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Deeply Talks: Lessons for Italy from the E.U.-Turkey Deal

What role should the E.U. play in asylum systems in Greece and Italy? Refugees Deeply examined proposals for an E.U.-supported fast track asylum system with Maria Stavropoulou, director of the Greek Asylum Service, and Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Initiative.

Written by Kim Bode, Charlotte Alfred Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A refugee boat off the Libyan coast on August 2, 2017.AFP/Angelos Tzortzinis

In early summer, as Italy warned it could not cope with the number of refugee boats from North Africa, policy expert Gerald Knaus outlined a plan to dramatically reduce Central Mediterranean crossings.

Knaus, founder of the European Stability Initiative think tank, wrote a policy proposal in 2015 that is widely regarded as the blueprint for the E.U.-Turkey deal that saw Aegean Sea crossings plummet in 2016.

His new “Rome plan,” described in a recent commentary for Refugees Deeply, is threefold. Firstly, E.U. countries provide incentives for African countries to take back rejected asylum seekers after a specific date. Secondly, Italy speeds up asylum procedures to four to six weeks, without compromising on quality. Thirdly, E.U. asylum missions are invited to Italy and Greece, and everyone they give refugee status is relocated around the E.U.

As part of our new Deeply Talks series, Refugees Deeply hosted Knaus and Maria Stavropoulou who, as director of the Greek asylum service since 2012, has overseen asylum applications throughout the Aegean crisis and E.U.-Turkey deal. They discussed what lessons should be learned from Greece when devising solutions for Italy, particularly on the idea of E.U.-supported fast-track asylum systems.

Listen to the whole episode of Deeply Talks: Italy, the E.U. & Fast-Track Asylum here:

Here are some of the highlights of the conversation and the online discussion that followed:

E.U. Asylum Missions

As part of the E.U.-Turkey deal, the E.U. sent advisers to Greece to help process asylum claims, through an agency called European Asylum Support Office (EASO). Stavropoulou described her challenges working with EASO, which may be instructive for any future E.U. asylum mission.

“The experts that arrived from other [E.U.] member states, first of all they weren’t very many in number, and this was very surprising because this was a European project, but the other really surprising thing was that they were not all that experienced or very well trained,” she said. “When they were deployed, we had to retrain many of them. This didn’t really contribute to the efficiency of the asylum procedure on the [Greek] islands.”

Knaus acknowledged that the E.U. support to Greece under the deal was hampered by a lack of resources and political will. “Some member states took it very seriously, some less so. Some sent experienced caseworkers, others did not because they thought they needed them at home,” he said.

He argues that creating full-fledged E.U. asylum missions – under Greek law and Greek supervision but fully paid for by and the responsibility of the E.U. – would have a better chance of working. “It’s a European interest… for the E.U. to actually send its best resources because in the end, the border of Germany or Sweden or the Netherlands is in the Central Mediterranean or in the Aegean,” he said.

Stavropoulou challenged some of Knaus’s diagnoses of what went wrong with the implementation of the E.U.-Turkey deal in Greece. “I think that the weak point of the Rome plan is that it presents things in a very simple fashion,” she said. “It actually uses the terms ‘quick’ and ‘rapid’ and ‘simple.’ And unfortunately the devil is in the details.”

Concerns About Human Rights

One of the main critiques of Knaus’s proposals is that while they sound pragmatic on paper, in the current political climate they are selectively utilized to push deterrence policies at the expense of refugees’ rights.

In Greece, the E.U.-Turkey deal has left vulnerable asylum seekers in dire conditions on the islands, while EASO is “pushing a conservative and restrictive agenda over asylum proceedings,” Doctors Without Borders’ Louise Roland-Gosselin and journalist Apostolis Fotiadis wrote in a recent critique of the Rome plan for Refugees Deeply.

In response, Knaus argued that it is possible to speed up asylum procedures without compromising on the rights of asylum seekers, citing the Netherlands as an example. “Human rights groups, because they are suspicious of fast-tracked asylum procedures, are not actually pressing for something that is also an interest of refugees,” he said.

Knaus criticized the E.U. for focusing resources on border enforcement rather than legal safeguards for refugees and reception conditions in recent years. Yet he cautioned refugee groups against reflexively rejecting his proposals, warning that they risk losing relevance in the policy debate, which he sees “going in a very dangerous direction.”

“We need to show that it is possible to control irregular arrivals without closing Europe and building a fortress, without going for an Australian solution and without any form of pushbacks,” he said. “Unless we convince governments in Europe of our proposals, they will not happen. It does not matter how many letters or reports we write.”

The most worrying aspect of the E.U.-Turkey deal, according to Knaus, was that as soon as the number of boats to Greece came down, senior policymakers told him they saw the problem as solved.

Now, with the number of boats to Italy falling in recent months, reportedly due to deals with Libyan militias, he’s concerned that Europe will stick with a dysfunctional asylum system, leaving countries on frontiers of Europe overwhelmed and unsupported.

“There is reason to worry that at the end of this whole crisis, all these lessons that have been learned will not actually lead to any change in the system. The only result we’ll have is much more hard-line government positions across Europe, that look to Australia as a model of how to deal with a refugee crisis,” he warned.

Deeply Talks is a regular feature bringing together our network of readers and expert contributors to critically examine the latest developments in refugee policy and examine emerging trends in displacement. To join future Deeply Talks, make sure you are signed up to our newsletter below.

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