MEP on EU-Turkey deal: Processing of asylum applications is being delayed

Barbara Lochbihler is a German MEP and Foreign and Human Rights Spokesperson for the Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament. [Olaf Köster]

More than a year since the EU-Turkey agreement, a European immigration law is still distant but badly needed. The European distribution mechanism does not work due to the lack of receptiveness of many EU member states, MEP Barbara Lochbihler told EURACTIV Germany.

Barbara Lochbihler is a German MEP and Foreign and Human Rights Spokesperson for the Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament.

Lochbihler told EURACTIV Germany’s Ama Lorenz how the EU-Turkey deal has affected immigration and what humanitarian actions can still be expected from the EU.

Mrs Lochbihler, you just came back from Greece, where you wanted to get an impression of the refugees’ situation. How is the current state of play?

I have been to Athens and Lesbos to ask how the hotspots, the first reception centres in Greece, work after the EU-Turkey deal. Further to that, there was alarming news from the camp in Moria on Lesbos. The arrivals there have been on the rise again since October and the camp is overcrowded. Moria is actually only made for registration and geared for 2,000 people. When I visited the camp, there were more than 6,000 people there, 1,500 of them in tents that are not heated.

The camp director told me that they are mostly single men and they stay there for up to 18 months. I also talked to a doctor who regularly visits the camp. She said that 40% of new arrivals this autumn are children under the age of six. For them, it will be extremely exhausting to endure the coming winter under the prevailing conditions in Moria.

There is also a lack of medical care in the camp and the hospital on the island is far too small for so many additional people. The sanitary facilities are completely inadequate and women report that they have been given nappies for the night because they cannot reach a toilet safely. In other words: these shortcomings have to be fixed and we should not have waited for such a long time. The measures taken by the Greek government are far from sufficient.

Have you been able to address these grievances to the Greek government?

I had the opportunity to talk to the Greek Minister for Migration, Giannis Mouzalas, about where the EU money is going. We are talking about €1.2bn, part of it also goes to Lesbos. Nevertheless, the Greek government so far cannot present a plan on how to provide permanent housing for all those people before the start of winter.

The minister said that they indeed had rented houses with the EU money, but not enough. He pointed out that the money was partly channelled through non-governmental organisations that did not provide enough housing and now are desperately looking for hotels or apartments on Lesbos or on the mainland to get through the winter months.

Does that mean that EU funds have seeped into NGOs?

I cannot say that. I can only repeat what the Greek minister has told me. Thus, the NGOs do not work to his satisfaction. At the same time, there is a great deal of criticism about mismanagement and non-transparency, which the ministry is responsible for. I think it may help when the EU pushes again to ensure that the still missing 1,500 fixed shelters are available as soon as possible.

There are complaints about a deliberate delay in processing applications – not only by the NGOs but also increasingly by the refugees themselves. Especially those who have been granted a permit by the Federal Ministry of the Interior for a month but are nevertheless not allowed to leave Greece. In your opinion, is the complicating of family reunification due to administrative overload or is it politically motivated?

There are about 4,500 people who are entitled to family reunification with their spouses, parents or children in Germany in accordance with the Dublin procedure.  This is not a number that would lead to administrative overload when taken in by Germany. The fact that the transfer figures were already much higher than at present shows that the Greek side has no administrative problems.

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On the other side, there is also a debate about family reunification. In other words, the core family members from Syria or Lebanon are being brought together. In Germany, we have currently the debate to suspend the family reunification until March. The CSU has already announced that this should even be extended. I find that quite unacceptable.

The declared policy of all German and European parties is that we must stop the dying on the dangerous routes and prevent criminal smuggling. That means organising legal and secure access routes. Family reunification must be promoted and they should be able to take a legal path. The “Germany is coming to an end, when more beneficiaries come in” is not tenable if one discusses the core of it.

But why does the processing of applications in Greece take so long?

I would even say the processing is being protracted. In Athens, I have visited the hunger-strikers and talked to them. I had the impression that both the Greek and the German side do not process the applications as fast as possible, although it is the only legal way for those people to get to Germany.

