This article was published by Al Jazeera International.
Greece's asylum chief is calling on Europe to resettle “several hundred thousand” refugees a year directly from the Middle East, rather than allowing them to suffer the hazards of illegal crossings.
“That’s the number of people coming into Europe anyway,” says Maria Stavropoulou, who has overseen Greece’s Asylum Service since it was founded in 2013. “This past year [Europe] has had a million asylum applications. We know who makes these applications. The majority is people coming irregularly into Europe. So what are we doing? We’re just giving business to smugglers.”
The European Union runs a Resettlement programme, through which refuges can be admitted directly from Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, but it has a ceiling of 22,504 over two years.
Most refugees brave the dangerous crossing to Europe in rubber dinghies from the Turkish coast to the islands of the East Aegean, or from Libya to Italy. As a result, more than 2,500 have died in the Mediterranean so far this year, and twice that number last year.
Stavropoulou spoke to Al Jazeera as the European Union's two-year Relocation programme came to a close on Friday. Initiated at the same time as Resettlement, Relocation was designed to alleviate pressure on Greek and Italian asylum services. As first arrival countries, they were disproportionately burdened.
Relocation was Europe’s first serious attempt at a common asylum and migration policy, but it put European solidarity to the test. Poland, Hungary and Denmark refused to participate, while Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic took in 15, 16 and 12 people respectively.
Partly as a result of it patchy implementation, the scheme has relocated about 28,000 people, less than a fifth of its target of 160,000.
Another problem with Relocation was the fact that only nationalities with acceptance rates of over 75 percent were eligible. That left out Afghans and Iraqis, whose only option has been to apply for asylum in Greece.
Still, Stavropoulou calls Relocation “a very positive experiment”, because it was “the only real tangible sign of solidarity from other member states”. But as the programme drew to a close, Greece continued to receive irregular migrants – more than 3,700 by the end of August, and a surge of 2,400 in September, according to coastguard figures. These people will now be added to Greece’s backlog of asylum applications – 37,000 so far this year alone – or be forced to smuggle themselves deeper into Europe.
Daniel Esdras, head of the International Organisation for Migration in Greece, which implements the Relocation programme, believes it’s time to stop using smugglers as a natural barrier to refugee migration. “You really need labour force in Europe in the next 20-30 years,” he says, “so the answer here would be regulated, legal migration… right now migration is in the hands of the smugglers and the charities.”
Stavropoulou believes that for all its faults, Relocation has set a foundation for a unified European policy on asylum and refugees. “We have to have a vision, and right now, we, Europe as a whole, we’re too short-sighted. We react to what we see as the risk knocking on our door... We need to look long-term and this is where a very valuable Resettlement programme kicks in… The other alternative is that we simply say, ‘Europe is not receiving refugees.’”