"The integration of people who need protection must be considered a European issue, not only dealt in member-state level"
Interview with Valerio De Cesaris, Associate Professor of Contemporary History at University for Foreigners, Perugia
by Nikos Tzanetakis, Policy Coordinator @Bridging Europe
1. According to your opinion, why the EU refugees relocation program is not working? Is there any way to accelerate implementation of the program?
The failure of the EU relocation program is evident. Of the 160,000 planned relocations from Greece and Italy to other EU member-states, a little bit more than 10,000 have been carried out. At the moment, countries delaying the relocation are not effectively sanctioned by EU. Some countries – Austria, Poland, Hungary and Denmark – have not yet received any asylum seekers through this relocation mechanism set up by Council Decisions 2015/1523 and 2015/1601. Others accepted a few number of refugees. To make matters worse, some member-states ask to send asylum seekers back to Greece, invoking the Dublin Regulation, despite the fact that regulation has been suspended for Greece since 2011.
More than 4,000 requests of this ‘upside down relocation’ have already been presented to Greece, mainly by Hungary. The paradox is generated by a decision that the European Commission has taken last December, considering that Greece now has a fully functioning asylum system and recommending the gradual resumption of Dublin transfers to Greece as of 15 March 2017.
In my opinion, there are two crucial points: first, EU institutions should be more consistent in their policies and help the border countries, especially Greece and Italy; second, each EU member should take responsibility about the refugees and migrants issue, showing solidarity with the countries most involved in it. I know that ‘solidarity’ is an old-fashioned word, but hardly, without it, the EU will not be able to deal effectively with the challenge of the migrations and the hospitality of the refugees.
2. Greece is facing a big problem handling and accommodating thousands of refugees stranded in the Northeastern islands of the Aegean Sea. Greece's Migration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas has been calling the European Commission to accept relocation from islands to mainland, but the Commission rejects such an option. What is your opinion on that?
Also UNHCR, Amnesty International and a lot of aid groups urged to move asylum seekers from the islands to the mainland, because the situation is really dramatic. Lack of winterized camps, snow-covered tents, and inadequate sanitary facilities are threatening people’s lives. In this very cold winter, leaving refugees stranded on the islands in such bad conditions is unacceptable.
The European Commission recently said that the Greek refugee situation is “first and foremost” the responsibility of the Greek authorities, but the problem mainly arises from the EU-Turkey deal signed last March. In the context of that agreement, Greece, and especially the islands, turned into a holding space for thousands of people, including many children. In fact, asylum seekers are kept in camps that are actually detention facilities. In this situation, it’s urgent to speed up the registration procedures to allow the transfer of people to the mainland. Before that procedure, men, women and children have been stuck on the islands. In my opinion, the EU-Turkey deal is a bad deal that jeopardizes human rights – and the lives – of the asylum seekers.
3. What is the situation of refugees in Italy? Are the government and solidarity networks working properly to deal with all aspects of accommodation?
As you know, Italy is facing many arrivals by sea. About 181,000 people arrived in 2016 (153,000 in 2015). They are not only refugees fleeing war or persecution, but also the so-called economic migrants. Nonetheless, they all are in desperate need, otherwise they would not risk their lives on the dangerous journey crossing the Mediterranean.
We have to consider them all people who need protection. Among them, thousands of unaccompanied minors reached Italy in 2016, at least 25,000 according to Unicef. They are the most vulnerable. Because of the high number of refugees and migrants, the reception system in Italy has had some problems: a lack of distribution of people in the country – with areas hosting a lot and others very little – and sometimes bad conditions in the places of both first and second reception.
Nevertheless, I think Italy is doing a good job. The experience of the humanitarian corridors program, launched by the Community of Sant’Egidio in cooperation with the Waldensians and the Federation of the Evangelical Churches in Italy, and implemented through an agreement with the Italian Government, shows that it is possible to create safe and legal routes to permit refugees to reach Europe safely. The program has as its main objectives preventing refugees from making the dangerous journey in unseaworthy boats and dinghies across the Mediterranean; preventing exploitation by human traffickers; granting people in vulnerable conditions legal entry onto Italian territory with humanitarian visas with the possibility of applying for asylum.
