In a recent European Commission ‘progress report’ to the European Council and the European Parliament it has been revealed that more than 16,000 refugees have been removed (or ‘returned’, using the official term) from out of Europe to their country of origin; a further 5000 refugees are also to be returned in coming weeks. The EU is paying the Greek government to make most of the arrangements; new holding centres are being built in so-called ‘hotspots’ and transport, including planes, to ‘rendition’ the refugees are being organised too. Details are given below – see section B. It’s interesting to note, however, that the mainstream media is failing to report on these developments. Other updates include a proposed prosecution of anyone offering humamitarian assistance to refugees arrving in Europe; and plans to bulk-return asylum-seekers arriving in Greece to Turkey.
A. First the updates…
The EU is moving towards the criminalisation of anyone who offers humanitarian assistance to incoming refugees. Under the proposals, NGO’s will be required to register before they can provide assistance. The “registering” of all NGOs and volunteers is part of an EU led strategy to get them into the state coordination structure to stop volunteers, local people and NGOs from helping refugees when they land and to place them within EU-run structures – more commonly known as “hotspots”. (For extensive analysis of these moves, click here.) Steve Peers, Professor of Law, University of Essex, comments how the proposal “‘Fails to acknowledge the crucial role played by Greek islanders and volunteers in rescuing and caring for migrants who cross the Mediterranean in unsafe vessels”. Tony Bunyan, director of Statewatch, comments: “The Council proposals would criminalise NGOs, local people and volunteers who have worked heroically to welcome refugees when the EU institutions did nothing, while other plans would incorporate those who “register” with the police to work under state structures. In a humane and caring EU it should not be necessary to “register” to offer help and care to people who have suffered so much already. Civil society, volunteers and all those throughout the EU who are seeking to help refugees as they arrive having fled from war, persecution and poverty should unite to oppose the Council’s plans. Criminalising NGOs and volunteers working to help refugees has no place in a democracy worthy of the name.”
According to an article in The Times… “Every migrant entering Greece across the Aegean Sea would be returned to Turkey under plans being drawn up by European countries. In exchange, the EU would accept up to 250,000 documented asylum seekers each year from Turkish camps. If the German-led resettlement programme can be agreed, ferries would begin returning to Turkey all migrants, including refugees, from the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios and Kos. A coalition of countries supports the plans — including Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal, Netherlands, Spain and Sweden…”.
“A senior Greek official has said the government will ask Europe’s border protection agency Frontex to help set up a sea deportation route to send migrants who reach the country illegally back to Turkey. The official told AP the plan would involve chartering boats on Lesvos and other Greek islands to send back migrants who were not considered eligible for asylum in the European Union. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because Athens hasn’t yet formally raised the issue with other European governments.”
Meanwhile, in research in six countries between October and December 2015, Human Rights Watch interviewed 45 asylum seekers and migrants from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq who described 59 incidents of summary returns from Bulgaria to Turkey between March and November. Twenty-six people said they had been beaten by police or bitten by police dogs. All but one said they were stripped of their possessions, in some cases at gunpoint by people they described as Bulgarian law enforcement officials, then pushed back across the border to Turkey.”
Also, British PM, David Cameron, is backtracking on his earlier statement that the UK will take in 3000 unaccompamied children migrants who made it to Europe. In more recent statements he has said that the children will be sourced from refugee camps in or near Syria (the 3000 figure is also suspect). Cameron’s statements contrast sharpley with that of Opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who welcomed Cameron’s initial statement, emphasised what was needed – urgently – was a 21st century version of Nicholas Winton’s ‘Kinderstransport’.
B. The EU Report on returning refugees
The report states the following…
1.To return illegally staying third country nationals to their country of origin, Greece still lacks a structured and comprehensive return strategy, in particular regarding forced returns and the detention option where applicable.
2. According to the data provided by Greek authorities, 16,131 forced returns have been performed, the majority of which were to Albania, since the beginning of 2015. Most recently a charter flight hired and coordinated by Frontex departed from Athens on 2 December transferring 49 returnees of Pakistani nationality. The Pakistani authorities accepted only 19 of the returnees in Pakistan. The remaining 30 were not allowed to disembark and have been returned even though they had valid travel documents issued by the Pakistani Embassy in Athens.
3. 5,400 detention places are available to carry out returns, this is considered sufficient in the immediate short-term considering the currently limited capacity to perform forced returns. Severe shortcomings related to conditions in detention–in particular in the provision of food supplies–have been identified. This needs to be improved immediately.
4. According to IOM data, 3,460 Assisted Voluntary Returns have taken place this year. Since July the number of voluntary returns has dropped significantly because of acute funding constraints. The European Commission has made available emergency assistance (some €2.5 million) to the Hellenic police and to the IOM to allow for a quick resumption of the programme of forced returns and Assisted Voluntary Returns. As a result, the Assisted Voluntary Return program has resumed.
The report goes on to outline future intentions…
- The Greek authorities need to develop a clear strategy for forced returns identifying priority third countries for engagement and addressing shortcomings in their detention system. Greece needs to streamline its administrative procedures in order to allow for swift return.
- Greece needs to step up forced and voluntary returns, as well as take the necessary steps to ensure the immediate absorption of the available AMIF national programme funding.
- The return activities of the Greek authorities should focus more on the nationalities most relevant in the context of hotspots (Pakistanis, but also Afghans, Iranians and Bangladeshis), instead of the current focus on nationals of Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
- Information concerning Assisted Voluntary Returns should be promoted to migrants already while they stay in the hotspot areas. An outreach campaign should also be considered in areas close to the border with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
- The European Commission, supported by Member States, should further step up engagement with third countries to ensure easier readmission of migrants which are not entitled to international protection. This also includes in particular further efforts to ensure readmission of third-country nationals by Turkey.
- Frontex should ensure that joint return flights make regular stopovers in Greece in order to perform return operations.
- Conditions in the detention centres need to be improved urgently.