Today marks World Refugee Day, which aims to raise awareness of the plight of the 42.5 million people worldwide who remain forcibly displaced due to conflict and political persecution. The UNHCR’s Global Trends report, released earlier this week, shows how during 2011 major conflicts in Ivory Coast, Libya, Somalia and Sudan caused several major refugee crises, forcing more than 800,000 people into neighbouring countries, the highest in more than a decade, and internally displacing a further 3.5 million within the borders of their own countries.
Yet with world leaders focusing on the fate of the eurozone, the plight of the world’s most vulnerable people is in danger of being overlooked. As well as working together to solve our economic troubles, it is vital that we help the millions of men, women, and children who have been forced from their homes and had their lives thrown into a state of fear and uncertainty.
The EU plans to reach an agreement over a common European asylum system by the end of this year, aiming to strengthen common standards on asylum, establish greater solidarity between member states, and ensure fair and decent treatment of refugees.
However, countries on the EU’s periphery continue to shoulder the brunt of refugee flows relative to their capacity, burdening the already strained living conditions in immigration reception and detention centres. Malta provides a case in point. During 2011 Malta received more asylum requests per capita than any other EU country, with 4,500 applications per million inhabitants, 10 times more than the UK. Meanwhile, in one single incident last month 600 migrants were rescued and hosted by the Maltese government. Taking the tiny island’s population into account, that is the equivalent of 90,000 refugees arriving in the UK in one day.
It is therefore no great surprise that conditions in Malta’s detention centres, where asylum seekers must wait for their application to be processed for periods of up to 18 months, have been described as “unhealthy, unsuitable and dangerous”.
Cash-stricken Greece must also manage a disproportionate amount of Europe’s migrant flows. In 2010, 90% of all irregular entries to Europe took place along the Turkish-Greek border, whereas 57,000 attempted entries were recorded last year. The upcoming completion of a six-mile razor wire wallalong the border may stem the number of irregular migrants arriving, but will only provide a temporary solution as it will simply serve to divert migratory flows.
In the meantime, the growing population of undocumented migrants in Greece, which is now thought to stand at 400,000, is fuelling xenophobic sentiment and racism, as the rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party shows. Meanwhile, the growth in asylum requests is causing a humanitarian crisis, as the creaking asylum system suffers under budget cuts and migrants continue to sufferappalling conditions in detention centres.
The European Commission has criticised Greece’s poor treatment of asylum seekers, and has pledged €90m to help Greece with its migration management, although it refused to contribute to the €5m fence at the Greek-Turkish border which it has called “pointless“. In addition, the Dublin II regulation, which allows EU member states to transfer asylum requests to the country of first entry, has recently been called into question, with the European court of justice ruling that asylum seekers may not be transferred to a member state where they risk being subjected to “inhuman treatment”.
Since then many “Dublin” returns to Greece have been temporarily suspended, as EU members realise it is not realistic to transfer yet more asylum requests to a country already struggling to cope with its refugees.
However, despite the drive for greater solidarity and common European standards, wide disparities continue – as shown by the vast differences in the recognition of asylum claims. For Afghan asylum seekers, recognition rates ranged from 73% in Sweden to 11% in Greece, with the UK somewhere in between with 32%. Meanwhile, the acceptance rate for Iraqis varies from between 0 and 81%. There are fears that with economic and political pressures growing, we may increasingly see a regulatory race to the bottom, with countries attempting to make their asylum policies more restrictive than their neighbours in a form of “burden shifting”.
This sort of unco-operative approach also threatens the freedom of movement that underpins the single market and brings significant economic benefits to European countries, including the UK. For example, when the Italian government last year issued Tunisian migrants with temporary residence permits and tacitly encouraged them to go to France, the French government responded by temporarily blocking trains from Italy. While just last week the European Council agreed to give national governments more freedom toimpose border controls within the Schengen zone, excluding the European parliament from co-legislating in this area and potentially threatening labour mobility.
Ultimately though, it is refugees themselves who stand to suffer most from the lack of co-operation between European countries and the shrinking of asylum space. While conditions in detention centres continue to deteriorate in the EU’s peripheral states, increasing numbers of asylum seekers are arriving, fleeing regional conflicts such as the ongoing brutal civil wars in Syria or Somalia, only to find themselves living in inhumane living conditions and in fear of racist attacks.
To give these people the fair and dignified treatment they deserve, there needs to be more financial solidarity to allow countries such as Malta and Greece to manage their refugee populations adequately. Moreover, there needs to be an independent EU body to oversee the processing of asylum applications, to prevent divergences and allow a fair process for all. More controversially, a system of internal redistribution of asylum seekers, as exists between the different states in Germany, could enable a more even distribution of responsibility for Europe’s refugee flows.
Finally, a common European asylum system can only truly be common if the UK, Ireland and Denmark fully partake, and stop opting out of many of the directives regarding asylum policy simply because they are not part of the Schengen zone. Only by working together can we hope to overcome the complex issues asylum poses, and assume our responsibility to give international protection to those who need it. As the UN secretary Ban Ki-moon recently commented, refugees leave because they have no choice. We, on the other hand, do.