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European dilemma

by Joseph Miller
Whether the European Union is a safe haven for asylum seekers or not was the topic of a recent conference hosted by Germany’s Protestant Church. The participants agreed it is not.

Pieter Stockmans, a policy officer for Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen, a Brussels based NGO, says one of the largest obstacles in taking asylum seekers is money. Housing refugees can be quite expensive, and many governments cannot and do not want to bear these costs. National budgets are tight, so governments tend to accept only a minimal number of refugees and try to deter asylum seekers from coming in the first place.

According to Stockmans, Europe is effectively in a “race to the bottom” when it comes to taking on refugees. To win this race, a nation needs to offer the minimal amount of aid and services within the ­legal boundaries. Franca di Lecca, an asylum advocate from Italy, says that Italy ­receives many migrants yearly, and is currently housing 55,000. Although there is a system to help asylum seekers, its capacity is designed for only 3000 people. Di Lecca implies that her government is catering to xenophobia.

In February, several thousand refugees fled to Italy from Tunisia, sparking an inner-European debate. While the Italian government insists it needs help, other governments argue that a large nation such as Italy – the country has 60 million people – should be capable of coping with such a temporary influx.

Issues like that were discussed at an international conference hosted by the Protestant Academy of the Rhineland in February. The experts agreed that Europe is not a safe haven and that EU regulations known under the label “Dublin II” are to blame.

For example, the rules require that refugees be sent back to the country where they first entered the EU and applied for asylum. That means they are being sent back to the countries already bearing the brunt of the immigration problem. Many of these countries are small and relatively poor. Like Greece for instance, they tend to be overburdened in institutional and financial terms. Many participants in Bonn pointed out that refugees’ living standards are lower in small and poorer EU member countries.

Another often-mentioned problem of Dublin II was that it does not guarantee humane treatment of refugees. This became an issue before the European Court of Human Rights after an Afghan refugee was sent back to Greece from Belgium. In late January, the Court held that the human rights of the man concerned were violated since he had to suffer terrible living conditions. The Court argued that this should have been considered by Belgium before the man was deported. Due to a lack of facilities, the Belgian government houses many refugees in hotels. This policy is obviously expensive – and thus an incentive to deport people if possible.

The location of a country plays an important role in their capacity to manage incoming refugees. Border countries such as Poland and Italy are more exposed than countries such as Belgium and Germany.

Dawid Cegielka, a Polish lawyer for the NGO Association for Legal Information, says that Poland has similar problems to Greece. Because of violent conflict in former Soviet republics, Poland is receiving a large number of asylum seekers and runs 14 camps for these people on its eastern border.

Human trafficking is also considered a major challenge. Many people pay to be moved across border, and the means in which they are moved can be quite dangerous. Di Lecca estimates that 55,000 people have died en route to ­Europe in the past 12 years.

Joseph Miller