ECRE head: Asylum management needs compliance, not new laws

Refugees at Budapest's main railway station. [Istvan Cisak/ Shutterstock]

Some European countries are trying to enact restrictive policies and create a hostile atmosphere to discourage migrants and asylum seekers, blatantly ignoring EU and international law, Catherine Woollard told EURACTIV Slovakia.

Woollard, who leads the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, singled out Hungary, where, she said, the government has become hardline, but added that many central and east European countries already have experience with the integration of minorities and should use it to include immigrants as well.

Catherine Woollard is the secretary general of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), an alliance of refugee-assisting non-governmental organisations. With 96 members active in 40 European countries, ECRE has been promoting a humane and generous European asylum policy for more than 40 years.

Woollard spoke with EURACTIV Slovakia’s Senior Editor Lucia Yar.

What is the role of ECRE in Europe and what are the ongoing projects you currently supervise?

We work on litigation, on research, advocacy, and communication. For instance on the litigation side, this year we intervened at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in five asylum cases. These are strategic cases, meaning that if we get a good decision from the European Court of Human Rights there are implications for legal systems across Europe.

On the legal side, we also manage a network of more than 100 asylum lawyers. They can ask us for advice on legal matters when they are advising asylum seekers or individual refugees.

Another project we manage is AIDA, Asylum Information Database, which assesses the actual situation of asylum law in practice in 23 European countries. Working on this project leads us also to our general conclusion: the key problem is the lack of compliance with the law. No need for more reforms of law, with the exception of the Dublin system.

However, there must be countries which comply with the law better than others. Which are those?

There is good and bad practice in a lot of member states. Particularly on the negative side, there are examples of longstanding non-compliance. And a classic example there is Greece. Since 2011, Greece has been ruled unsafe for asylum seekers and refugees, because the conditions are bad. And that is due to a lack of compliance with the law, primarily in terms of reception conditions, but also in terms of asylum procedures.

Those problems were partially about Dublin. If Greece or Italy comply, then under the Dublin regulation they would be responsible for the vast majority of the people who arrive in Europe, because they are the country of first arrival. They have no incentive to comply.

The new trend, however, is not only about strategic non-compliance or long-term institutional problems. Now we are seeing deliberate attempts to put restrictive policies in place. We are also seeing new policies that flagrantly ignore EU law and wider international law, examples being the situation at the Hungarian border, the use of detention and similar measures.

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You are mentioning Hungary. The countries in Central Europe, V4 countries, have gained a bad image in Europe over the way they handled the crisis. What do you see behind their motives?

An interesting issue is the difference between the countries. We have to be careful about not playing into the hands of governments and present this as one block. We are extremely concerned about what is happening in Hungary.

I can understand why it was in the interest of the governments to really reinforce this idea about V4 block, particularly in the question of relocation and resisting the relocation measures.

Yet the governments of those four countries seem to be presenting exactly the public opinion.

We see a great diversity when it comes to the public opinion of the countries from the Visegrad region. For us, the crucial issue is also whether governments attempt to promote a positive image of refugees and migrants, and promote the idea of human rights and maintaining international standards.

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Promoting a positive image of refugees is not a standard almost anywhere in Europe these days.

I would not agree. What makes the biggest difference is not the presence or absence of an extremist party. It is whether the mainstream parties adopt their views. It is also about whether the extremist parties gain power, and whether the mainstream parties are willing to work with them. It is not as simple to say that public is opposed to the issues, so therefore the politicians must follow.

In different countries, the public has the whole variety of different views. What turns public to completely oppose refugees or migrants, but also oppose democracy, is a situation such as that in Hungary. The government there has become hardline. What concerns us about Hungary is not that the extremist party came into power, but that the party in power became extreme. We want to see a rejection of such extremist views.

What we are seeing instead are certain narratives doing the rounds in central and Eastern Europe. For instance, many argue that refugees do not even want to come to those lands, so why force them by mandatory relocations?

Every country in Europe should be able to offer protection. That means having a functioning asylum system and accepting a certain number of refugees. In order to include refugees in our societies, they need to have access to basic rights, access to employment, access to education, opportunities to learn the language and so on.

