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The Refugees In Europe: State Policy VS Human Rights

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The refugee crisis we are facing today and have been facing for the past, almost, four years has no precedent. Since 2015 when the whole madness started, when over one million refugees, displaced persons and other migrants came to Europe to find shelter and escape from the conflicts and wars in their countries, our continent became the host for other 65 million people, the number rising with the time passing by.

All these people that have arrived here after land or sea journeys require basic humanitarian assistance, such as provision of clean water, health care, emergency shelter and legal aid. Many of these displaced people are children who have special protection needs.

The European Commission has taken a comprehensive approach to tackle the refugee crisis in Europe with the European Agenda for Migration, drawing on the various tools and instruments available at the European level and in the member states. The special department of the European Commission for humanitarian and civil protection supports refugees and their host communities in four ways:

Looking at data from the European Commission, the European institution that has a humanitarian and civil protection special department to support refugees, there are four ways in which this process is done: the European Commission provides emergency support, the European Union funding with €83 million in Greece for shelter, food, hygiene, child friendly spaces, education, family reunification assistance and protection; it helps transit countries with humanitarian funding; it puts the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism at the disposal of member states and neighbouring countries; and it scales up humanitarian aid for major crises.

Talking about the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism, when looking for information about it and different data related to it and its mission, I could conclude that some member states really contributed with donations for the refugee camps in Greece, while others contributed from very little to not at all. Through the countries that step foot in this situation, we can mention the United Kingdom, Sweden, Spain, Slovenia, Slovakia, Portugal, Norway, the Netherlands, Malta, Luxemburg, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, Germany, France, Finland, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Belgium, or Austria. Poland, on the other hand, hasn’t donated anything at all, or Hungary donated only 1000 beds. Everything I mentioned in this paragraph has an explanation that I will provide later in this research.

Looking over the Eurostat data, I could observe the asylum applicants’ number by year and by sex. The first thing that I observed was that most applicants were men, only half of them or even a quarter being women in every year (starting with 2008 and ending with 2017, the period on which the data was collected). Also, when it comes to the number of people who applied for asylum, the charter looks like this: starting with 2008, when there were 5150 applicants, the number increased significantly. In 2009 we already had 63835 applicants and in 2015 there were 1322825 applicants. The number started decreasing in 2016 with 1260910 and in 2017, 705705.

Eurostat also collected data on the number of first time asylum applicants for each country, and what we can easily observe in their table is that Germany had the most applicants from 2008 to 2017, followed by France on the second place and by Italy on the third. The last three states to have asylum applicants were Liechtenstein, Estonia and Latvia. A conclusion that we can draw from here is that the applicants tend to go in more developed countries where they know they can have a better life, especially from an economic point of view. Also, these countries like Germany or France have always expressed their willingness of welcoming refugees in need. Of course countries like Liechtenstein, Estonia or Latvia won’t have such a big number of applicants and one of the reasons why I think this happens is because of the geographical position: Estonia and Latvia, for example, are right at the border with Russia and they might not be considered the safest place or the most welcoming for refugees. The third Baltic country, Lithuania, didn’t have many applicants either: 4220.

As some countries are more welcoming, some states don’t want refugees to cross their borders at all, and I will give a few examples before explaining that with more details:

  1. Bulgaria – as a result of Greece’s diversion of migrants to Bulgaria from Turkey, Bulgaria built its own fence to block migrants crossing from Turkey;[footnoteRef:1] [1: Sarah Almukhtar; Josh Keller; Derek Watkins (16 October 2015). 'Closing the Back Door to Europe'. The New York Times]
  2. Macedonia – in August 2015, a police crackdown on migrants crossing from Greece failed in Macedonia, causing the police to instead turn their attention to diverting migrants north, into Serbia. In November 2015, Macedonia began erecting a fence along its southern border with Greece, with the intention of channelling the flow of migrants though an official checkpoint as opposed to limiting the inflow of migrants; [footnoteRef:2] [2: Costas Kantouris; Konstantin Testorides (28 November 2015). 'Migrants clash with Macedonian police on Greek border']
  3. Hungary – the country built a 175 km razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia in 2015; it also built a 40 km razor-wire fence along its border with Croatia in 2015, and on October 16, 2015 Hungary announced that it would close off its border with Croatia to migrants;[footnoteRef:3] [3: Sarah Almukhtar; Josh Keller; Derek Watkins (16 October 2015). 'Closing the Back Door to Europe'. The New York Times]
  4. Slovenia – it blocked transit from Croatia in September 2015, pepper spraying migrants trying to cross. Although re-opening the border, Slovenia restricted crossing to 2,500 migrants per day;[footnoteRef:4] [4: Radul Radovanovic (18 October 2015). 'Thousands stranded on new migrant route through Europe'. The Associated Press, MSN]
  5. Norway – on 25 January, it was reported that Russia closed its northern border checkpoint with Norway for asylum seekers to return to Russia; [footnoteRef:5] [5: 'Russia shuts arctic border to Norway over ′security reasons′ (24.01.2016) ' . DW.COM.]
  6. Finland – on 4 December, Finland temporarily closed its land border crossing by lowering the border gate and blocking the road with a car. On 27 December 2015, Finland closed its Russian border for people riding on bicycles, reportedly enforcing the rule only on Raja-Jooseppi and Salla checkpoints. Earlier, more and more asylum seekers had crossed the border on bikes. [footnoteRef:6] [6: 'TASS: World – Finnish border guards block 15 Mideast, African immigrants in Russia's Murmansk region'. TASS.]


