"Fortress Europe": One step forward, two steps back

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Blogging around the campaigns – NCADC volunteers explore some of the latest issue affecting migrant rights

8 March 2011

Milena Tmava, NCADC Campaigns Volunteer

The European Agency for Fundamental Rights has today published a new report describing the situation at the EU’s external land border between Greece and Turkey as a fundamental rights emergency. People, including pregnant women and families with small children, are held in inhumane conditions.

A recent judgment by the European Court of Human Rights ruled that EU countries should stop returning migrants to Greece under the controversial “Dublin II” agreement. Meanwhile, irregular migrants in Greece are 43 days into a mass hunger strike, and Greece is building a fence along it’s border with Turkey.

The Dublin II regulation decides which EU Member state is responsible for examining an application for asylum seekers within the EU. Under Dublin II, a migrant’s claim must be processed and examined in the first EU country entered or in which a person is fingerprinted.  The result of Dublin II has been that  the  EU countries (ie Germany, Belgium, the UK etc.) forcibly remove migrants back to the countries where they first enter (Greece, Bulgaria, Spain, Italy etc.), insulating Europe’s inner centre, and outsourcing and relocating migration to the periphery.

Until recently, the main entry points for immigrants to Europe were Italy, France and Spain, since refugees from Africa and the Middle East attempted to reach the EU by boat. However, the number of coast-guard patrols in the Mediterranean Sea has drastically increased over the last several years blocking the routes by sea. More and more people now enter Europe by the overland routes through Greece and the Balkans.

In addition to the geographical position, repatriation policies based on the Dublin II regulation have put even more strain on Greece and the Balkans’ administrative capacity to handle the heavy migration flow.

The insulation of Europe’s inner centre through Dublin II comes at a high cost: human rights organisations describe the living conditions for migrants and asylum seekers in Greece and Italy as deplorable, degrading and inhumane. The deep and widely shared concerns about the conditions facing migrants in Greece was demonstrated by a decision of the European Court of Human Rights in January 2011 in the case,  M.S.S. v. Belgium and Greece. Grounded on the European Convention of Human Rights, the ruling decided that Greece’s asylum system was below EU standards and that until these standards are met, removals to Greece should be suspended.  Sweden, Belgium, Iceland, Norway, Germany, the UK and the Netherlands have now halted all removals to Greece under Dublin II.

The court’s ruling acknowledges that the Greek asylum system is overloaded across the board, making it impossible for asylum applications to be processed justly. UNHCR recently stated that Greece has a backlog of some 50,000 cases but that less than 1% of applicants are granted asylum. Many migrants in Greece seeking asylum have grown so frustrated with the years of delay that they have staged numerous hunger strikes, with some even sewing their mouths shut in protest, including the ongoing hunger strikes amongst undocumented workers in Greece, who were denied asylum but allowed to continue living in working and Greece until the crisis (Guardian).

While the court ruling was a huge victory for human rights campaigners and migrants who happened to enter Europe through Greece, the victory was immediately confronted with a new disturbing turn of events.  During the same month of the ruling Greece announced a plan to build a 12 km (eight-mile) fence along part of its border with Turkey to prevent undocumented immigrants from crossing (BBC); a plan which is supported by Turkey and other European countries such as France. The proposed fence would cover a short section of the Greece-Turkey border in the Orestiada area of north-eastern Greece. As BBC writes, this “area has become the main route into Greece for migrants from Africa and Asia.”

These new plans are a major contradiction of the European Commission’s and officials’ general view on border fences. The former European Union Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana said at a news conference in Mexico City in April 2007 that “a wall that separates one country from another is not something that I like or that the European Union members like. … We don’t think walls are reasonable instruments to stop people from crossing into a country.” He further stated that the EU believed that immigrants should be treated “like people, not like criminals.” Despite this, it has recently been decided that a similar fence will also be installed along the Bulgarian border with Turkey, a measure criticised by Ankara.

Regarding Greece’s plans, a spokesperson of the European Commission told German Spiegel that Greece would be better to work on a long-term strategy for its borders and that “fences and walls have proven in the past to be really short-term measures that don’t really help address and manage the migratory challenges.”

The Times reports that the “U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Athens questioned the fence’s effectiveness. “Every country has a right to control its borders, but these kinds of measures don’t give a substantial solution, a comprehensive and humane solution, to the problem of irregular migration,” UNHCR spokeswoman Ketty Kehayioglou said.

Amnesty International was also amongst the human rights groups urging Greece to rethink its plan: “This is not going to solve the problem at all,” Wolfgang Grenz, the deputy general secretary of Amnesty’s Germany-based office said: “Even if the fence is smaller (than initially planned), the problem remains. Making it shorter is just a gesture — it’s window dressing, not a solution.”

It can be argued that the planned endeavour to build a border fence represents an additional mechanism of the externalization of EU-problems. Just as the Dublin II regulation pushed migration to the outskirts, so now is Greece attempting to drive the challenges that come with migration to outside its borders rather than meeting those challenges.

In any case, it is the EU countries’ humanitarian and legal obligation, to offer migrants protection against persecution, torture and ill-treatment. Unless we want to establish “Fortress Europe”, and worsen socio-economic inequalities between EU countries and their neighbours, we have to seriously reconsider if a border fence is a solution to immigration issues or nothing more than another symbol of European self-serving self-protectionism. Migration is here to stay. Not only that, but with climate change and the changing economic climate evidence is indicating that migration will only increase. Whether Greece or the EU’s inner centre, isn’t it time that Europe learns to deal with migration?



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