Europe's asylum seeker operation

Signs hangs in Berlin, Germany (GETTY)

This feature examines how the asylum seeker issue is dealt with in Europe, where many more thousands of asylum seekers arrive each year than in Australia.

The new Coalition Government's promised hard line on asylum seekers, Operation Sovereign Borders, is under way.

The Government has called border protection a national emergency and says its policies will prevent asylum seekers entering Australia via maritime people-smuggling routes.

It is an issue that also obsessed the former Labor Government.

But rights organisations, and the United Nations, have long argued Australia's attempts to deter asylum seekers will never work.

And, they say, Australia is far from being swamped by asylum seekers and its asylum seeker burden is only a fraction of what many other countries face.

Despite the criticims levelled at Australia for successive governments' tough policies on asylum seekers, its response to arrivals by boat is not unique in the world.

In fact, a senior researcher at Monash University's Border Crossing Observatory in Melbourne says Europe has had a similar defensive response towards asylum seekers.

Leanne Weber says Australia's policices have even influenced Europe's policies, going back to the Howard Government's Pacific Solution.

Then, immigration minister Philip Ruddock promoted that policy in Europe.

But Dr Weber says the influence may now be going the other direction, with Europe's policies setting the precendence.

"They're based on preventing arrival, which Australia's policies are as well, so they're very focused on not allowed people to arrive in the first place. And, secondary to that, for some time, there's been a discussion about limiting or reinterpreting how asylum is granted once people actually arrive, so how they Refugee Convention is interpreted. And I notice that has appeared, in my experience, for the first time in the Australian debate."

There is no one European Union policy on asylum seekers, with each member state remaining responsible for controlling its own borders.

Since 2005, the EU agency Frontex has been responsible for coordination national border protection policies, attempting to ensure they function to the same standards.

Frontex has attracted cristicism from refugee rights organisations for handing over intercepted asylum seekers to local authorites, who then place them in detention.

It is also criticised for failing to prevent deaths at sea, as the agency has no mandate to search for, or rescue, asylum seekers.

Frontex is the coordinator of member states' operations, but not responsible for their conduct.

Leanne Weber says deaths from those sea voyages to Europe are much greater than from attempts to reach Australia.

And she says the number of deaths has grown as European border controls tighten and people are funnelled into ever more dangerous routes.

"Initially, there were very, very few deaths at sea, in the early '90s. But as patrols started to be ramped up, especially around the Gibraltar crossing, to start with, between Morocco and Spain, and then, later, between Libya and Italy, which are the shortest and safest crossings, routes started to open up down the west coast of Africa. And you see this cascading effect of deaths starting to occur all down that west coast of Africa. The destination became the Canary Islands, and commentators started to refer to the seas around the Canary Islands as being a nautical graveyard, you know, because it was so dangerous to try to get there."

The European Asylum Support office assists EU countries with their asylum seeker obligations, particulary those countries facing the most pressue.

Executive director Robert Visser says the largest number of arrivals in Europe lately are coming through overland routes, not sea voyages.

He says it is those countries further east in Europe who are having to deal with the influx.

"It is a shifting reality. Migration is a constantly shifting set of laws, at least in the European reality. We have seen -- and you certainly will have seen those images as well -- very sad images of people in boats in the Mediterranean. A few years ago, it was in the Canary Islands, off the coast of Africa and Spain, and we see now a shifting to the east, especially the east border in Poland, in Hungary."

Dr Visser says rules for which member state is responsible for dealing with asylum seekers once they arrive and apply for protection are set by the Dublin Regulation.

"The general rule is that, within the European Union, only one member state is responsible. That is to prevent multiple applications -- in common language, asylum shopping. Ingeneral, the rule is that the member state where the first asylum application is lodged is responsible. That is not always the member state of first arrival. In the case where there are family members or unaccompanied minors with ties in other member states, then the Dublin Convention refers the examination to that member state."

Robert Visser says the number of people passing through the European Union's poorer countries to apply for asylum in the wealthier countries has dropped markedly.

He points to the implementation of the Dublin Regulation, as it is now known.

But Dr Visser also says that does not mean everyone who arrives in, say, Greece, will have his or her asylum application processed there.

"It is a workable arrangement. It has its complications, but it's workable, provided that the member states concerned apply the minimum rules of quality in their own system. That is what the courts look into very carefully and what has happened a few years ago in Greece, where the European Court of Human Rights has concluded that, at that moment, certain quality rules in Greece were not at standard and that the return, the transfer, of applicants to Greece was no longer possible."

In the meantime, tens of thousands of people who have crossed into Europe seeking refuge and a better life are kept in detention in Greece and elsewhere in eastern Europe.

Human Rights Watch has criticised what it calls appalling conditions in detention centres in north-east Greece, close to the border with Turkey.

It says males and females are herded together in overcrowded cells amid allegations of rape.

Similarly, increasing numbers of Syrians fleeing violence in their homeland are ending up in what the United Nations refugee agency calls dire reception centres in Bulgaria.

Bulgaria is struggling to cope with the influx.

The UNHCR says, so far this year, Bulgaria has received about three thousand asylum applications and there are an estimated 50 new arrivals -- mainly Syrian families -- a day.

UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming says Bulgaria's asylum system cannot keep pace with the new arrivals.

"They are staying in accommodation centres that are literally overflowing, with conditions that we consider both unsafe and dire ... people sleeping in corridors, cooking on flimsy burners in crowded dormitories, children's spaces basically turned into makeshift spaces for families to sleep and live. Up to 100 people, for example, are sharing a single bathroom, (with) no separate facilities for men, women and children."

Syrians are also arriving by boat in large numbers in Europe -- third in arrival numbers in behind Eritreans and Somalis.

The latest UNHCR figures show nearly 22-thousand asylum seekers in all have arrived just in southern Italy this year, close to three times the number that arrived in 2012.

That suggests the strict policies aimed at discouraging people seeking asylum in Europe are not deterring people fleeing war, or autocratic governments or extreme poverty.

But despite the E-U efforts to keep out asylum seekers, claims from Australia that the new government will turn back the boats where possible have raised eyebrows in Europe.

The European Court of Human Rights has censured attempts by Italy and Malta in the past few years to deport asylum seekers who arrived by boat -- called "push backs".

And such push backs are a long way from turning back boats at sea, which Dr Visser, of the European Asylum Support Office, says is unthinkable in Europe.

"Turning back without the proper procedure, without the proper check -- if they ask -- on genuine grounds for international protection, I cannot imagine. We are all bound by international law of the highest level, and that is the first step, of course, that, in Europe, we take always into account."

Source SBS Radio

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