Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg's Minister for Foreign and European Affairs, and Minister for Immigration and Asylum, travelled on 15 and 16 October 2015 to Athens and to Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, where the first "hotspot" of the EU in Greece is being launched, together with the European Commissioner in charge of Migration and Home Affairs, Dimitris Avramopoulos. The visit to Greece, which follows the visits made last week to Rome and to Lampedusa, is part of the European response to the migration crisis and the decisions taken in that regard by the "Justice and Home Affairs Council" last September and October.
In Athens, Minister Asselborn met with the Greek Deputy-Minister for Immigration, Yiannis Mouzalas, to take stock of the situation in Greek territory. Minister Jean Asselborn also met with officials of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and Frontex, to exchange information.
Jean Asselborn and Dimitiris Avramopoulos then travelled to the island of Lesbos in order to meet with local officials as well as representatives of Frontex and the coast guard. The purpose was to take stock of the establishment of a hotspot on the island, as provided for by the European mechanism for relocation. Jean Asselborn and Dimitris Avramopoulos visited the Moria initial welcome centre which was formerly a detention centre, and the welcome and registration centre in Mytilene.
Without requesting asylum in the hotspots, no international protection status and no relocation
During the press conference, the Greek Deputy-Minister Yiannis Mouzalas explained that the purpose of the visit to Mytilene had been to see "how the hotspot is working as a pilot project in the process of being launched". He referred to the efforts made by his country, while conceding "there are significant shortcomings in the infrastructures". Greece has a road map and knows how to proceed henceforth by putting into place four additional hotspots (on Kos, Samos, Chios and Leros - editor's note) which will be "ready as promised by the end of November", he declared. He believed that Greece is "on the right path, notwithstanding the delays".
For Deputy-Minister Mouzalas, the hotspots may form part of the solution of the migrant and refugee crisis, "but we are facing a problem that requires a more general solution", because large numbers of refugees do not apply for asylum in Greece, as is also the case in other Member States of the EU. Thus, in such cases, there can be no relocation of those refugees. The question arises as to what is causing this behaviour. Greece likewise stressed the fact that the EU must, beyond the relocations, undertake resettlement of refugees who are in third countries.
Jean Asselborn thanked Greece on behalf of the Presidency of the Council for "the considerable efforts that have been made". He evoked "the massive influx", the previous day, of no fewer than 4,000 persons to Lesbos, who for the most part are Syrians. At the Moria welcome centre there are 10,000 refugees, also mostly Syrians, as well as Afghans and Pakistanis. The Luxembourg Minister stressed the "very great discipline of the Syrian applicants, families, single men, as well as unaccompanied children whose parents were most likely killed in Syria".
The Minister then provided a summary of the situation.
The screening, during which the nationality of the applicant is detected, is operating well. There are only limited instances of attempted fraud in this regard. 1,200 persons a day are processed by two teams of people who come from many of the EU countries and who each work more than eight hours per day.
The debriefing, during which the travel of the applicant is analysed and the smuggling networks are identified, is also working.
Digital fingerprinting requires that the number of machines be increased in order to proceed more rapidly. 1,200 digital fingerprints per day are transmitted to Eurodac.
The temporary authorisation document, which is provided by the Greek authorities, still continues to cause problems. It allows Syrians to remain six months in Greece, it is written in Greek and is valid only for Greece. For applicants who are not Syrian, or those whose identification is uncertain, receive a document which allows them to leave Greece territory legally within 30 days. According to Jean Asselborn, "this system gives rise to abuses".
Jean Asselborn's conclusions: "The foundations have been laid, we are on the right path, and I commend the work of the on-site teams, but additional efforts will be required so that the system becomes efficient in the field and that the relocations can take place regularly". He stressed the need for rapid deployment by the Member States of additional staff for Frontex, in accordance with the undertakings made at the JHA meeting on 8 October. He likewise stressed the need to reinforce the education of the migrants to combat disinformation, underlining that"the migrants need to comply with the legal procedures and file their request for asylum on the spot, otherwise not only will the relocation mechanism not work, but they will be unable to legalize their presence in Europe".
"It is necessary to speed up the work and the process so that these people can benefit from the relocation mechanism"
"We are on the right path," assured Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, while welcoming the progress to date made by Greece. "We saw today on Lesbos that the mechanim we put into place is beginning to work", he explained to the reporters, "even though this mechanism was only implemented after tens of thousands of migrants crossed the borders.
"It is necessary to speed up the work and the process so that these people can benefit from the relocation mechanism", stressed the Commissioner. However, he explained, this is "difficult because the smuggling networks have told the refugees to refuse all fingerprinting". The Commissioner therefore stressed the need to "convince the people arriving that they are in a secure environment from the moment they comply with the rules".
Right now, the Commissioner added, "there is more and more pressure in the countries of central Europe, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, and certain Member States are beginning to take unilateral initiatives, which undermines what has been a great success of the EU".
The refugees "must be made to understand that they will be transported to a European country that complies with international law and respects fundamental rights"
Asked about the joint action plan between the EU and Turkey, discussed the previous day at the European Council, Dimitris Avramopoulos referred to an agreement on readmissions, specifying however, that these matters are in the process of being implemented.Yiannis Mouzalas specified that the Council has had vigorous debates, but that no decision has yet been taken on this subject. The Council has "decided to cooperate with Turkey to prevent refugees from crossing the Aegean Sea easily and to block the migration flows, which does not mean giving in to Turkish pressure", stated the Greek Minister.
Jean Asselborn was asked about "the arithmetic problem" which arises given that with the rates of arrivals, the 70,000 persons who have arrived in Greece and will be able to benefit from the relocation mechanism foreseen over two years will already be there within two months. "I would be relieved if a significant percentage of persons were to submit a request seeking international protection status", responded Jean Asselborn. The Minster expressed concern, stating that "we cannot leave thousands of persons on islands for months", and underlined that "as soon as they have obtained status, those persons will be moved to the continent, where they will be able to have an interview in view of relocation". "We should do as much as possible to get to the point of the relocations, so that this system can work", urged Jean Asselborn, who believes that this stage "has not yet entirely begun". The refugees "must be made to understand that they will be transported to a European country that complies with international law and respects fundamental rights", he explained.
Dimitris Avramopoulos made similar claims, stressing the need to convince the refugees to participate in the relocation mechanism: "As soon as these persons are registered, they will be a part of the relocation mechanism", he underlined. "They have nothing to fear!", said the Commissioner. "The Commission will present a proposal for a permanent mechanism", he announced. "This programme must therefore be a success in order to become a permanent mechanism", he concluded.