Think EU-MED

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Italy and Recent Developments in the Area of Asylum

Lampedusa, Sicily or Sardinia... when you hear about these Italian islands in the Mediterranean you won’t automatically associate these spots with beaches and holidays nowadays but rather with floods of refugees, reception centres and human rights abuses. The Italian policy of intercepting migrants and refugees without giving them a chance to request asylum has aroused sharp criticism, as many legitimate refugees and asylum seekers are forced to get back to places where their lives are threatened. This rough immigration practices are also strongly criticised by the European Union, although the Union’s own incapacity to carry out a European solution is highly related with the problems in the Mediterranean Sea.

The European Union has so far failed to enforce a common European treatment of asylum claims and until there are not adequate systems to offer safety to asylum seekers and refugees who need it across Europe, the story will continue. Ten years after the establishment of the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice (AFSJ), the achievements in the area of Asylum have been plain-spoken modest. The security discourses have taken precedence on the European agenda and the priorities have shifted towards issues relating to external frontiers and undocumented immigration, which has conjured up images of a “Fortress Europe”.

In 2008, there were nearly 240,000 asylum applications lodged in the EU and just 13% of applicants were granted refugee status. 193 690 first instance decisions were made on asylum applicants. There were 73% rejections, 13% applicants were granted refugee status, 10% subsidiary protection and 5% authorisation to stay for humanitarian reasons. (Eurostat, 2009) The Hague Program called for an improved asylum regulation, common procedure and uniform status for asylum seekers as the so-called Dublin Regulation, defining that the first EU member state that a migrant enters examines the asylum application, has been unsatisfactory. Various approaches, such as the Asylum Procedures Directive, Reception Conditions Directive, or the Qualification Directive should harmonize the conditions, procedures, and the rights conferred on the status of refugees or asylum applicants in the different EU countries.

However, the level of harmonization is still relatively low and the national authorities and courts do not always correctly apply the EU’s directives. The situation is particularly critical for rejected asylum seekers who are often times forced to work in substandard conditions, exploited, or taken into trafficking networks. The EU’s measures to protect these victims of exploitation and trafficking are inadequate. The recent Employers’ Sanctions Directive proposal on Third country nationals (TCNs) working illegally and the proposal for a “Return Directive” illustrate the predominant trend to focus on illegal residence and working, and repressive security measures rather than on protecting the migrants’ rights.

Nevertheless, the Commission is pushing for standardization and, in December 2008, it presented an asylum package that should change the European legislation by setting minimal standards for asylum seekers at the point of their arrival - Measures to improve the asylum system and strengthening asylum seekers' rights specific standards must be guaranteed in terms of “housing, food, clothing, health care, financial benefits, and freedom of movement and access to work.” (European Parliament, 2009) Furthermore, the creation of a European Asylum Support Office and asolidarity” clause to unburden greatly affected EU members such as Malta, Italy, and Greece is foreseen. On May 7, 2009, the package was adopted by the European Parliament which called for a binding mechanism to be set up before 2012.

In the meantime, it is feared that unilaterally national initiatives will further gain ground and violate international law, as the case of Italy demonstrates. In May 2009, Italy started its highly controversial return policy with joint naval patrols in Libyan territorial waters and a bilateral agreement with Tripoli. In order to combat illegal immigration, Italy rejects every boat approaching the Italian coastal borders and the Italian coast guard sent all migrants back to so-called reception centres in Libya. A new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report illustrates the bad treatment and inhuman conditions in this Libyan centres to which all of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees are sent regardless their official status in international law. Libya has not ratified the international convention on refugees and treats all returned people as illegal immigrants, regardless of their legal status. Many of them are refugees and asylum seekers from conflict zones such as Somalia or Darfur who would have a right to international protection. The Human Rights Watch Report stresses that 2008 about 75 percent of the people coming to Lampedusa were asylum seekers. As a consequence, the irregular boat migrants to Sicily, Lampedusa and Sardinia fell by 55 percent in the first six months of 2009 compared to the same period the previous year according to the HRW. Frontex statistics show a 31% decrease in the number of migrants detected heading towards Italy and Malta in the first half of this year compared to the same period last year.

On 21 September 2009, a Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting was held in Brussels to discuss actions in the area of irregular migration, joint EU Resettlement Programme, asylum issues, unaccompanied minors and a report from the European Commission as a follow-up on the European Council conclusions of 18/19 June 2009. The Italian case was not high on the agenda despite of UN critics that fundamental human rights standards of refugees have to be respected. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, recently called the current European asylum policy “dysfunctional” and urged EU Member States to help refugees who are fleeing from conflicts in their countries.

Human Rights Watch: Pushed Back, Pushed Around
Eurostat: Data in Focus, 8/2009, Asylum applicants and decisions on asylum applications in Q4 2008 European Parliament: Press Release: 07.05.2009 Council of the EU: European Council conclusions of 18/19 June 2009
Council of the EU: JHA Council conclusions 21 September 2009


Anonymous said...

Italy's practices and contract with Libya are for me not that surprising as they are kept alone to handle a European or even a global problem. There must be something done by the international community!

EU-MED said...

The French government proposed recently that the EU should establish a partnership with migrants' countries of origin and of transit, enhance Member States' joint maritime operations and find solutions to ensure access to asylum procedures.
Regarding countries of transit or origin, the French government wants to establish in particular partnerships with Turkey and Libya and step up cooperation between third-country authorities and European immigration liaison officers in such countries.
In addition, Member States could establish diplomatic representations in Libya, and introduce a specific procedure for the examination of applications for asylum.

Statewatch, "News Online: French proposal on asylum cooperation with Turkey and Libya"