Can Europe Make It?

Dublin is over: the rise of Europe's new migrant prisons

By getting the UNHCR and Frontex to more directly intervene in the first moments of arrival with identification and fingerprinting, the EU is attempting to retake control of movement throughout Europe.

Richard B
11 October 2015
Eritreans land in Lampedusa, July 2015.

Eritreans land in Lampedusa, July 2015. Demotix/Carmine Orlando.All rights reserved.At a meeting in Brussels on Wednesday, Angela Merkel declared that the Dublin Agreement is over.

The principle of the agreement, which has dominated European migration policy for almost 20 years, is that whoever wants to claim asylum within the EU must do so at the country of their first arrival and identification. Instead, the EU has finally pushed through a quota system.

There are many, many failings of this system. But what has apparently finally broken it is the determination of hundreds of thousands of people consistently entering the borders, in increasing numbers since the world events unfolding from the global financial crash and the Arab Spring. This has meant that only a few EU states are responsible for vast numbers of people, in the very countries hit the hardest by the financial crash and the EU's own inequity.

Without the infrastructure or economies to support them in Italy and Greece, hundreds of thousands of people took hold of their futures and found ways round the system, aiming to reach other EU states without being fingerprinted. And very often Italy and Greece have turned a blind eye to this, in order to take the pressure off the rest of their mountain of problems.

But what exactly is replacing the Dublin treaties? On the same day as Merkel made her announcement, a group of 50 Eritreans escaped from the heavily militarised detention centre on the island of Lampedusa, and protested outside the church in the main piazza, and remained there until the police and the mayor convinced them to return to the centre. They were protesting against forced fingerprinting.

This is part of the new system which the EU is setting up in response to the border crisis. The month of September was dominated by news of Europe's border crises and responses to it – from the grass-roots, as well as from up above. It seemed as if the wheels of politics were put in motion. But in truth, they were simply being sped up, as plans which have been mooted for many months were now set in motion.

The Times has revealed that the EU plans to deport thousands of migrants, through detention centres. There can be little doubt that these centres are the 'Hotspots' being set up in Italy and Greece, and which apparently have also been requested by Bulgaria. In the official language of the European Commission, the 'hotspots' are centres for Migration Management Support Teams. Italy and Greece are to be host to a regional task force (in Catania and the Piraeus docks in Athens), which will then oversee the work carried out by a host of organisations including Frontex. The Commission's documents make clear that the purpose of the operation is as much deportation and closing in on smuggling networks as any concerns for the legal reception of asylum seekers.

These Hostpots were first mooted in June – or, as one EU Commissioner (and former right-wing mayor of Athens) put it. “I’ve been trying for more than five months to explain what this hotspot is.” However, the idea has taken on a new lease of life in the context of the recent decision by a majority of EU states (notably without many of the eastern European countries) to roll out a quota system for the reception of 160,000 new arrivals into the EU. The quota system is the effective end of the Dublin Agreement, which is (in theory, still) the treaty by which people arriving into the EU must claim asylum in the country of their first arrival. In actuality, the Dublin system has been failing for a long time. This is not least because, in 2012, faced with the appalling conditions of Greek reception centres, the EU allowed Greek authorities to provide migrants with a 30-day permission to stay. The official idea of the document was an official order to migrants telling them to go back the way they came, although it was quite obvious that really it was a ticket to stay in Greece either without registration, or to pass through to another country where asylum might be claimed.

The importance of the document in Greece is that without it, it's difficult to get a boat from one of the islands near to Turkey to mainland Greece. For this reason, there has been an increasingly official system by which migrants arrive on the islands, register for their 30-day document, and then buy a ticket for a boat to Athens. The reception centres on the islands, however, are changing. Already, Syrians are sorted into one queue, and everyone else (mainly Afghans) sent to another. This is part of the pilot 'hotspot' project on Lesvos. Other Frontex-run mobile offices are planned for the islands of Samos, Chios, Leros and Kos.

The reason for separating out the Syrians from everyone else is to identify those deemed appropriate for the EU quota scheme. The fear is that The Times article serves as advanced warning about what will happen to everyone else. The quota system is meant to cover those arriving in Europe between September 2015 and September 2017. Which is to say, it is it not clear whether it applies to anyone who arrived before that period.

Remember David Cameron's callous deal about agreeing to help Syrian refugees in Turkey but not those already in Calais? The EU quota system is basically the same: it is an agreement to relocate new arrivals, but not those already within the EU.

