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Fortress Europe?

Daphne Grathwohl / sgbOctober 5, 2012

Refugees to Europe can count their blessings - or not - depending on which country they arrive in. There are still major differences between the European Union states in asylum policy and standards at refugee camps.

Syrian refugee children in a Jordanian camp.
Image: Save the Children

The countdown has already begun: By the end of 2012, a common European Union asylum system is meant to be in place. But the standard of living for asylum seekers and the quality of their accommodation still varies widely across the bloc.  Asylum procedures also vary significantly.

Anneliese Baldaccini, a migration researcher at Amnesty International, does not wish to appear impatient. "At the European level we have common standards and binding legislation. But it is taking a very long time to put these into practice and to set up the infrastructure in the member states."

Hitchhiking from Afghanistan

In Greece, currently the country with the most porous external border, the infrastructure is especially bad. According to the Greek foreign ministry, in 2011 about 500 people crossed the Greece-Turkey border in the Evros region on an average day.

Illegal immigrants are seen in a detention center in Kyprinos, in the region of Evros. (EPA/Nikos Arvanitidis)
Greek refugee camps barely meet the necessitiesImage: picture alliance/dpa

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, who visited a camp there, related the story of  a boy from Afghanistan: "He said he was 14 years old and had walked and hitchhiked from Afghanistan." The boy was crammed with 60, 70 others in a small space, she said. There were only two toilets, one of which was broken. "And he asked me for a few euros to call his mother, who was certainly very concerned about him."

700,000 refugees from Syria?

The situation could get worse: By the end of 2012, the United Nations estimates about 700,000 people could leave Syria to avoid the civil war. So far, 300,000 Syrians have fled, mostly to neighboring Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey. From there, Syrian refugees increasingly come to Greece. They try to reach EU territory not through the notorious border in the Evros region in the north, but via the eastern Aegean islands.

Anneliese Baldaccini (Daphne Grathwohl, DW)
Anneliese Baldaccini: Common European standards are taking a long timeImage: privat

Baldaccini objects: "How many refugees have actually come to the EU since the crisis began a years and a half ago? About 12,000." This is not a massive influx of Syrians to Europe, she said. The numbers had increased, but are not cause for alarm. Some countries would have to take special measures, Baldaccini said, appealing to the willingness of EU states to accept more refugees.

No progress in Greece

But due to its debt crisis, Greece has massive financial problems that make it difficult to take in refugees. In addition, as a traditional country of emigration, Greece still has no adequate asylum and immigration law to accommodate the growing number of immigrants. For more than 20 years, Greece has been a de facto country of immigration. The Greek authorities estimate that of Greece's 11 million people, one million have an immigrant background.

Coast guards search for survivors after at least 58 illegal immigrants drowned when a fishing boat carrying people who had been promised refuge in Europe sank after hitting rocks off the coast near Aegean city of Izmir, Turkey, Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012. (Hurriyet/AP/dapd)
Not all refugees reach their destinationImage: AP

"The Greek authorities seem to be completely unable to meet the basic needs of these refugees in terms of shelter, food and adequate protection," Baldaccini said. It takes too long in order to apply for asylum in Greece, Baldaccini said. People are dissuaded from requesting asylum because they risk long stays in a refugee camp during the process.

Uniform standards

The common European asylum system is intended to provide the remedy. Malmström says the final negotiations are underway. She also draws attention to the work of a new EU agency called the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), which helps host countries handle refugees adequately - even the most vulnerable among them, unaccompanied minors, she said.

European Home Affairs Commissioner Swedish Cecilia Malmström. (dpa)
New agency 'a step in the right direction', says EU's MalmströmImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Some states have implemented protection programs and some have had very positive results, such as the Netherlands: "Officials from the member states who are involved with unaccompanied minors get special training" thanks to the efforts of Frontex and the EASO, Malmström said. The EASO - located on the Mediterranean island of Malta - has sent asylum support teams to Greece to assist the authorities there. Baldaccini hopes the work of the EASO will not just be a fig leaf: "It is certainly a step in the right direction. The EASO will enhance solidarity between EU member states."

More coordination needed

This week (5-6.10.2012), heads of state and government from ten Mediterranean countries are meeting in Malta to discuss a common security and refugee policy. But these are only the countries of the Western Mediterranean: Spain, France, Italy, Portugal and Malta from the European side; and Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania from the North African side. Of course, in the western Mediterranean, the refugee problem is enormous.

A Jordanian army car carrying Syrian refugees. (Reuters/Muhammad Hamed)
Most Syrian refugees have been taken in by neighboring countriesImage: Reuters

But shouldn't all affected states that have similar problems sit together at one table? Baldaccini does not believe that such summits are signs of disunity in the EU: "These are parallel processes that exist in addition to meetings at the EU level and bilateral meetings with non-EU countries. They can help solve specific regional problems." Dialogue is the priority at these summits, she said, and they do not stand in the way of the introduction of a common asylum system.