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Eritrea for mobile viewing Europe: Refugees are meeting closed doors

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Date: Thursday, 12 July 2018

The unprecedented number of asylum seekers arriving in Europe in 2015 was first met with compassion and good will. But the mood soon shifted, and many feared that the continent would be overrun by refugees. Emergency measures were implemented to keep refugees and migrants from entering Europe.  

The measures implemented in 2015 and 2016 had the desired effect – in 2015, more than one million refugees and migrants entered Europe and the Mediterranean area. In 2017, the number was down to 170,000.

The EU followed Norway's example

Norway was the first to define countries outside the EU as safe third countries to which asylum seekers could be returned. In the autumn of 2015, the Norwegian Parliament altered the Immigration Act to return refugees that had entered Norway at the far-north border with Russia. It proved difficult to persuade Russia to take back the refugees who had already crossed the border, and many ended up getting their applications for asylum processed in Norway. However, this new legislation caused Russia to keep those without a valid Schengen visa from crossing the border into Norway. It is now almost impossible for refugees to seek protection in Norway by going through Russia.

In March 2016, the EU made a deal with Turkey to halt the flow of refugees into Europe. Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was the architect behind an arrangement that allows refugees who make it to Greece to be returned, and allows Turkey to stop boats attempting to reach Greece.

For every returned Syrian refugee, the EU pledges to receive a Syrian resettlement refugee from Turkey. Refugees returned to Turkey cannot be part of this quota, which is why we now see considerably fewer attempts to reach Greece. This resettlement arrangement only applies to Syrian refugees. Refugees from countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq have no possibility of reaching Europe in this way.

Because it is almost impossible to make it further into Europe from Greece, more people are seeking asylum in Greece than before. The humanitarian conditions in Greek refugee camps are very poor, and refugees have been refused to leave the islands where they originally came ashore. In April 2018, a Greek court declared it illegal to refuse the free movement of asylum seekers within the country. However, this only applies to asylum seekers who have arrived after this ruling, and not the 15,000 asylum seekers who were already on the Greek islands in April 2018.

The EU wants to make more deals with transit countries

The EU views the deal with Turkey as a success because of the significant decrease in migrants and refugees travelling from Turkey to Greece. Therefore, the EU wants to make similar deals with other transit countries to further restrict migration to Europe. However, making such a deal with Libya without breaking international law has proved difficult. Libya doesn't have a government in control of the whole country, and refugees and migrants there face large-scale oppression.

In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Italy for returning asylum seekers to Libya after they had been accepted onto Italian ships. To get around this, Italy now pays the Libyan coast guard to stop the boats while they are still in Libyan waters. They have also made deals with groups who control parts of Libyan territory, as well as governments in other African countries such as Niger and Sudan, to close down the migration routes. These measures led to fewer refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Italy from the summer of 2017. In August 2017, the number of arrivals was 82 per cent lower than in the same month in 2016.

Stricter border controls in several European countries

Another central reason behind the large decrease in asylum seekers in Europe is that it has become significantly more difficult to travel from Greece. In 2016, Austria made a deal with the populist right- wing government of Macedonia to close the border to Greece. Austria contributed to increasing Macedonian border control.

Border controls have also been implemented in Austria, Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, which make it difficult to apply for asylum in countries in northern Europe. The European Commission has repeatedly signalled that border controls between Schengen countries should only be used as an extraordinary measure, and that it should end as soon as possible. Nevertheless, in the spring of 2018, all countries decided to prolong the period of border controls by another six months.

Border controls were an important reason for why southern European countries saw an increase in asylum seekers in 2017, even though the overall number of asylum seekers to the EU was only half of that from the previous year.

People smugglers looking for new routes

Because both the eastern and central Mediterranean routes into Europe have become less accessible, people smugglers look for alternative routes. The number of people arriving in Spain has for a long time been relatively low, but the numbers rose significantly once entering through Italy became more difficult. Refugees and migrants arrive in Spain by crossing the Mediterranean, or the border to Ceuta and Melilla, the two Spanish enclaves on the Moroccan coast.

