LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The process of seeking asylum in Europe amounts to little more than playing the lottery, a group of refugee charities said on Friday.
Twelve years after committing to unify asylum policies, the European Union (EU) remains far from achieving its goal and, as a result, the chances of being granted refugee status vary wildly from country to country, the European Council on Refugees and Exile (ECRE) said in a report.
The report highlights big differences in the decisions, procedures and rules relating to asylum seekers in 14 different EU countries – from access to accommodation, legal aid and jobs to the use of detention.
"How can we expect refugees to be able to explain the reasons which forced them to flee their country and navigate through a complex legal procedure when in some cases they are not assisted by a lawyer and a qualified interpreter, when sometimes they have to sleep rough or in makeshift settlements or when months in overcrowded detentions centres have left them psychologically broken?" said Michael Diedring, ECRE secretary general at the launch of the report entitled "Not there yet".
Last year, 335,380 people – most of them from Afghanistan, Russia and Syria – sought asylum in the EU, up 11 percent from the previous year, the report said. Germany, France, Sweden, Belgium and Britain received the largest number of applications for asylum.
ECRE said the average rate at which the EU granted refugee status or other types of protection in response to asylum seekers’ initial application was 28.2 percent.
But a breakdown showed sharp differences between member states.
Greece granted refugee status or protection to only 0.9 percent of its asylum seekers compared with 90.1 percent in tiny Malta and 61.7 percent in Italy. Both Malta and Italy had rates that were higher than Britain, Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia and Finland among others.
"The research shows that someone fleeing to Europe is entering a complete lottery. Individual countries deal with asylum so differently that everything can hinge on where someone ends up," said Russell Hargrave, a spokesman for British charity Asylum Aid.
"Nearly half of all asylum seekers get refugee protection in Norway, for example, but it's not even one in 10 in Cyprus. An Afghan is twice as likely to be recognised as a refugee in Switzerland as in the UK. And most countries guarantee a translator to help people as they ask for asylum – but not in Greece, where no one will be on hand to guide them through the system in their own language" he told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The report said 24,110 Syrians sought asylum in the EU last year, an increase of 206 percent from 2011. However, it noted that despite the worsening conflict at home and an increase in Syrian refugees in the region, the number of asylum applications by Syrian nationals in the EU actually dropped after November.
One of the reasons for this was a tightening of controls along the Greek-Turkish border, it said. Another was that many applications were made by Syrians who were in Europe before the conflict started – say for example, on student visas – rather than new arrivals.
"The European Union is extremely good at expressing its concern for what's happening to people in places like Congo or Syria where we know that people are victims of rape and torture and human rights abuses every single day," Asylum Aid's Hargrave said.
"What the EU is far less good at is treating people fairly and decently when they flee those countries and ask for asylum in different EU countries."
For example, only 6 out of the 14 EU states make free legal help available to someone challenging an asylum decision – the rest provide limited assistance or no legal help at all, the report said. In addition, access to legal aid was least available where it was most needed, such as at the border or in detention, it added.
Campaigners say another marker of a fair justice system is the right of asylum seekers to appeal, but in some EU states, lawyers are not given enough time to prepare a case.
For instance, lawyers of asylum seekers detained in Britain under the "detained fast-track procedure" – an accelerated process for considering asylum claims – only have two working days to challenge an asylum refusal. Under fast track, if it is deemed that there could be a quick decision on their case, asylum seekers are detained so that the agency making the decision can have immediate access to them for quick processing.
In Hungary, a request for judicial review – an inquiry into the legality of the decision – must be lodged within just three calendar days if the asylum application is rejected as inadmissible.
The report also highlighted differences in the use of detention. While some EU Member States such as Germany and Italy rarely detain asylum seekers, more than 13,000 asylum seekers were detained in Britain last year.
Malta continues to detain for months the vast majority of asylum seekers arriving on the island, in overcrowded military barracks. In Greece, unaccompanied children caught crossing the border are systematically detained under the same conditions as adults until shelter has been ensured, the report added.