New asylum law comes up against old failings

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by MacroPolis
Riswijk refugee centre

At the reception centre for asylum seekers in Rijswijk, bicycles are parked neatly like they would be outside any apartment complex or office block in the Netherlands. Joyous shrieks are heard nearby as children play at a small, but tidy, playground.

The prefabricated structures that serve as temporary homes for up to 400 people are neatly stacked and flanked by paved pathways and well-maintained grassy areas. There is even a small plot for residents to grow vegetables.

The spotless education centre, housed in a collection of the container-like structures, includes a computer room and music class where children and adults can be taught.

Here, on the outskirts of The Hague, there is a sense that people fleeing their homelands can regain some peace and be treated with respect while they wait to hear if their asylum applications will be granted or where they will move to next to start a new life.

The centre, managed by the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA), even houses people whose applications have been rejected and who are either appealing the initial decision or waiting to be returned to their homeland.

The calm at the Riswijk centre, witnessed by a group of Greek journalists during a recent visit organised by the Dutch Embassy in Athens and the Netherlands Enterprise Agency, is in complete contrast to the maelstrom of the Moria camp on Lesvos, as well as the reception centres on Samos and other Greek islands. Recent deaths at Moria, fires, protests and the general disarray at the site, where hundreds live in tents in the olive groves outside, makes not just for a hellish image of reception facilities in Greece but creates a living nightmare for thousands of asylum seekers who reach the country each year.

Different worlds

Of course, the circumstances faced by the authorities in the two countries are vastly different, meaning that comparisons need to be qualified.

Greece is a country of first arrival, whereas the Netherlands is a final destination. Refugees and migrants reach Greece after crossing the Aegean in dinghies or trekking across its land border with Turkey, whereas they usually arrive in the Netherlands in a much more orderly manner.

Last year, Greece received just under 67,000 asylum applications, according to the Greek Asylum Service. This was a record number for the country and almost 14 times as many as in 2013.

It outstrips the figure for the Netherlands, where 30,380 applications were received in total last year.

Another key difference is that the Netherlands has developed and adapted its asylum policy over several decades, whereas circumstances and political indifference over many years mean that Greece has had to come up with patchwork solutions under great pressure over the last few years.

In “The Unsettling of Europe,” Peter Gatrell’s book on migration to and within Europe since 1945, the historian describes how Dutch authorities faced new challenges in the 1970s and early 1980s as they moulded the country’s approach to refugees, drawing heavily on the structure of the Dutch welfare system.

“Few asylum seekers entered the Netherlands prior to that time, apart from a handful of Portuguese war resisters, who quickly found paid work,” he writes. “By 1980, around 3,000 Christian Turks, mainly Syrian Orthodox Christians, but also Armenians claimed asylum with the backing of churches and secular lobby groups.”

Another major shift for the Dutch asylum policy came in the 1990s as a result of the wars in the Balkans, leading to the current “all-of-government” approach whose goals range from stopping irregular migration, to improving reception and migration. Today, the Netherlands spends roughly 1.2 billion euros a year on its asylum system.

Good example

In policymaking circles, the Netherlands is increasingly seen as an example that Greece should try to follow. This is partly the result of a policy paper written by the European Stability Initiative (ESI) think-tank last January titled “Amsterdam in the Mediterranean.”

The report sets out how the Dutch asylum process works and underlines that its greatest assets are the speed and high level of organisation: Would-be refugees are taken to a central registration centre, Ter Appel (with a capacity of 2,000 people), where they are identified and checked before being provided with a lawyer free of charge and interviewed by the immigration service.

Applicants receive their first instance decision within a few weeks in most cases. If the verdict is negative and they appeal, usually another month or so is needed before a final decision is issued. Officials from the Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND) say that if it is a complex case, requiring more time for investigation, the process can take up to six months.

Appeals are handled by the migration chambers of 11 district courts, with a single judge making the decision in most cases. Also, there is a four-week deadline for onward appeals to the Council of State. Dutch immigration officials say that the high court upholds the original decision in around 85 percent of cases and that the IND appeals the remaining verdicts, overturning the Council of State’s ruling in around 90 percent of cases.

