The European Commission on Thursday (8 December) said that EU countries could resume returning asylum seekers to Greece in March 2017, after such transfers were suspended for five years because of poor conditions there.
Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said Athens had now partly improved conditions in line with 2011 court rulings that had suspended the transfers and encouraged the flow of refugees and migrants to wealthier EU countries.
Under the EU’s Dublin asylum rules, countries where refugees first land must process their asylum requests, and must also take back any asylum seekers who travel to other countries in the bloc.
“Greece has made significant progress under very pressing, very difficult conditions to put in place a fully functioning asylum system over the last months, and I want to praise Greece,” said Avramopoulos, who is Greek.
People who have already moved on from Greece cannot be returned, and the returns system will only apply to people who move to other countries after 15 March, he said.
Unaccompanied minors and vulnerable people will be excluded from the transfers, while Greece must also provide guarantees for each individual person returned that they will receive proper treatment.
A ruling by the EU’s top court in 2011 at the height of Greece’s debt crisis said conditions for asylum seekers in Greece were degrading, meaning that other countries could not send them back.
Avramopoulos said that “in practice only a very small number of people” are likely to be transferred back to Greece in the near future.
“This will only apply to people who land in Greece after March 2017 and then continue their journey illegally elsewhere in Europe,” Avramoupoulus said. “We are not doing this from one day to the next, we are introducing it gradually.”
“The recommendation does not have retroactive force and even when it enters into force it will only to certain categories of migrants under certain conditions. “
“It seems that for the European Commission all roads for refugees lead to Greece,” said Iverna McGowan, Director of Amnesty International’s European Institution’s Office.
“It is outrageously hypocritical of the European Commission to insinuate that Greece alone is to blame for dire conditions, when the overcrowding and insecure climate on the Greek islands are for the most part caused by the EU-Turkey deal, and compounded by the lack of solidarity from other EU countries to relocate people.”
The EU-Turkey deal exchanges aid and accelerated EU membership talks for an agreement from Ankara to take back anyone crossing illegally to the Greek Islands. For every Syrian returned, another Syrian in Turkey will be resettled in the EU, under the terms of the controversial deal. 2,761 refugees have been resettled.
“Asylum-seekers on the Greek islands face overcrowding, freezing temperatures, lack of hot water, violence and hate-motivated attacks. Forcing refugees to stay on the islands only so that they can be returned to Turkey, is inhumane. Pressure on Greece must be immediately alleviated, not increased,” said Amnesty’s McGowan.
Crossings have dropped to 90 a day from 1,740 before the March 20 EU-Turkey deal, the European Commission said. But tensions with Ankara have led Turkey’s President to threaten to cancel the pact.
Greece and Italy have been the first point of entry for lion’s share of the more than one million migrants who have entered the bloc fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.
Impetus for reform of the EU asylum rules grew in October last year when German Chancellor Angela Merkel said “let’s be frank. The Dublin process, in its current form, is obsolete”.
Refugee numbers had surged after Germany declared it would admit Syrians, even if they technically should have applied for asylum in the first EU country they set foot in on their way to Germany.
The European Council promised in September 2015 to relocate 160K refugees from Italy and Greece across the EU by September 2017. They are more than 150,000 people off the target. 8,162 refugees have been relocated so far, 6,212 from Greece and 1,950 from Italy.
“I will be frank with you. I am not the happiest man in the world,” said Avramopoulos. “The results were very poor but in the last two months we have seen progress.”
“You asked me if we have put pressure on member states, believe me I haven’t stopped doing that in the past months. I have repeatedly called on member states to respect their commitments.”
But away from Brussels, national politicians have ratcheted up anti-immigrant rhetoric. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party voted Wednesday to scrap dual nationality for German-born children of foreigners.
French far-right leader Marine Le Pen proposed Thursday that the children of illegal immigrants should be refused public school places as part of tough proposals to restrict state services.
“I’ve got nothing against foreigners but I say to them: if you come to our country, don’t expect that you will be taken care of, treated (by the health system) and that your children will be educated for free,” Le Pen said.
“That’s finished now, it’s the end of playtime,” she told an audience at a conference organised by a polling group in Paris.
The leader of the National Front (FN) is forecast by opinion polls to finish second in next year’s presidential election but she is hoping for new momentum after the victory of Donald Trump in the United States.
Speaking to AFP afterwards, Le Pen clarified that she only wanted to block education for immigrants who are in the country illegally, not all foreigners. But she said that any foreigner using the public education system without paying tax in France should have to contribute.
The FN sees itself as part of a global revolt against immigration, established political parties and globalisation epitomised by Trump’s victory last month.