At the Centre Stage:
On 22 June 2021, Kevin Featherstone, Professor in Contemporary Greek Studies, and Professor in European Politics at London School of Economics delivered the 18th Hellenic Observatory Annual Lecture. The lecture opened up a critical discussion about the political and legal frameworks of movement to and within the European Union (EU), the crisis management at the EU’s external borders and local practices of reception and integration of refugees in the different EU member countries. Notis Mitarachi, Greece’s Minister of Migration and Asylum and Maria Gavouneli a president of the Greek national commission of Human rights presented a recap of the situation in EU Frontex countries along with the main thematic fields: (1) Border management and security, (2) Refugee protection regimes, (3) Reception policies and (4) Integration policies.
Decoding in detail:
Greece has been at the epicenter of much of the migration crisis in the Mediterranean. The accommodation and processing of asylum-seekers and refugees in Greece has proved both challenging and controversial. However, there are also major implications of the crisis for the European Union and its individual member states in their burden sharing as Notis Mitarachi pointed out. What are the lessons from this humanitarian crisis on Europe’s shores? We explore the ways forward.
Europe’s enduring crisis that how manage and process the flow of refugees and asylum seekers as many flee oppression and persecution in countries such Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and many others. As its peek as the UNHCR estimated in 2015 that Greece received some 850 000 refugees since then the number of new immigrants has fallen very significantly after the EU agreed a new deal with Turkey in 2016 in order to try to stop the flow of irregular migrants. The new deal with Turkey is at the top of the agenda for this week’s European council meeting.
Still today, thousands of desperate people languish in overcrowded camps as national authorities, the EU, and the UN struggle with the numbers. This is the crisis in which Europe is said not to have shared burden instead, governments shifted the blame and responsibility to others. He asked How is Greece coping with the crisis?, what can Greece expect from Europe?
Greece has been at the core of much of the Mediterranean migration issue. The accommodation and processing of refugees and immigrants in Greece have been difficult and controversial. However, the crisis has significant ramifications for the European Union and its individual member states in terms of burden sharing.
Migration is and will remain a challenge for Europe and the Western world as millions of people migrate every year. Furthermore, migration can be distinguished between legal migration and irregular migration. While legal migration involves people moving to another country for studying, working or for investment or for other reasons prescribed in national legislation, and major universities around the world like LSE play a key role in advancing global mobility and legal migration.
Moreover, Mitarachi commented that legal migration for example led to economic development in the city of London in the previous decades. Greece supports legal migration and it is stated position in the developing negotiation for the new European partner migration asylum that European needs to work more in providing legal pathways. It is worth noting that the demographic situation in Europe now does require measures to increase the population in a sustainable way while migration does play an important role. We need to say at the same time to consider the extent the limits to which Europe can apply a successful integration policy when it comes to migration.
In the current situation, structural changes like the internet, social media especially smartphones has clearly changed the dynamic of migration. People now are enabling to have easy access to all over the world. They can visualize the life of the west compared to the economic social-democratic environment versus their home countries as a destination of migration. They use all means they can communicate with relatives and link also to smuggling networks, they can plan the route their travel and this clearly a structural change. Climate change is also a structural change that will further fuel migration in the years and decades to come according to many studies. On the top, we anticipate the cyclical impact. As the cyclical change of the post-pandemic world as unemployment and lack of social welfare, systems in a number of countries are expected to increase global imbalances. It is imperative that we should increase the support.
He also added, “We give to developing countries aiming to reduce the cost roots of irregular migration and work with them in establishing and managing legal pathways. We cannot leave the international migration to be managed by smuggling networks that make fortunes from people’s misfortunes”.
In fact, the basis of the refugee’s legislation is the 1951 Geneva Convention and article 31 it reads, “The countries should not impose penalties on account of their illegal entry or presence on refugees who come directly from a territory where their life and freedom was threatened, they present in the territory without authorization provided they present themselves.”
Today, Europe witnessed many of the irregular arrivals are not directs our Geneva Convention as article 31 says. They come to transit countries as migrants and refugees go through many countries before eventually reaching Europe. However, the proven inability of member states to return them to home with safety and dignity those not entitled to international protection has led European public opinion to become more cautious with regard to migration in recent years.
In the case of Greece, it follows a strict but fair migration policy, it clearly provides asylum to those entitled to but does not want to be a gateway to Europe for smuggling networks nor can allow smugglers to decide who will migrate to Europe. As it knows, our country has faced considerable pressure concerning migratory flows. As Kevin said in 2015 where at least 850 000 and other say million People came through Greece to the European Union. This pressure came in particular at five Greek islands when enduring most of the pressure not only for Greece but also for the entire European continent.
Obviously, we cannot allow those islands to become overcrowded buffer zones ever again and the success of our policy will be measured against the easing of the pressure on the Aegean islands and the protection of migrants and islanders. He says that we observe a stabilization of low arrival rates. They are down 80 % in 2020 and further down 70 % in 2021 from 72 000 arrivals to 15 000 arrivals in 2020 to approximately 3000 arrivals in 2021. Consequently, we do not have this overcrowding in the camps in the islands at some point we hosted over 40 000 people on five Islands.
Now the number is down to seven thousand people. Most of the camps in Greece are below their capacity and overall we have a 75 per cent capacity utilization from 95 000 people living in camps in Greece. Now we are below 50 000 from a hundred and forty thousand pending asylum applications, now we are approximately 54 000 and out of 121 accommodation centres, we operated last year only 37 are opening now. We are constructing six new multi-purpose camps in the entry points of Greece meeting the strict azure standards to provide the appropriate living conditions at the same time a safe environment for asylum seekers staff and the local communities. We are able to accelerate an asylum service and reduce the backlog of our objective by the end of 2021. However, migration is not a national challenge it is a common European one.
