Nicknamed the Fortress for its strict asylum and migration policies, the European Union continues its soul-searching journey as it still debates a new legal framework that will govern migration policies for all of its member states, sending mixed signals to international refugee organizations and aid agencies. Feeling under siege as hordes of refugees storm the coastlines and land borders of its members states, the EU’s talks on harmonizing refugee policy pursuant to the Amsterdam Treaty have been slow and difficult, causing even more anxiety to international agencies such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which wish to see swift asylum procedures. This has left member countries to enforce their own migration policies as they seem fit for their domestic policies, creating a cacophony of laws and regulations that vary from country to country and from time to time. In Greece, for example, access to the asylum procedure has been hampered by the fact that the same police units that are charged with removing irregular migrants are also responsible for registering new asylum-seekers, the UNHCR notes in its Mid-Year Progress Report 2001. Moreover, many states have continued the practice of detaining asylum-seekers, including women and children, a policy criticized by advocacy networks, the UNHCR and the UN Committee Against Torture, as a number of detainees include vulnerable asylum-seekers such as victims of torture. But, after responding to increased pressure from the international community, the first breakthrough in talks among EU member countries came in May this year when EU home affairs and justice ministers cemented the first step by forging an agreement on a temporary protection regime. The directive on temporary protection is the first substantive legal instrument in the development of a common EU asylum system, the UNHCR notes in the report. The refugee agency notes that negotiations continue among EU states on two key proposals from the European Commission: the draft directive on minimum standards for asylum procedures, and the draft directive on minimum standards for the reception of asylum-seekers. For its part, the agency’s strategy for the greater Western European region maintains its focus on improving the quality of asylum in an expanding EU, by promoting the adoption of acceptable and exportable asylum standards, and to increase support for refugees and the UNHCR. Refugees in numbers But the voices of concern that have been raised among EU member states are not baseless, as refugees and migrants continue to turn up in great numbers at their borders, creating pressure on local communities. These concerns were particularly widespread during the 1990s Balkan crises and subsequent emergencies, when millions of people fled their homes to escape ethnic wars and persecution. According to the UNHCR, Europe is host to over 25 percent of all persons of concern to the agency, a total of 21.8 million at the start of 2001. The Old Continent comes third after Asia (38.8 percent) and Africa (27.9 percent), while North America, which is rated fourth, is host to just 4.8 percent. Specifically, the refugee agency reports that the number of new asylum-seekers registered in Western Europe during the first half of 2001 came to 178,255, a 2-percent increase from the same period last year. Marked increases in asylum applications were noted in Austria, which saw a nearly 90-percent increase; France with a 15-percent increase; and Germany with an 11-percent rise. Germany alone at the start of the year was host to 976,000 persons of concern to UNHCR, second only to Pakistan, which sheltered over 1.9 million people. At the same time other countries, including the Netherlands, the UK and Belgium reported a decline in asylum applications. The majority of asylum-seekers came from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the Russian Federation, Iraq, Turkey and Afghanistan. In Greece, the local offices of the UN refugee agency note that as many as 2,906 asylum-seekers have been received in Greece during the first nine months of this year, with Iraqis making up the largest group with 1,211 people, followed by 833 Afghans. Public Order Ministry records show that as of December 31, 2000, a total of 6,653 people had been granted refugee status in Greece. At the same time, Greek authorities have detained over 5,000 illegal immigrants this year, while some 100 people suspected of human trafficking have been incarcerated. New asylum approaches A number of European states have taken measures to improve reception arrangements for asylum-seekers in transit centers and at the main points of entry, and in most cases their efforts are met with cooperation from international agencies such as the UNHCR. In early November the German government introduced a new immigration law making it possible for people persecuted by non-state agents, such as rebels or militias, to obtain protection under the 1951 refugee convention. The move came as a pleasant surprise to the UN refugee agency. The UNHCR warmly welcomes the proposed change, which would bring an end to one of the most damaging anomalies in legislative practice in Europe, the agency noted in a statement released on November 9. The proposed change to the law would bring Germany into line with virtually all other states that have signed the 1951 convention. A few months earlier, in a drive to improve its own asylum procedures, Italy, under a Memorandum of Understanding between the government and the UNHCR, developed a National Asylum Program aimed at creating a nationwide mechanism for the reception and protection of refugees and asylum-seekers. Public pressure has also led the British government to