How Europe is offshoring its refugee responsibilities

How Europe is offshoring its refugee responsibilities
10 min read
20 June, 2022
In-depth: The UK-Rwanda deal is part of an escalating trend of European countries outsourcing their obligations under international law, pushing asylum seekers to take more dangerous measures and trapping them in legal limbos with no protections.

Last week, the UK took a collective sigh of relief when the flight removing asylum seekers for offshore detention in Rwanda didn’t take off. The morning after, pundits began commenting that the scheme was built to fail, and in fact its sole purpose was distracting from concerns surrounding the legitimacy of the current government, creating “dividing lines” for the next election.

At first glance, it did seem so, in light of the scheme’s dubious legality, absence of proper planning or logistics, and the government’s inability to publish its legal position concerning the plan’s alleged compatibility with international law.

But this is to practise historical amnesia. The scheme may have been created with front-page splashes in mind, but with precedents such as the Dublin Regulation, Australia-Nauru, EU-Turkey, EU-Libya, or the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, deporting refugees to third countries is a well-trodden road.

In fact, the UK-Rwanda deal is just the latest instalment in this accelerating trend of multilateral arrangements that pay other nations for offshore detention of refugees, allowing governments to outsource their responsibilities under international law, and pushing European borders deeper into Africa and the Middle East.

"The UK-Rwanda deal is just the latest instalment in this accelerating trend of multilateral arrangements that pay other nations for offshore detention of refugees, allowing governments to outsource their responsibilities under international law"

‘One shot and one shot only’ asylum systems  

Before Brexit and long before the UK-Rwanda deal, the UK government benefited from a multilateral arrangement that sent refugees to another country without hearing their asylum claim: the Dublin Regulation.

The Dublin Regulation, adopted in 2003, endorsed the concept of the “member state responsible for the asylum application”, which was typically the first EU state of entry. This resulted in a ‘one shot and one shot only’ system, where a claim could only be made in one EU country, and biometric data easily identify where an asylum seeker entered the continent.

Since most asylum seekers entered the EU through Greece or Italy, this resulted in a disproportionate caseload in the EU’s borderline states, essentially trapping asylum seekers in overcrowded, ghetto-like camps and preventing them from continuing on to richer countries.

“The Dublin Regulation is based on the deeply flawed assumption that the conditions and standards are the same across the EU,” Andreas Meyerhöfer, a Dublin Regulation expert working for the German NGO Pro ­Asyl, told The New Arab, “In reality, governmental social protection and asylum acceptance rates vary per asylum-seeking group and host country – in Bulgaria, just 1.8% of Afghan refugees were recognised as refugees in 2020, compared to 63.2% in France in the same year,” he explained.

As an EU border country, Greece is the point of entry for a significant number of refugees and migrants hoping to make asylum claims elsewhere in Europe, but many remain trapped. [Getty]
As an EU border country, Greece is the point of entry for a significant number of refugees and migrants hoping to make asylum claims elsewhere in Europe, but many remain trapped. [Getty]

The impact upon refugees is a humanitarian fallout, the regulation morphing into a “massive bureaucratic machine sending refugees to countries where they do not want to go, and which cannot hold them,” Meyerhöfer continued.

Anwar Nillufary is just one of many refugees caught in the crossfires of the Dublin regulation. A stateless Kurdish man from Iran, he crossed the Aegean between Turkey and Greece in 2014 hoping to find refuge on the European continent.

When he arrived in his first EU country of entry, Greece, he approached the UNHCR hoping for resettlement to a third country. The officials informed him that if he gained asylum in Greece, he could then make his way onto Western Europe legally to seek protection there. So, he made his way on to Sweden.

Here, disaster befell: “In Sweden they asked me nothing, just if I had applied for asylum anywhere else in Europe,” he told The New Arab. When he mentioned Greece, he was sent to an open deportation camp, his documents seized, and sent back to Greece before his appeal had been heard. He was threatened with a ban on entry to Sweden for five years if he appealed a second time.

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Under international law, there are three durable solutions for refugees that fall under the mandate of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR): resettlement to a third country, integration into the country, and return home.

Like many refugees, the UNHCR’s mandate didn’t translate into reality for Anwar. Resettlement was denied, return is impossible, and integration into Greece equally unattainable: “There’s no prospect of finding any sort of protection in Greece any longer, nor any livelihood. I tried to rent an apartment, but if you’re a refugee, landlords ask for two years of rent in advance.” His experience is terrifyingly common: Athens is notorious for refugee homelessness.

Anwar began to peacefully protest outside UNHCR on 21st March 2017, and continues to date. He’s now on his third hunger strike, which is approaching the ten-month mark, following a 64-day long and a 73-day long hunger strike in 2017 and 2020 respectively.

But after five years camped outside UNHCR and little progress in his case, his story is symbolic of the failures of the international community to implement any solution for refugees. Since the start of his protest in 2017, he reports being detained more than 300 times, his belongings destroyed on five of those occasions.

"While refugees aren’t deported back to their country of origin, their asylum claim isn’t heard, and they’re trapped in countries with much weaker social protection and less respect for asylum law"

His hunger strike reflects the contradictions of the asylum regime today. He points out astutely that in 2014 when he had sought asylum in Greece in hope of resettlement to Sweden, the borders were open across Europe. This means, had he continued onto Sweden without alerting the attention of the Greek authorities, he wouldn’t have been fingerprinted, and would have been able to lodge an asylum claim there.

In fact, it was his misplaced trust in international law and agencies that resulted in him being criminalised.

Legal loopholes

The 1949 Geneva convention was a watershed moment for refugee rights, enshrining into international law the responsibility upon states to hear asylum claims regardless of whether a border was crossed irregularly or not, and introducing the principle of ‘non-refoulement’, meaning that individuals cannot be returned to a country where they face irreparable harm.

