EU-auditors: Migration hotspots in Greece and Italy are working but critical issues remain
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EU-auditors: Migration hotspots in Greece and Italy are working but critical issues remain

Source: Frontex
Irregular arrivals by sea in Greece and Italy, 2009 - 2016
Source: Frontex

The EU’s “hotspot” approach for irregular migrants arriving in Italy and Greece has helped to significantly improve the reception of migrants. But more needs to be done as thousands of migrants are still stranded on the Greek islands after their arrival, according to a new report from the European Court of Auditors (ECA). The auditors observed that a major concern for both countries is a shortage of adequate facilities to accommodate and process unaccompanied minors, of whom there were an estimated 2,500 in Greece and more than 20,000 in Italy by the end of September 2016.

“This issue needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency,” said Hans Gustaf Wessberg, one of the two members of the European Court of Auditors responsible for the report.

Migration to Europe saw a sudden increase in the total number of arrivals, first in 2014 and even more so in 2015, when over 1 million people crossed the Mediterranean to Europe as irregular migrants.

Whereas in 2014, most migrants arrived through the ‘Central Mediterranean route’ (i.e. leaving northern Africa and arriving in Italy), this pattern changed during 2015, with a total of around 850 000 people coming through the ‘Eastern Mediterranean route’ (i.e. departing from Turkey and arriving in Greece).

The hotspot approach was conceived as an immediate response to a major migratory crisis. A hotspot was defined as an area at the EU’s external border which faces disproportionate migratory pressure and where irregular migrants could be identified, registered and fingerprinted on arrival and then moved on to the relevant follow‐up procedures.

The hotspot approach can be seen as a necessary pre-condition for these follow-up procedures to work effectively. However, the processing of asylum applications and the relocation or return procedures were outside the scope of the audit.

“While the hotspot approach itself does not extend to the implementation of these procedures, they are clearly linked, as an effective hotspot approach is a necessary pre-condition for a successful follow up, just as bottlenecks in these follow-up procedures can affect the adequacy of the hotspots,” the auditors write.

Asked by The Brussels Times about the limitation of the audit scope, the audit team at ECA replied that, “We try to keep the scope of all our audits as focused as possible. Experience has shown that this leads to better audits and more pertinent recommendations.”

The EU auditors assessed the implementation of the hotspot approach in the “front-line states” Italy and Greece, covering the period from when it was first announced in the Agenda on Migration in May 2015 to the end of the summer of 2016.

They focused on two issues: the location and management of the hotspots and the channeling of migrants into the relevant follow-up processes such as asylum, relocation to other EU member states or a return to Turkey.

The audit work took about one year, from April 2016 to March 2017, and was carried out while the hotspot approach was still being implemented and facing growing pains, especially in Greece where the majority of migrants arrived while the country was struggling with an economic crisis and a dysfunctional public administration.

The auditors reviewed available documentation, interviewed staff and carried out field visits to several hotspots in Italy and Greece.

The setting up of the hotspots was a gradual process which was largely accomplished by March 2016, before the start of the audit. From this point of view the start of the audit was timely.

“Our audit field work covered the period up to the end of summer 2016. However, it is important to note that our auditors have continuously updated statistics and have taken due account of significant events occurring up to February 2017,” the audit team told The Brussels Times.

The audit covered a still on-going programme, but the audit team stressed that it carried out a performance audit to examine whether the programme was efficient and effective and whether there is room for improvement. “It’s not an ‘interim’ audit or process.”

Do you regard the hotspot approach as a temporary measure in view of the huge influx of illegal immigrants in 2015? “It’s not for us to judge whether the hotspots should or should not be temporary. But if the inflow of migrants continues there will clearly be a need for the hotspots going forward.”

One issue in the report was the location of the hotspots. 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”?

“The arrival data showed that these islands were indeed the main entry points for migrants to Greek territory at that time,” replied the audit team.

“As to the bottlenecks, those have arisen largely because of decisions taken by the member states concerning the movement of migrants after they have been processed at the hotspots – for example, the Greek government decided that after processing at the hotpots, migrants, with some specific exceptions, would remain on the islands rather than be moved to the mainland.

EU provided considerable funding to the operating of the hotspots but no report on the use of the funds was available at the time of the audit. Member states were supposed to send experts to help Greece and Italy with performing the tasks at the hotspots, but far fewer experts have been deployed than those actually needed.

According to the report only part of the awarded sums were disbursed in 2016 and in Greece none of it was spent. Why was it so? Do you have any new information on the use of the funds since the audit report was finalized?

“We have no new figures. The amounts disbursed at the time of the audit represent advance payments made to the Greek and Italian authorities and international organisations respectively. The reporting on the use of the funds is carried out in accordance with the Commission’s standard reporting procedures.”

“It does take time for such data to come through and no reporting on the use of the funds was available at the time of the audit. We intend to return to this subject in the future (1-2 years) when more financial information is available.”

Asked if the member states were expected to contribute more and if some of them failed to contribute their share of the funding, the auditors replied that they did not audit this and referred to the European Commission for relevant figures.

Overall, the auditors found that the hotspot approach has “helped improve migration management in the two frontline member states, under very challenging and constantly changing circumstances” but that the follow-up procedures for leaving the hotspots were lacking or inadequate.

“These follow-up procedures are often slow and subject to bottlenecks within the Member States’ responsibility. In Greece, new arrivals have, since March 2016, no longer been allowed to leave for the mainland but instead must lodge their asylum application at the hotspots. Also, relocation is no longer an option, and returns are slow.”

In March 2016, EU signed an agreement with Turkey on stemming the flow of illegal migrants from Turkey. Migrants not applying for asylum, or whose application was held to be unfounded or inadmissible under the directive would be returned to Turkey. For every Syrian returned to Turkey from the Greek islands, another Syrian would be resettled from Turkey to the EU.

According to the audit report, this had a major impact on the functioning of the hotspot approach in Greece. New arrivals were no longer allowed to leave for the mainland but had to lodge their asylum application at the hotspot instead. Therefore the hotspots, in particular those in Lesbos, Chios and Samos are seriously overcrowded, as more migrants are arriving on the Greek islands than leaving them.

Riots have broken out at the hotspots on the islands. “All three islands face challenges in hosting and accommodating hotspots on their territory in terms of infrastructure, support services or opposition from local residents or tourism providers,” according to the audit report.

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? “We would not wish to comment on hypothetical questions about the EU and Turkey.”

Unusually, the European Commission accepted all audit recommendations without any reservations. The audit team highlighted recommendation 2 in respect of unaccompanied minors and recommendation 3 in respect of expert deployments as being of particular importance.

The Commission, together with the relevant EU agencies and international organisations, should help the authorities in both Greece and Italy take all possible measures to ensure that unaccompanied minors arriving as migrants are treated in accordance with international standards. A child protection officer should be appointed for every hotspot/site.

EU should also continue to ask all member states to provide more experts to cover current needs better. Expert deployments by member states should be long enough and in line with profiles requested.

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times