The autumn political season in Brussels started where it left off: when will the Pact arrive? How is COVID affecting everything? Then the fire in Moria hit like a tonne of bricks, to remind everyone that the focus must also be on the longer standing humanitarian crises that result from European policies.

ECRE’s and its members’ analysis, published in the AIDA database and elsewhere, shows that there are problems in asylum systems in every country, some worse than others but in all cases surmountable with responsible decision-making and resource allocation. Across the continent, two trends are intertwined: unaddressed lack of implementation of EU and international standards and recourse to brutal short-term policies to deter or prevent arrivals.

A ranking doesn’t help as each situation has its own abhorrent elements. But the situation on the Greek islands rightly provokes particular outrage: it is the direct result of EU policy – and a policy that is considered a success; the facts are well-known to policy-makers; it is unnecessary; and – above all – it just doesn’t change. On this last point, the response from many Greek and international NGOs working on the islands is that this was entirely predictable, it was “waiting to happen”. While a natural response is to shout, just get people off the islands (already), it is also important to understand reasons why this situation has been allowed to continue, when it is obvious to anyone who has been there that this shouldn’t be happening.

The implementation reason:

For the last Commission, along with the proud originators of the EU-Turkey Deal, the reason for the humanitarian crisis on the Greek islands was the lack of implementation of the Deal. Their answer, therefore, was to get people off the islands and back to Turkey. The flaw in this reasoning is that it rests on the same false premise that is the basis of the Deal in the first place: that Turkey is a safe country for the purposes of EU and international law on asylum and refugee rights.

Legally this was always questionable at best. The general international protection regime in Turkey is severely limited in scope and content; a temporary protection regime which offers higher standards applies only to people who left from Syria. Even then, for any individual applicant from Syria, multiple legal and practical questions arise that call into doubt whether Turkey offers Geneva Convention-level protection for them.

Unfortunately, too many policy-makers visit Greece and then Turkey. Having been rightly shocked by the horror show in Greece, they then conclude that the situation in Turkey is better (and therefore “safe”), after seeing but a limited snapshot, often on carefully choreographed visits. A more accurate picture can be gleaned from the AIDA County reports published by ECRE, here.

It is unsurprising that there are challenges in Turkey because it is already doing so much: hosting more refugees than any other country in the world and more than the rest of Europe combined. Yet the reason why people must be contained on the Greek Islands is so they can be returned there?

In any case, the legal constraints on the full implementation of the Deal are now overshadowed by the political considerations, with the escalation of tension between Greece and Turkey and then between wider Europe and Turkey, as Germany tries to hold things together, appeasing Erdogan via its backroom dealings (to be reinforced by its selfless offer of a diplomat to head the EU’s Delegation). Convincing Turkey to prevent people leaving will require all available diplomatic and investment resources and trade and security concessions, never mind returns.

ECRE’s argument has long been that this element of the Deal is in any case not essential – logically. The pernicious one-for-one exchange hasn’t worked; the return of the “bad” Syrians who dare to cross to Turkey has not happened so cannot be a factor in the “success” of the Deal. Therefore, containing people on the islands in order to return them is not necessary and should be ended.

The deterrence reason:

A second reason for the failure to tackle the situation in Greece is based on deterrence. People have to be detained on the islands to deter others from crossing, the argument runs. While manifestly false, this argument is often stated publicly, including by senior Greek and Turkish officials, who then usually express their doubts in an off-the-record setting. It is obvious that people will want to cross – to reunite with family; because of the situation in Turkey; due to increasing fear they will be returned (refouled) to countries of origin, including to Syria (with those very safe “safe zones”).

The deterrence reason is an iteration of the debunked pull factor argument, so beloved of political leaders in Europe. Not only do people have to be contained on islands but they have to really suffer there. Then you create a deterrent and no-one else will arrive. But they will and they do, so there’s no deterrent, just the suffering.

The “no solidarity” reason:

The destruction of Moria has again led to demands from the public, local and regional governments and professional associations, that their governments relocate people. To the credit of the European Commission, it has been working extensively on agreements for relocation from Greece – before and during COVID, and now (and in relation to other situations, such as disembarkation from SAR ships). ECRE has strongly argued that relocation is essential: in 2015; as the relocation programme came to an end; in 2019; and now again.

One objection from central governments is that they do not want to act alone; all Member States should show their solidarity. It is not fair and they risk political opposition if they act alone. It is true that exploitation by political opponents might occur if a country is the only one acting – but a coalition of the willing can help counter this.  It is also true that all Member States should demonstrate solidarity (cue Article 80 TFEU reference) and that all Member States should abide by EU law to have functioning asylum systems, etc etc. But they don’t.

Hungary under Orbàn will never voluntarily relocate a single child from Moria (and in any case would it be ethical for that child to be under the care of the Hungarian state?). This no solidarity reasoning is an “all or nothing” argument: it is not possible to get everyone to act therefore noone should act.

