Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Europe turns away from asylum-seekers

Covid saw fewer refugees on the move but numbers could soon rise. Those needing help deserve to be treated with dignity.

Migrants inside one of several new refugee camps on the Aegean islands (Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images)
Migrants inside one of several new refugee camps on the Aegean islands (Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images)

Lapped by clear waters, Chios is one of five main islands wedged in the northern Aegean Sea, a stone’s throw from Turkey. Seen from the plane, the island’s interior is dotted with quaint olive groves and walled medieval villages. On the jagged coastline stone watchtowers perch facing out to sea. These fortifications are relics of a by-gone age of naval warfare, erected to defend against the waves of marauders who sought to win control over these strategic islands.

In modern times the eastern Aegean islands are under Greek control and authorities still vehemently defend their shores. But those making the harrowing voyages at night across the strait do not wish to invade these lands. Rather, they arrive seeking refuge in Europe via the Eastern Mediterranean migration corridor, a route that stretches from West Asia towards Central Europe.

Around the Aegean islands dart militarised vessels bearing FRONTEX, Europe’s Border and Coast Guard Agency. Given the job of protecting the borders of the European Union, the organisation has received year-on-year boosts to its mandates and funding in response to the uptick in irregular migration at the height of Europe’s migration crisis in 2015, when numbers peaked at 1.8 million.

Since Covid-19 hit, rolling border closures have seen a 40% decline in arrivals. Sadly, the lower figures do not represent ameliorating circumstances in migrant-sending countries. Anything but. The Taliban have regained power in Afghanistan as the US withdraws, which has prompted French President Macron to warn that Europe needs a “robust plan” to confront a potential new wave of mass migration. Greece announced last week the construction of a 40 kilometre fence extension on its border with Turkey to deter migrants. Meanwhile, the Syrian War rages into its 10th bloody year and the Horn of Africa remains a tinderbox.

A Romanian Frontex vessel seen from the deck of USNS Grapple during a 2016 joint patrol in the Aegean Sea (US Navy/Flickr)

A low tide

While working for an NGO in Greece in the summer of 2021, I met Waleed, a 22-year-old from Afghanistan. He spoke three languages and told me of hopes to study in Germany. After paying a smuggler to arrange for his family of five to cross the Aegean, their boat was apprehended by FRONTEX vessels and towed back towards Turkish waters.

Waleed’s story has become commonplace. In a June 2021 report from Amnesty International, interviewees attest to the crude practice of “pushbacks” and numerous independent testimonials have corroborated their accounts. Even in cases where boats make landings, and individuals manage to set foot on European soil, police have allegedly forced them – sometimes at gunpoint – back onto motor-less vessels to be set adrift at sea.

Six years after the contentious EU-Turkey refugee deal was signed, swapping rejected applicants in Europe for approved ones in Turkey, it’s clear that externalising Europe’s migration problems has proved unsustainable. 

Forbidding migrants to request asylum runs afoul of Greece’s responsibilities under EU and international law. Despite the accusations, Notis Mitarachi, Greece’s migration and asylum minister, denies the practice of maritime pushbacks or any failures to uphold migration obligations.

Waleed and his family finally reached Greek shores in 2019 and, like thousands of others, have languished while navigating the labyrinthine asylum process. Individuals lack access to​​ work or education while living in Greece’s purpose-built reception centres, which are frequently jam-packed, filthy, and verging on “inhumane”. In September 2020, after authorities had ignored the warning signs, a fire engulfed the dismally under-equipped Moria camp on the island of Lesvos, leaving 13,000 without suitable shelter.

Dire conditions in these camps mean, once granted refugee status, many flee to wealthier EU-member states such as Germany and Luxembourg to reapply for asylum, counting on not being sent back. These “secondary movement” applicants have compelled Brussels to allocate €250 million for the redevelopment of the Aegean islands facilities. Work is yet to commence.

Changing the rules

The asylum-seeking process in Greece lacks dignity and endangers lives. Yet, to make the country an even less desirable location for asylum-seekers, the Greek government has recently overhauled the asylum process, extending the maximum detention time from three up to 18 months – the limit under EU law – and removing state-funded legal assistance. In a bid to lighten the load on its islands post-Covid, refugees are routinely relocated to the mainland, where they face prolonged legal uncertainty, social exclusion, and even homelessness.

Further, Greece has deemed Turkey a “safe third country”, where they claim nationals from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Syria, and Somalia are no longer routinely persecuted. Two-thirds of Greece’s total applicants are now required to first claim asylum in Turkey or risk being forcibly returned there if their case is deemed inadmissible in Europe.

Over 38 NGOs have denounced these decisions as breaching the principle of non-refoulement, citing that vulnerable persons can remain “irregular” in Turkey for years, experiencing violence, and lack of access to basic services.

Six years after the contentious EU-Turkey refugee deal was signed, swapping rejected applicants in Europe for approved ones in Turkey, it’s clear that externalising Europe’s migration problems has proved unsustainable. Despite the €6 billion given to fund EU-sponsored Facilities for Refugees in Turkey, they are sagging under the pressure of hosting over four million refugees.

Greek-Turkish relations reached a nadir in February 2020 when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused the EU of empty promises and “opened the gates” to Europe, ordering police to allow thousands of desperate people to flee towards Greece’s land and maritime borders. The violence that erupted was soon quelled by the pandemic-led border restrictions, momentarily muffling hostilities between Greece and Turkey.

As EU funds remain under-utilised and governments swap tit-for-tat brinkmanship, thousands of men, women, and children remain stuck, caught between pushbacks, detention, and an uncertain future in Europe – and that number is threatening to grow.

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