Recent multilateral arrangements to send refugees abroad find a loophole to this, based on shaky interpretation of international law. While refugees aren’t deported back to their country of origin, their asylum claim isn’t heard, and they’re trapped in countries with much weaker social protection and less respect for asylum law.

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This transferring of responsibility also encourages violent border policies. States of first entry, like Greece, have a disincentive to let in any asylum seekers – paving the way for brutal pushbacks practised by border states.

In other examples, the EU sponsors pushbacks to prevent refugees from reaching Europe at all. The 6 billion euros poured into Turkey and 98 million euros into Libya have largely gone to border control, bringing about the terrifying scenes of the Libyan coastguard shooting at boats full of asylum seekers.

But ultimately, refugees fleeing war and persecution will continue to seek sanctuary – and are now forced to play a cat and mouse game whereby borders are fortified, and refugees adjust their path accordingly, before the new border entry point too becomes the site of violence.

One of the newest entry points is the EU’s external border in Poland. Kosma*, a Polish activist, explained to The New Arab that refugees are provided two options upon entry into the country: being pushed back to Belarus, and where that fails (mainly due to human rights activists monitoring the border), lodging an asylum claim in Poland.

As a result of pressure by protesters and a successful legal challenge through the European Court of Human Rights, the first deportation flight from the UK to Rwanda did not take off. [Getty]
As a result of pressure by protesters and a successful legal challenge through the European Court of Human Rights, the first deportation flight from the UK to Rwanda did not take off. [Getty]

When an asylum claim is lodged, refugees are held in detention, meaning that their journey onto Western Europe is cut short as soon as their fingerprints are taken. The conditions in these detention centres are woefully poor, notorious for police brutality and the creation of ghettos separating refugees from the Middle East from those from Africa. No entry of lawyers, psychologists, or human rights monitors is allowed.

Here, refugees have also resorted to hunger striking to protest inhumane conditions. One was taken to hospital after other inmates noticed that he was unresponsive and had slipped into a coma. He was returned to the detention centre against the wishes of his doctors, and beaten when he didn’t comply.

Structural violence is built into these multilateral arrangements: refugees are forced to either stay in a country in which they are subject to police brutality, or not allowed in at all. The extremity of the choice refugees are forced to make is symbolised in the number of refugees on hunger strike, from Poland, to Greece, to the Chagos islands, to the UK

"Like most deterrent policies, the UK-Rwanda deal will not stop refugees from arriving. Instead, it simply makes conditions much deadlier and forces refugees into prolonged periods of undocumentation"

Forced undocumentation

Like most deterrent policies, the UK-Rwanda deal will not stop refugees from arriving. Instead, it simply makes conditions much deadlier and forces refugees into prolonged periods of undocumentation.

When cooperation between states often breaks down, it leaves refugees in a state of limbo. In 2021 Germany sent back 10,400 ‘take back’ and ‘take charge’ requests to Greece in 2021, but Greece only accepted 42 claims, and only one person was eventually transferred. Still, asylum seekers lived under the threat of deportation each day, neither rejected but not accepted, and unable to start a new life.

Signed in 2016, the EU-Turkey deal provided 6 billion euros to Turkey to prevent refugees from entering Greece. Any refugee entering the Greek islands would be eligible to be sent back to Turkey, effectively outsourcing EU border fortification into the Middle East.

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Nonetheless, as of March 2020, Turkey had not accepted a single return under the EU-Turkey deal. Michael Kientzle, founder of the NGO Mobile Info Team that supports refugees with asylum applications, explained that this has resulted in a Kafkaesque procedure in which asylum seekers battle to apply for asylum in Greece only to then undergo an ‘admissibility’ interview to establish whether Turkey is a safe country for them.

Many of them are rejected at this stage, but since Turkey does not accept their transfer, a subsequent application to the asylum services in Greece needs to be made, which again is difficult to access, leading to many refugees being undocumented for prolonged periods of time.

Engineered humanitarian crisis

The UK-Rwanda scheme is the logical conclusion of this brutal strategy. Brexit meant that the UK could no longer claim that another EU member state is responsible for processing asylum seekers through the EU Dublin Regulation, so the Home Office has instead outsourced the responsibility to Rwanda.

For refugees, the mental health consequences of offshoring are catastrophic, as is demonstrated from Nauru to the Greek island of Samos, explained Sophie McCann from MSF.

For instance, 60% of refugees in MSF’s project on Nauru had self-harmed or had thoughts about or attempted suicide, whilst 64% of MSF's patients on Samos had thoughts of suicide or death, with 14% being actively suicidal.

"These multilateral arrangements may be much harder to resist than previously encountered immigration policies"

10 of MSF’s child patients were diagnosed with resignation syndrome, in which “the body essentially shuts down because the reality is too intolerable,” explained McCann. Requiring a drip and intravenous food to stay alive, the syndrome can be fatal.

These multilateral arrangements may be much harder to resist than previously encountered immigration policies. Significantly, the EU-Turkey deal and the UK-Rwanda deal were not passed into legislation but rather signed as a ‘statement of cooperation’ or a memorandum respectively, meaning that they don’t undergo the scrutiny of parliament.

Bypassing standard asylum procedures in the UK, the deal could be much harder for activists and lawyers to contest. As states push refugees further out, activists and humanitarians working with refugees will need to adapt quickly, as proved momentarily successful with the cancellation of the first Rwanda flight.

Tiara Sahar Ataii has worked in humanitarian response for the UN and major NGOs in 11 countries. She founded SolidariTee, which fights for refugee rights. She is also part of the 2022 'Forbes 30 under 30'.

Follow her on Twitter: @tiara_sahar