who can safely be returned to Turkey and who is moved to the mainland. The Greek government should set up additional appeals committees for the islands, with members that work full time. It should aim for asylum decisions to take no longer than in the Netherlands.
In order to be able to send applicants back to Turkey, Greece and the EU also need to obtain individual guarantees from Turkey. The European Court of Human Rights, in a series of decisions on Dublin transfers (from Belgium to Greece or from Switzerland to Italy), has defined what is required based on the European Convention on Human Rights. There also needs to be a credible monitoring mechanism. The EU should suspend Dublin returns to Greece (which have been symbolic in recent years in any case). Member states should continue with the relocation of recognised asylum seekers, irrespective of their nationality, from the Greek mainland.
Such a plan would ensure that the Aegean islands do not turn into a European Nauru, the Paci c island where Australia has taken asylum seekers to remain for years under inhumane conditions. When presenting his plan, Greece’s Prime Minister should also call on member states to accept more refugees directly from Turkey and announce that Greece is prepared to resettle 2,000 people in the coming year. The goal is not to build fortress Europe but to stop irregular arrivals and save lives.
Lessons from the Aegean for Italy
There are also important les- sons to learn from the Aegean for the Central Mediterranean, where the majority of people arriving are from West Africa. In 2016 more than 100,000 migrants arrived in Italy from six West African countries. While the majority of asylum claims by citizens of these countries are rejected, the total number of voluntary and forced returns of citizens of these states from Italy to their countries of origin in 2016 was 255!
African countries are suspicious of readmission agreements under which they would have to take back an unlimited number of their citizens who have arrived in the EU in the past. Ensuring that Nigeria, Senegal and other countries take back their nationals who do not qualify for protection after an agreed date should be the chief priority in talks between the EU and African countries of origin – similar to the commitment that Turkey made to take back, without delay, people who arrive in Greece after 20 March 2016. The EU should focus on reaching return agreements between the EU and African countries of origin which focus on those who arrive in Italy after a day X, when these agreements enter into force. In return the EU should offer these countries concrete benefits, from scholarships to visa facilitation and schemes for regular work migration.
A second obstacle to return those rejected to countries of origin is extremely slow asylum procedures. According to an annual report published by SPRAR, an official network of reception centres, in June 2017 the average length of an asylum procedure until the last instance in recent years was 1,718 days. In the end (almost) everyone remains in Italy anyway – whether protection was granted or not. Working on changing this should be a European, not just Italian, priority.
A different, humane and effective policy is possible. The Mediterranean is the place to start. The time to do so is now.