Asylum is a fundamental right for people who are facing harmful prosecution and adverse circumstances in their own country and therefore are in need of international protection. That granting asylum to helpless refugees is an international obligation was first recognized in Geneva Convention held in 1951 on the protection of refugees. Geneva Convention identified refugee as someone who cannot return to his home country due to reasonable "fear of being prosecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” (McDonough & Tsourdi, 2012). All the member states of European Union are required to undertake a joint effort to guarantee protection of high standards to refugees. The Geneva Convention underscores the social, economic and political rights of the refugees and states that no member state of EU can return any refugee who is under the threat of life and freedom in his own country. The procedures to be followed for granting asylum to refugees should be fair and equal in all the countries of EU and free of abuse. In order to smoothly conduct the asylum procedures, all the member states of EU have committed to the mission of creating a Common European Asylum System. In order to better the current legislative framework, EU has taken several measures in alignment with the vision of Geneva Convention, for the harmonization of different asylum systems of the member states. Article 80 of the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) mandates that all the member states should work by the principle of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility so that the responsibility of giving protection to refugees gets equally distributed among the member states and the current trend of a handful of member states granting majority of asylums to refugees changes into an unified affair with all the member states doing their bit for the successful operation of CEAS. The emphasis laid on solidarity and common area of protection under the Stockholm Programme makes the issue of solidarity all the more important for the future of CEAS. The recent global phenomena like the ongoing conflict in Syria, the war in Libya, the Arab Spring and the situation in Greece have evoked the need of more solidarity among the member states and ad hoc responses from the EU. This paper will discuss and analyze the solidarity principles and fair-sharing responsibility of EU member states and its implementations under Stockholm Programme with an example of asylum situations in Greece.
Registration of Unequal Number of Asylum Applications in EU Member States
As per the report submitted by UNHCR, each year millions of people get displaced owing to unfair prosecution and life threats and the EU member states give shelter to only a fraction of the total number of refugees. In 2011 about 42.5 million people were displaced from their home countries and Europe gave shelter to only 15% of those refugees. Germany was the only country from the European Union to have notched a place in the top ten of refugee hosting countries, placed fourth in rank after Pakistan, Iran and Syria (ECRE, 2013). Fluctuation is noted in the number of asylum applications in EU member states. Compared to 2010, the total number of asylum applications has increased by 15% in the EU member states. Asylum applications are quite uneven when the number is compared between the 'old' and 'new' EU member states. While the number of asylum applications has increased by 17% in 'old' EU member states, the 'new' member states of EU have shown a 2% drop in the same. The table below captures the asylum applications registered in the EU member states between the years 2003 - 2011.
Fig 1: Asylum applications in the EU member states (ECRE, 2013)
The top five countries receiving the maximum number of asylum applications include France, Germany, Italy, Belgium and Sweden. However, this ranking changes considerably when the number of applications is calculated in terms of population and GDP. When applications are measured in terms of per 1 million population or 1,000 units GDP, then the top three positions go to Cyprus, Sweden and Belgium (ECRE, 2013).
Despite the efforts of harmonization undertaken by the European Union over last 10 years, it is seen that only a handful few EU member states have registered majority of asylum applications. Based on the country of origin of asylum seekers, it is seen that maximum number of asylum seekers comes from Afghanistan, Russian Federation, Serbia, Pakistan and Iraq. Statistics show that more than 60% of asylum applications made by Afghan nationals were registered in five EU countries only - Germany, UK, Belgium, Sweden and Austria. 93% applications made by Serbian nationals were registered in countries like Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Italy and France and 89% applications by Somali nationals were lodged in countries like Germany, UK, Sweden, the Netherlands and Finland. This number shows the urgent need of more solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility equally among the EU member states.
The Principle of Solidarity
The debate that is going on among the member states in relation to responsibility-sharing has received a momentum with the introduction of article 80 in the Treaty on TFEU or the Function of the European Union which states that the "policies of the Union set out in this chapter and their implementation shall be governed by the principle of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility, including its financial implications, between the Member States. Whenever necessary, the Union acts adopted pursuant to this Chapter shall contain appropriate measures to give effect to this principle" (Battjes, 2006, p 182). While Article 80 underscores the need of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility, Article 78 of TFEU states the need of a formation of a common policy on asylum with protection measures in line with Geneva Refugee Convention of 1951 and other related treaties. The Stockholm Programme which contains guidelines for high standards of protection for refugees evokes the need of forming a CEAS that guarantees protection of the fundamental rights for people in need of asylums. The obligations of the Union as stated under Article 80 involve taking solidarity measures that show fairness towards "third-country nationals" by giving them high standards of protection. The principle of solidarity has both positive and negative obligations. The positive obligation involves sincere cooperation among the member states who in collaboration and mutual respect for one another must strive to take measures that facilitate the fulfillment of the European Union's tasks. The negative obligation makes the member states refrain from "any measure which could jeopardize the attainment of the Union’s objectives" (Vanheule, Selm & Boswell, 2011).
