EU should step up its action on asylum, relocation and return of migrants to better meet the objectives of its support, according to a new report on Wednesday by the European Court of Auditors (ECA). Emergency relocation schemes did not reach their targets and only partially achieved their main objective of alleviating pressure on Greece and Italy.
The auditors write that EU has seen unprecedented levels of migration in recent years, which peaked in 2015, when over 1 million people crossed the Mediterranean to Europe as irregular migrants. This led to increased asylum applications, particularly in Greece and Italy.
To address the crisis, the EU set up so-called hotspots in Greece and Italy, introduced temporary relocation schemes and increased its funding. ECA examined whether EU support for both countries achieved its objectives, if relocation schemes reached their targets, and if asylum and return procedures were effective and swift.
“EU migration management in Greece and Italy was relevant, but has not reached its full potential,” said Leo Brincat, the ECA Member responsible for the report. “It’s time to step up action to address disparities between objectives and results.”
Brincat is a politician from Malta, where he was member of the parliament in 1982 – 2016, when he was nominated to ECA. He has also held government posts in his country and been chairperson of the National Audit Office Accounts Committee.
Compared to a previous report in 2017 on the hotspots, ECA this time also examined the relocation, asylum and return procedures at the request of the European Parliament. In order to see the results of the EU measures put in place since 2016, the EU watchdog collected performance data both at project and national level until the end of 2018.
The new report is described as a hybrid report as it is both a follow-up of the previous audit on the hotspots and an analysis of migration management in the EU.
“While some high-level conclusions might be known to larger public, or at least do not come as a surprise - such as low rates of returns, long processing times, and low number of relocated migrants - our audit provides insights, data, findings and conclusions that have not been made public before and thus can add extra value to decision-makers and policy-evaluators,” Brincat said to The Brussels Times.
Do you regard the hotspot approach as a temporary measure in view of the huge influx of illegal immigrants in 2015 or has it become a permanent feature in EU’s migration and asylum policy?
“The hotspot approach was part of a package of immediate measures established by the Council to counter the crisis unfolding in 2015,” he replied. “Another part of this package was a temporary and exceptional relocation mechanism for applicants in clear need of international protection from Greece or Italy to other countries in the EU, in order to relieve the burden on these two frontline Member States.”
He added that it is up to the policy makers to decide on the EU’s policies, including on migration and asylum. “ECA is not a political institution and therefore not involved in policy-making.”
“As two key recommendations on the hotspot capacity and the situation of unaccompanied minors in the Greek hotspots are still under implementation, we did not issue any new recommendation on the hotspots, but concentrated our recommendations on the follow up procedures: asylum, relocation and returns, which can directly or indirectly help to improve/decongest the situation in the hotspots as well.”
A spokesperson for the European Commission said that the hotspot approach was an immediate response to help Member States facing exceptional migratory pressure and that it has helped improve the management of the migration flows in Italy and Greece.
“With five hotspots operational in Greece and four in Italy, hotspots are now established as an operational model to quickly and efficiently bring support to key locations. The coordination processes and operational structures developed and established on the ground are key achievements that will remain in place as long as they are needed.”
All Greek hotspots were located on islands in the Aegean Sea with limited capacity. Retrospectively, was this location optimal or did it contribute to the hotspots becoming “bottlenecks”?
“Greece and Italy apply the hotspot approach differently. When registering and identifying irregular migrants, both record whether a new arrival intends to request international protection. In Italy, those who do are transferred by bus or boat to reception facilities across Italy,” Brincat replied.
“By contrast, following the EU-Turkey statement (agreement) of 18 March 2016, most migrants on the Greek islands are obliged to remain on the hotspot island throughout the entire asylum procedure, including any appeals.”
Despite improvements as regards registration, fingerprinting and division of responsibilities between national authorities and EU agencies, the auditors noticed that a bottleneck at any stage upsets the efficiency of the whole process.
“In 2018, for example, the shortage of Ministry of Health doctors – as the only ones entitled to conduct vulnerability assessments at the hotspots on Greek islands - affected the efficiency of the whole procedure, thereby increasing the backlog.”
“Overall a low number of migrants were relocated compared to the total number of potentially eligible migrants that could have been relocated. The whole system of asylum procedures in Greece is overloaded. These are the areas where the progress was insufficient, in particular on the Greek islands, which is the cause of the main concern.”
“The decision to locate the hotspots on the islands took into account the specific geographical challenges faced by Greece with arrivals taking place in multiple locations,” the Commission commented.
The EU has allocated €703 million of emergency funding to Greece and €122 million to Italy by 2019 from the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF), in addition to the €328 million and €394 million allocated to them respectively under the AMIF national programmes for 2014-2020.
According to the previous report only part of the EU funding was disbursed in 2016 and financial data was largely unavailable. Do you have any new information on the use of the funds in the new report?
“The projects we examined under emergency assistance and national programmes addressed the needs identified, but did not fully achieve their targets,” he replied. “We draw attention to the insufficient performance data to facilitate a robust policy evaluation at the EU level. However, we have not detected fraudulent behaviour in the sample of our projects.”
As regards the implementation of the EU-Turkey agreement, the Greek islands had returned only 1 806 irregular migrants in total by the end of 2018. The number of returns under the EU-Turkey agreement in 2018 (322) slid even lower than in 2017 (687).
As in the previous audit, the EU-Turkey agreement was outside the scope of the audit. Turkey has lately threatened to cancel the agreement and there may be a new surge of refugees in Europe. Would you say that EU is better prepared to deal with the consequences of an influx of migrants thanks to the hotspot approach?
“The low numbers speak for themselves,” Leo Brincat replied briefly.
“We have stressed that the EU has indeed addressed the needs identified. At the same time, however, we warn that decisions taken in crisis times are not necessarily always the most judicious ones, so we say that now is the ideal time to step up the action on migration management. There is no time for complacency, but much room for improvement.”
“Turkey remains a key partner when it comes to cooperation on migration management. Both the EU and Turkey remain fully committed to implementing the EU-Turkey Statement,” commented the Commission and added that the hotspot approach is just one aspect side of this.
“34,700 people, almost all of those who were eligible, were relocated inside the EU from Italy and Greece and almost 63,000 people in need of international protection have been resettled from outside the EU to Member States. While there is still more work to do and the situation remains fragile, we are much better prepared than we were in 2015.”
Leo Brincat emphasized that the Commission and the agencies accepted fully all audit recommendations.
The Brussels Times