Fortress Europe: How the EU Turns Its Back on Refugees

Greek police patrol the border with Turkey near the northeastern city of Orestiada. For many refugees, Europe is increasingly becoming a fortress. Many countries are closing their borders and erecting bureaucratic hurdles — or they accept asylum seekers under appalling conditions

They come seeking refuge, but when asylum seekers cross into the European Union, they often find little compassion. In Greece, they are held in squalid detention camps, while in Italy they often end up on the street. Here is what they face at entry points across the EU.

They know they are putting their lives at risk. Nevertheless, many people board ramshackle watercraft and set sail from the coast of Africa in the hope of a better life in Europe.

While a few years ago it was predominately North African migrants coming to Italy in search of work, today it is often refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia who are fleeing chaos and violence in their countries. The number of asylum applications in Europe has sharply increased in the past six years.

Refugees are “particularly vulnerable people,” warned German President Joachim Gauck after hundreds of people drowned off the coast of Lampedusa on Thursday. “Protecting lives and granting refugees the chance to be heard is at the foundation of our legal and moral codes,” he concluded. On Tuesday, the EU interior ministers gathered in Luxembourg to discuss the consequences of the accident, which resulted in around 300 deaths. But despite heavy criticism, they couldn’t manage to come to a decision about comprehensive change to European asylum policy.

The expectations of refugees who come to Europe often go unfulfilled. Many must struggle through long asylum application processes or fight against ingrained local prejudice. In some countries, they endure appalling living conditions in refugee camps; in others, they end up on the streets.

The correspondents of SPIEGEL ONLINE report on the situation in various European countries.

By Hans-Jürgen Schlamp

The Lampedusa disaster has shaken the world — especially Italy. The populace watches the images on television with horror, the body bags lined up across the beach. How can this be? “A disgrace,” says Pope Francis. “Yes,” agree many, “a disgrace.” There is talk of solidarity. Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta awarded posthumous Italian citizenship to the deceased.

Those who survived will now begin an unpleasant process. First, the prosecutor launches proceedings to determine whether they are illegal immigrants. If so, they will have to pay a fine of up to €5,000 (about $6,800). Even judges disagree with this practice. For the refugees, it hardly shows solidarity.

Those who come by sea end up in “reception centers,” camps that are at best bleak, if not downright terrible. There are many among them who want to apply for political asylum — but are not able or allowed to properly articulate their situation.

Others who have fled from war or political persecution accept the backhanded offer of temporary papers and sometimes even a €500 donation to help them head north — to Switzerland, Germany or Scandinavia. According to official figures, 15,715 new asylum seekers remained in Italy in 2012. That comes to just 260 refugees per million Italian, according to EU statistics.

But Italy is not equipped to deal with even this modest amount. The country’s institutional infrastructure for refugees and asylum seekers can hold less than a third of them. The refugees who do make it in are given a roof over their heads for at least six to 10 months. After that, they must leave their meager home.

Some find shelter, but lacking alternatives, most asylum seekers end up on the street. They live in parked trains in abandoned rail yards, condemned houses or on mattresses covered in plastic sheets on fallow land. Few find paying work — at best, temporary, under-the-table work for €1, €2 an hour.


By Giorgos Christides

For more than a decade, Greece has been the main entry point for illegal immigrants and asylum seekers from Asia and Africa. There, however, they find not the promised land, but a broken immigration and asylum system.

Asylum seekers are detained in overcrowded, squalid camps. Human rights groups and international media have repeatedly criticized this drama.

The situation of Syrian refugees in particular has stirred up debate. In 2012, Greece arrested 8,000 Syrians for entering the country illegally. According to UN data, only two Syrians were granted asylum last year.

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Greece’s asylum system is inadequate and degrading. As a result, most EU states have ceased to deport refugees to Greece, despite the fact they are actually obliged to send asylum seekers back to the country where they first entered the EU (according to the to the 2003 EU regulation known as “Dublin II”).

In early August, refugees in Amygdaleza, a new camp near Athens, revolted. Dozens fled the site, which the Greek ombudsman for asylum policies himself recognized as being of “a particularly prison-like nature.”

Due to growing international pressure, Greece has begun to overhaul its asylum system. But the freeze on new hires and lack of funds due to the country’s austerity measures make reforms difficult.

For most Greeks the disastrous refugee situation is hardly an issue. Many are nevertheless of the opinion that the country cannot accept any more foreigners. The beneficiaries of this public mood are far-right groups such as the Golden Dawn party, which is the third-strongest in the Greek parliament.

By Mathieu von Rohr

The major foreign policy topic in France over the past few weeks has been the Roma. Although there are only 15-20,000 of them in the country, they have been linked with criminality and unhygienic living conditions by politicians and the media. Even Socialist interior minister Manuel Valls said recently that it is not possible to integrate the Roma. Just as under former president Nicolas Sarkozy, they are being expelled in large numbers.

The much larger asylum issues, however, are rarely discussed in the French media: The number of asylum applications in France has increased by 73 percent in the past five years to 61,468. The authorities are completely overwhelmed by this influx.

Asylum seekers must lodge their application with the prefecture of the department’s administrative center. Even just at this stage, officials need up to 70 days to issue a temporary residence permit — the entire process takes an average of 20 months. First, the French refugee agency examines applications, with nearly 90 percent being rejected. An appeal is lodged in almost every case. According to a report by the interior ministry, some 37,000 people go underground without papers each year.

Because accommodation is so overcrowded, authorities in the city of Metz in the Lorraine region began housing about 450 asylum seekers in tents in a parking lot. Aid agencies complained about the “degrading” and “hygienically inadequate” conditions. Only in the past few days have authorities, acting under court order, begun to disband the camp.

The country’s 271 reception centers have room for 21,400 people, but according to the interior ministry, a total of 35,000 are needed. The state has been housing asylum seekers partly in empty social housing in remote rural communities. This has led to objections from local politicians. Many asylum seekers are even being put up in hotels — the total cost of housing including financial help for the asylum seekers is €550 million. In the press, the alarming reports have been taken as an indication that the government is planning to put forth a new asylum law.


2 replies

  1. I guess, Europe can learn from my beloved country,US, which is a haven for all refugees & immigrants, legal or otherwise.

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