The principle of solidarity and fair sharing responsibility among the member states as regards asylum, immigration and border policies should not be bound only to financial matters and must cover non-financial implications as well. The principle of solidarity and fair sharing responsibility are also applicable for people who have been granted asylum under EU law and those awaiting decision on their application (ECRE, 2013).
Implementation of Solidarity Principle and Fair Sharing Responsibility
For the development of CEAS, it is important to have an increased level of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility among the EU member states. The current EU legal framework has a variety of tools and instruments to address the gaps in the asylum systems of different EU states so that the overall quality of CEAS can be improved upon. Below are discussed the areas in which solidarity and fair-sharing responsibility are shared among the member states.
Financial solidarity is the most concrete way in which the principle of solidarity and fair-sharing responsibility among member states of EU are being put in place. In order to promote solidarity and fair-sharing responsibility in terms of sharing the costs of receiving, integrating and repatriating people in need of special protection, the member states of EU established ERF or European Refugee Fund in 2000. Save for Denmark, all the member states of EU are beneficiaries of European Refugee Fund (European Refugee Fund). However, it has been seen over the years that despite strong financial support given by ERF, many new EU member states have their asylum systems under-resourced and have difficulty in conforming to the standards required for high level of protection as mandated by Stockholm Programme. Therefore, in order to give support to the member states whose asylum systems are less developed, additional financial security through the launching of Asylum and Migration Fund will start being implemented in 2014. This fund will support union actions, emergency assistance, national programmes of member states, European migration network and technical assistance.
European Asylum Support Office or EASO established in 2011 plays an important role in the evolution of CEAS. EASO purports to give support to the member states of EU and EU institutions to make the principle of solidarity and high standards of protection for refugees as stated under Stockholm Programme a reality. In order to enhance solidarity and fair-sharing responsibility among the member states, EASO works in cooperation with all the relevant agencies of the European Union and two agencies which are worth mentioning in this regard are FRA and Frontex. FRA's main job is to give expert advice to European agencies and bodies and monitor the performance of the member states with due respect to the fundamental rights of refugees and asylum seekers. Frontex on the other hand helps EASO identify situations which require immediate operational help. Its activities at the external borders of the EU and beyond the EU territory ensure better access to protection. According to the regulations of EASO, practical cooperation in the field of asylum and immigration should strive to "increase convergence and ensure ongoing quality of Member States’ decision-making procedures in that area within a European legislative framework" so that the disparities among the member states in terms of granting international protection to asylum seekers and refugees could be reduced to some extent (ECRE, 2013). EASO regulation empowers the EU agencies to obtain this convergence especially in the matters of COI and training. Both training and COI are related to the decision-making process involved in determining the future of asylum applications and thus EASO works in alignment with the objectives of promoting high standards of protection and improving the quality of decision making as defined by the Stockholm Programme.
Asylum Situations in Greece
In order to understand the efficacy of solidarity principle and fair sharing responsibility in dealing with asylum problems, we ought to take into account the asylum situations of Greece. Greece consisting of 2% of the EU population and GDP has a very ill-equipped dysfunctional asylum system due to which though it has only 1,000 reception places available for refugees, it entertained more than 10,000 new asylum applications in 2010 and due to a fraction of refugees being able to proceed with asylum applications in Greece, the backlog of pending appeals and unprocessed claimed had reached about 47,000 by the end of 2010 (McDonough & Tsourdi, 2012). The asylum procedures and practices in place in Greece are heavily criticized for not meeting with the EU standards. Especially one report in 2007 drew wide attention to Greece. A German NGO called ProAsyl brought the news of human rights abuse by Greece to public claiming that border authorities and coast guards of Greece on a routine basis abused migrants who tried to reach the country via the Aegean Sea and drove the migrants away from Greece territory without showing any consideration for their safety and protection.
But despite the concerns raised about the poor human rights conditions in Greece, several member states continued to send refugees to Greece under Dublin regulations which is an EU law that states that only one member state must be responsible for examining an asylum application and must take charge of the asylum seeker’s application process and his transferring (Dublin II Regulation). Due to pathetic human rights conditions related to poor quality asylum procedures and severe violation of fundamental rights of refugees in Greece, several people made appeals to court for orders to stop transferring refugees to Greece. The European Court of Human Rights even found Greece guilty of ill-treating an asylum seeker in 2011 and held Belgium equally guilty of violating the standards of protection guaranteed to refugees for returning the asylum seeker to Greece. CJEU or the Court of Justice of the European Union has even passed a rule in 2011 stating that member states must not transfer refugees to a state which is guilty of violating the fundamental rights of refugees and therefore, member states must look for another responsible member state which respects the objectives and values of Stockholm Programme.