The next section of my research will be based on refugees’ rights so I can later compare that to how they are actually treated and how the states are behaving about it (state policies). I will start by speaking about the UNHCR, being The UN Refugee Agency, governed by the UN General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council.

They work in 138 countries around the world, from major capitals to remote and often dangerous locations. Wherever refugees arrive, they work closely with governments to ensure the 1951 Refugee Convention, that defines the term “refugee” and outlines the rights of the displaces, as well as the legal obligations of states to protect them, is honoured.

Unregulated migration is not safe, as it can have serious implications for regional security and stability, and that’s why it is also called the “uncontrolled migration”. It can strain the integrity of asylum systems and fuel public hostility towards all foreign nationals, regardless of their legal status. It can also lead to restrictive border controls which may fail to address the rights and needs of persons on the move, including refugees’ right to seek international protection, and which may result in refoulement or human rights violations. UNHCR therefore strives to engage with migration issues that affect refugees and other persons under its mandate, including asylum-seekers, internally displaced people and stateless people. In certain circumstances, the General Assembly has asked UNHCR to contribute its expertise to processes that relate to migration. UNHCR focusses broadly on seeking the particular protection the asylum-seekers, refugees and stateless people need; assisting states to meet asylum and migration-management challenges; identifying migration, trafficking and related development impacting on people under UNHCR’s mandate; and supporting stronger governance and closer observance of the universal character of human rights that clearly states the right of all people on the move, regardless of their legal status. [footnoteRef:7] [7:]

Their primary purpose is to safeguard the rights and well-being of people who have been forced to flee. Together with partners and communities, they work to ensure that everybody has the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another country. They also strive to secure lasting solutions. For over half a century, UNHCR has helped millions of people to restart their lives. They include refugees, returnees, stateless people, the internally displaced and asylum seekers. Their protection, shelter, health and education had been crucial, healing broken pasts and building brighter futures. [footnoteRef:8] [8:]

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We can also find information about refugee rights in the “Asylum & The Rights of Refugees” section of the International Justice Resource Centre. Among their rights, we can mention: “the right to seek and be granted asylum in a foreign territory, in accordance with the legislation of the state and international conventions”; the right not to be returned by a state to “the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of particular social group or political opinion”; the right to life and freedom from torture, the right to liberty and security of the person; and the right of a family life as it is “the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State”. They also have access to the courts, to afford the same treatment as nationals while with others, such as wage-earning employment and property rights, and to afford the same treatment as foreign nationals. Despite these rights being protected and under human rights treaties, refugees in various states do not fully enjoy the legal protection of fundamental privileges. If one of the refugees is considered a danger to the national security of the host country then the rights are not applied anymore. [footnoteRef:9] [9:]

As I mentioned earlier, the rights of the refugees are not respected everywhere and not all countries are welcoming with the refugees, even if they are members of the organizations that protect refugees and the laws related to them. In the next section of my research I will take a few examples of countries and their state policies on refugees, migration and asylum seeking.


For the beginning, I will quote from Sweden’s migration and asylum policy found in a Fact Sheet of the Ministry of Justice and published in February 2018:

“The Government’s objective is to ensure a sustainable migration policy that safeguards the right of asylum and, within the framework of managed immigration, facilitates mobility across borders, promotes demand-driven labour migration, harnesses and takes account of the development impact of migration, and deepens European and international cooperation. This fact sheet outlines the Government’s current work in this area.

Sweden has shouldered a great deal of responsibility in the ongoing global refugee situation. The Government took a series of temporary measures to significantly reduce the number of people seeking asylum in Sweden when the EU Member States were unable to share the responsibility that came with the large number of asylum seekers. The Government decided to introduce temporary border controls at internal borders. (…) On 20 July 2016, a temporary act was introduced bringing Sweden’s asylum rules in line with minimum standards under EU law. Under this act, persons eligible for subsidiary protection are granted temporary residence permits and opportunities for family reunification are limited. The limitations do not apply to quote refugees. (…) In 2017, approximatively 2800 people who applied for asylum in Greece or Italy were relocated to Sweden under a 2015 EU decision. In the second half of 2015, a large number of unaccompanied minors came to Sweden. Most unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Sweden are granted a residence permit. If the authorities conclude that the minor has no grounds for staying in Sweden, the basic premise is that the minor should return to their country of origin. This return is conditional on proper reception being in place. (…) To maintain a sustainable asylum and migration policy, it is crucial that people who have received a final and non-appealable refusal-of-entry or expulsion order following a legally certain examination of their grounds for asylum return to their country of origin as quickly as possible. The Government has implemented many measures to increase returns. For example, the rights to accommodation and financial assistance no longer apply to adults who are not living with a child when a refusal-of-entry or expulsion order has become final and non-appealable.”[footnoteRef:10]. [10:]