Governments are rather disingenuous to say: Oh, they do not want to stay here. Well, if you create a hostile environment, then obviously, they don’t want to come, whereas if you are willing to provide rights, gradually people will want to stay.

Any government that decides – as it should – that it will host a certain number of refugees, can easily put in place an integration strategy and receive funding from the EU to do so.

One of the reasons that people leave is that there isn’t a wider community of their fellow citizens or others who speak their language. It is not that they want to be living in ghettos. They want to have some sense of connection. In this case, we need a strategy building up a small community. Obviously, that is politically highly sensitive for a number of governments in this region.

But neither politicians nor society genuinely seem to be willing to create such communities. Societies in central and Eastern Europe are feeling culturally very homogenous.

But are they? The presentation that we have heard from certain leaders that these are mono-ethnic or homogenous countries is simply not true. Even if we look at Poland, which is arguably the most visible one, one million Ukrainians live in Poland.

I am glad we are bringing up the minority issue, because especially in this region, many use the argument that in central or Eastern Europe we can barely deal with our current minorities and integrate them fully. How can we handle the refugee minorities? How do you react to such argument?

The issue of relocation turned to be perceived as more imposition from Brussels or from the West, which is highly sensitive and it was perhaps not well handled. On the other hand, I am sorry, but being a part of the EU means that you have obligations. And if you don’t want those obligations, then follow the route of the UK and leave.

We are not talking about something new. We are talking about the compliance with the existing law, and also about the collective response. And we talk about the concept of solidarity, which is also a part of the EU. These things are not negotiable. You can’t pick and choose what you want of the legal framework, otherwise what is the point of having a legal order?

The questions of minorities and refugees are not an either – or, the countries have to respect both. Actually, there is a way to turn this into a win-win scenario.

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How could it work?

A number of countries have had a certain experience in inclusion of minorities and particularly the most marginalised minority groups. This experience could also be applicable to the inclusion of the new communities.

For example, FYROM (Macedonia), which has done relatively well in inclusion of Roma but also in establishing a power-sharing political system which gives rights to the Albanian minority. It has good practice that could then be used if it becomes a country where refugees are resettled.

Similarly Romania, which is dealing with different issues related to minorities. It has experience in providing language rights, notably to the Hungarian community, but also has wide-ranging experience – good and bad practice – when it comes to Roma rights.

Romania did not go down the road of completely resisting the relocation. It is trying to use that opportunity to build up its reception system, which wasn’t in place. In the long term, if those communities settle, there is experience on minority rights.

Do you think we could consider the migration crisis to be over?

The crisis is not over yet. It has moved. The systemic, all-consuming crisis of the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016, where seemingly the entire political system in Europe went into meltdown, is thankfully over for now, but it doesn’t mean it won’t come back. The sense was that this was an existential crisis for the EU.

The crisis is contained in particular places now. Certainly, if you are in Greece, in parts of Italy, or in Spanish enclaves or one of the places where people are stuck beyond the EU, the crisis is not over. It is a sense of containment.

What should we expect in the next few months?

We should dispel the idea that there has been a good response: it is not the case that the EU-Turkey Deal and other measures have worked, there was success, everything is resolved and therefore it has to be repeated and rolled out globally.

In fact, what we are seeing is certain short-term fixes that contain the crises in pockets within Europe and beyond it, where the EU is complicit in violation of human rights. We are therefore putting forward alternatives based on reforming the asylum system, with Europe continuing to offer protection.

The measures that will essentially block access to Europe either through physical or legal measures be agreed upon may come true. A lot depends on Germany. If some of the actors within the German political system who are now pushing for very problematic measures gain or maintain their ascendancy, then it could happen.

Whereas if Angela Merkel reasserts her principles, like we saw in the crisis, assuming that the government is formed, her legacy will be based on this.

Are there other ways you would like to see being pursued at the European level?

We would like to see the reassertion of role of the Commission and the Treaties, rather than in pushing through the perceived priorities of the Member States.

It is unfortunate that the Commission to some extent has seen its role as one of doing what member states and their interior ministers want, rather than the role as set out in the treaties, which is to be defender of those treaties, including the human rights provisions in them.

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