Measures Taken to Improve the Asylum Conditions in Greece
In view of the asylum situations in Greece, the solidarity principle shown by the EU and the member states in taking measures for the improvement of the asylum conditions there is noteworthy. The most important support provided to Greece came from European financial support. As per the 'action plan on migration management' undertaken by the Greek government in 2010, the main objective was to improve upon the asylum procedures, return procedures, reception conditions, screening procedures for migrants and detention conditions. In order to help the Greek government meet its goals, the Ministry of Health and Social Solidarity (MoHSS) granted required funds to Greece from ERF. MoCP or the Ministry of Citizens’ Protection in a similar manner issued funds to Greece from the European Return Fund and the European Borders Fund (McDonough & Tsourdi, 2012). The recipients of these funds included NGOs, UNHCR and the national institutions of Greece. A consideration portion of the measures undertaken were supported by ERF.
EASO started its operation in Greece in 2011 as per the agreement made with the Greek government for a 2-year plan. Keeping in with the needs of the hour, EASO plans to deploy 40-50 experts within this timeframe. Frontex extended its support mostly in terms of placing RABITs or Rapid Border Intervention Teams at the Greek-Turkish land border for 5 months (McDonough & Tsourdi, 2012). Frontex also deployed a joint operation known as 'Poseidon Land' to coordinate the deployment of border guards in the same area. Besides ERF funding, UNHCR also got funding from the UKBA or the UK Borders Agency for three years starting from 2010 June in support of its actions related to capacity building of asylum procedures, detention, reception and entry screenings.
Greece signed an agreement of cooperation with Germany and the Netherlands in 2010 and 2009 in order to exchange expertise on many aspects of asylum procedures. In 2011, Greece signed another agreement with Lichtenstein, Norway and Iceland in support of two programmes one of which address the UNHCR actions related to the reception and screening of new entrants, support to voluntary returns and accommodation of vulnerable groups and another will concentrate on migration management process, capacity building for national asylum, ensuring legal protection and care to helpless children (McDonough & Tsourdi, 2012).
But despites the measures taken to support Greece, there are still several challenges which need to be overcome to improve the conditions of Greece. The constant flow of irregular migrants to the Greek-Turkish border has led to an increase in arrests made in 2011 compared to 2010. Though the presence of Frontex has been helpful, the number of new arrivals has been constantly high. The process of registration of asylum seekers and their identification of nationality has been speedier than before but the process could still be made better. Despite the measures taken by the ERF emergency programme, the reception capacity of Greece hasn't improved considerably and therefore, many asylum seekers stay homeless. Local populations also create impediments by opposing the construction of a new reception capacity. Though the detention system has improved than before but it still falls short of human right standards. Due to the Greek police remaining responsible for asylum claims and being understaffed, registered claims fall far short in number than the people willing to claim asylums.
The example of Greece makes it evident that the current solidarity measures undertaken by the EU and member states are not adequate enough to solve an asylum problem completely. In order to address the problem on a broader perspective and deal with the challenges, the EU and its member states through a joint effort must scrutinize every loophole in the system so that they can take measures in a more coordinated manner to solve similar problematic situations.
Asylum is recognized as a fundamental right for people facing adverse persecution and life threats in their own country. This paper has discussed and analyzed the solidarity principles and fair-sharing responsibility of EU member states and its implementation under Stockholm Programme with an example of asylum situations in Greece. It has been seen that a handful of EU states register maximum number of asylum applications than the rest. In order to bring harmonization in the practice of asylum law, Article 80 underscores the importance of the principle of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility among EU member states. An increased level of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility among the EU member states is crucial to the development of CEAS. Financial solidarity and EASO are some basic tools and measures that promote solidarity and fair-sharing responsibility among member states. The implementation of the solidarity principle could be measured in terms of addressing the problematic asylum situations in Greece which has a dysfunctional faulty asylum system that falls short of the standards underlined by Stockholm Programme. The solidarity measures undertaken by the EU and member states through financial assistance and EASO are not adequate enough to solve the situation completely. Though these measures have improved upon certain key challenging areas considerably, there are many challenges remaining to be overcome. Therefore, the EU and its member states through a joint effort must scrutinize every loophole in the system so that measures can be taken in a more coordinated manner to arrest similar problematic situations.
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