A new plan to set up "controlled centres" to hold migrants once they arrive in EU territory risks repeating many mistakes of the past, bypassing due process and breaching fundamental human rights and international law.
At the EU’s June summit in Brussels, leaders agreed to create centres within EU member states to speed up the processing of asylum requests and assist those countries on the rim of the Mediterranean sea – such as Italy, Malta and Greece – with the mass inflow of migrants. No country would be forced to set up a "controlled centre", though it’s still unclear who will.
The proposed centres would facilitate the distinction between irregular economic migrants, earmarked for return under the auspices of the International Organisation for Migration, and those in need of international protection, who would be relocated and resettled in those EU member states that would agree to take them under the principle of solidarity.
The plan is a compromise reached at the end of a tense and fractious summit to appease an exasperated Italian government. Italy has long been calling for reform of the rules governing which EU member state is responsible for examining an asylum application – known as the Dublin III Regulation. It also appeased the Visegrád Group of the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, which has long been against any mandatory refugee relocation quotas among EU member states.
In spite of the fact that arrivals into the EU from the Middle East and Africa have seen a huge drop off since 2015, the plan to build controlled centres is yet another confirmation of how EU migration policy is driven by emergency solutions. This has led to unorthodox, if pragmatic, fudges rather than a considered legal response. It highlights the inability of the EU legislature to reform a system that has long been in need of substantial change.
Hotspots in all but name
It remains unclear what controlled centres would look like, where they will be set up and who will pay for them. The application of the principle of solidarity also remains vague.
An EU official close to the French government said that they would resemble the "hotspots" that were set up in Italy and Greece in 2015. These reception centres were meant to constitute facilities for the first reception, registration and initial processing of migrants at the "external borders" of the EU within 48 hours of arrival – or a maximum of 72 hours.
A 2016 report by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles highlighted how the hotspots introduced greater ambiguity, making it difficult to distinguish whether a person was actually being detained or not. Since March 2016, new arrivals in Greece have no longer been allowed to leave for the mainland but instead must lodge their asylum application at the hotspots.
Relocation in the EU is no longer an option as many EU member states refuse to accept people crossing into their territory who have arrived elsewhere within the EU. A new deal struck on July 2nd in the wake of the EU summit between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her interior minister and coalition partner, Horst Seehofer, illustrates the current state of affairs.
Under this deal, Germany will establish transit centres close to the border with Austria where asylum seekers already registered in another EU member state will be processed before being returned to that country where possible. Where that isn’t possible, the asylum seekers will be sent back across the border to Austria. But the Austrian government quickly warned that it was prepared to "take measures" to protect its southern borders, particularly with Italy and Slovenia, if the German proposals are implemented.
There are still more migrants arriving at the hotspots in Greece and Italy than leaving. They are seriously overcrowded with very poor and, in some instances, appalling standards of living, particularly for unaccompanied minors. The Moria camp on the island of Lesbos in Greece is a case in point: built to receive 1,800 people it ended up housing more than 6,000 migrants and asylum seekers.
Migrants are often detained without a court order, forced to be fingerprinted and classified as asylum seekers or irregular economic migrants on the basis of a summary assessment. Due to a lack of interpreters, the new arrivals have very little understanding of what is happening and the procedures available to them.
NGOs have highlighted how people are often classified solely on the basis of their nationality. For example, migrants from Nigeria, Gambia, Senegal, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia are often classified as economic migrants.
A lack of transparency and proper monitoring has meant people are denied access to asylum procedures. Those – often arbitrarily – classed as irregular economic migrants can face enforced rejection or mass expulsion, raising profound human rights concerns.
Preserve basic human dignity
Like the hotspots before them, the new "controlled centres" leave the Dublin asylum rules untouched. But there is a key lesson to be learnt: the new centres will need to guarantee access to adequate asylum procedures, unlike the hotspots. As the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, emphasised in a statement about the proposals, people will also need to be housed in dignifying living conditions.
Denying people their human rights challenges their very humanity and goes against the core of their human dignity. Every human possesses an innate worth, just by being human, which needs to be respected and protected.
Fears that the proposed controlled centres will be "old wine in new bottles" are real. More durable solutions based on the rule of law need to be urgently ironed out by the EU legislature in the future.