Even so, concerns have been raised recently in the Netherlands that asylum seekers are having to wait longer for their applications to be heard. A few weeks ago, the Dutch Council for Refugees complained to the country’s Parliament that the waiting time for the IND process to begin had increased from eight weeks at the beginning of 2018 to 20 weeks.

Nevertheless, the ESI argued that if a similar system is adopted in Greece, the EU-Turkey agreement could be applied properly and those not needing asylum in Greece would be returned to Turkey within two months, ending overcrowding on the Greek islands and stemming the flow of people crossing the Aegean.

“Such a process would help Greece and the Greek islands,” argue the authors of the report. “It would prevent deaths at sea and quickly resolve the status of refugees and migrants in a thorough and serious process, allowing them to start planning their future. It would stabilise the EU-Turkey statement. In parallel there should be a strategy to establish fully funded pilot EU RICs (Reception and Identification Centres) on the Greek islands that would meet all Greek and EU reception standards.”

Photo by MacroPolis
Classroom at Riswijk refugee centre

The Netherlands has focussed its efforts on creating not only a swift asylum process, but one that has the necessary resources to perform effectively. This starts from the realisation that having an asylum system that is fit for purpose has multiple benefits.

In 2018, the Directorate-General for Migration at the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security sent a 13-page document to the country’s Parliament outlining the country’s thinking on refugee-related issues. “A lack of preparedness comes at a high price: declining confidence in the government, crumbling public support for the protection of asylum seekers, and polarisation in society,” the document says.

The main elements for improving preparedness were improving the speed and the manageability of the asylum procedure and building flexibility into the system.

“In the Netherlands as elsewhere, the rise – and subsequent fall – in the number of asylum seekers prompted a realisation that the asylum system needs to be better equipped to respond to such fluctuations in size and composition,” the authors of the note explain.

“A more flexible asylum system cannot be seen in isolation, but must dovetail seamlessly with the phase following reception. For this reason, the likelihood of an application’s success is assessed at an early stage, and this will help to determine the procedure and the reception centre to which the asylum seeker is allocated,” the Dutch migration officials add.

This approach means that for cases where residence permits are likely to be issued, there is an effort to move quickly towards integration into Dutch society. Asylum seekers who are likely to get a negative decision are usually kept in separate centres pending the return procedure, which is instigated as soon as there is a final decision.

Officials from the Dutch Repatriation and Departure Service (DT&V), which also operates under the auspices of the Justice and Security Ministry, stress that returning asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected is a complex process and that the focus is on achieving voluntary departures, rather than forced returns, which are seen as a last resort.

In 2018, the Netherlands returned a total of 14,880 third country nationals to their homelands. Of these, 2,650 were forced returns. By contrast, Greece had around 12,500 returns in total, according to Eurostat. Just under 5,000 of these were assisted voluntary returns last year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Also, fewer than 2,000 people have been returned under the terms of the EU-Turkey agreement signed in 2016.  The New Democracy government is targeting 10,000 returns to Turkey by the end of the year, a goal that many experts think is out of Greece’s reach.

Different system

The Greek government passed a law last week with the aim of overhauling the country’s asylum procedure, which politicians and human rights groups agree is not fit for purpose. Elements of the Dutch system are visible in the draft legislation, which envisages most asylum applications having to be approved or rejected within six months and introduces a fast-track process for some applications, which will take up to one month. Asylum seekers will be confined to closed centres while they wait for the decisions and can be detained for up to 18 months.

The government says that the legislation will also prevent post-traumatic stress from allowing an applicant to be classified in the group of vulnerable people. More detailed medical examinations will be needed for this to happen.

The bill has been criticised by human rights groups. Groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Doctors Without Borders held a joint press conference in Athens on Tuesday to publicise their objections to the bill, which the UNHCR says “will endanger people who need international protection.” According to HRW, the bill would make it easier to detain asylum seekers for longer periods, scrap important protections for vulnerable people, including unaccompanied children, and it would introduce numerous procedural changes that “impede access to a fair asylum process and compromise the right of appeal.”

HRW argues that by trying to speed up the process in Greece, authorities will also compromise its integrity by limiting protection for children and making it more difficult for genuine refugees to prove they qualify for protection. Particular emphasis is given by human rights groups and migration experts to the fact that the appeals procedure will become more complex and that there is not adequate access to legal aid in Greece.