start simplifying cumbersome asylum procedures and to launch a refugee integration strategy, while in France the government has sought to improve conditions at its Roissy Airport reception facility. Greece is also among those EU countries that unilaterally have been taking measures to improve and strengthen their own reception procedures, which have received strong support and recognition from international refugee and aid groups. The agency, though, continues to monitor closely all countries as refugees and asylum-seekers are still subject to detention, even when their identity has been verified and their cases processed. One such case is the Danish Aliens Act which now makes it possible for national authorities to detain asylum-seekers involved in crimes, pending the conclusion of their asylum procedure. In the Netherlands the government has starting enforcing a new Aliens Act which does not take full account of UNHCR’s views on the definition and application of the safe country of origin and safe third country concepts. With the EU continuing its soul-searching journey for a uniform model of asylum for all of the bloc, member states will continue adjusting their migration policies unilaterally, as they play to their domestic and international audience. Athens conference examines plight of 250 million people on the move By Miron Varouhakis Kathimerini English Edition With scenes of hundreds of fatigued illegal migrants arriving at the island of Zakynthos aboard a smuggling ship under coast guard escort still vivid two weeks later, a panel of experts gathered Thursday night in Athens in an effort to offer some insight into the tangle of migration and asylum laws in Europe. Today there are 250 million people on the move – illegal migration in search of asylum – and who are refugees. It is the greatest humanitarian crisis on record, remarked Stelios Perakis, professor of international law at Panteios University in Athens. Perakis, a former general secretary of the Foreign Ministry, was addressing a conference on Refugees and Migrants in the European Union, organized by the Andreas Papandreou Institute for Strategic and Development Studies (ISTAME) and the European information exchange network Euronem. At a time when Greeks are voicing grave concerns over the arrival in the country of thousands of illegal migrants and hundreds of refugees and asylum-seekers – inflated at times by the media – Perakis noted like others that Greece is unprepared to receive the influx of migrants and refugees, but offered a more positive picture. These (crises) of course most of the time happen far from us, and even with our country’s tendency to superficially deal with the issue we still have to face a few thousand asylum applications, a few thousand illegal migrants. We are trying to inflate things, but if we see the numbers and compare them with the global reality, ours is just a small percentage, he said. Perakis, echoing the views of other panelists, declared that, in spite of the immense humanitarian crisis facing the world, the European Union is emerging as a pioneer in the industrialized world in trying to develop a uniform migration policy. The 21st century finds the issues of asylum-seekers and of refugees in a phase of change, Perakis declared. Things have changed. They have changed especially for Europe, which is perhaps the only stable area in the periphery that is attempting to formulate a uniform, common policy and adopt a number of regulations that will become standards in cases of asylum-seekers, the hosting of refugees, which country is to decide if asylum is to be granted, as well as dealing with internally displaced persons. Charter of rights Asteris Pliakos, a professor at the Athens University of Economics and Business, told the conference that migration and asylum policies are still being formed at national levels within the union, and that the countries are often in conflict with each other on the international level. However, the Greek scholar, who also holds the Jean Monnet Chair for Justice in the EU, spoke highly of the recent Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union which represents a commendable contribution to the effective protection of refugees and migrants. The chapters that refer to dignity, freedoms, equality, solidarity and justice concern all persons, thus immigrants and refugees as well, Pliakos noted. He went on to state that beyond these basic rights, there are other fundamental rights that also extend to migrants and refugees, such as the provision that citizens of Third World countries who have obtained a permit to work in one of the member countries have the right to working conditions equal to those that are enforced for citizens of the Union. According to Pliakos, one of the articles in the charter also attempts to touch upon the complex issue of granting asylum with the provision that the right to asylum is protected in the framework of respect of regulations of the 28th Geneva Convention of 1951 and of the Protocol of January 31, 1967, in relation to the status of refugees and in accordance with the convention of the founding of the European Community. However, the charter, Pliakos stressed, is not yet binding for member countries, and each country is free to handle migration issues by employing its own national laws. This leaves a vacuum of any uniform migration policy in the EU, according to the migration policy experts, and also leaves the migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers who will be crossing European borders in the months ahead confronted with two conflicting national laws, that of arresting and deporting illegal migrants and that of protecting refugees and asylum-seekers.