There is another feature contained in Cameron's announcements which might be included in the EU approach. The British state said that they are willing to take people for a few years, until they are able to return to their home country – i.e. when the Syrian war is over (something now still further away with the intervention of Russia). This would be under the Temporary Protection system, which was mainly used during the Bosnian war. It is a half-way house between two other measures: accepting people for individual reasons, as proscribed under the Geneva convention, and rejecting them altogether. Instead, Temporary Protection recognises a diffuse, generalised problem in a country, and allows judgments to be made on a general, rather than individual basis.

To a certain extent, this will provide immediate though temporary assistance to those arriving in Greece or Bulgaria from Syria via Turkey, or in Italy's case, also those suffering political repression in Eritrea - fleeing military conscription and forced labour.

So why were 50 Eritreans who got out of the up-and-running Hotspot on Lampedusa, protesting against being finger printed? The centre at Lampedusa has hardly changed, according to accounts. The CPSA centre established there has already had the power to detain people for up to 72 hours (and actually often for 2 weeks) after which people are either sent directly to a deportation centre (CIE – which includes anyone from Tunisia or Morocco), or to the Italian 'reception centres'. The difference however is that in the old system, people were often not finger printed, either out of an over-worked system in Lampedusa, or in other ports in Sicily to which they were taken. Thanks to the lack of early finger printing, it has been relatively easy for anyone not taken directly to the deportation centres to simply walk away from the Italian reception system and make their way north to Germany.

This is what the new system attempts to change. By getting the UNHCR and Frontex to more directly intervene in the first moments of arrival with identification and fingerprinting, the EU is attempting to retake control of movement throughout the EU.

The new quotas are not a benevolent system by which countries like Germany have opened their doors, for in truth the doors (e.g. the Brenner Pass and Ventimiglia, now heavily policed) were already usually open, and plenty of Eritreans and Syrians have made their way to Germany via Italy and Greece.

In the new system, that journey is being made official, and under the EU's own aegis. The reason the 50 Eritreans protested in Lampedusa the other day is because this is not the system they have expected and educated themselves about over the last months or years of their journey into Europe. They would have expected to be taken to a centre in Sicily, to leave it, head to Rome, and then to Germany, to find their friends, families, and better economic opportunities. Instead, they are being rounded up by the EU and forced into its own political games.

Meanwhile, the legal murkiness of the entire system is creating, as the legal scholar Iside Gjergji has put it, a kind of  “planned chaos”, an “ambiguous juridical and procedural space, so that the same arbitrary decisions can continue to be imposed.” And the big question remains about what will happen to everyone who is not Syrian or Eritrean. For if the Temporary Protection system is about to be unrolled on a large scale, that gives no assurances for those leaving for individual reasons, such as those seeking refuge from persecution for their sexuality or any of the other myriad and complex motivations which compel people to leave their homes for new destinations.

The EU has discussed the possibility of funding all repatriations, which would chime with The Times' revelations. Lampedusa is one of five hotspots planned for Italy, the others being at the Pozzallo CPSA, the Trapani CIE, Augusta, Porto Empedocle and Taranto – although of these, only Lampedusa has actually been officially converted so far. Sicily's centres are currently home to thousands of asylum seekers from West Africa and the Indian subcontinent. The province of Trapani alone has around 3,000. The future of those arriving on Italy's shores from Tunisia, Mali, Nigeria, Ghana and Bangladesh, among other nations – having crossed not only the cemetery of the Mediterranean, but also still more dangerous deserts and war-zones – is now under threat even more than ever, as a direct result of the spurious distinction between 'refugees' and 'economic migrants'. And the quota system, relocating 120,000 people, is a mere dent on the 600,000 who have claimed asylum this year alone, causing a backlash from some right-wing member states.

Sicily's own reception centres, which lack supervision and are easily open to Mafia corruption, resemble the EU's migrant operation being outsourced to the Wild West. In one such centre the local authority has been calling every few days since mid-September, asking if there are any Syrians or Eritreans present. There aren't – because in general they have been known not to remain in Italy, but move onwards to a country where there are better economic prospects, given the high rate of their aslyum claims being accepted in the past.

But the real question is what do the local authorities, and the EU, plan for the rest of the centres' residents?

Additional reporting by Oscar Webb.

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