Tuesday’s raid by French police of the ‘jungle’ camp of asylum seekers in Calais was welcomed by Britain’s cabinet ministers, with home secretary Alan Johnson describing his “delight” at the “swift and decisive” operation, while immigration minister Phil Woolas deflected criticism from human rights groups by saying: “If they were asylum seekers they would have claimed asylum in France or in the first country they came to.” He added that “genuine refugees” would be protected in the first country they came to, and the rest could go home.
The fact is however that Woolas has no idea how many genuine refugees there were among the estimated 1,500 people living in the camp because of the skewed and inconsistent EU policy that is preventing many asylum seekers from having their applications heard fairly, or, in some cases, heard at all.
European protocol on immigration was enshrined in the Dublin Regulation in 2003, which dictates that immigrants from outside the EU must claim asylum in the first country that they reach (based on the illusion that every state provides equal standards of protection to asylum seekers). The idea behind the policy was to cut down on asylum seekers applying to more than one nation for asylum, while also ensuring that each case is “meaningfully heard”.
But the reality is that the Dublin Regulation is failing on both fronts. According to the European Council on Refugees and Exiles multiple asylum applications have actually increased since its introduction, and countries such as Greece and Italy, the first places of arrival for many refugees in the EU, are proving incapable of coping with the increased number of immigrants. Earlier this month Athens municipal prefect Yiannis Sgouros described Athens as “a dump of human suffering”, and predicted that refugees “will end up in the hands of drug traffickers, pimps and criminals who feed on the chaotic reality”.
The response has been to adopt an increasingly draconian approach to asylum seekers. Afghani residents of the ‘jungle’ complained of having been badly beaten by immigration police on arrival on Greece, and on 1st September, 47 minors from Afghanistan, Somalia and Palestine held in Pagani detention centre in Lesbos went on hunger strike to protest against conditions in the centre.
Meanwhile, Berlusconi’s deals with Colonel Gaddafi are an attempt to stop potential asylum seekers even reaching European shores. This is particularly worrying given that Libya has not signed up to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and does not distinguish between genuine refugees and economic migrants (Italy’s tactic of sending rescued immigrants back to Libya also contravenes its obligations under the convention). A recent Channel 4 news report highlighted the dreadful conditions faced by detainees in Libyan refugee camps, with torture and rape common practices, and a shoot on sight policy for those who try to escape. In July, Libyan guards are thought to have killed 20 Somalians during a riot a riot over conditions in a detention centre at Ganfuda, near Bengazi.
It is therefore not hard to understand why immigrants don’t want to claim asylum in Italy or Greece—they fear that they will be detained in terrible conditions without hope of having their cases heard properly. Instead they move underground, resulting in camps like the ‘jungle’ springing up.
The irony is that earlier this month the European Commission announced proposals to accept more displaced people who already have refugee status but are stuck in camps outside Europe. So while the EU plans to accept more certified refugees from camps elsewhere in the world, it is utterly failing potential refugees within its own borders.
The European parliament has itself acknowledged that the Dublin system “will always produce unsatisfactory results from both the technical and human viewpoints”. At the end of this year it is due to consider amendments to achieve a “more level-playing field” in terms of asylum. However it is clear than a complete overhaul of policy is required before Europe’s asylum refugee system can be considered fair and humane, both to all its member states and to those seeking refuge here.