The Impact of Centralized EU Refugee Policy on Greece’s Management of Asylum-Seekers
Blaming Europe’s centralized refugee policy system ultimately proves reductive as it ignores the centrality of this policy system to the refugee rights secured thus far and to the solutions to protecting more refugee lives in future. Examining the case study of Greece, which receives above 80% of the refugees arriving to Europe by sea, this paper will demonstrate how the centralization of European refugee policy has been the driving force behind critical improvements in Greece’s refugee system in the past, forcing local government to elevate local refugee protection measures to meet the centralized standards. Furthermore, this case study will illustrate how the CEAS remains the key tool for demanding improved refugee protection in the future.
In 2014, over 1,600 migrants died at sea, attempting to reach Europe’s Mediterranean borders. In 2015, that figure surged by over a thousand more bodies (Booker 2015). And, in 2016, the death toll rose to 3,740 refugee souls (UNHCR 2016). The ceaseless reports of mass refugee drownings off the European coasts of the Mediterranean have left the public and the media desperately seeking someone to blame. As a result, the Centralized European Asylum System (CEAS) has become a beacon for harsh criticism (Baboulias 2015). Blaming Europe’s centralized refugee policy system, however, ultimately proves reductive as it ignores the centrality of this policy system to the refugee rights secured thus far and to the solutions to protecting more refugee lives in future. Examining the case study of Greece, which receives above 80% of the refugees arriving to Europe by sea,1 this paper will demonstrate how the centralization of European refugee policy has been the driving force behind critical improvements in Greece’s refugee system in the past, forcing local government to elevate local refugee protection measures to meet the centralized standards. Furthermore, this case study will illustrate how the CEAS remains the key tool for demanding improved refugee protection in the future. Ultimately, although reports of ongoing violations of refugee rights in Greece are real and urgent, the centralization of European refugee policy is not the cause but the solution. The outcomes of Greece’s radically improved laws and increased capacity have unfortunately been imperfect. However, further improvement of these deficiencies in Greece’s asylum system will continue to rely heavily upon the CEAS infrastructure and further European centralization on asylum policy as they will require the legal pressure, funding, and capacity-building that only a large power such as an economic Union of nations can provide.
In order to understand why further centralization of European refugee policy is the solution to Greece’s refugee management and protection problems, it is first necessary to understand the ongoing debate about the impact of CEAS on European member state refugee systems. On the anti-CEAS side, one of the most powerful and vocal critics, Amnesty International, contends that the EU and its member states, through their centralized policy on refugee issues, have constructed an increasingly impenetrable “fortress” to keep refugees out, even if their asylum claims are legal. Amnesty posits that European collaboration has hurt refugees by building capacity for member states’ border defense. As evidence, they document the EU’s funding of sophisticated surveillance systems, provision of financial support to member states, such as Greece, seeking to fortify their external borders, and creation of an agency to coordinate a pan-European team of border guards to patrol EU borders. Examining the conditions for refugees in Greece, Amnesty’s “The Human Cost of Fortress Europe” report highlights Greece’s numerous human rights violations, including drastic measures to stop irregular arrivals, unlawful migrant expulsions, and excessive and dangerous migrant detention practices. With this evidence, they argue that Europe’s centralized refugee laws have even translated into worsened conditions for refugees as the elevated refugee laws in several border states belie the grim realities of their refugee management (Amnesty International 2014). Amnesty and other watch-dog organizations further criticize the CEAS for its failure to provide or foster sufficient capacity in border states to deal with the number of refugees. UNHCR Greece cites how the country is still dangerously overburdened, having too few reception centers, a backlog of 47,000 unprocessed claims and appeals, and myriad human rights violations (UNHCR Greece 2013). Ultimately, the combination of the EU’s support for border defense mechanisms, the CEAS’ failure to ensure the protections of more elevated refugee laws, and the EU’s failure to build sufficient capacity in Greece leads Amnesty International to conclude that EU collaboration on the topic of refugees does more to hurt refugees than to help them (Amnesty International 2014).
In direct contrast with Amnesty International, Professors Dr. Eiko Thielemann of the London School of Economics and Nadine El-Enany of the Birkbeck Law School, University of London, argue that the CEAS has catalyzed and enforced higher protection standards for refugees, especially in high stakes border-states such as Greece. Thielemann and El-Enany point to concrete examples of such nations, which were forced to upgrade their asylum systems to comply with stringent EU rules, or incur financial penalties if they did not. They argue it was the first wave of European refugee centralization efforts between 1999 and 2005 that led the European leadership, non-governmental organizations, and the media to notice and focus on the shortcomings of the Greek asylum system. Thielemann and Eiko show how the newly noticeable gap, created by the CEAS, between the centralized standards and Greece’s asylum system, spawned a plethora of critical reports from EU bodies and NGOs, including Amnesty International. These reports from the CEAS and others, documenting violations of the new common standards such as limited access to asylum procedure, perfunctory proceedings, lacking legal representation, lacking interpretation services, and inhumane detention systems catalyzed the pressure for reform (Thielemann 2011: 9).
