Europe must process refugees 'more creatively'

Maria Stavropoulou, who recently stepped down from the Greek Asylum Service, on European bureaucracy.

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    For many refugees trying to reach Europe, Greece is the first EU country they arrive to. However, the country is struggling to process the high numbers of arrivals [EPA]
    For many refugees trying to reach Europe, Greece is the first EU country they arrive to. However, the country is struggling to process the high numbers of arrivals [EPA]

    Athens, Greece - The Greek Asylum Service was one of the last to be founded in the European Union, but quickly became the EU's testing ground as migrants and refugees arrived in Europe in 2015.

    Maria Stavropoulou, who founded the service in 2013 and recently stepped down as director, said she believes Europe is wielding bureaucracy as a deterrent to immigration.

    She said that instead of restricting family reunification and resisting burden-sharing among member states, EU member states should find creative ways to channel migratory pressures.

    Al Jazeera spoke to Stavropoulou about apparent bureaucratic hurdles and what could happen if the bloc fails to come up with a common asylum policy.

    Al Jazeera: Last April, the Greek Asylum Service published a flowchart to help refugees and migrants understand how to apply. Officials have told Al Jazeera that the Asylum Procedures Directive of the European Commission complicated the process, perhaps by design, as a bureaucratic deterrent. Do you believe this?

    Maria Stavropoulou: The process did indeed seem very complicated. We used to tell this to the European Commission and I think it's the accepted wisdom now: If you try to put too many legal or procedural obstacles in the process, hoping to discourage applicants, all you'll succeed in doing is lengthening the process, because every step becomes an object of legal wrangling.

    If you try to put too many legal or procedural obstacles in the process, hoping to discourage applicants, all you'll succeed in doing is lengthening the process.

     

    If you make it simple, even at the risk of being overgenerous, you reap the benefits in time and efficiency. This is very difficult for someone to understand who doesn't know the process, but we keep saying this, and as a result, the process hasn't essentially changed since April 2016. It hasn't become simpler, but it also hasn't become more complicated.  

    Al Jazeera: Observers point to other possible deterrent tactics, such as the length of time it took the European Asylum Support Office to support the Greek islands; the slowness of family reunification; the rise in returnees to Greece under Dublin rules - which require asylum seekers to apply in the first EU country they enter; and the restriction of relocation to a few nationalities. How would you characterise these apparent bureaucratic hurdles? 

    Stavropoulou: Let's put ourselves in the refugees' shoes for a moment. What did they want? For the situation in 2015 to go on forever - an open avenue from Turkey to northern Europe. They saw anything that got in the way of that as a bad thing. We would think the same in their position. But this couldn't have gone on, for security concerns alone, if for no other reason. 

    You can build a dam, but if the water pressure builds up too much it will collapse. If you construct streams you can channel the pressure. There is truly a restrictive policy.

     

    On the other hand, is it right that, although the flow of refugees is so reduced - it fell almost by half in 2017, Europe continues to have a restrictive policy? As [Chinese dissident artist] Ai Weiwei says, water always finds a way. You can build a dam, but if the water pressure builds up too much it will collapse. If you construct streams you can channel the pressure. There is truly a restrictive policy.

    It was evident in the relocation scheme, which only really applied to two nationalities, the problems in family reunification where there are increasing restrictions, and the European asylum process is also becoming more difficult. Where will all this lead? I don't know. I'm not sure that they will help reduce the flows to Europe in the medium and long term. 

    Al Jazeera: In 2016 and 2017, you found yourself at odds with several EU member states which wanted the Greek Asylum Service to proceed rapidly with tens of thousands of applications. Why did you not yield to that pressure? 

    Stavropoulou: An asylum application is not a nationality screening. It's a narration of why someone is afraid to go back to his country. That can't happen in three minutes. It's impossible. A person needs an hour, two hours, three hours.

    Al Jazeera: Since the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) stepped in to help with Greece's caseload, it conducted first instance interviews and submitted them to the Asylum Service with a recommendation for final decisions. Were you satisfied with how these interviews were conducted? 

    Stavropoulou: The case handlers who came in were very uneven in terms of experience and training. 

    On the whole, they have certainly helped, but haven't been as helpful as we had hoped. If nothing else, we sat down with EASO and established how interviews would be done. This has greatly contributed to a common European asylum process. Plus, once they return to their home countries, case handlers were vastly better trained, because it is here, on the [Greek] islands that the European asylum curriculum is really applied. We became a school. 

    Al Jazeera: The number of Turkish nationals who have sought asylum in Greece has jumped. Is this going a new asylum trend? 

    Stavropoulou: In 2014, 41 Turkish nationals sought asylum in Greece. In 2015 it was 43. In 2016, it was 189, and last year, it was 1,827.

    Given this sudden increase in Turkish asylum applicants in Greece and all of Europe, one can predict that this rise will continue in 2018.

    Al Jazeera: Does this increase risk introducing political complications in the EU-Turkish relationship? 

    Stavropoulou: Anyone who practises refugee law knows that one of its basic principles is that international protection is a humanitarian act, which has to be kept separate from politics. This principle embodies our duty. 

    Al Jazeera: If all EU27 member states don't agree on a common asylum policy, can you envisage a core Schengen group that will adopt one and move forward with only part of the EU? 

    Stavropoulou: I would prefer a pan-European project, but I don't see the harm in an experimental process to test the system's limits.

    We're still under the shadow of the events of 2015. We haven't regained our equanimity and we're still looking to prevent a repeat of it, instead of looking more creatively and positively.

     

    There have been successful European projects whose creators couldn't have imagined how successful they would be at their outset, and now we can't imagine living without them.

    But some people have to really believe in this [common asylum policy] to take it forward. We're still under the shadow of the events of 2015. We haven't regained our equanimity and we're still looking to prevent a repeat of it, instead of looking more creatively and positively.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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