Notwithstanding the valid concerns about tacitly accepting that EU cooperation does not apply to all, first, it is not unlawful neither is to act outside or to undermine EU law to use coalition of the willing formats. There are provisions in the Treaties and a long tradition of Member States acting in smaller groupings. Second, the humanitarian considerations over-ride all the above arguments on relocation. Any single Member State in the EU (ANY ONE) could take ALL the people now rendered homeless in Moria – and they would manage and indeed benefit if they chose to. Countries around the world in far more difficult economic circumstances, facing population growth rather than decline, manage far greater numbers of displaced people.

Of course, it will be left to a few, but they need to act, disregarding the inaction of others, and with the backing of the Commission so there is a collective and EU stamp on the initiative. Civil society is waiting to assist.

The “it’s all Greek to me” reason:

There is immense frustration and anger with the authorities in Greece and there is no doubt that they are in part at fault. For a full examination of the state of asylum in Greece, read ECRE and its members’ analysis, e.g. the AIDA country report, articles, or Greek NGO statements. Or peruse the submissions to national, European and international courts and mechanisms that we collectively prepare.

The conclusion to draw, though, is not that if only the Greek government had done its job, then this wouldn’t have happened. To so conclude is to deny the reality that the model itself is at fault. It is based on containing people on the islands and returning them to Turkey. Of course, it should not be so bad, but it was still unavoidable that people would be stuck for a long time in damaging situations. Imposing a European response on a country undergoing a serious economic crisis, with widespread resentment against measures viewed – rightly or wrongly – harsh and punitive, based on a model that no other country was willing to accept? It was never going to end well. As a side point, the situation in and at the borders of Greece is being compounded by the current government’s harsh anti-asylum policies, which verge on the cruel at times. Their flouting of EU and international law gives the impression of a Hungarian-style effort to test how far they can go without repercussions. The response to the fire seems to be blame people and build detention centres to contain them (because prisons are of course fire-proof and protected from infectious diseases.) But these tactics seem to meet with more approval at EU level than the passive resistance of the previous government.

The ends justify the means reason:

Unfortunately, the main reason why the situation on the Greek islands has persisted, with all its incumbent suffering and risk, is because it is viewed as a price worth paying. It is a “necessary evil” or the right valid means for achieving certain ends.

The ends are the two main objectives: first, to end “secondary movement” because it is the worst evil known to man and must be stopped (which also explains why the plans in the Pact again prioritise attempts to limit onward movement beyond all other issues (and beyond all reason)); and second, people must be prevented from arriving at all cost because otherwise Europe is at risk, it’s the end of the world, etc. The Greek islands, containing people in Libya, all is necessary to avoid these truly terrible outcomes. We always hit the underlying reasons: people needing protection and thus moving within or towards Europe must be stopped at any cost, regardless of the consequences. This is our collective psychosis.

Most of these reasons are weak and some contain logical fallacies. We are all about to be distracted by the Pact and new legislation, partly because we hoped it would constitute a change in direction. That won’t happen – the plan it espouses is based on the Greek islands model and the legislation that comes with it is the next attempt to create detention centres at all borders, with people subject to second-rate asylum procedures and (in theory) rapidly returned. For these reasons it is essential to react strongly to the Pact and forthcoming legislative proposals. This is not a “technical” exercise as we still hear from people who should know better – tell that to the people (that will be all the people who seek asylum in Europe) who – as a result of these “technical” changes – will be held in border detention without access to a fair process and at risk of refoulement.

At the same time, we have to work on our alternatives. ECRE, its members and many other NGOs and international organisations, argue for compliance with most of the existing EU asylum law. Unlike the fantasies that everybody will be off-shored in mega hotspots in Albania or Tunisia, this approach sets out multiple actions that can be taken right now to create a fairer and more effective system. ECRE has identified implementation gaps at the levels of registration, reception, decision-making, procedural rights and misuse of Dublin, which can be addressed right away. Along with compliance, solidarity measures, inclusion, safe and legal pathways, and foreign policy focused on development, security and economic challenges that lead to forcible displacement, there is a package of alternatives readily available.

These are already contained in ECRE’s advocacy and to underline the point and reach a wider group of supporters, next week ECRE will launch its new campaign: Human Rights Compliance – Hardly Rocket Science. Professional musicians and dancers and technicians donated their time because they want to get the message across. Tune in if you want to hear a Senegalese rapper explain what’s wrong with the EU’s strategy.

Litigation and advocacy efforts to support a functioning asylum system in Europe and to address the situation in Greece and all the other scandals will continue because there are few other areas of policy where EU law is so systematically disregarded with impunity. And where – as a result – the Greek island disgrace is considered a valid policy choice for reasons that don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Editorial: Catherine Woollard, Director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE)

 Photo (CC): @Greystorm, July 2017

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin . You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.