In addition to revealing the lacking standards in Greece’s refugee system, the CEAS engaged a powerful new mechanism for arbitration into refugee affairs; the European Court of Justice (ECJ) (UNHCR 2012: 4). Contrary to Amnesty International’s position that European centralization does little to ensure improved outcomes, Thielemann and El-Enany demonstrate how the CEAS’ engagement of the ECJ ensured Greece’s adoption of improved asylum standards by imposing formal legal consequences in the form of periodic penalty payments and lump sum fines for any failure to transpose the common standards within the allotted time periods. Thanks to this enduring pressure, Greece transferred all of the EU asylum directives to enforceable national law through presidential decrees. This evidence of critical asylum policy improvement for Greece contradicts arguments that European cooperation only worsens refugee protections. Critics like James C. Hathaway posit that European collaboration on centralization allows governments to avoid “national, international, and supranational scrutiny grounded in the human rights standards” (Hathaway 1993: 719). However, the historical reality is that the heightened levels of “national, international, and supranational scrutiny” from the centralization of EU asylum policy and the engagement of the European Court of Justice prompted Greece to dramatically increase transparency and reform its laws (Thielemann 2011: 25).
Peter McDonough and Evangelia Tsourdi of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) take Thielemann’s and El-Enany’s argument one step further, arguing that the CEAS is the reason why Greece radically improved its refugee laws in this initial period of refugee law centralization and after. McDonough and Tsourdi cite the continuing criticism from the European Commission in 2010 and 2011 over the prevailing disparity between Greece’s asylum system and the CEAS as the principal driver of Greece’s second major set of reforms and new Action Plan starting in 2011. This Action Plan addressed many of the issues cited by Amnesty International, including restructuring and modernizing screening procedures, increasing reception capacity for vulnerable groups, and improving standards for both detention centers and return procedures. This concerted effort received praise from the UNHCR itself, which recognized the effort as the start of a new national movement towards refugee protection. While the new laws and action plan have still not corrected all of the deficiencies in the Greek asylum system, the CEAS has indispensable positive impact on European refugee protection, repeatedly created standards, applied public pressures, and prompted improvements that otherwise might never have happened and certainly would not have happened so quickly (UNHCR 2012).
Regarding concerns that the CEAS does not provide member states with enough support to carry out its imposed standards, the CEAS provided Greece with critical funding and capacity building to improve its asylum system. Any assessment of Greece’s asylum system must take into account the economic context of the period because economic crisis and measures to reduce the budget deficit frequently limited government provision for the asylum program. Given Greece’s inability to fund its own improvements, the EU’s centralization on asylum policy strengthened the country’s protection of refugees through the European Refugee Fund, which provided the bulk of the financing for Greece’s 2011 reforms (Thielmann 2005: 807-824). Furthermore, European collaboration enabled cooperation between Greece and other nations such as the Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Lichtenstein, and Iceland that provided exchanges in expertise on the asylum process and further funding for the fair reception of asylum seekers (UNHCR 2012: 12).
Critics argue that further CEAS centralization will not guarantee future improvement toward the promised refugee protection outcomes because CEAS laws have fallen short of their promises in the past. However, insufficient funds during the European debt crisis, insufficient refugee burden sharing among member states, and policy implementation lag time are largely to blame rather than the centralization effort itself. Implementation of new policy takes time as well as trial and error, especially in a country that is underfunded and overburdened with refugees. What is more, the new wave of EU centralized policy focuses specifically on these issues of implementation. The 2014 Italian Presidency of the Council of the European Union launched plans to concentrate on ensuring the implementation of existing EU legislation comprising the CEAS and strengthening a genuine intra-EU solidarity for overburdened border countries. With the next phase of centralization focused on implementation, there is reason to hope that the CEAS will ensure improvements in this area of Greek refugee policy as it has it many others in the past (ECRE 2014).
Framing every terrible violation of refugee rights in Greece purely as a failure of the centralization of European refugee policy is a simplistic view, which ignores the fact that centralization has proven to be the principal mechanism for improvement of this border state’s refugee system. Given Greece’s majority share of Europe’s refugees, the CEAS’ strengthening capacity in Greece speaks to the CEAS’ strengthening capacity for European Refugee protection as a whole. Of course, it remains important for all parties involved in refugee policy to continue to research and highlight every ongoing deficiency in protection until there are no more. However, ultimately, for all that the CEAS has not yet accomplished, one would scarcely want to imagine where Greece’s and Europe’s refugee policies would be today without it.
 This is because of Greece’s coastal geographical position, and the EU’s Dublin Regulation requiring refugees to seek asylum in the nation where they first set foot (UNHCR 2012: 1-3).
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