Wrong counts and closing doors: The reception of refugees and asylum seekers in Europe

We’re reproducing a press release from the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), in the context of a project we are working on together:

Brussels, 31 March 2016. Europe’s ongoing failure to find humane responses to the plight of refugees has led to severe difficulties in ensuring reception for those seeking asylum, according to the latest report of the Asylum Information Database (AIDA). The report documents the situation in 20 European countries: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Germany, Spain, France, Greece, Croatia, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Serbia and Turkey.

The report demonstrates that the inability of reception systems to adapt to higher numbers of asylum seekers is a structural challenge throughout Europe. This has been the case in countries receiving the majority of refugees and migrants, but equally in those faced with much smaller increases in the number of arrivals. While some countries have shown great readiness to find accommodation solutions for the newly arrived, other states – often presented as countries of transit – have not enhanced their reception capacity even in the face of political commitments to do so at the Western Balkan Leaders’ Meeting of October 2015. The lack of sufficient accommodation places has driven many persons in need of protection into inadequate living conditions and destitution.

A central challenge to the operation of reception systems has been the obligation of states to identify vulnerabilities and provide appropriate reception to persons with special needs. Vulnerable persons such as unaccompanied children have been unduly subjected to detention due to the unavailability of appropriate reception places, not least in countries of first arrival. The implementation of the ‘hotspot’ approach in Italy and Greece has reinforced the risk of detention of asylum seekers and migrants, contrary to states’ obligations.

“The controversial EU-Turkey deal has come as another severe blow to states’ obligations to provide dignified living conditions to those seeking asylum in Europe”, says Minos Mouzourakis, AIDA Coordinator. “The deal’s detrimental effect is twofold: on one hand, the plan for collective returns of asylum seekers to a country where their fundamental rights and access to protection are not guaranteed is incompatible with refugee law. On the other hand, as a firm refusal to create more capacity to host refugees in Europe, the deal signals that little has been learnt by European countries following the so-called refugee crisis. Asylum seekers still risk facing unprepared reception systems and being deprived of their fundamental rights and entitlements in the future.”

The report also documents discrimination faced by asylum seekers of certain nationalities in the reception context. As many as eight European countries have resorted to some form of discrimination by privileging some nationalities over others when providing accommodation. In some countries, certain asylum seekers have found themselves arbitrarily detained on the basis of their nationality.

AIDA calls on states to:

  • Adapt to higher reception demand and prevent substandard living conditions and destitution from becoming an integral part of seeking asylum in Europe;
  • Refrain from the systematic use of emergency facilities as accommodation sites for people undergoing an asylum procedure, as conditions do not allow asylum seekers to have a dignified standard of living in line with their fundamental rights;
  • Respect the rights of vulnerable persons throughout the asylum procedure. Identification of vulnerability must be conducted at an early stage, while special reception needs for vulnerable persons as well as the best interests of the child should be a primary consideration for European countries. States need to provide tailored facilities, material resources and necessary treatment and care for both physical and mental illnesses;
  • Avoid resort to detention as a strategy of initial accommodation of refugees and migrants. As explained in the report, detention is embedded in several countries’ reception systems;
  • Refrain from discriminating against asylum seekers on nationality grounds. States need to accommodate all entrants and not summarily deny or delay entry to those not deemed manifestly in need of international protection. States cannot automatically resort to detention of specific nationalities on similar grounds.

The Malta report was written jointly by aditus foundation and JRS Malta.

Notes to Editors: The Asylum Information Database (AIDA) is a database containing information on asylum procedures, reception conditions and detention across 20 countries. This includes 17 European Union (EU) Member States (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Germany, Spain, France, Greece, Croatia, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, United Kingdom) and 3 non-EU countries (Switzerland, Serbia, Turkey).

aditus Director elected to ECRE’s Board

On Friday 16 October ECRE’s General Assembly unanimously elected our Director, Neil, to its Board. Representing ECRE’s members from the Mediterranean Region, Neil joins colleagues who represent ECRE’s entire membership across Europe, to advocate for increased refugee protection throughout the region.

“This is a great honour for me! It is also an opportunity to bring to ECRE the voice of a small Member State that has experienced serious difficulties in meeting the challenges presented by boats of refugees landing at our shores.

From Malta, we have spent years advocating for safe and legal channels for refugees to access Europe, as we witnessed hundreds of deaths every single year. This should remain our focus, together with reminding Member States of the human rights obligations that should shape their laws, policies and discourse.”

The European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) is a pan-European alliance of 90 NGOs protecting and advancing the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons. Our mission is to promote the establishment of fair and humane European asylum policies and practices in accordance with international human rights law.

