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The EU’s refugee strategy is essentially one of building ‘Fortress Europe’, as shown most clearly in its recent EU-Turkey deal, much criticised by the UN and major NGOs amongst others. Yet even on its own terms and commitments, the EU is failing. Asylum-seekers are still being detained in overcrowded conditions, EU pledges to deploy asylum officials to process their claims are not being fulfilled, and the relocation process for those refugees who made it to Greece before the 20th March deadline is failing badly.

At heart, the reasons for these failures are simple: there is a lack of political will, a lack of solidarity and even a lack of basic efficiency and commitment in following through on agreed plans. The impression is of EU leaders who cannot see beyond welcoming the reduction in refugee numbers arriving across the Aegean from Turkey to Greece. They appear in no hurry to return refugees who came after March 20th, and are apparently insouciant about the conditions refugees are enduring on Lesbos, Chios and other islands in the meantime. Greece, in the face of its own economic crisis and cuts, is left, apart from some financial support, to handle the 54,000 refugees in the country on its own.

“Member states do not see any urgency in implementing their own strategy”

Basic numbers paint a dismal picture. According to the UNHCR, by the end of April there were 8,000 refugees on the Greek islands, almost all of whom arrived after the EU-Turkey deal cut-off date of 20th March. On the island of Lesbos, the Moria camp remains highly overcrowded with about 3,500 people in a camp meant for 2,000 people. According to the UNHCR, “many of those inside are families with young children and the majority are from war-torn Syria or fled Afghanistan and Iraq.” Reports from Chios suggest equally bad or worse conditions.

Most of those detained have applied for asylum, overwhelming the Greek asylum authorities. Member states promised support through the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) but have not delivered. For the crucial asylum officials’ role, 472 officials were requested, 470 pledged and yet only 68 deployed as of 27th April. Of 400 interpreters requested, member states have so far pledged only 85 and deployed 63. These numbers suggest EU member states do not see any urgency in implementing their own strategy of detaining asylum-seekers and returning them to Turkey after a “fair” asylum hearing.

So far, 386 people have been returned from Greece to Turkey – a process that Human Rights Watch has criticised in an in-depth report for failing to inform those being deported properly about their rights and failing to treat them with dignity during the deportation or on arrival back into detention in Turkey. With the process moving so slowly, the EU should and could at least ensure decent detention conditions on the islands, but this is mostly not happening – although on Lesbos, some of the most vulnerable asylum-seekers have been moved to a better camp at Kara Tepe. With 46,000 refugees in mainland Greece, the Greek authorities have been under huge pressure to provide adequate shelter and facilities – although over 30 camps have now been set up throughout the country, some with relatively good conditions, others with very poor conditions.

The EU also committed to take Syrian refugees direct from Turkey, but in a much-criticised catch 22, the “1-for-1” deal, it will only do this if other Syrian refugees attempt to come to Greece and are then returned to Turkey. So far, the EU has taken 120 Syrian refugees direct from Turkey under this scheme – out of a promised 70,000. These are not the sort of numbers that will deter desperate asylum-seekers from looking for other routes to Europe.

“The European Commission has berated member states for their lack of action”

This week, the European Commission will propose reforming the so-called Dublin system, whereby refugees must apply for asylum in their first country of arrival, and suggest a relocation mechanism for when these numbers are too high. Yet given the failure of the current 7-month-old relocation mechanism, there is an open question as to whether such EU discussions and agreements have any value or meaning at all.

Since the current relocation process was launched last September, only 876 refugees have been relocated from Greece, as of the end of April. The European Commission has berated member states for their lack of action, stating with admirable conciseness: “The lack of political will among member states has been the most important factor in slowing down the process”. Eleven member states have accepted no refugees at all.

A cut-off barrier is included in the two-year scheme so that only asylum-seekers from countries with an average EU asylum success rate of 75% qualify – currently Syrians, Iraqis and Eritreans. This leaves several thousand Afghans, a quarter of all refugees in Greece (and who had an EU asylum acceptance rate of 67% in 2015), only able to apply for asylum in Greece. At the current rate of relocation, it would take about 23 years to relocate the 35,000 refugees who qualify for the scheme; 3,000 refugees might be relocated when the two-year scheme is over, leaving the others in an uncertain limbo in Greek camps.

Some refugees, quite clearly, are more equal than others. Yet what all have in common, apart from escaping their war-torn countries, is the fact that the EU’s inefficiency, lack of political will and lack of solidarity mean the vast majority are in limbo – whether in open or closed camps, in Idomeni or Moria, Piraeus or Chios. The EU’s strategy for refugees turns out to be a strategy for leaving 54,000 asylum-seekers in limbo across Greece – and across Italy too. And the Commission’s calls for political will and action look likely to fall on deaf ears for some time to come.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC / FLICKR – Marco Fornasari