Sweden has announced that it will change its current legislation only once a working common European Union asylum policy is in place. Such reform has not been forthcoming, and it is unclear whether it ever will, amid deep divisions between the southern states that initially receive the migrants, the eastern states that would preferably like to close the door for asylum seekers entirely, and the northern states where asylum seekers are keen to go. If inaction prevails, the next step for Member States such as Sweden might very well be to ask themselves whether it makes sense to have an European Union policy on these matters. The failure of European asylum policy may be the lead to further disintegration in the European Union. [footnoteRef:11] [11:]


In the Refugee Law and Policy of France, it is mentioned the following: “France has a long tradition of offering asylum to foreign refugees, and the right of asylum has constitutional value under the French law. French asylum law is heavily based on International and European law, but is largely codified in the Code of Entry and Residence of Foreigners and of the Right of Asylum. There are two types of protection in France: refugee protection and subsidiary protection. (…) Asylum may be denied or revoked for individuals who have committed crimes or whose presence would be a threat to society or national security. Refugees and beneficiaries of subsidiary protection have the right to live and work in France, and to bring their spouse and children. Those granted refugee status can apply to be naturalized as French citizens immediately. Refugees and beneficiaries of subsidiary protection have the right to obtain travel documents from the French government. Refugees and beneficiaries of subsidiary protection are required to attend some civic training programs and, if necessary, language classes. Refugees and beneficiaries of subsidiary protection have similar rights to social benefits as French citizens do, but only have access to certain special aid programs during the time that their application for asylum is being processed. (…) Refugees gain the right to a residency permit, which is valid for an initial term of ten years and can then be renewed for an indefinite term. (...) Refugees and beneficiaries of subsidiary protection have similar rights to social benefits as French citizens. They are covered by the French universal health insurance scheme, for example, and they may get various social welfare benefits (guaranteed minimum income, family subsidies, access to social housing, etc.) under the same conditions as French citizens.”[footnoteRef:12] [12:]

Researching even more into the French government documents, I found out that lately France has been taking steps towards making their own policy more effective. There they are in favour of a solidary-based mechanism for allocation based on the status of asylum-seekers, which would factor in the contributions of countries to date. France’s contribution in recent years is significant: they took in 5000 Syrian and 4500 Iraqi refugees since 2012. They will continue to do so in the hope that their efforts will be replicated elsewhere. The French Government hopes that, “starting with Frontex in Italy, the distinction will be made between asylum-seekers, who can then benefit from this solidarity-based system of allocation, and those who must be returned to the border.”

Last year though, a new Immigration Bill has been introduced and this time it was not that friendly with the asylum-seekers or refugees. One of the reasons why I think this bill has been published is because France became a chaotic country that is considered by some a place with no nationality anymore, just like Sweden, where there are little French and more people that only need a place to stay. This new legislation includes plans to: introduce fines of $4620 or a 1-year jail term for people who illegally cross borders within not only France, but the European Union; double the time asylum-seekers can be held in detention to 90 days; share equally the amount of the time asylum-seekers have to appeal if their refugee status is denied; hurry the deportation of those asylum-seekers deemed to be economic migrants, and cut the average waiting time on asylum applications from 11 to 6 months.

There were many controversially opinions on how the European Union is divided by refugees policies. The issue of migration is becoming a bigger problem because the East takes different actions than the West. One time there was a quota resolution discussed and that should’ve been put in practice since September 2015 by the European Union members, but now that quota is dead. More countries, especially from the Eastern parts of Europe, refuse refugees to cross their borders, and about that I will discuss in the next paragraph of my research.


Now that I discussed about two countries that have been more than welcoming with refugees and asylum-seekers, losing their “nationalities”, as some opinions say, I want to explain what is happening in the Eastern part of Europe, where states are not so welcoming, a thing that caused several discussions and pressures at a European level. These two countries are two of the best examples of how a state can refuse to respect human rights of people in need and any European law that was, theoretically, taken at the Union level and should’ve been respected by all member states.

The border between Hungary and Serbia is one of the most fortified, a tall fence running along its length electrified, topped with thick swirls of razor wire and patrolled by police. At official “transit zones”, heavily guarded and closed to journalists and rights activists, just one person per day is allowed to enter to officially begin the asylum process. They will live in shipping containers locked inside the zone for months while the legal process is under way. In Poland, opinion polls show that about 3-quarters of Poles are against accepting refugees from Africa and the Middle East. One of the reasons why they refuse to do that is because, as it was related in an interview with Gazeta Polska Codziennie, Poland “would have to completely change their culture and radically lower the level of safety in their country”.

The European Commission is not amused by this: they want to sue Poland, Hungary, and even Czech Republic at the European Court of Justice for refusing to take in asylum seekers. The Luxembourg-based ECJ could impose heavy fines. The Czech Republic has accepted only 12 of the 2000 asylum-seekers it had been designated, while Hungary and Poland have received none. Even Romania is among the countries that voted against accepted mandatory quotes, like the ones of 2015 when states agreed to relocate 160000 asylum-seekers between them.

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