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9th Aug 2020

Mixed review for EU asylum spots in Greece and Italy

  • Hotspot in Greece in January (Photo: MSF)

An EU scheme to shuffle incoming asylum seekers into centres in Greece and Italy is said to be "working," despite widespread reports of abuse and no insights into how EU money has been spent.

Hans Gustaf Wessberg from the European Court of Auditors told reporters in Brussels on Tuesday (25 April) that so-called hotspots in both countries have "helped improve migration management" in terms of identifying, registering, and finger printing new arrivals.

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The conclusion was part of a broader report issued by the independent Luxembourg-based watchdog, which also noted major problems in the zones.

It found, for instance, that children are being kept "in inappropriate conditions" on the Greek islands despite laws that require them to be taken care of.

The hotspots in Greece and Italy were initially set up to screen and register people before sending them to the next phase of their possible asylum process.

But widespread reports of suffering from the thousands stuck on Greek islands has highlighted flaws in a system often slammed by human rights defenders.

The European Commission had itself described the conditions in some of the hotspots in Greece as "untenable" after refugees awoke to snow-covered camps in January without proper winter protection.

Such suffering has been exasperated by political and administrative bottlenecks in EU states, which have largely failed to relocate people from the centres.

Some have stayed in the camps for months, triggering protests, fights, fires, and hunger strikes.

Reports of rape and suicide also figure among the long sheet of horrors documented at the Greek hotspots since last year's launch.

Save the Children, an NGO, found children as young as nine who were self-harming, with others even trying to kill themselves. One child filmed his own suicide attempt.

"Self-harm is now so common, it's almost as if it's a hobby for some children in the hotspots," a staff member from the NGO was quoted as saying in a Save the Children report, which came out in March.

The EU's Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) earlier this month said that sexual and gender-based violence was a critical issue at the centres on the Greek islands of Lesvos and Samos.

Pope Francis over the weekend also described the island hotspots as "concentration camps." The comment came after a visit he made last year to Lesbos.

"I never use that expression myself because I've been to Auschwitz," said the EU court's Wessberg, when asked about the Pope's description.

The mysterious money trail

Instead, Wessberg noted that he did not have the mandate to audit either of the countries and was unable to provide any assessment of how EU funds had been spent.

"We do not audit what takes place within Italy and Greece," he said.

The EU commission has awarded Greece over €350 million in emergency funding since the beginning of 2015 and another €190 million in humanitarian support. Italy also received almost €63 million in emergency money.

Neither country provided any reports on how that money was spent. The EU commission declined to comment when pressed for answers.

Wessberg told EUobserver that the lack of data on such audits was not uncommon.

"Is this a big problem? Yes, it is a problem but you must remember that we have this plan to always go back to an audit field in a couple of years," he said.

Such oversight is made more difficult because some of EU-funded programmes can only be assessed long after they have run their course.

Many are also financed under from the EU's asylum, migration, and integration fund (Amif) and the internal security fund (ISF), both of which do not end until 2020.

Instead, the auditors gauged hotspots in terms of how well they delivered services to asylum seeks and if people were being properly identified.

Wesseberg said both countries had been slow in setting up their hotspots and require big improvements.

Greece can only accommodate some 7,450 people, but hosts nearly twice as many on the islands. Italy was supposed to have six hotspots but only created four.

"We still insist that the further two are necessary," he said.

Italy has hotspots in Tranto, Trapani, Pozzallo and Lampedusa. Greece has hotspots on the islands of Chios, Lesbos, Leros, Samos, and Kos.

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