There is a letter circulating from the Greek ministers to the German interior minister, in which he assures that he will comply with the German request to work as slowly as possible. According to this, only 70 family members per month should be able to travel to Germany. The German Interior Ministry has denied that.

Meanwhile, there is even a ruling by a German administrative court, which obliges the German authorities to complete the transfers within the specified six-month period. Currently, everything works a bit faster as around 300 people are transferred per month. Before the suspicion arose and Mouzala’s letter was published by a Greek newspaper, it had been around 700 per month.

Actually, the European Asylum Offices (EASO) should prevent such actions.

EASO has nothing to do with this story. But there is a lot of criticism when it comes to EASO’s survey practice. Amongst others, it is about identifying particular vulnerability due to torture, war traumatisation, diseases that could result in people being taken out from the EU-Turkey Agreement, leaving the islands and being much better accommodated on the mainland.

All this sounds not very hopeful.

A human rights organisation (ECCHR) has reached out to the EU Ombudsman. They have reported very serious complaints. They have submitted a request to the Ombudsman to check that the European Asylum Office in Moria is doing its job fairly and in full compliance with the rule of law. In June this year, the EU Ombudsman allowed the complaint and is now investigating whether there is administrative misconduct. In the EU context, this is already a remarkable process.

If the EU states reproach each other, the situation for the refugees will not change. Is not the evil really in the EU-Turkey agreement itself?

In a conversation with the Greek minister of migration, I also criticised the EU-Turkey deal because it simply cannot be upheld under international and human rights law. However, he has defended it, out of concern that Greece will be overburdened and ultimately unable to stay in the Schengen area if the other member states wish to continue preventing the distribution and onward journey of refugees at any cost.

And in light of the humanitarian catastrophe in the refugee camps, no rethinking on the part of the EU states is in sight?

There is no rethinking in sight at EU level to pursue a different refugee policy. Instead, it continues to focus on outsourcing its own asylum responsibilities in third countries.

Take Lebanon, for example, where one in four Lebanese is a refugee living in a camp. Does Europe really believe that, should the situation in Lebanon escalate, we will be able to stop all those who are fleeing? I do not think so. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary for a reasonable policy to regulate the intake of refugees. This means creating legal ways to take people directly from refugee camps in neighbouring countries in order to relieve Greece too.

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The refugees must be better distributed and the reception capacity in the member states preserved. Even if it is difficult at present with the many right-wing governments. In addition, no people should be pushed back from other EU countries to Greece under the Dublin procedure.

They spoke of “exerting more pressure”. Given that all parliamentary decisions by the Council can be ignored without further consequences, how optimistic are you that anything will change in European refugee policy and the associated humanitarian catastrophe in the near future?

We have the crisis in the European Council. What is also partly proposed by the Commission and also supported by Parliament is not implemented by the Council. If we cannot change that, it is very, very difficult to stay in the European tradition of humanitarian refugee policy and to organise meaningful labour migration. Then it will continue like this: they try to prevent refugees from coming to Europe. The proposals that Jean-Claude Juncker has made – more resettlement with more distribution – must be demanded. I do not see another way.

On Wednesday (15 November) the Commission will present a report on the situation. What results can be expected from the consultation?

I hope that the Commission will make a good presentation on Wednesday. It takes a detailed overview, for which the €1.2bn which flowed to Greece were spent. This is important information, also for the non-governmental organisations who would like to know where more is needed or where there was a lack. We will “only” discuss in plenary, what creates publicity, but unfortunately, there will be no resolution. There are, I believe, political groups in Parliament who do not want the Tsipras government to be criticised so explicitly. I would have wished for a resolution, because then you can always make concrete demands.

So it just becomes an “exchange of ideas” without further consequences?

It will stay an exchange of ideas, but perhaps also with a strong appellative character. At the very least, we should make sure that the humanitarian conditions in the Moria camp are improved before the winter.