After the September 2020 proposals of the European Commission, the council of the European Union and the European Parliament are debating seven key regulations that are jointly called the new pact on migration asylum. It needs to recognise that no member state should bear this proportionate responsibility and that all member states would contribute to solidarity on a mandatory and consistent basis.
As the proposal stands, it is the view of Greece but also of all Mediterranean countries the med five were working together very closely with Italy, Spain, Malta, Cyprus to have a common position. It is a view that the proposals today do not adequately address our concerns with the regard to the fair sharing of solidarity. This pact includes three pillars 1- a more efficient and faster asylum procedure from entry to return or integration according to the individual case 2- the pillar of solidarity, 3- pillar on the external dimension when we need to establish mutually beneficial relations with countries of origin and transit as also Mario Draghi mentioned “ this balance between solidarity and responsibility is not achieved till today at the proposals.”
Greece and other border member states cannot be expected to single-handedly undertake the protection of our common borders the processing of applications for international protection, the perception of asylum applicants, the integration of those recognised and the returns of those finally rejected, remains a fact. While we talk about the European asylum system in practice, we still talk about national asylum systems, when it comes to recognition or the need for integration of recognised refugees and this new pact needs to address the challenge. We need to properly revisit a policy proposal that has already been floated around namely the mutual recognition of positive asylum decisions which will facilitate the mobility within the European Union of recognised refugees as we apply the free movement of recognised beneficiaries within our own countries.
There should be no restrictions for the recognised refugees within European Union. The concept of secondary movement is out of date Europe it is a common family and a common space. We are now regulations to talk about asylums. It’s very critical also is to have effective returns of those not qualifying for asylum and this would be key to our efforts and overall Europe has not been successful over the years in achieving the returns of those not entitled to protection.
Now when it comes to the way forward I think the dialogue should be structured around three pillars; first a strategic partnership with non-EU countries, this means working with the countries of origin and the countries of transit establishing mutually beneficial relationships to prevent the root causes of migration. A Second very important pillar is bringing down the business model of human smugglers as he mentioned that we could not leave smugglers to select who can come and who does not come to Europe. The third pillar is enhancing the legal pathways of migration. It is important that Europe protect its common European borders in the line with international law and European legislation. We need to recognise the critical role of Frontex in the European board and the coast guard agency. It is critical that they continue to perform the duties in line with European regulations to prevent unlawful entities into the European Union. But also Greece proposes that the engagement of Frontex outside the territorial waters of the European Union saving lives at the sea and protecting unlawful departures from countries on transit.
He thinks Europe needs to work with these countries in establishing this kind of relationship. From the European side, it needs to use all their leverage and further talks with their partner countries on positive or negative measures in several policies areas including but not limited to trade development, economic aid depending on the level of the cooperation with the EU on migration and that has been Key theme with the current Portuguese presidency. Finally, we need to give more opportunities for legal labour migration to potential migrants in line with the skills we need in a labour market with rules and their policies to make sure that Europe does continuously benefit from new people coming into Europe. Migration remains a very complicated issue or a very divisive issue along the political aisle. We keep more discussing for a long time given especially the current progress made in the new pact.
The key argument is imbalances in social welfare states as some countries are complaining that Greece does not have free houses to give to refugees. However, Greece provided for refugees full access to what we call the social welfare state so they get the same that we get in similar circumstances. It runs what we call the state the art program or the e-Helios program run by the international organisation of migration funded by the European Commission.
Maria Gavouneli commented on what the minister suggested that the whole process of migratory flows in towards Europe is actually a European program problem and not only a Greece problem. She said it should not be a problem, it is part of the cyclical nature of human experience, or it is part of the human condition. In addition, as such, she pointed out “we need to make sure that it is not a tragedy and a catastrophe but it is a part of life. If a person migrates it can migrate back it is not an on-off kind of suggestion, once we realise these fundamental issues then we can start moving towards regulating reality in a way that is not so strictly blocked by ideologies.”
In the context of legal migration, she said this type of legal migration with rules does not exist, there are no rules on legal migration in Europe in general, and there are no rules on legal migration in Greece in particular.
She pointed to article 31 that the obligation of non-reform at the Geneva Convention includes the possibility of persecution wherever, this much more important obligation upon the country that finds itself in a position to admit applicants or asylum seekers. That obligation has several manifestations such as obligation is not to be punished or detained in any form. Yet in recent times, we have applicants for international protection that may be detained for a maximum of 18 months in the context of an asylum procedure with the possibility of prolongation for another 18 months in the context of the research return procedure. In other words, it has been rejected asylum seekers held in pre-removal centers for more than 12 months without any prospect of return.
In recent law 2020, Greece’s ministry of migration has actually reserved the rule of exceptional application of detention measures that supposed to be just the resort according to established EU and international standards. She condemned those actions by adding that especially in the pandemic where there are strong recommendations by the council on Europe and other international organisations on the use of alternatives to detention measures. She added that we have a recent decision designating Turkey as a safe country for three country nationals with refugees’ profiles such as Syrian, Afghanis, and Somalis. This procedure is also enforceable to pending applications for asylum as 80 per cent of those came from the designated countries Syria Afghanistan Pakistan Bangladesh and Somalia. This decision was made without the opinion of the Human Rights Committee that she represented.