Refugee hotspots in Italy and Greece ‘not yet adequate’, say EU auditors

A registration sign at a hotspot. [Frontex]

The EU’s emergency response to the 2015 refugee crisis, by creating arrival ‘hotspots’ in Greece and Italy, has left reception centres that are “not yet adequate”, according to a damning new report by the EU Court of Auditors.

It found that – “despite considerable EU support” – current reception centres in Italy were unable to receive migrants properly, and those in Greece are unable to accommodate them adequately.

And the auditors found that experts, deployed centrally by Brussels – were there for too short a time to be of efficient help.

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Whilst the refugee crisis of 2015 was one of the most severe emergencies the EU has faced, member states themselves are responsible for border control and asylum processing.

As upwards of 1.5 million people reached EU borders from Syria and elsewhere, Germany and Sweden opened their borders to accommodate them, while other states, notably in Eastern Europe and the Balkans built fences – triggering a major crisis in intra-EU relations.

Meanwhile, huge bottlenecks built up on the coasts and islands of Italy and Greece, where most irregular migrants first set foot on European shores.

The mass influx saw the so-called Dublin Regulation, intended to force refugees to claim asylum in the first country they arrived at, temporarily suspended, and the Commission forced to step in to help Italy and Greece – both with financial assistance and expertise, and a supposed quota system for rehousing asylum applicants across EU member states.

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Today’s report from the Luxembourg-based auditors – who scrutinise EU spending – said that “overall, we found that the hotspot approach has helped improve the migration management in the frontier member states, under very challenging and constantly changing circumstances, by increasing their reception capacities, improving registration procedures, and by strengthening the coordination efforts.”

But the 47-page investigation adds: “Despite considerable support from the EU, at the end of 2016 the reception facilities in both countries were not yet adequate to properly receive (Italy) or accommodate (Greece) the number of migrants arriving.

“There was still a shortage of adequate facilities to accommodate and process unaccompanied minors in line with international standards, and at the next level of reception.”

Hans Gustaf Wessberg, one of the two members of the European Court of Auditors responsible for the report, said: “This issue needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.”

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After several years in which the majority of asylum seekers fleeing the Syrian civil war ended up in neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan, late 2014 and then 2015 saw a huge spike in numbers, putting the entire EU system under immense strain.

While some of the undocumented migrants were economic, largely from northern or west Africa, the influx also contained refugees and many children and unaccompanied minors.

In addition, the crisis saw the route switch from the ‘Central Mediterranean’ route of North Africa to Italy, to ‘Eastern Mediterranean’, i.e. from Turkey to Greece.

This, as well as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s brief ‘open door’ policy to quell the numbers on Germany’s borders, or passing through Germany en route to Sweden (but not Denmark), resulted in the EU-Turkey deal. Turkey pledged at a summit in Malta to take back failed asylum seekers and prevent more migrants leaving its shores.

In addition, the Commission promised some 160,000 asylum applicants would be relocated within the EU, and away from Italy and Greece.

An additional €2.4bn was put aside for a new EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, seeking to stabilise and reduce the root causes of migration in fragile African states.

The auditors found that the creation of the so-called hotspots in Greece and Italy was “slower than planned and current reception is still insufficient”.

By June 2016, the Commission assessed all five Greek hotspots as “fully operational”, but at a capacity of 7,450 people, insufficient for the numbers arriving.

The auditors also point out that, with an average duration of just six weeks for visiting experts, “this frequent rotation obviously implies a significant efficiency loss, as newly-arriving experts need some time to adjust and become familiar with the specific situation”.

“All stakeholders interviewed during the audit visits emphasised the need for experts to be deployed for longer periods,” the report concludes.

It makes four “urgent” recommendations:

  • That Italy should increase the number of hotspots, and Greece should upgrade their accommodation;
  • A child protection officer at every hotspot;
  • Longer deployment of experts from other EU member states;
  • Italy and Greece to appoint one person to be in charge of their overall hotspots.

The Commission, in its official response, called the report “well-balanced” and said it “accepts the recommendations of the Court aimed at further developing specific aspects of the hotspot approach”.

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