Monday, 19 February 2018

Europe must process refugees "more creatively"

This interview was published by Al Jazeera International.

(Bold emphasis mine) 
The Greek Asylum Service was one of the last to be founded in the European Union, but quickly became the EU’s testing ground as migrants and refugees from the Middle East, Africa and the Subcontinent surged into Europe in the summer and autumn of 2015.  
Maria Stavropoulou, who founded the Service in 2013 and has just stepped down as its Director, says Europe is still “under the shadow” of those events and is wielding bureaucracy as a deterrent. 
Instead of restricting family reunification and resisting burden-sharing among member states, she believes European Union member states should find creative ways to channel migratory pressures. 
Doing so is a matter of some urgency, she believes, as Turkish asylum applications in Europe have risen sharply, and could form the next major trend in Europe-bound migration.

Photo: Athina 984

Last April, the Greek Asylum Service published a flow chart to help applicants understand the procedure. Officials told us that the process is complicated as a result of the Asylum Procedures Directive of the European Commission, and perhaps this was by design – a sort of bureaucratic deterrent. Do you believe this?

The process did indeed seem very complicated. We used to tell this to the European Commission and I think it’s the accepted wisdom now: If you try to put too many legal or procedural obstacles in the process, hoping to discourage applicants, all you’ll succeed in doing is lengthening the process, because every step becomes an object of legal wrangling. If you make it simple, even at the risk of being over-generous, you reap the benefits in time and efficiency. This is very difficult for someone to understand who doesn’t know the process, but we keep saying this, and as a result the process hasn’t essentially changed since April 2016. It didn’t become simpler, but it also didn’t become more complicated.

Some observers point to other signs of soft deterrent tactics, such as the length of time it took the European Asylum Support Office to rush assistance to the Greek islands; the slowness of family reunification; the rise in returnees to Greece under Dublin; and the restriction of Relocation to a few nationalities. Do these amount to a larger picture of bureaucratic hurdles in your view?

Let’s put ourselves in the refugees’ shoes for a moment. What did they want? For the situation in 2015 to go on forever – an open avenue from Turkey to northern Europe. They saw anything that got in the way of that as a bad thing. We would think the same in their position. But this couldn’t have gone on, for security concerns alone if for no other reason.

On the other hand, is it right that although the flow of refugees is so reduced (it fell almost by half in 2017) Europe continues to have a restrictive policy? As [Chinese dissident artist] Ai Wei Wei says, water always finds a way. You can build a dam, but if the water pressure builds up too much it will collapse. If you construct streams you can channel the pressure. There is truly a restrictive policy. It was evident in the Relocation Scheme, which only really applied to two nationalities, the problems in family reunification where there are increasing restrictions, and the European asylum process is also becoming more difficult. Where will all this lead? I don’t know. I’m not sure that they will help reduce the flows to Europe in the medium and long term.

Why are we seeing, across the EU, a rise in auxiliary protection approvals, versus asylum approvals?

In my view the distinction shouldn’t exist, and from a legal point of view it’s not required. [Auxiliary protection] exists for ulterior motives - because the rights offered under auxiliary protection are fewer in many member states than for full asylum. If you don’t offer family reunification, you do the maths and you figure out that that translates into much fewer refugees from other countries. 

In 2016 and 2017 you found yourself at odds with a lot of EU member states which wanted the Greek Asylum Service to proceed rapidly with tens of thousands of applications. Why did you not yield to that pressure?

Many people expected that something would happen here that hadn’t ever happened anywhere else. Greece was the first country to form teams of asylum caseworkers from other member states, simply because the country couldn’t lift a fivefold [increase in applications] on its own. There was a serious underestimation of what had to happen in the weeks after the [March 2016] EU-Turkey Statement. One proposal was for Greece to recognize Turkey as a safe third country flat out, without restrictions.

An asylum application is not a nationality screening. It’s a narration of why someone is afraid to go back to his country. That can’t happen in three minutes. It’s impossible. A person needs an hour, two hours, three hours, whatever…

Since the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) stepped in to help with Greece’s caseload, it has conducted first instance interviews and submitted them to the Asylum Service with a recommendation for final decisions to be made. Have you been satisfied with how these interviews were conducted?

The case handlers who came in were very uneven in terms of experience and training. There were those whom we wanted with 15 years of experience, who were able to support our staff, which was unavoidably very new, and there were those who were much more inexperienced than our people. On the whole they have certainly helped… but haven’t been as helpful as we had hoped. If nothing else, we sat down with EASO and established how interviews would be done. This has greatly contributed to a common European asylum process. Plus, once they return to their home countries, case handlers were vastly better trained, because it is here, on the [Greek] islands that the European asylum curriculum is really applied. We became a school.

Approximately 1,700 Turkish nationals have sought asylum in Greece in 2017 alone. Is this going to be the new asylum trend?

In 2014, 41 Turkish nationals sought asylum in Greece. In 2015 it was 43. In 2016 it was 189, and last year it was 1,827. Given this sudden increase in Turkish asylum applicants in Greece and all of Europe, one can predict that this rise will continue in 2018.

Does this increase risk introducing political complications in the EU-Turkish relationship?

Anyone who practices refugee law knows that one of its basic principles is that international protection is a humanitarian act, which has to be kept separate from politics. This principle embodies our duty. 

I take it that, like EASO, you agree with the Commission’s proposal for the revision of Dublin rules, i.e. that the provision that applicants should be processed in the EU country in which they first arrived, should be scrapped. Does this stand a realistic chance of being accepted by all 27 members?

I think the European Commission reasoned that two or three countries on Europe’s border cannot become the asylum processing centre for the continent; because that is where we’re headed. In 2017 there was a 46 percent drop in asylum applications in the European Union. In Greece we had an increase, on top of the enormous increase of 2015 and 2016. This means we are already moving towards a situation in which the countries of the south are the main registration countries. Italy and France, too, saw an increase. Of course I recognize that Germany [not an external border country] has a very large number of asylum applicants (though they fell by 76 percent last year). But it can’t all be in the hands of Greece, Italy, Germany and perhaps Spain. That, too, is enormously out of balance. We all need to help. But Holland, a larger and wealthier country than Greece, cannot have one quarter of Greece’s asylum applications. Right now Greece is giving asylum to a number of people. What jobs are these people going to have? How will they be integrated? If Greece can’t protect people – because integration is a part of protection – they simply won’t come to Greece. They’ll find other ways to go elsewhere.

If all EU27 member states don’t agree on a common asylum policy, can you envisage a core Schengen group that will adopt one and move forward with only part of the EU?

I would prefer a pan-European project, but I don’t see the harm in an experimental process to test the system’s limits. There have been successful European projects whose creators couldn’t have imagined how successful they would be at their outset, and now we can’t imagine living without them. But some people have to really believe in this [common asylum policy] to take it forward. We’re still under the shadow of the events of 2015. We haven’t regained our equanimity and we’re still looking to prevent a repeat of it, instead of looking more creatively and positively.

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