Even before a change in the asylum process was considered, there were already serious allegations about asylum seekers rights being curtailed in Greece during the application process. It should also be noted that fast-track asylum procedures in other countries are not without their problems. In the UK, for instance, there have been several court rulings against such procedures after judges ruled that would-be refugees were dealt with unfairly and too quickly, leading to thousands of people being allowed to appeal decisions several years later.

Another contentious issue is that the bill foresees the creation of a list of so-called safe countries, to which migrants can be returned. There are concerns that this list will not be adaptable enough to reflect the often fast-changing situation on the ground in each country.

Several Greek government ministers have recently argued that Greece is facing a migration, rather than a refugee crisis, which has created an impression that few of the arrivals deserve protection. At the same time, some of the local media whipped up speculation about the role of NGOs, suggesting that they are playing a part in encouraging migrants to cross the Aegean. The direction of the public debate prompted an uncharacteristic, but carefully-worded, intervention from the head of the UNHCR in Greece, Philip Leclerc.

“I have spent the last four years in Greece, while the country faced a severe economic and social crisis,” he wrote in an op-ed. “And yet, throughout this time, I have seen and have been impressed by the commitment and solidarity of so many Greek citizens, local communities — both on the islands and on the mainland, by mayors and civil servants, NGOs, priests, and across the spectrum of civil society. I humbly and respectfully, but also firmly, appeal to all, to refrain from statements which could directly or indirectly change this general attitude. Otherwise, hate and violence can easily re-emerge.”

The data available so far this year shows that a significant proportion of arrivals in Greece are from countries with a high approval rate for asylum applications, countering the argument that they are mostly economic migrants.

Based on UNHCR data, as of 30 September, 38.2 percent of sea arrivals in Greece during 2019 were from Afghanistan, 25.3 percent were from Syria, 7.8 percent from Congo, 6.8 percent from Iraq and 5.6 percent from Palestine, which total almost 84 percent. 

According to the Greek Asylum Service, 99.6 percent of Syrians are awarded asylum in Greece. This rate falls to 97.8 percent for Palestinians, 72.4 percent for Afghans, 69.2 percent for Iraqis. Only Congo is outside the top 10 in terms of the recognition rate.

Political pressure

The government’s stance is partly a reflection of the political pressure that New Democracy feels it is under, particularly from its own voters, to be seen as taking action. There is also a clamour from the residents of the five Aegean islands housing reception centres, as well as local politicians, to address the growing numbers of migrants and deteriorating conditions. Local communities are being impacted negatively, particularly in terms of tourism, which is their main source of revenue.

A Pulse poll for Skai TV last week indicated that just 1 percent of voters believe the government has performed best on the migration issue out of all policy areas since it came to power. Among New Democracy voters alone, none thought that this was the government’s strongest area.

A new survey by Kapa Research indicates that Greeks identify migratory flows to the EU as the biggest external factor that is a danger to the Greek economy. A total of 24 percent of respondents list it as their top concern (this rises to 31 percent among New Democracy supporters).

Also, 49 percent of Greeks do not think that refugees or economic migrants can boost the Greek economy. This figure stands at 65 percent among New Democracy voters.

Kapa Research found that tackling the refugee issue was the top priority in terms of overall policies for voters, with 42 percent of respondents opting for this choice, ahead of 36 that went for job creation and 33 percent for tax reductions.

The focus on the separation between migrants and refugees may serve the government’s political ends, but it also risks undermining the credibility of the new asylum process it wants to put in place. “That won’t work,” the head of the ESI, Gerald Knaus told Kathimerini recently. “The credibility of the proper asylum processing system needs to be safeguarded. We also need measures to speed up the system before winter sets in, because at this pace of arrivals it will then be too late. If winter sets in and inflows continue, thousands will have to be transferred off the islands.”

Knaus insists that conditions at the refugee centres, or hotspots, on the Greek islands need to improve so that transfers to the mainland stop. He suggests a cut-off date after which all asylum applications will be dealt with swiftly and those not eligible for protection are returned to Turkey.

