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27th Nov 2022

EU washes hands of alleged migrant abuse

  • Police can use "proportionate" force to get people's fingerprints, EU said (Photo: Reuters)

The European Commission says it cannot be held responsible for alleged abuses of asylum seekers at hotspots in Italy where arrivals are screened and identified.

"Stop shooting the commission, this applies across the board," its chief spokesperson Margaritis Schinas told reporters in Brussels on Thursday (3 November).

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  • Schinas: "Stop shooting the commission" (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Hotspots are also found in Greece and are run by national authorities in both countries.

Schinas made similar comments last week after the UN refugee agency said that Syrians had been illegally returned to Turkey from Greece under a deal signed with the EU in March.

The torture allegations surfaced earlier on Thursday in a report by Amnesty International, which detailed testimonies of asylum seekers who said Italian police had subjected them to electronic shocks and other forms of violence.

The asylum applicants had resisted having their fingerprints taken as part of an EU policy to regain control over immigration.

The commission last December urged the Italian authorities to speed up national laws "to allow the use of force" on anyone that resisted fingerprinting at the hotspots.

"The target of a 100% fingerprinting rate for arriving migrants needs to be achieved without delay," the commission noted in a December progress report .

Amnesty said such moves and the commission's threats of court action to get the Italians to fingerprint everyone helped trigger the abuse.

No reports of torture, says EU commission

The commission rejected the link and shed doubt on the veracity of the NGO's report.

"From our side we have no reports from any of the EU agencies working on the ground in the hotspots of any such wrong-doings as stated in the said report did in fact take place," said commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud.

She said use of force is allowed but only when it was "proportionate" and respected people’s “fundamental rights”.

"For examples of what proportion use of force are, we've made this very clear in a full handbook on fingerprinting," she said.

When pressed for details, she said she was "not going to read some 200-page document here" in the press room.

What she called the EU commission's 200-page handbook was, it later transpired, a five-page working document that only provides broad legal statements on coercion and force but gives no specific examples.

The European Agency for Fundamental Rights, an EU agency in Vienna, has said it was difficult to imagine any case where force could be justified.

The migrants’ prints are being entered into Eurodac, an EU-level database used by authorities to help identify asylum seekers.

Plans are also underway for it cover stateless people others who are not asylum seekers.

Broader concerns over law enforcement access to the database have been raised. How that information is used and with whom it is shared may have dire consequences on people who fled regimes or persecution.

The commission views Eurodac as part of wider efforts to return people not entitled to international protection.

Coercion bias

Eurodac is also part of wider EU asylum reforms that critics say is increasingly based on coercion.

Among them are the Dublin system, a key EU asylum regulation, that determines which member states is responsible for processing asylum claims.

The commission in May proposed to reform the law with an automated system that includes a so-called "fairness mechanism".

Violeta Moreno Lax, a lecturer in Law at Queen Mary, University of London, says "coercion bias underpins the entire mechanism”, however.

Lax told MEPs in October that the system leant toward deterrence rather than providing protection to people in need.

Francesco Maiani, associate professor at the University of Lausanne, made similar comments.

He said the commission's reform proposals on Dublin would not solve the problem.

The reforms, he said, included the same threat of sanctions already applied elsewhere by member states that have had little affect on preventing people from absconding.

No new ideas

"There is no game changing simplification, you generally stay with the same scheme," he said.

Maiani, who drafted a report on EU asylum reform for the European Parliament, said the current Dublin system had resulted in slowing down the asylum application process at a large expense to the taxpayer.

The regulation saw its best year in terms of transfers in 2013 when around 17,000 people were sent to another EU state out more than 58,000 requests.

"Most of these [outgoing transfers] are agreed but then less than one-third are implemented," he pointed out.

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