No Sound Basis for Solidarity but an Opportunity to Rethink Asylum


Unless conditions in poor countries improve drastically, their citizens will continue to seek a better future elsewhere, even under the pretext of requiring international protection.

Diavata Camp
Teaser Image Caption
Picture of Diavata camp outside Thessaloniki. The transfer of refugees to various facilities in the mainland is already in progress in an attempt to decongest the Aegean hot spots.

This commentary is part of our dossier on the New EU Pact on Migration and Asylum.

No Sound Basis for Solidarity but an Opportunity to Rethink Asylum

The recent destruction of the Moria camp in Lesbos, followed by a large-scale humanitarian crisis, attracted international attention, triggered debate among civil society across Europe on how the EU asylum and migration policy should evolve and accelerated the European Commission’s conclusion of the proposed new Pact on Asylum and Migration, consisting of ten detailed proposals. Although the complexity of these legal texts requires more work to assess their likely effectiveness, the fact remains that the core issues are not being addressed in a new and more pragmatic way.

Old wines in new bottles

Firstly, the principle of the country of first arrival being responsible for processing asylum applications, which is the chief cause of the congestion on the European borders, remains in the new proposal. Meanwhile, the geographical restriction posed by the controversial and demonstrably inefficient EU-Turkey Deal continues to asphyxiate the Aegean islands of Leros, Kos, Chios, Samos and Lesbos and prolong degrading reception conditions. Furthermore, the long-awaited European solidarity mechanism, primarily towards Spain, Italy, Malta, Greece and Cyprus, will apply only under exceptional conditions and member states will have the discretion to either take asylum seekers in return for European funding, or undertake to return unsuccessful asylum seekers.

These provisions, plus a new additional pre-entry border procedure of 5 days applicable to every new arrival in Europe and the possibility of prolonged border detention due to an extra “accelerated” procedure applicable to arrivals from countries with relatively low recognition rates among EU states, fail to lift the burden from the frontline EU countries, promote the construction of permanent detention centres along the European borderline and worsen reception conditions, inspiring very little hope that this “new” proposal will bear fruit. Other than stressing the self-evident European dimension of the issue, the plan reaches no creative compromise between member states with conflicting interests and apart from a few decent suggestions, it takes a narrow approach to refugee and migration flows.

European funding to rebuild Moria is more of the same

The Commission’s commitment to replace Moria was seen by the Greeks as recognition of the emergency of the situation and an explicit gesture of European solidarity. Meanwhile, the situation on Lesbos has been insulting and degrading since March 2016, with no likelihood of change. Equally alarming is the situation on Samos where, according to official Greek data published on 30 September, the regional reception and identification centre designed for 648 people, is hosting 4404, seven times more than actual capacity!

It is therefore logical to assume that the proposed Pact was received with frustration by locals, since it will turn these islands into permanent detention centers. On the mainland, the Pact was received with anything from scepticism to disappointment, with public attention focused elsewhere, such as recent tensions between Greece and Turkey and the Covid-19 pandemic. Greek international protection experts (whom I interviewed for a study carried out for the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Thessaloniki Office, to be published at the end of 2020) claim that the plan will only aggravate existing conditions and put more pressure on the already dysfunctional asylum system.

Funding will not help returns, as the main reasons for low returnee numbers are not financial but related to poor cooperation with the recipient countries, bureaucratic barriers and the lack of security in the country of origin needed to allow safe returns to take place. The Greek government initiated parliamentary debate on the matter, which took place on 1 October where deputy migration and asylum minister Georgios Koumoutsakos confirmed that the Pact is merely starting point for negotiations to protect Greek interests, including a European policy of incentives and disincentives for third countries of return, a European voluntary returns mechanism and the abolition of the geographical restriction imposed by the EU-Turkey Deal, which is currently on ice. MEP Konstantinos Arvanitis, a former journalist and member of the Greek opposition party Syriza, dismisses the Pact as a blow to the first reception countries. Finally, the Greek press frequently reports that the Commission’s proposal imposes the Visegrád countries’ opposition to further European integration upon the rest of Europe.

It all comes down to politics

While the causes of the forced displacement of people worldwide exist, so will the need for international protection. Unless conditions in poor countries improve drastically, their citizens will continue to seek a better future elsewhere, even under the pretext of requiring international protection. It is therefore impossible to block all or most entries to EU territory by creating more detention facilities that will only magnify existing problems. The European migration and asylum policy is foremost a matter of political choice reflecting the ideology of those behind it. Now that the lessons learned from the existing approach point in a different direction, why not use this proposal as an opportunity to devise a new policy, instead of recycling old, ineffectual ideas?

Athanasios Koronis is currently working on a study that aims to provide with an overview of the way the Asylum System has been working in Greece over the last five years. The study, carried out for the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Thessaloniki Office, is expected to be published by the of 2020.