28th Sep 2023


The EU lacks political will to give asylum seekers decent refuge

  • A man crosses a dry river full of garbage at a makeshift camp adjacent to the Moria reception and identification centre on the Greek island of Lesvos (Photo: UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis)
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In the recent Greek elections held in late May, the ruling party New Democracy performed exceptionally well, despite the backdrop of various scandals and the tragic Tempi train crash. Led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the party's campaign portrayed Mitsotakis as a renewed political figure reminiscent of former US president Donald Trump, calling for building the wall and making the EU pay for it with reference to the border wall with Turkey.

This happened just days after the New York Times released video evidence of Greek officials' violent pushbacks of refugees — among which were children. This practice has been known for years, but denouncing it never led to a substantial and systematic change.

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The paradox that such scandals roll off at the Greek government comes at no surprise. From Denmark declaring Damascus a safe place for return, to Italy issuing a state of emergency decree containing measures that will threaten long-established migrants in the country — the poor treatment of refugees is sadly not a reason for losing electoral consensus.

As economic inequalities exacerbated over several economic crises, and climate change unfolds, causing disasters at our doorstep, conservatives at every latitude are eager to divert public opinion by blaming those who have no political voice: migrants and refugees. Instead of counteracting this narrative, progressive forces have given in to it, shifting the political spectrum overall dangerously to the right.

Similarly, the silence was deafening when, at the end of last month, NGOs on Lesvos were informed that access to the food and water distributions was restricted to people with an ongoing asylum procedure, stripping 571 people with either a positive or a negative asylum decision of any kind of official support.

Among the over 2,500 people living in the camp, those with a positive decision on their asylum procedure sometimes wait for months before receiving their documents; while those with a negative decision often have to appeal numerous times before finally receiving a fair hearing of their case.

The affected groups generally do not have sufficient financial resources to buy food by themselves and now rely on the support of civil society that attempt to close the gap. Regretfully, this new practice is also bound to work as a self-fulfilling prophecy, as it forces people to leave the camp, become homeless and starve, hence creating the pockets of social exclusion that make the toxic narrative around migrants and refugees believable from the general public and guide voting behaviour.

The lack of media noise on this topic matches perfectly the general climate around the topic, as we see the EU institutions normalising human rights violations against people on the move. The newly-agreed EU council position published on 8 June, for example, institutionalises prison-like camps for refugees at the borders of the Union.

These camps would include watchtowers, barbed wires, and video surveillance, even for families with children. The power to determine which country is deemed a safe destination for returning individuals, as well as the criteria for redistributing refugees, is now in the hands of individual member states rather than the EU as a whole. This means that people may be sent back to transit countries instead of the ones where their families reside.

Instead, they can buy off their responsibility by transferring €20,000 per asylum seeker to countries in need.

'Fortress Europe' is becoming a reality, while an EU that cares for human rights should go in the opposite direction. For starters, the Dublin regulation needs a deep revision, as it has resulted in an unfair burden on the southern European member states. The European commission has introduced a voluntary solidarity mechanism, but stronger regulation is needed for all countries to participate and share responsibility.

The securitisation of Europe's external borders has meant preventing or violently pushing back people who try to access EU territory and deceitfully limiting access to asylum application procedures. Both the collaboration with partners who are notorious for their criminal actions — like the so-called Libyan coastguard in the Mediterranean — as well as the unlawful pushbacks by border officials alongside the borders with Greece, Croatia and Poland, should be replaced by a safe and fair treatment of people seeking refuge in Europe.

Reforming Frontex into an agency whose governance is transparent and that safeguards human rights instead of enabling their violation is an important step in this process.

The paradigm shift should ultimately be that the EU's actions ensure that all people seeking asylum live in dignity, safety and can be a source of collective enrichment in a world that — whether we like it or not — is deeply interconnected. In fact, trading votes for allowing breaking the rule of law is a short-sighted strategy and won't prevent people from moving. If anything, it will only make a tragedy out of what could have been an opportunity.

Despite the media, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and a few dedicated politicians providing numerous pieces of evidence highlighting the deep-rooted issues within the current system, and various policy proposals being put forward for a fair and unified migration system, the only missing element remains the political will to enact the necessary changes.

Author bio

Francesca Romana D’Antuono is the co-president of Volt Europa since October 2021. She is an Italian multilingual living in Berlin.

Lennard Everwien is co-founder and director of the humanitarian organisation Europe Cares, as well as a member of the German party Alliance90/TheGreens.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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