31st May 2023

EU presidency seeks to place kids and families in asylum detention

  • Asylum seekers waiting to submit their asylum applications at the entrance of the Political Asylum Department of the Aliens Directorate, Athens, Greece, in 2010 (Photo: Ikolas Kominis - Studio Kominis)
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Internal EU state discussions on asylum reform now include shuffling families with small children into de facto detention along the borders.

It is part of a shift towards offloading responsibility on EU states like Italy and Greece, instead of relocating asylum seekers, while at the same time giving those first-arrival states plenty of options to not apply EU laws.

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Rights campaigners say the end result will lead to more detention, more illegal push-backs, and possibly even a boost for migrant smugglers keen on exploiting the clamp down on fundamental rights. Critics have warned it could lead to a repeat of ghetto-like camps once seen on the Greek islands.

The European Commission's original proposal had sought to exclude families with children under the age of 12 from a bill that seeks to expedite the asylum process.

"We exclude them from the border procedure so that we make sure that they do not go into this cumbersome, lengthy and often inhumane process," said European Commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas in 2020.

Three years later and the Swedish EU presidency, in a paper dated 28 April and seen by EUobserver, wants to put families with children into the process anyway.

One of the lead MEPs working on the asylum reform, German socialist Birgit Sippel, said that the parliament will oppose.

"The parliament's position is beyond all doubt: the border procedure shall not be applied to unaccompanied minors of any age or families with minors of 12 years or younger," she said, in an email.

Sippel said the age should instead increase to 18, in line with UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

"It's basically the worst version we've seen so far," said Stephanie Pope, Oxfam's EU asylum migration policy advisor.

She said the text put forward by the council, representing member states, means vulnerable people will be sent into the border procedure.

Anyone coming from a country where the recognition rates for international protection drops below 20 percent will also be sent. That too was part of the original plan.

But now the commission appears to have buckled, following pressure from hawkish EU states like the Netherlands and Denmark fearful migrants will attempt to move and settle elsewhere.

'Adequate capacity'

The commission has since proposed a so-called 'adequate capacity' concept, which attempts to determine how many people can automatically be sent into the border procedure anyway.

It means most everyone gets sent, irrespective of recognition rates, until a certain pre-determined annual threshold has been met.

"So the challenge with that, of course, is that it's nothing to do with the original proposal," said Catherine Woollard, director at the Brussels-based European Council on Refugees and Exiles (Ecre).

She said the horrible conditions that are likely to appear along the borders as a result will be used as a further incentive for EU states to curtail asylum altogether through illegal pushbacks.

There are other factors at play as well. The EU and its institutions are under intense pressure to have the asylum and migration pact overhaul finalised at the start of next year.

Earlier this month, the European Parliament adopted its negotiation mandate to enter talks with the Council.

Meanwhile, the council under the stewardship of the Swedish EU presidency, is bargaining away rights by punching holes in EU law.

Their hope is to get to the 'Med 5' (composed of Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain) to agree to the take on more responsibility along the EU's external borders. This includes reviving a so-called regulation on instrumentalisation, which EU states had voted down in December.

The regulation had inserted a series of loopholes to allow EU states to renege asylum rights whenever a country such as Belarus push people across the border. The tactic now is to merge it with the crisis regulation, yet another bill in the pact, as a possible concession to the Med 5.

"These efforts to block the instrumentalisation regulation might be a sort of Pyrrhic victory, because it comes back to being integrated in the crisis regulation," said Woollard.

Spain was initially opposed to the merger but now appears to be giving in, according another source, posing additional questions on to what extent its upcoming EU presidency, starting in July, intends to push for even more loopholes and derogations.

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