First EU workshop on immigration detention

Brussels, Athens, 26 November 2012 – With immigration detention a growing issue across Europe, NGOs from 15 EU countries gathered in Greece to discuss ways to prevent the damaging and unnecessary detention of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees. Greece was chosen to host the meeting due to international criticism on its migration and detention practices. The group concluded that immigration detention is widespread across the EU and than in spite of the existence and clear economic advantage of alternatives, they remain vastly unused. The workshop concluded with the decision to constitute a working group on detention in the EU.

The International Detention Coalition (IDC), with collaboration with the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR), brought together over 20 organisations from 15 EU Member States for the first-ever European Union workshop on immigration detention in Athens, Greece on the 22th and 23rd of November. The aim was to develop a regional civil society strategy and action plan on detention, as well as share concerns and priorities on the issue.

Participants included European NGOs such as the European Council for Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), Amnesty International, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, and France Terre d’Asile, as well as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

During the two days, the over 45 participants discussed the different immigration detention policies and practices in place in EU Member States such as Belgium, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Romania and the UK and shared relevant national statistics on the issue.

The new EU legal framework on reception conditions, procedures and return was extensively discussed, such as the lack of a specific ban on the detention of children and of a maximum timeframe for immigration detention. The organisations used the second day of the workshop to identify common issues of concern and vulnerable groups, as well as creative ways to advocate for the improvement of national and EU legislation towards ending unnecessary immigration detention.

Common EU concerns on immigration detention

One of the main concerns identified was the continued detention of migrant children, including unaccompanied minors, and other vulnerable groups such as victims of torture and trafficking and migrants with special health issues in the EU. In this context, one of the advocacy initiatives mentioned was the Global Campaign to End Immigration Detention of Children. The Campaign has already been endorsed by 80 organisations, including ECRE and Amnesty International, and is asking States to stop detaining children, individuals to take action by signing a petition and children to record video messages of support for children in detention.

Another clear concern was the seldom employment of alternatives to detention either already in place, or potentially accessible at a national level. Thus, the need for further exploration and development of alternatives to immigration detention in the EU came out a priority for the organisations present at the workshop, as well as for IDC, on a more global level.

National data on immigration detention

Some statistics and practices have been of particular relevance and interest. For instance, in France, detention practices on the European mainland differ from the “extra-European territories”, such as Reunion, Guyana and Mayote, where there is no effective judge control, limited legal assistance and almost inexistent transparency. Similarly, there were over 5,000 children placed in immigration detention in Mayote in 2011, although France has a clear policy against child immigration detention.

In Italy, detention conditions depend on the agreements and policies of the private entity that runs each “Centre for Identification and Expulsion”. Therefore, some centres don’t allow detainees to wear shoes, some ban the use of smartphones and some make male detainees go into an actual cage in order to shave. Last year, there were 7,735 people in immigration detention in Italy.

In Greece, detention is a widespread practice applied to undocumented migrants and asylum seekers automatically, indiscriminately, often times in inhumane conditions, and almost as a punitive measure. The detention of children is not expressly banned under Greek legislation, so that during 2011, in only one detention center on the border, Filakio detention center, Evros region, a total of 572 unaccompanied minors have been detained.  Moreover, the Greek legislation has recently changed in order to increase the maximum period of detention for asylum-seekers from three months to 12 months, an amendment meant to discourage the submission of asylum claims.

In addition to that, the widely obstructed access to the asylum procedure, due to the practice of Greek authorities to refuge receiving and registering more than twenty asylum applications per week, often results in the extension of detention given that numerous potential asylum seekers have no access to lodging an asylum application. This results in their first contact with Greek authorities being in the form of a  return decision that includes a detention provision.

The United Kingdom is the only European Member State that practices indefinite immigration detention, where some 160 persons have currently been in detention for over a year. However, the UK has also recently introduced a family return process that aims to promote voluntary return and minimize the use of detention.

Some countries like Malta, the Netherlands and Greece, are continuing to regard detention as one of the most effective migration management tools, and some like Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden are increasingly identifying and implementing Alternatives to Detention (ATD), such as open accommodation centers and case management.

ECRE welcomes aditus as one of its new members


The European Council on Refugees & Exiles (ECRE) welcomed aditus foundation and JRS Malta as their 2 new members, extending their reach into Southern Europe.

“This is excellent news for us, a confirmation of the role we’re playing in supporting asylum-seekers & refugees in Malta.  Through our membership with ECRE we’re keen to engage in more active advocacy efforts & to team up with like-minded organisations all over Europe”says Dr. Neil Falzon (aditus Director).

Our membership with ECRE, as well as our participation in its meetings & training events, was made possible thanks to the support from the Malta-EU Steering & Action Committee (MEUSAC).