Memento Moria – The urgent need for reforming asylum in Europe

28 September, 2020

The recent fire outbreak in the largest Greek migrant camp on the island of Lesvos accentuated the harsh reality many migrants and refugees have been facing over the past years. Images of people running from the fire, sleeping on the streets and walking amid the burned camp should reawaken the European conscience and responsibility to act in front of a dangerous threat for human rights and individuals’ dignity.

The situation in which many migrants and refugees find themselves is beyond inadequate. The European Union and its members have often neglected the need to intervene and find coherent solutions. The case of Moria’s camp has dramatically shown the constant danger migrants and refugees are exposed to. This camp, that was specifically designed to house 3,000 individuals, ended up hosting almost 13,000 people, who had been living in this overcrowded squalor.

Greece hosts about 120,000 refugees and asylum seekers, 37,000 of which are currently confined to the Greek islands. Only in Lesvos, there are 19,500 refugees and asylum seekers, including thousands of unaccompanied children, who usually are staying in camps or are homeless. Greece has put in place a containment policy on its Aegean islands, meaning that asylum-seekers and refugees arriving on these islands are not allowed to leave for the Greek mainland. Only some exceptions exist to avoid further difficulties for asylum-seekers with certain vulnerabilities, i.e. pregnant women or people with disabilities. However, thousands of people are confined to these small islands and, under the dispassionate gaze of Europe, they are denied the possibility to lead a decent life.

The Deputy migration minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos stated that Greece is facing a crisis within a crisis, migration and the pandemic together. Covid-19 has largely increased health safety issues within refugee camps. NGOs have repeatedly highlighted the need to provide refugees and asylum seekers with better living conditions since they often live in overcrowded spaces with poor sanitary conditions. The risk of infection is worsened by these poor living conditions and the capacity to provide medical care is very limited due to the lack of resources and funds.

European Asylum System

Since 1999, the EU has been working to create a Common European Asylum System (CEAS) and improve the current legislative framework. CEAS’s deficiencies became clear with the significant increase of people seeking protection and refuge in Europe between 2015 and 2016. Even now that the number of asylum seekers has significantly decreased, these shortcomings still persist.

According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), the Common European Asylum System presents structural flaws both at the legal and operational levels. Members States often struggle to guarantee straightforward registration procedures to refugees and asylum seekers. These structural deficiencies translate in long waiting times, backlogs and lack of coherence among the procedures implemented by each Member State. In addition, the inefficiency of these procedures prevents and postpones applicants’ possibility to access health care systems as well as education and employment services. The current system does not promote equal treatment among asylum seekers across the EU and asylum decisions vary exponentially from one country to another.

The deplorable conditions of refugee camps in Europe symbolise the collapse of a system that cannot always guarantee fair reception procedures for refugees and asylum seekers. The EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) has repeatedly identified fundamental human rights concerns over the dire living conditions of refugees in reception centres. Many migrants, including children, are forced to remain in detention centres where several cases of violence were reported.

The complex situation in Greek refugee camps is a direct consequence of the inability of EU states to reform the CEAS. The new EU Commission has recurrently highlighted the need to work on more resilient, more humane and more effective migration and asylum systems. These challenging times call for reforms of asylum policies to lead States and European members towards a profound and systematic change.

The reform of the EU asylum rule currently envisages seven main points:

1) Reform the Dublin system to better distribute asylum applications among member states and to guarantee better timing to process applications.

2) Reinforce the Eurodac regulation to improve registration processes for asylum seekers as well as the EU fingerprint database.

3) Establish a qualified and well-equipped EU asylum agency.

4) Replace the asylum procedure directive with a more harmonic regulation of EU procedures to coherently reduce differences among member states.

5) Replace the qualification directive with a more harmonic regulation to guarantee protection standards and rights for asylum seekers.

6) Reform the reception conditions directive to guarantee harmonised and dignified reception standards for asylum seekers.

7) Create a permanent EU resettlement framework.

The urgent demand for far-reaching reforms and policy adjustments within the asylum landscape should be complemented with ongoing collaborative work to find solutions and tackle the current challenges. Policymakers and parliamentarians in Brussels and European cities should use contemporary difficulties as starting points to reflect and reset the discussions on asylum, integration and human rights. Collaborations between local and international actors are necessary to solve the current impasse and avoid political inaction. Refugees, asylum seekers and actors in frontline states demand prompt solutions and it is now, more than ever, European members’ duty to assure their protection and safety.

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