EU-Turkey deal and the future of asylum – Part One
On 18 March, the European Union and Turkey reached an agreement, calling for “swift and determined efforts” to stop irregular migration in the Aegean. EU member states also asked the European Commission “to coordinate all necessary support for Greece.”
Ten days later, three things are obvious: first, no credible plans for implementing the EU-Turkey agreement had been prepared before 18 March; second, the steps announced by the European Commission since then to implement this agreement are inadequate: third, if all measures agreed on 18 March are adopted now then the EU-Turkey can turn out to be the breakthrough the EU has been trying to find for many months.
As Jean-Claude Juncker put it in his State of the Union speech on 9 September 2015, this is “not the time for business as usual”; there is a need for a genuine, bold European response; and “the first priority for the EU is and must be addressing the refugee crisis.” Here is a concrete suggestion how all of this might be done.
This essay – part one in a series of blog entries – outlines what needs to be done for the credible implementation of the EU-Turkey Agreement. The next essays will look at other elements of the deal: prospects for voluntary resettlement from Turkey, the visa liberalisation effort, and finally how successful and complete implementation of the EU-Turkey deal can put down a foundation for a future EU asylum policy.
18 March and Brussels’ lack of preparation
On 16 March, two days before the EU-Turkey summit in Brussels, the European Commission published two communications. One was about “next operational steps in EU-Turkey cooperation in the field of migration.” The other was a “first report on relocation and resettlement.”
The first communication sets out six principles for EU-Turkey cooperation. The first principle puts human rights and legal safeguards of irregular migrants and asylum seekers at the centre of all EU policy. The Commission states, specifically, that concerning readmission from Greece to Turkey:
“it is self-evident that the arrangements for such returns, both of those in need of international protection and those who are not, can only be carried out in line with the refugee protection safeguards that have been put in place in international and EU law.” (page 2)
The report refers to the EU Asylum Procedures Directive, which “lays down the particular legal and procedural parameters to be respected. There is therefore no question of applying a “blanket” return policy, as it would run contrary to these legal requirements.” (page 3) And the Commission points out that in accordance with this directive:
“a number of safeguards need to be respected. Having first been duly registered and identified in line with EU rules, a person that has lodged an asylum claim in Greece should be given a personal interview when the responsible authority considers that the individual falls into one of these categories of inadmissibility. This allows a screening to occur to identify whether there are particular circumstances that arise. There is also a right to appeal against the inadmissibility decision.”
The report notes that this requires changes in Greece and in Turkey. What is required in Turkey in particular are “access to effective asylum procedures for all persons in need of international protection … and ensuring that protection equivalent to the Geneva Convention is afforded to non-Syrians, notably those returned.”
There is a gap, however, between the specification of WHAT should be achieved and the vagueness concerning HOW these commitments are supposed to be realised. The section on “Practical Aspects” is less than a page long. Two statements in this section stand out:
“The capacity of the Greek Asylum Service should be increased to enable expedited readmission to Turkey as well as rapid acceptance of asylum applications. Appeal Committees should also be able to rule on a high number of appeals within a short period of time.”
“The European Asylum Support Office EASO should also be called upon to support the Greek authorities in quickly and effectively processing applications and returns, if necessary through an additional and targeted call for assistance from the Member states.”
This is a striking statement, suggesting that two days before agreeing with Turkey on a strategy which relies completely on legally sound and efficient asylum procedures in Greece the European Commission barely acknowledges that the capacities of the Greek system are extremely limited. The Commission notes that perhaps – “if necessary” – readmission and fast asylum procedures might require an “additional” call for assistance to member states.
A similar disregard for the logistical challenges of managing asylum claims in Greece and readmission from Greece can be found in a power point presentation on “Managing the Refugee Crisis” which the European Commission made available on the day of the European Council on 17 March. This presentation has 30 pages. Only one refers to readmission between Greece and Turkey, and all it says is this:
Readmission – a Central Element of the
EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan
The Commission proposed operational arrangements to make the readmission procedure for economic migrants from Greece to Turkey more efficient
- The 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
- Turkey and Greece have progressed in their discussions to establish much more effective readmission operational procedures, including the deployment of Turkish liaison officers to 5 Hotspots
This contrasts with 6 slides on the EU internal relocation scheme (from Greece to other EU member states), which complements a very long section (almost 14 pages) on relocation in the Commission’s First Report on Relocation and Resettlement, published on 16 March. Accelerating relocation, which the Commission admits failed to deliver adequate results with only 937 out of 160,000 people relocated as of 15 March is presented as a matter of urgency. No mention is made of the fact that relocation adds to the work load of the small staff of the Greek Asylum Office, and no indication why this should now work better in Greece, when it has also failed in Italy in recent months.
Reading the Commission documents prepared for the summit on 17/18 March it seems as if relocation –invented by the European Commission and presented as its flagship project in September – continues to be treated as a priority. And that readmission is considered above all else as a task for Greece, even if it might require a bit of help by member states. This competition for scarce resources between different priorities is not even acknowledged.
EU-Turkey deal, Human Rights and Human Resources
As a result, the European Commission could not answer the obvious question raised by the EU-Turkey Agreement on 18 March: how to implement it in line both efficiently and in line with the declared commitment to respect “relevant international standards.”