Several other new routes have also grown over the past year. Almost 4,000 people crossed the sea from Turkey to Italy, and more than 1,000 people travelled from Turkey to Cyprus. People smugglers are also trying to establish a new route across the Black Sea from Turkey to Romania. However, the Romanian coast guard has scaled up sea patrols and are stopping almost every boat from reaching the coast.

Turkey welcoming more refugees than the rest of Europe combined

The EU-Turkey deal has contributed to improving the humanitarian situation for refugees in Turkey and, to a certain extent, it has also strengthened the rule of law. Turkey is party to the Refugee Convention, but with a geographical limitation that restricts its protection obligations to people fleeing from countries in Europe. But as part of the deal with the EU, Turkey guaranteed that people of all nationalities will have the right to seek asylum in the country. In 2016, the EU committed to contributing three billion euros for humanitarian relief for the refugees in Turkey. These funds are among other things used to give cash support for Syrian refugees.

Turkey houses more that 3.5 million Syrian refugees according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ Global Trends study. In addition, the country hosts a significant number of refugees from other countries. They have received more refugees than the rest of Europe combined in recent years. A minority of the refugees live in refugee camps, most people find housing on their own through the private market. In theory, Syrian refugees have been allowed to apply for work in Turkey, but most have ended up taking underpaid jobs on the black market.

Barbed wire around a Vial camp on the island of Chios, March 2017 Photo: Matthew Cassel/NRC

"Little solidarity between the European countries

Thousands were stranded on the Greek island of Chios after Europe closed its borders. The EU-Turkey statement meant asylum seekers arriving in Europe after March 20 2016 could no longer seek asylum in Europe. Photo: Matthew Cassel/NRC

In 2015, the EU implemented a resettlement programme for 160,000 asylum seekers in Italy and Greece. The asylum seekers were to be distributed between member countries based on a formula calculating population, gross national product, unemployment rates and the number of refugees previously received by the countries.

When the resettlement programme ended in October 2017, just a few more than 30,000 asylum seekers had been relocated. There are several reasons why only 20 per cent of the original quota was filled. For one, only asylum seekers from countries where 75 per cent of applicants had been granted asylum in the preceding three months were eligible. In practice this limited the programme to asylum seekers from Eritrea and Syria. In Italy, little more than ten per cent were eligible. It also turned out that many of the eligible refugees had travelled north on their own, instead of waiting to be sent to a new country.

The opposition to receiving non-western immigrants is great in many EU countries. Hungary and Poland responded by taking the matter to court when they were told to receive refugees. Although losing in the Court of Justice of the European Union, they still haven't received any refugees through the resettlement programme. Slovakia refused to take Muslim refugees, and only received 16 of their quota of more than 900 refugees. The only countries to receive their original quota were Ireland and Malta.

Following Great Britain's decision to leave the EU, some fear that more countries will withdraw if demands from Brussels become too controversial. This makes it difficult to exert pressure on countries to maintain more generous refugee policies.

Merkel pressured by increasing opposition towards refugees

In Germany, the anti-immigration party Alternativ für Deutscheland (AfD) was voted into parliament for the first time in 2017. Internal struggles in the party cost them votes, but the party still emerged as the largest opposition party.

Chancellor Angela Merkel became known for welcoming refugees in 2015 but her policy has become much stricter. Many in her own party, Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU), as well as within her coalition, now want to enforce even stricter regulations. In 2016, Germany implemented a temporary limitation on family reunification for refugees receiving subsidiary protection. This affects refugees from the war in Syria. The temporary limitation ended in March 2018 and became a central topic in the negotiations to form a new government. The result was a compromise; the previous temporary limitation was discarded, but a monthly limit was introduced. Now, a maximum of 1,000 people every month can be reunited with refugee family members living in Germany under subsidiary protection.

In 2018, Germany also decided to continue border controls. At the same time, they committed to receiving another 10,000 resettlement refugees from northern Africa. Despite the recent restrictions, Germany receives the most asylum seekers in the EU by far.

