Ankara must fulfill its commitments under the 2016 migration agreement with the European Union, Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson stressed in an exclusive interview with Kathimerini on Sunday.
In addition, the Swedish European Commission official, who was in Greece last week on a two-day visit, reiterated criticism against the management of the EU border agency Frontex, adding that the Greek government must also do more to investigate pushback claims.
Johansson further outlined the Commission’s proposals for the new Migration and Asylum Pact, which is expected to contribute toward easing the pressure on first-entry countries, though she couldn’t say whether political consensus will be achieved on such a highly sensitive issue.
“Turkey has to resume returns from Greece,” Johansson stressed. “I’ve been very clear on that directly in my talks with the minister of foreign affairs, Mr [Mevlut] Cavusoglu, and also publicly. It is clearly part of the EU-Turkey statement, and I do hope it will be a part of the talks between presidents [Ursula] von der Leyen and [Charles] Michel and President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan – although that’s for the two presidents to decide. But both the prevention of departures and the resumption of the reception of returnees are extremely important signals of Turkey’s willingness to comply with the statement and show good will for further discussions.”
Johansson has been openly critical of Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri’s handling of claims of pushbacks at the Greek-Turkish border. A recent report by the working group of Frontex’s board has been interpreted by some circles as a response refuting these allegations. Does Johansson agree with this interpretation? Does she believe that Leggeri has done everything necessary to bolster Frontex and safeguard asylum seekers’ fundamental rights?
“These allegations were first reported at the end of October. I immediately called the executive director – it was late on a Friday evening – and asked him if Frontex had taken part in any pushbacks, and he said ‘no.’ I told him that in that case, he must immediately clarify this because we couldn’t afford this discussion going on. In the end it took until March for the issue to be clarified, more or less. There is huge risk to the reputation of the agency from this delay.”
Is this a matter of poor communication or a deeper problem?
“In my view it’s obvious from the report that there is a bigger problem. The report says there is a lack of a proper reporting system [of incidents concerning potential violations of fundamental rights]. It also says that there is a need for a new culture to address the shortcomings that have been found. There has been significant delay in deploying their fundamental rights officer – they only took the decision now. According to the regulation, there should have been 40 fundamental rights monitors in place by the beginning of December and there are still zero; there should have been three deputy executive directors appointed and there is still none. There is a huge risk that these delays in deployments and appointments have affected the efficiency in clarifying these kinds of issues,” the commissioner said.
Guarding borders is “not a walk in the park,” she added, admitting that “it should not be a surprise that there could be reports that you have to investigate. Especially when a third country with its own agenda is involved, you have to be prepared to investigate them.” The Frontex management board, she noted, “is putting a lot of pressure on the executive director, and that is good, because he has a lot of things to address.”
Does she believe that the Greek authorities have done enough, on their part, to investigate similar claims involving Greek security forces?
“We have had reports from the UNHCR that concern me a lot. It is something that I raised with ministers during my visit – that I see the need to do more when it comes to investigation and clarification of these cases,” Johansson said.
Asked how talks are proceeding on the new EU Migration and Asylum Pact and when a deal can be expected, Johansson noted that progress has been made at the technical level, but that the council of EU foreign ministers has not been able to meet since last September. “You will not see big movements by the ministers in videoconferences,” she said, adding that uncertainty regarding the possible resumption of in-person meetings means “it is very difficult to predict how long it will take to come to an agreement.”
Are there any guarantees that frontline countries, like Greece, will not have to shoulder the lion’s share of managing migrant inflows again?
“In our proposal relocation is not mandatory – but solidarity is. But the member-states that are not willing to take part in relocation have to take on the responsibility for returns. The goal is to find the right balance, to make sure that asylum seekers whose claims to international protection are rejected are returned, but also that there is a proper solidarity and distribution system [across the EU] for the people whose claims are accepted.”
Another mechanism for taking some of the pressure off first-entry countries concerns rapid screening procedures for new arrivals to ascertain whether another member-state would be more suitable for processing asylum claims.
“For me this is an important part of releasing part of the pressure on the countries of first entry,” explained the commissioner. She added that it is “important” that the criteria for transferring the responsibility for handing an asylum application to another member-state will include the presence in that member-state of family members from “families created in transit,” something which would apply mainly to many Afghans who get married and have in children in Iran before arriving in Europe. “The current legislation does not cover these cases, it only covers families that already existed in the country of origin,” Johansson explained.
Furthermore, she said, “we will include siblings: If there is a sibling of the asylum seeker in another member-state, that member-state becomes responsible for processing the application. The same will be the case if a member-state other than the country of first entry has issued a visa to the asylum seeker, or if they have worked or studied there.”
One area where all member-states appear to agree is on the need to contain the flow of migrants who are not entitled to international protection and to increase the rate of returns of those whose applications are denied. “The quicker you get a decision [in an asylum claim], the easier is it to return people,” Johansson noted. She also praised Greece’s Asylum Service for “much swifter but also good processes of examining asylum applications over the past year,” thanks to recent legislative changes.
At the same time, Johansson noted, attention is being paid to the “external dimension to prevent irregular departures to Europe. We have proposed a tougher approach towards third countries. We have assessed 39 third countries in terms of how cooperative they are on readmission. For those that are very uncooperative, if their cooperation does not improve, I am ready to table proposals for restrictions in the visa policy.” As she explained, “the big majority of irregular arrivals these days are not refugees.”
Ylva Johansson, who will be visiting Greece again – albeit remotely – in May for the Delphi Economic Forum, stressed the need for the new refugee reception and identification center on Lesvos to be built as soon as possible. “It is something that worries me a lot, that we mustn’t have another difficult winter with people in tents,” she said.The comment came after she visited Lesvos and Samos during her trip to Greece and inspected progress on two new camps being built there.
“I received very encouraging messages from the whole Greek government, but especially from Minister [Notis] Mitarakis. They assured that everything possible will be done for the center to be ready on time, and I am convinced that it’s going to happen,” she said.
“Another good message from Mitarakis was that nobody who is currently at the [temporary] Mavrovouni camp will be on the island in the winter, because all of them will have their application assessed, and they will either have been relocated, to the mainland or other member-states, or they will have been returned,” Johansson added.
Did she learn anything from her contacts on the Greek islands that she was not aware of before?”I think I had very good information already about the fatigue of the local citizens on the islands – it’s been six long years and their patience has limits. But it is always important to be on the ground, to meet people directly, to see with your own eyes, to get your own sense of the situation – beyond mere information.”