Oxfam's EU Advocacy office in Brussels

By Raphael Shilhav, Oxfam EU migration policy advisor

The EU’s ‘hotspots’ for migrants arriving in Italy and Greece place people at risk. That is one of the findings of a report by the European Court of Auditors last week. ‘Hotspots’ are a key pillar of the EU’s migration response, aiming at helping Greece and Italy deal with large numbers of migrants arriving on their shores. But since the ‘hotspots’ were set up in 2015, people have been forced to live in inadequate conditions, children have been held in restrictive and unsafe accommodation, and management has been lacking.

A closer look at the 47 pages of the report exposes five flaws in the EU’s migration response that should not go unnoticed.

1. EU auditors found “overcrowded” camps, migrants “sleeping rough”, and “scant access to basic services”

According to the Court of Auditors, hotspots are seriously overcrowded, particularly on the Greek islands of Lesvos, Chios and Samos. People are fleeing from the camps, because they don’t have sufficient access to water and there are too few doctors to provide adequate health care. People also didn’t feel safe in the hotspots since fights often break out in the camps. Many of these people ended up sleeping on the streets outside the hotspots.

The appalling situation in hotspots is also documented by NGOs, who have reported that people in the hotspots have been exposed to degrading conditions and had their rights denied. More than 2,000 people were forced to sleep in barely heated tents during the freezing winter.

2. Children held for months in “inappropriate conditions” against international laws and standards, the auditors say

The auditors raised serious concerns about the situation of unaccompanied children in hotspots. In most hotspots children were confined either to fenced areas, or accommodated without protection from adults, exposing them to the risk of abuse.

Children were held for three months or more closed in behind fences in the Moria hotspot after it was converted to a de-facto detention centre. In some hotspots, girls and boys were held together, against standard practice. NGOs have been raising concerns about this situation for months. Now the Court of Auditors has confirmed that the welfare of the children in Moria was put at risk.

3. ‘‘No framework for remedying bottlenecks or sharing lessons learnt”, the Court found

Overall, the ‘hotspot approach’ has been disorganised and inconsistent, the EU auditors found. The absence of consistent guidelines for the way hotspots should be managed means that responsibilities between the various actors are not clearly defined. Conditions and services are far worse in some hotspots than in others. The unfairness of this inconsistency has been criticised by NGOs, who have also highlighted the lack of oversight over decisions and accountability for human rights violations.

Furthermore, it is difficult to track the situation of people in the hotspots and how the management of the camps affects them – because key data is not shared between authorities. Neither the length of time migrants spend in hotspots while waiting to register and complete their asylum application in Greece, nor the total number of migrants identified, registered, or receiving return orders in Italy was shared.

The Court of Auditor’s recommendations to better define the roles of the different agencies involved and to appoint a manager for each hotspot exposes that management is currently lacking.

4. The auditors highlight that the “functioning of hotspots is affected by bottle-necks in the follow-up procedures”

The hotspots were meant to be just a first step in the EU’s migration response. Member states should then have stepped in to facilitate the relocation and integration of these people across Europe, or facilitate their safe and dignified return. That has not happened.

The set-up of the hotspots is a completely new way for national governments to cooperate with EU institutions and agencies within a member state’s territory. If follow up continues to falter, the pressure on the hotspots will only grow. This could lead to people living in the hotspots being exposed to even more suffering, and the risk that authorities will abandon acceptable legal and living standards increases. This has been evident since December, if not earlier.

5. The EU-Turkey deal “had a major impact on the functioning of hotspots” and on detentions, the auditors say

The EU-Turkey deal of March 2016 had a great impact on the functioning of the hotspots, as becomes evident when we look at the details of the auditors’ report. When the deal with Turkey was announced, hotspots turned into de-facto detention centres, provoking criticism from many NGOs. But the current European approach only attempts to increase the use of detention for asylum seekers even further.

The auditors have detailed the hotspots procedures in the annex to their report, and reading this makes clear how difficult it is not to be detained in the process they record.

The findings of the European Court of Auditors suggest that hotspots are being made to work at the expense of people, for the sake of fulfilling policy objectives. It is vital that safeguards are in place to ensure that people are not forced to stay in the hotspots under the conditions the EU auditors and NGOs have found to be degrading. Very close scrutiny is needed to protect the rights of those who arrive looking for safety on Europe’s shores.

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