After Emanuel Macron was elected president, France has played a more prominent role in the design of the EU's refugee policies. Macron has suggested that people should be able to seek asylum in France while having their applications processed in centres in Libya, Chad and Niger. However, he quickly realised that for now, the security situation in Libya makes this impossible to carry out. Both Chad and Niger have rejected the proposal for fear of increased migration to their countries. France has agreed to take in 3,000 resettlement refugees stranded in northern Africa over the next two years.

Right-wing populism on the rise in eastern Europe

While right-wing populism has been on the rise throughout Europe in recent years, it has been the most prominent in eastern Europe. Eastern European countries receive few refugees and barely any Muslims live in countries such as Poland and Hungary. Still, the fear of a Muslim "invasion" is stronger here than in any other part of Europe.

This is explained, partly, by each country’s history. The national heroes of Poland and Hungary contributed to halting the Ottoman empire's attempt to conquer Europe. The prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, believes that western European leaders are steering Europe towards a cultural downfall, and sees himself as a defender of Christian, European culture.

Poland has received several hundred thousand migrant workers from neighbouring country Ukraine, and of these, many were originally displaced by the civil war in eastern Ukraine. This suggests that the resistance towards receiving refugees is more due to a fear of non-western culture than resistance towards immigration itself.

The Ukrainian civil war between government forces and Russian-supported separatists has now lasted since 2014, and a solution does not seem imminent. But there is less fighting now than before, and the number of internally displaced people decreased from 1.6 million in 2016 to 800,000 in 2017. A considerable number of refugees have also returned from Russia, but more than 180,000 Ukrainians are still refugees in other countries.

"The Scandinavian countries are competing to be the strictest

Refugees on board a train in Rødby, Denmark. They did not want leave the train to be registered, preferring to travel on to Sweden. Photo: Dan Åsen Hansen/NTB Scanpix

All the Scandinavian countries have designed policies limiting the arrival of refugees over the past years. In Norway, the Ministry of Justice and Public Security told the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI) to rescind the refugee status of refugees no longer needing protection in Norway because of improved conditions in their homeland. UDI decided to focus on Somalian refugees. These were people who had been granted legal residence in Norway, who had not done anything criminal. Norway is the first country in Europe to implement this practice.

The governments of both Denmark and Norway have been open about learning from the others' experiences. It is no coincidence that Denmark is now considering rescinding refugee status, following the Norwegian model.

In many ways, Denmark is even stricter than Norway. It is the only country in Europe to put a complete stop to receiving resettlement refugees. They cited the high number of refugees in 2015 as the reason, and the decision has not been overturned, despite the low number of asylum seekers now arriving in the country.

The right-wing government in Denmark is challenged by the social democratic opposition, who are advocating for an even stricter regime. They have suggested, among other things, that no asylum seeker should be allowed to stay in Denmark before their application is granted. Instead, they want asylum seekers to be placed in reception centres outside Europe. Areas in North Africa have been mentioned as potential locations for these centres, but the governments in several North African countries were quick to voice their disagreement.

The Norwegian labour party has shown interest in these ideas, though it did underline the need for collaboration with several European countries for the idea to be implemented.

Sweden's sharp turn

Sweden had long held the most liberal asylum policies in Europe, with cross-party agreement that Sweden would be a hospitable country for people forced to flee. The only exception to this was the populist right-wing party Sverigedemokraterna (SD). However, few other European countries followed Sweden's example, and this eventually led to high numbers of asylum seekers arriving in the country. After some time, the left-wing government had to pull the emergency brakes, implementing a temporary law aligning Swedish refugee policies with the strictest allowed in the EU. For example, very few Syrian refugees now have the right to family reunification.

Leading up to the parliamentary elections in September 2018, refugee and immigration policy will be a key question. Several parties have changed their stances, and both Moderaterna and Socialdemocraterna are now running on strongly critical platforms with the stated goal that Sweden will not receive more refugees, based on population, than other European countries. However, both parties depend on smaller parties to both the right and left, respectively, to form majority governments after the election. These smaller parties all have less strict policies than the two larger parties. SD has gained much popularity over recent years, and polling indicates that they will continue to balance between the two right and left also after the elections.

After welcoming asylum seekers with open arms, Sweden started checking passports at the border in late 2015. Photo: Monica Strømdahl/Aftenposten/NTB Scanpix



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