Avramopoulos: Detention and removal centres are also needed

Dimitris Avramopoulos [Dimitris Avramopoulos office]

Hotspots are important. But detention centres are also needed for those ordered to return to their home countries, particularly if they are not willing to return voluntarily, Dimitris Avramopoulos said in an exclusive interview with EURACTIV.

Dimitris Avramopoulos is European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship.

Avramopoulos spoke to EURACTIV’s Sarantis Michalopoulos.

At a time when the inhabitants of Greek islands are candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize, the European Commission threatened Athens with suspension from the Schengen zone. What is your comment on that?

The Commission never threatens. The Commission is here to help and support member states. We should be clear that no country is being threatened with suspension from Schengen. In any case, Schengen rules do not foresee the possibility of such a suspension.

On the contrary what we are trying to do is safeguard and strengthen Schengen. If we want to continue to move freely internally, we simply have to better manage our external borders. We are helping Greece to do that, and I know that Greece is making efforts too. But it is not just about borders. This is precisely what the inhabitants of the Greek islands show on a daily basis. They give food, donate clothes, help those vulnerable people who arrive – they have been doing this from the very start, because it is the right and humane thing to do. It is this sense of humanity and solidarity that we have seen also in other places in Europe, such as Italy and Sweden – but unfortunately not enough everywhere.

Is Athens doing its job in protecting the EU’s external borders?  Could you clearly define the meaning of “protection of EU’s external borders”? Greek MEP Stelios Kouloglou recently wondered: “If a dinghy comes with sixty people, what do you do? You kill them?”

I have always been very clear: our borders don’t need to be “protected” from vulnerable people – but they need to be better managed. Everyone who arrives at Europe’s external borders and wants to apply for asylum should be offered the chance to do so. But we have to also know who exactly is coming in. All arrivals need to be properly registered and fingerprinted. This is fundamental in order to manage the refugee flows and ensure our security. And it is something that needs to be improved. The fact that Greece is now deploying the army is not to “protect” but to better manage the situation: the army is under civilian command, offering more manpower and the means to manage a huge inflow of people that need to be assisted.

Greece called the Commission’s report “politicised” and accused the European Commission of trying to “isolate” the country. It, also, raised concerns over the procedure that was followed by the College of Commissioners on the Schengen Evaluation Report on Greece.

All the rules have been followed to the letter. The Schengen evaluation and the report were made following on-site visits, where both the Commission and member states’ experts were present. The same is done in other member states. The difference is that Greece’s borders at the moment are under heavier pressure because of the refugee flows. We have communicated the draft evaluation report to Greece after this visit to provide comments, and a majority of those have been taken on board. I assure you that this is a factual report, which shows that Greece had deficiencies. That is why adequate recommendations have been adopted to remedy the situation. 

But since November, the situation (has been) changing, given the commitments and the efforts of the Greek authorities. Deficiencies can be corrected.

Angela Merkel recently said that the refugees should return home once the war is over. Does this change of attitude put more pressure on the host countries? What is the position of the European Commission on Merkel’s statement? 

Ms. Merkel has been doing an incredible job under a lot of pressure. Germany has shown enormous hospitality in times where many other member states retrench and close themselves. No country can do this alone. Member states have a lot of responsibility and competence in this area. While we have benchmarks and rules as to how asylum procedures should happen, it is the member states who decide what status to give, and whether to review that status after a certain period of time. In any case, no one can be sent back if the situation in the country is not safe – this is the basic principle of non-refoulement. And we have to continue working towards a political solution and stability in Syria of course. This refugee crisis cannot be the status quo.

Are you satisfied with Turkey’s contribution to the refugee crisis? ALDE suggested last week giving the €3 billion aid to the United Nations’ refugee agency to improve conditions in the refugee camps in Turkey, and not to the Turkish government.

First of all, let me make one thing crystal clear: those €3 billion are not going to the Turkish government, but precisely to the organisations and communities hosting and helping refugees. Those €3 billion are going de facto to the refugees directly. This is not only a European challenge, but also a global challenge. That is why we have to work together, and I am positive that we will move ahead soon on this. Projects in Turkey, for example on education, should already start being funded soon.

How will the hotspots manage to solve the refugee deadlock if the relocation of those registered is not ensured and simultaneously, if a Dublin Regulation review does not take place?

The refugee crisis is a complex and multifaceted issue. We will not solve the problems by simply pushing a magic button. This means that while systematic registration needs to happen, while all hotspots need to become operational as soon as possible, and while we need to step up relocations, we are also precisely planning systemic reforms. The Dublin reform is coming in spring, and already in March we will be able to say more about the direction we are heading in. But it is also not just about Dublin: it is our whole asylum policy that needs to be better streamlined and harmonised. We also need to improve our integration and legal migration policies. All of these elements go hand in hand.

Is the Commission planning to ask Greece to accompany the hotspots with detention centres or massive camps?

The hotspots are there to support the process of the first arrivals through registering, identifying and fingerprinting – to know whether people will have to be relocated, or whether they should do their asylum procedure in Greece or Italy, and then either be granted asylum or be returned. Of course, during that time, people have to stay somewhere. So it is normal that we need more reception places. Greece has committed to expanding its reception places by 50,000 following the Western Balkans leaders meeting on 25 October – but detention or removal centres are also needed for those who receive the decision to return, particularly if there is a risk of absconding and if they are not willing to return voluntarily.

Copenhagen overwhelmingly voted in favor of reforms aimed at dissuading migrants from seeking asylum by delaying family reunifications. It also allowed the authorities to seize valuables. Could such restrictive measures stop migration to the EU?

We are all bound by the basic principles of the Geneva Convention and the Charter of Human Rights – which means we have to treat those vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees with dignity and humanity. Denmark is not bound by the rules of the Common European Asylum System, but of course must respect the general international rules. We are now in the process of assessing the new Danish law. More generally today, I’m afraid I see a rise in nationalistic and xenophobic attitudes, which is putting at stake the very heart of the European project: our solidarity and our union. This goes beyond the challenges of the refugee crisis, and this is where politicians today have to show leadership. We will not address this crisis by feeding fear. We can only do it if we work together.

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