How would such a policy work without a sufficient number of case workers in the Greek asylum system, without sufficient people on appeal committees, without clear and credible guidelines? This lack of preparation recalls the experience with relocation: announced as a grand scheme in September 2015 by Commission president Juncker in the European Parliament it then became a constant embarrassment after it was decided. This is particularly problematic for Greece: once again an EU policy is developed with no regard to practical implementation, which is then delegated to the Greek administration, which will be held responsible for its failure.
It is also striking that the Commission did not learn from the experience with previous calls on member states to second personnel. In September, the European Commission and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) called for 374 migration experts and 1,412 border guards, along with liaison officers from all EU member states to both Italy and Greece. As of 18 March, almost six months after the deal entered force, only 201 experts and 356 border guards were made available. Seven EU member states – Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Malta and Sweden – did not appoint their liaison officer to Greece.
For Greece this has been the worst of all worlds. It was asked to implement a scheme that was not well thought through (and that for this reason also failed in Italy), which was badly prepared, and which has never received sufficient support from other member states. In the end, however, Greece was blamed for the failure.
On the day after the EU summit – on 19 March – the European Commission for the first time provided details about the human resources needed to implement the EU/-Turkey agreement:
„Around 4,000 staff from Greece, Member States, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and FRONTEX:
- For the asylum process: 200 Greek asylum service case workers, 400 asylum experts from other Member States deployed by EASO and 400 interpreters
- For the appeals process: 10 Appeals Committees made up of 30 members from Greece as well as 30 judges with expertise in asylum law from other Member States and 30 interpreters
- For the return process: 25 Greek readmission officers, 250 Greek police officers as well as 50 return experts deployed by Frontex. 1,500 police officers seconded on the basis of bilateral police cooperation arrangements (costs covered by FRONTEX)
- Security: 1,000 security staff/army”
The Commission stated that the necessary EU support would be coordinated by Maarten Verwey, a Dutch economist and a Director-General of the Commission’s Structural Reform Support Service. Verwey is already been based in Greece in the context of the reforms needed for the disbursement of the Greek bailout. Once again the EU defines its role as providing support to Greece through secondments of officials by member states as the main tool. Once again the ultimate responsibility for success and failure depends on overstretched Greek public servants.
It is highly likely that again things will turn out as bad or worse than they did with relocation. To resolve cases quickly while upholding high legal standards requires sufficient human resources. It requires a huge effort on the part of civil servants who have seen their living standards erode for many years already. This would be a challenge even for a well-funded, well-organised and well-staffed asylum service.
The administrative challenge for Greece is huge. The political pressure is great. Many human rights organisations are certain to attack the efforts of the Greek asylum service if it fails to deal with applications in line with the standards foreseen and reaffirmed by the EU itself. At the same time Greece will be blamed if it fails to resolve cases quickly. At the same time Greece will be left alone with most of the refugees whom it is not able to return to Turkey – except for those, perhaps a few hundred (at the very best a few thousand) per month, whom it might be able to relocate. Add to this the problem, recognised by Greek officials, that the faster relocation works, the more of a magnate for refugees Greece might become. If case of failure Greece would make an easy scapegoat. This is a demotivating and inefficient way to proceed, and one that is almost certain to fail.
A Juncker Plan for an EU Asylum Support Mission
A better way forward would be for the Greek government to ask the European Commission to respond to an unprecedented and vitally important challenge with an extraordinary, and truly joint mission between the EU and Greek officials: to launch a first fully European Asylum Support Mission (ASM) where responsibility is shared, the effort fully funded by the EU all Greek and EU officials are paid the same, work together in mixed (multilingual) teams, under a joint double-headed leadership made up of one Greek official (the current director of the Greek Asylum Service) and a former or current head of an EU member state asylum office seconded to Greece.
These two would implement Greek legislation, report both to the Greek government and to the European Commission and manage a coherent European team of officials, whether case workers, interpreters and translators and other officials. The European co-head should also proactively push member states to second people with expertise from their administrations, paid for the duration of this work from the Mission’s budget; and if this fell short of needs, they would be able to hire people directly.
This European Union Asylum Support Mission could – if it works – also become an example for future EU asylum policy operations in all frontline states which face similar challenges. It would be a practical step towards a common European asylum space. It would put more than fine words behind the promise of due process. And the people who are granted asylum by this mission would be relocated to other EU member states.
In a recent issue of Forced Migration Review the Director of the Greek Asylum Service, Maria Stavropoulou noted that the time had come for a “major overhaul” of refugee protection in Europe. There she concludes with two suggestions:
- Create meaningful management plans and budgets for refugee protection in the EU as a whole, rather than expecting individual member states to do so on their own: “it makes little sense to harmonise laws but not budgets …”
- The EU’s member states must start to perceive Europe as a single asylum space and work towards these goals.
The current need to improve the capacity in Greece offers an opportunity to “work towards” the goal of a single asylum space, by creating an option for frontline states to share responsibility (and costs) fully with other member states in an emergency. To paraphrase one famous European
“Europe will not be built all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements …”
 UNHCR, EU states miss deadline to appoint officers for refugee relocations, 18 November 2015
 European Commission, Member States’ Support to Emergency Relocation Mechanism, 18 March 2016
 European Commission, Factsheet on the EU-Turkey Agreement, 19 March 2016