Relocation in the European Union: one step forward, two steps back

by María López Benito

Migrants and refugees aboard a Swedish Frontex patrol boat arrive at Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos, March 29, 2016. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

The arrival of immigrants to the continent’s coasts made the European Union launch a system of relocation for asylum seekers. After several modifications, the mechanism is still not effective.

The main route of immigrants’ arrival to the European continent is via the Mediterranean Sea. For this reason, the countries of southern Europe (especially Italy and Greece) have most problems with managing migration.

The refugee crisis, as the media names it, showed the weakest points of the European construction in migratory matters. To cope with the pressure of people’s flows in southern Europe, and due to the absence of common normative instruments to manage the situation, the European Union began taking action under strain.

The European Union designated Italy and Greece as places for petitions and relocation management, given the location of these countries and the influx of immigrants. Consequently, the Council Decision of 14 September 2015 established a deepening of cooperation between Italy, Greece, European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and the EU member states [1].

In 2015, the European Commission launched the European Agenda on Migration, where it sets the concepts of relocation [2] and resettlement [3], in order to define their legislative use. Through this agenda, the European Executive committed to activate the emergency mechanism stipulated under Article 78.3 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), to urgently relocate 40,000 refugees for the benefit of Greece and Italy, and recommended an additional resettlement of 20,000 from outside the European Union. In September of the same year, the Commission extended the relocation obligation to 160,000 people, including the most affected states by the avalanche of asylum seekers (Italy, Greece and, in this particular case, Hungary too).

Commission Decision: May, 2015
Commission Decision: September, 2015 Caption: Source: European Commission [4]

Both the European Parliament and the Council adopted these decisions with a large majority and urgently, in the absence of a Common European Asylum System based on shared responsibility. As of May 2017, only 18,418 asylum seekers were relocated (11% of the total number).

There are many reasons explaining the ineffectiveness of the European relocation system. One of them is that only those the asylum-seekers present in Greece who arrived there before the 20th of March 2016, are eligible for relocation, although this precept is not covered by any decision in this regard. On the other hand, and following the European Commission’s instructions, the nationalities eligible for relocation after the 1st of April 2017 are Antigua and Barbuda, Bahrain, the British Overseas Countries and Territories, Eritrea, Grenada, Guatemala, Syria and Yemen – a very limited list due to strict eligibility criteria for access to relocation. Only the nationals of countries with an average acceptance rate of 75% of their need for international protection in the EU can be relocated. UNHCR denounces that this requirement leaves out citizens like the Iraqis, as their average is at 73%, even if it is well known that Iraq is not a safe place for them [5]. Furthermore, with respect to the relocation commitments acquired, only two states – Finland and Malta – have fulfilled their obligations, compared to the other two that have not participated at all – Denmark and the United Kingdom. In the case of unaccompanied minors, only Finland is accepting their relocation, although there are 5,000 places required for minors currently located in Italy and another 163 for those in Greece.

All these issues have consequences at many levels: on the one hand, the issues that Italy and Greece criticize, on the other, there are the shortcomings in the management of identification in these two countries reported by the rest of the EU member states, and finally, all the problems that this ineffectiveness generates for asylum seekers.

Greece and Italy criticize the fact that receiving states do not have enough places to accommodate all applicants, the lack of places for children, the rejection of relocation for security reasons – an argument that member states use in a very arbitrary way and that delays the approval of relocation.

In Greece, the closure of borders with Macedonia and the EU-Turkey agreement aggravate the situation. The so-called Pact of Shame with Turkey modifies the relocation decisions at a practical level, as its entry into force is the reason why only the relocation of people who arrived in Europe between the 16th of September 2015 and the 20th of March 2016 are accepted, as it was signed on this date. Prior to the agreement, hotspots were set up as reception centers for relocation management; however, after that, they had become detention centers prior to the expulsion to Turkey.

Moreover, through Council Decision 2016/1754, it was established that Member States could accept Syrians present in Turkey – in need of international protection – and that acceptance would entail a consequent reduction in their relocation obligations. For this reason, member states prefer to deal with this resettlement system, and leave relocation aside – something that contributes to its ineffectiveness.

For asylum seekers, all these problems involve anxiety and frustration, lack of information and misunderstandings. Many of them think that being relocated has the direct implication of obtaining a refugee status, while it doesn’t.

In order to solve all inconsistencies in the relocation process, it is necessary to strengthen the role of EASO in order to enhance its power to monitor Member States’ reception capacities or force them to accept requests for relocation. Another pending issue is the guarantee of return when a request is unsuccessful.

Most organizations involved in asylum issues are proposing a better package of incentives and sanctions, as so far the European Commission has only implemented the infringement procedure against Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, which have repeatedly failed to comply with the agreements of relocation.

The roles of UNHCR, IOM and NATO should also be strengthened to ensure the logistics of operations, the exchange of information between European and Turkish security forces or the assistance in identifying and protecting the most vulnerable persons.

However, a permanent solution to this problem would come from the reform of the Dublin Regulation in order to achieve a common and integrated framework of obligations for Member States, which would ensure compliance and solidarity.

[1] Article 5.3 of Council Decision (EU) 2015/1523 regulates the identification procedure: Based on this information, Italy and Greece shall, with the assistance of EASO and, where applicable, of Member States’ liaison officers referred to in paragraph 8 of this Article, identify the individual applicants who could be relocated to the other Member States and, as soon as possible, submit all relevant information to the contact points of those Member States

[2] COM(2015) 240 final: “Relocation means a distribution among Member States of persons in clear need of international protection”.

[3] COM(2015) 240 final: “Resettlement’ means the transfer of individual displaced persons in clear need of international protection, on submission of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and in agreement with the country of resettlement, from a third country to a Member State, where they will be admitted and granted the right to stay and any other rights comparable to those granted to a beneficiary of international protection”.

[4] Number of refugees, per country, for relocation to the rest of the European Union.

[5] The Member States of the European Union maintain their discretion in deciding which nationalities should receive international protection, with only 15% of Eritrean asylum applications in France being recognized in 2014, while in Hungary it was 49% and in Austria of 100%.

María López Benito
Spanish Political Scientist. Master in European Studies. PhD student in Migration, Security and Human Rights. Expert on Migration and International Relations. Extensive experience of collaborating with the Socialist Party of Spain. Trainee of Socialists and Democrats working in the European Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs.

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