The biggest test of the new Greek asylum procedure will be whether it can deliver swift verdicts to initial applications and appeals so thousands of people are not left lingering, often in terrible conditions, and authorities can repatriate migrants or return people to Turkey. The resources available and the overall coordination of the process are vital elements to this process. It is not clear that the government’s bill does much to address these weaknesses in the Greek system.

To pull all off relatively smooth operation of the asylum process in the Netherlands, close cooperation is required between “different ministries, organisations in the migration system, and other subnational authorities, especially municipalities,” the Dutch migration document underlines.

The Greek government recently put the migration issue under the authority of the Citizens’ Protection Ministry. The move was designed to define the issue as a public order or security matter. Through this prism, it seems much more difficult to develop a comprehensive approach that includes integration, education and humanitarian aspects. It seems in the opposite direction to the philosophy that underpins the Dutch asylum system.

Also, it raises questions about whether the level of cross-government cooperation and coordination will be possible in order to produce a well-functioning scheme. The high level of centralisation in Greece, where policy is overwhelmingly decided and executed by the national government, compared to other countries where municipalities are more active means that there is little room for initiative at a regional level. Also, local authorities tend to have limited resources and know-how, meaning they are rarely able to work together with the central government and other stakeholders to address issues. The refugee centres in Athens and Piraeus have proved notable exceptions to these constrictions. 

Serious concerns also remain about the capacity of Greek judicial system to deal swiftly with asylum appeals. There is also uncertainty about the access would-be refugees will have to legal help.

Furthermore, the bill does not seem to address staffing issues. For instance, the Netherlands has 170 ICT personnel in its reception service. At the last count, Greece had one. In fact, according to a recent report on the dire state of Greece’s asylum system, the Refugee Support Aegean NGO revealed that the total number of available staff at island reception centres stood at 140. The Dutch authorities also have 400 case officers in the Repatriation and Departure Service, far outstripping the manpower Greece has at its disposal for overseeing returns.

There is also no discussion at the moment about increasing spending on improving the reception and asylum process and taking on the extra staff needed to create a robust system. Although Greece’s financial resources are limited as it emerges from its decade-long economic crisis, it should be noted that the European Union has provided more than 2 billion euros in funding for this purpose since 2015, although most of this money has gone to NGOs rather than the Greek state. 

It is also not clear how the government intends to improve reception conditions in terms of providing conditions that are conducive to having well-run and relatively peaceful centres like Rijswijk and providing a good starting point for integrating refugees into local communities.

The Rijswijk centre is not located in a far-flung field or on the site of a disused army camp, which is where Greece creates many of its refugee centres. It is right in the middle of the community, bordered by offices and other buildings. COA manages 60 reception centres across the Netherlands with a capacity for 29,000 people. They are structured in such a way that the buildings can be dismantled and moved after several years so no site is permanent. As the director of the Rijswijk centre explains, there were protests by locals when the groundwork began on the site, but she, and other officials, met with locals, explained what was going on and tried to assuage their fears. Not everyone was convinced, but once the centre began operating, the protests stopped.

In contrast, Greece has no such strategy for creating reception centres. The tendency is to use isolated sites, empty hotels or former army facilities, keeping asylum seekers away from locals. In the cases where there is a reaction from local communities, such as in Vilia, where locals attacked a hotel housing some 100 asylum seekers, authorities are often absent or unwilling to engage with protesters, fearing the responsibility that comes with engaging with communities.

The indications so far are that although Greece has looked at the successful Dutch model and tried to draw elements that might help speed up the asylum process, important parts are missing. The impression is that Greece will move from one patchwork system to another, whose main aim is to quash political pressure in the short-term rather than to provide a viable solution over the long-term.

Photo by MacroPolis
Riswijk refugee centre

Without the overall philosophy, the across-the-board co-ordination and the significant resources that the Netherlands provides to process applications, house and look after asylum seekers and conduct returns when necessary, the likelihood is that Greece will put together a poor imitation.

This means the precariousness of the Greek system, which is admittedly coming under undue strain compared to most other EU countries because of much higher inflows, is unlikely to disappear. It seems even less likely that the relative calm and organisation of Rijswijk will be the norm for Greece’s refugee centres any time soon.

*You can follow Nick on Twitter: @NickMalkoutzis  

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