The refugees, once landed in Italy, are not only welcome, but they are offered integration in the Italian social and cultural fabric. They attend Italian language classes and the children enroll at school, as well as participate in other initiatives. After the first humanitarian corridor opened in Lebanon that served primarily Syrians and some Iraqi families, there is now an agreement to open a new corridor in Ethiopia, for Eritrean, Somali and South Sudanese refugees. It is significant that the Italian people have strongly supported the humanitarian corridors program. Hosting the first 500 refugees who arrived in Italy in this way was a great victory for solidarity.
There was an outpouring of support from the people, who offered their second houses, made financial contributions, and volunteered their time. I think that the Italian humanitarian corridors program is a best practice that should be adopted by other European member-states. And I am glad that in a recent interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais, also Pope Francis spoke of the work of the Community of Sant’Egidio for refugees as a ‘model to follow’. In general, the situation of refugees in Italy is not without its challenges, but I can say that Italy is facing this issue with a sense of responsibility.
4. Germany and other-member-states intend to send asylum seekers back to Greece and Italy. Could you interpret any rationale behind such a decision?
This is a very bad idea driven by national interests and not by a sense of the European common good. The Dublin Regulation should be definitively reconsidered because it penalizes the Mediterranean front-line countries. If we look to the approach and the measures that the European Union has taken on this issue in the last few years, we see a lack of internal solidarity.
I insist on the word ‘solidarity’ because in the present situation EU does not want to force a member-state to help the others. In fact, this is a choice to be taken within the European Institutions and by national governments. Without internal solidarity, the EU is doomed to be stuck in quarrels without reaching effective decisions. Greece and Italy are carrying out considerable efforts to handle a difficult situation. Sending asylum seekers back to them would be politically wrong. It would make reception more difficult by having a high concentration of asylum seekers in a few countries.
During the last two years, in many occasions, Greece seemed to be overwhelmed by refugees. Thanks to many aid workers and with the help of Greeks of good will, especially on the islands, the situation has been handled, but there are many problems. The integration of people who need protection must be considered a European issue, not only nationally by each member-state. Moreover, and most importantly, we have to bear in mind that people should not be subjected to ‘ping-pong’ between member-states. This is unfair to asylum seekers and unworthy of countries, such as the European ones, that defend human rights in their Constitutions.
5. Across Europe, a growing number of populist and xenophobic parties gain support, basing their rhetoric on hatred speech against refugees. Is this a temporary phenomenon or it could shape EU's political and social fate?
The rise of populism in Europe is worrying, no doubt about it. And, yes, it is a long-term phenomenon. A specific risk in our time is growing Islamophobia, which has the negative consequences of humiliating Muslims and facilitating extremists who preach hatred against the West, but also of threatening democracy. Another risk is the criminalization of the economic migrants, and/or the criminalization of the ‘sans papiers’. But I am not pessimistic.
In Europe, from one hand, there are people who follow xenophobic propaganda and, on the other hand, there are people who welcome refugees and try to help them. I can see this very clearly in Italy. The mass media, with their powerful influence on public opinion and attitudes toward migrants, have an essential responsibility in presenting good news, not only problems. For instance, in Italy, there are more or less 5 million immigrants (i.e both refugees and migrants), about 9% of the entire population. The proportion of Italian GDP produced by immigrants is exactly 9%. It means that integration is a reality right now, not just a goal. People know that because they see that: immigrant kids in school with their children, immigrant caregivers with the elderly, immigrant shopkeepers, etc.
The media often prefer sensationalistic news and do not report about the everyday integration of immigrants. Anyway, European societies are plural. It is a reality and there is no going back. When the media insist on presenting problematic situations of failed integration and trying to make headlines, they play into the hands of populist movements and parties. So, let us speak more about good news, everyday integration, and people will overcome their fear and will show the most beautiful face of Europe: welcoming, inclusive and respectful toward all people.