2 October 2015

According to the Italian Refugee Council (CIR), the first “hotspot” started to function on 17 September in an ‘experimental way’ on the Italian island of Lampedusa. In an interview with ECRE, CIR spokesman Christopher Hein underlined the identification of people as the primary purpose of the “hotspots”.

Part of the European Commission’s European Agenda on Migration, the “hotspots” approach became a fundamental feature of the relocation proposal, in an effort to assist frontline Member States unable to cope with the increasing arrival of people . While there is no precise definition nor exact timeline for the “hotspots”, they are generally described as platforms for cooperation among EASO, Frontex, Europol and Eurojust. In the European Commission’s presentation at the LIBE (Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs) Interparliamentary Committee on 23 September, “hotspots” were defined as ‘operational solutions for emergency situations’, a single place from where to swiftly process asylum applications, enforce return decisions and prosecute migrant smuggling.

Identification and registration

“Hotspots”, triggered by the request of Member States – so far Italy and Greece – and managed by the competent authority of that Member State, will not require new reception facilities, operating instead from already existing ones. Frontex will help with the identification, registration and fingerprinting of recently arrived people, enforcement of return decisions and collection of information on smuggling routes, while EASO will help with the processing of asylum claims and the eventual relocation procedure.

According to Hein, EASO personnel very recently arrived in Lampedusa to support the otherwise only Italian personnel operating in the “hotspot”, and the information collected is then forwarded to the Catania’s European Regional Task Force, the operation’s headquarters. New “hotspots” are set to open soon in Porto Empedocle, Pozzallo and Trapani in Sicily, and from 2016 also in Augusta and Taranto. “It is foreseen to have “first line hotspots” for the identification of all people arriving, and “second line hotspots” only for those – Syrians and Eritreans – who are in the pipeline for relocation. A second line “hotspot” has opened few days ago in a centre close to Agrigento”, informed CIR’s spokesman. Moreover, from the week of 21 September, a representative from UNHCR is also present in the “hotspot” to monitor the situation.

So far, around 300 people, mostly from Eritrea, have already been identified at the Lampedusa “hotspot”, and the process is reported to have gone quite smoothly, Hein stated. However, while Syrians and Eritreans may be more cooperative in the registration process – as they have a chance to be relocated to other Member States – the situation will need to be closely monitored as regards to other nationalities. For all the other asylum seekers in fact, the relocation will not be applicable and therefore, if registered in Italy, they will have to claim asylum in Italy. Hein highlighted how a vast majority of people arriving in Italy tend to proceed to other countries to present their asylum claim without even registering, to avoid being returned to Italy under the Dublin regulation. The question that remains is then, how will people be forced to register?

‘Proportionate’ use of force may be used

The potential use of force in registration procedures is indeed one of the major concerns of CIR in regard to the “hotspots”, and there are credible reports stating that a ‘proportionate‘ use of force will be used by Italian authorities in an effort to fingerprint everyone who arrives. Another concern raised by CIR and shared by ECRE are the conditions under which people will be held while waiting to be registered, and the need to ensure that they do not amount to detention.

Moreover, Hein reported very worrying information about a group of 16 Gambians who were immediately shifted from the Lampedusa “hotspot” to a detention centre in Caltanissetta, with a deportation procedure already under way. “This calls into question whether they were effectively granted the possibility to apply for asylum and whether there will be a ‘group’ approach, and all those coming from a country which is not either Syria or Eritrea will be automatically deported”, stated CIR’s spokesman.

As the “hotspots” approach is slowly starting to be deployed, there are still many questions surrounding their implementation and the protection that will be granted to new arrivals. Hein stated that a strong monitoring presence by civil society is needed for a proper mechanism to be put in place and to ensure the effective functioning of this approach. With the relocation process still not under way, and with constant delays put forward at the European level, the ongoing developments need to be accurately and closely followed to ensure compliance with the international, European and national legal frameworks.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 2 October 2015. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.