Asylum seeker’s rights are human rights
Migration, asylum and international protection are the EU’s most pressing matters in today’s polarised political climate. With more than 4 million people moving to the EU over the past 4 years, Europeans have polarised their views on what is right and wrong, not only politically, but also humanly. What was commonly accepted right or wrong for most political formations just 10 years ago is now a matter of discussion. To quote Kellyanne Conway, US President’s adviser, one “can bring alternative facts” to the discussion. Facts are not facts anymore.
Beginning in the 90’s, after the first wave of asylum seekers from Eastern Europe following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the EU Commission has tried to push, against the national political flow, for a unified stance and standard of treatment for asylum seekers. Although a great deal has been achieved in the past 30 years, and it would be unfair to deny the merits of individual members and the union in general, there is still a long way to go to achieve what the EU Commission aims for, through the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), which sets a minimum standard for the treatment of asylum seekers and asylum applications across the EU.
But, like most other union-wide decisions, the consolidation of legislation and standards has stalled, and the latest refugee crisis has shown that under the current rules, asylum seekers are not treated equally across the EU member states and the positive asylum decisions vary greatly even between neighbouring countries. Showing that international protection is still a process based mainly on the moral standards and inclinations of the receiving country.
A great deal has been discussed on this matter, and the tendency of the European Commission to approach the asylum process as one big problem has overwhelmed the super-charged political scene of today’s Europe.
Even if it looks like a single problem, in reality the asylum process is made up of several parts that have little to no connection between them, and trying to consolidate the rules will for sure hurt those parts of the asylum process that have improved, bit by bit, with the help of the courts.
The registration of an asylum request has no connection whatsoever and no influence on the investigation of the claim and the hospitality extended towards the asylum seeker. While the asylum request is often a police procedure and the investigation is an administrative/judicial process, the hospitality is a social standard which often reflects the attitudes of the indigent population towards the asylum seekers and not the EU directives. While passing through the administrative process is a technical obligation, more often than not navigated with patience and dignity by the asylum seeker, the hospitality is often proven a dehumanizing and persecutory process that keeps the possible refugee in limbo for years.
The current Reception Conditions Directive was adopted in 2013. It replaced Council Directive 2003/9/CE on minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers. The deadline for Member States to transpose the Directive into national law was 20 July 2015.
The revised Directive ensures that there are humane material reception conditions (such as housing) for asylum seekers across the EU and that the fundamental rights of the concerned persons are fully respected. It also ensures that detention is only applied as a measure of last resort.
That said, housing and food can be anything someone decides, and the treatment of the asylum seekers varies widely not only among countries, but even among organisations in the same country and reception facilities run by the same organisation.
A Red Cross Reception Camp in Leopoldsburg, East Flanders, which was active from 2015 till 2017, was located in one of the old properties of the once big military base. The camp was made up of containers of single room living units, sanitary units and a big dining tent.
The asylum seekers called the place ‘the concentration camp’ and the director of the camp ‘the fuhrer’, not because of the similar look and air of it, but because of the draconian rules and the attitudes of the staff toward the asylum seekers. The guests of the camp were a big mix of nationalities and social backgrounds, all coming from traumatizing situations and experiences.
The first rule of the camp, and it seems of most Red Cross camps, was that no one could lock the door of their unit, never, day or night. The refugees always carried their valuables with them. At night the people pushed their beds against the door to keep it securely closed, because of fear that someone would get in. The unit normally had 4 beds. The staff assigned one to each guest and ordered that the beds should not be changed, even among family members. Apparently, the management wanted to ensure they could identify a body easily in case of a deadly fire.
Eating was restricted to the so called caféteria. No food was allowed in the sleeping units. The 18-19 years old ‘social workers’ stayed guard at the door to make sure that no one would ‘steal’ and ‘contraband’ slices of bread or other food. There were no excuses even for the parents of kids, that wanted to keep some food for later to share with their little ones. The guards checked the pockets and the personal bags of everyone leaving the cafeteria and any food found ended up in a big bin that was positioned appropriately next to the door.
