Is the dignified reception of all asylum seekers in Europe an illusion?
An overview of reception conditions for asylum seekers across European countries
Following the surge in the number of arrivals in 2015 and 2016, in what conditions have asylum seekers been received on the European continent? In spite of EU efforts to harmonise reception conditions, they still vary widely from country to country.
Ever since the introduction of a common European asylum system, the EU has been taking gradual steps to harmonise the various systems which govern how asylum seekers are treated. The reception of asylum seekers is a fundamental part of both national and international asylum policy, even though the current definition given to “reception” remains vague. At the European level, the text governing reception conditions is a directive, adopted in 2013 – itself a recast of a previous text adopted in 2003. The Reception Directive requires member states to guarantee a decent quality of life for applicants and is intended to harmonise reception conditions throughout the EU. Nevertheless, this Directive is not directly applicable and must be transposed into national law. The standards it defines are minimal, and provide each member state with a great deal of room for interpretation.
While “reception” currently has no real definition, it does go further than simply providing housing for asylum seekers. It includes providing applicants with information about their rights, a path to a residency permit, freedom of movement and access to healthcare, education and work. According to the Directive, the physical benefits to which asylum seekers are entitled must include accommodation, food and clothes; either provided as is or in the form of financial benefits. Applicants must also receive a daily allowance.
Differences in reception systems across member states
Reception conditions to which asylum seekers have access upon arrival vary widely within the European Union. Regarding housing, certain States, such as the Netherlands and Greece, tend to provide collective accommodation for applicants throughout the entire length of the procedure. Austria and Belgium provide collective housing for new applicants, which are later moved into longer-term individual accommodation, while other countries such as Sweden and some German States provide individual housing from the moment the application is submitted. Financial aid, too, varies from country to country. Some states provide aid automatically, while in others it depends on the applicant’s revenue. Access to healthcare is universal in France, but only emergency care is provided in Sweden. And while the European Directive guarantees access to the labour market for asylum seekers (except in Hungary), depending on the country, it can take anywhere from a few days to several months to be allowed access to the labour market. However, access to education is guaranteed in most states.
If we look below the surface, the different approaches to reception of asylum seekers also reflect the differences in geographic location between EU member states.
For states on the southern borders of the Union, minimum reception benefits may depend on whether the asylum seeker is on an island or on the mainland. Moreover, these countries have not always considered themselves as “asylum countries”, and experienced difficulty in providing basic reception conditions, even before the 2015 “crisis”. In response to this massive influx of applicants, a specific reception system was developed in Italy and Greece: special initial reception centres were constructed, known as “hotspots”, in which asylum seekers are accommodated, identified and registered.
States in central Europe and the Balkans are generally considered “transit” countries on the migrant route, and have invested relatively little in accommodation structures for asylum seekers. As a result, they regularly have trouble hosting news applicants. For example, there is only one centre for asylum seekers in the whole of Bosnia.
Destination countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom also have their own specific models, reflecting the fact that asylum seekers want to settle there for the long term. These countries have distribution systems according to which asylum seekers are allocated across the entire country. Germany restricts the freedom of movement of asylum seekers, and in some Länder they are not even permitted to leave a city’s limits.
Towards different treatment for different categories of asylum seekers?
While reception conditions differ across member states, they may also vary within the same country. If one gives a closer look one can see visible differences in the treatment provided to different asylum seekers.
Reception conditions increasingly tend to vary according to the nationality of the asylum seekers. The German “Bamberg model”, named after a small town in Bavaria, requires that asylum seekers from countries with low recognition rates be registered in a transit centre in which their request will be assessed and from which rejected applicants will be returned. This distinction can also be seen in the hotspots. In Greece, Syrians are housed in separate reception centres, while in Italy, certain nationalities considered not deserving of international protection (and identified as “economic migrants” after their arrival) are placed in detention centres.
Differences may also appear in countries in which reception of asylum seekers is decentralised. In federal countries such as Germany, reception conditions vary from one Länder to another.
Moreover, aside from the differences in treatment between people and states, serious questions about decent living conditions for applicants must be raised. Some states do not comply with the minimum standards laid down in the Reception Directive. These include maintaining family unity, and providing access to education, work, professional training and healthcare.
Sometimes, a chronic lack of housing is the reason for substandard treatment of asylum seekers. In their last quarterly report, the European Fundamental Rights Agency confirmed that only Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, Poland, the Netherlands and Sweden have the required asylum reception capacity. France, Italy and Greece lack housing space for applicants, leading to people sleeping in the street or in makeshift camps.
Providing decent reception conditions is difficult for countries confronted with large numbers of asylum seekers. In 2015 and 2016, a handful of states were able to house everybody – but not always in satisfactory conditions. Germany, for example, had to provide emergency shelter in gyms, warehouses and even the unused Tempelhof Airport. In Bulgaria too, there is evidence of deteriorating conditions: financial benefits for asylum seekers have been withdrawn and food is lacking. Sometimes, a malfunctioning asylum procedure, unable to cope with the number of demands, has serious consequences for asylum seekers and how they are received. This is evident in Spain, where the asylum registration system is too slow, depriving applicants of their basic needs and exposing them to the threat of expulsion.
In Hungary, governmental policy is preventing asylum seekers from accessing decent reception conditions. All asylum seekers arriving at the border are automatically placed in a transit zone, where they have limited access to reception conditions.
What challenges lie ahead for countries receiving asylum seekers?
During the 2015-2016 migrant “crisis”, some countries lacked the resources to develop a resilient reception system which could meet the surge in the number of asylum seekers (Sweden was one of the few states to have adequately hosted all of their applicants). Since 2017 and despite a drop in the number of asylum seekers (falling from 1.2 million in 2016 to 700,000 in 2017), some emergency measures are still in place and several temporary solutions have become permanent. This is true of the hotspots on the islands off Greece and Italy, or the French and Belgian “pre-reception” systems.
The challenges of hosting asylum seekers in Europe have not been properly assessed. For instance, it is difficult to collect country-specific reception data, and to use this data to make comparisons across countries. This is a real obstacle to genuine European harmonisation. As proof of this difficulty, the Reception directive is the only text, in the framework of the Common European Asylum System reform, not to be transformed into a regulation, deliberately leaving room for interpretation by member states. As a result, common reception standards remain minimal. Complete, European-wide harmonisation and access to efficient and decent reception conditions for all asylum seekers, still probably remains, a fantasy.