There was no particular dietary discrimination for people with health problems, like diabetes, and the food was generally carbohydrates. When somebody dared to ask why, they were politely told: “If you don’t like it, no one is forcing you to eat it!”.
The camp accommodated no religious dietary restrictions, even though nearly all occupants came from muslim majority countries. The asylum seekers had ID badges of different colors. If you had religious dietary restrictions, like not eating the ‘traditional Belgian food’ which was a fancy way of describing pork, you had a green badge, if you could eat pork you had a red badge.
That meant that if you were ‘green’, you had no meat: no pork = no meat; not even chicken.
Apparently, more than 4% of Belgians of Islamic faith do not conform to ‘Belgian traditional cuisine’, and the young social workers insisted that the Red Cross was using this as an ‘educational’ tool to teach the asylum seekers how to better integrate into Belgian society.
This system was a perfect tool for self-discrimination, because even when a muslim person was not practicing religious dietary restrictions, he or she had to keep a green badge, just to show the others that he or she was a ‘good muslim’. And everyone had to be a good Muslim, or face the wrath of others, like in February 20, 2016 when a big fight of more than 100 people broke out because a girl with a green badge refused to wear the hijab.
One cannot help but wonder, would it had been the same if the camp was not filled with muslims, but with Jewish, or African christian orthodox refugees, which also do not eat pork?
Most of these restrictions were not shared even by the other camps around the area.
On the other side of this story, about 60 km away, in Jodogne there is also another camp, run by Fedasil, the Belgian federal agency in charge of the hospitality of asylum seekers.
Similar in setup, but completely opposite in attitude and treatment of it’s guests. From the first day the asylum seekers with special health conditions are put on a diet that is not different in quality with others, but conforms with the dietary guidelines of the WHO.
There are no restrictions on taking the food to the room. Every person has a key for his/her room. There are no people guarding the food or anything else, and from time to time one can use the communal kitchen to cook or bake something different from the camp’s menu.
But the most important difference between the two camps is the respect and care shown to the guests by the administration of the camp. While the camp in Jodogne is run by very experienced people, the Leopoldsburg camp was formally run by the Flemish Red Cross, but was a business mix of Algeco, Sodexo and other businesses. The main concern was not the well being of its inhabitants, but the maximisation of profits. More wasted food meant better feed for some pig farm. There was always talk of corruption and in some cases the Red Cross tried to save face and shuffled the management around. But things were done fairly openly. Why accept a gift of free fitness hardware from a local gym that was closing down, when you can spend 20.000 Euro on a set of outdoors fitness tools, cast in concrete, in a camp that will be closed in 6 months?
There is no point to list more of these examples here, even though there are many other disgusting practices, ranging from prostitution to abuse, which merit a full investigation.
To return to the main argument, the extreme disparity in treatment in a welcoming country like Belgium, can be a clear indication that the system is broken and the approach of the European Commission is destined to fail the same way the Dublin Treaty failed when it was most needed.
You cannot standardise kindness, you can only punish abuse. The “humane treatment” is as humane as the moral intuition of those in charge, like the Red Cross who is found wanting when it comes to its core function, not just in Belgium, but everywhere, and the government should consider finding another way to help the helpless.
To hope that a directive will make people all over Europe act their best toward the asylum seekers is naive and self-defeating.
But, just by observing the situation today, one can understand that a treaty that governs the fair treatment of refugees is already in place and is called the Human Rights Convention.
Independently of the basis and the veracity of a person’s claim to international protection, he or she is still a person, a human being, and must be treated as such.
Even though the European Union pretends a full compliance with the EHRC the reality if very different. Generally the asylum seekers are treated at its best with pity and it’s worse with abuse. The abuse of immigration rules by the enforcers are tolerated in favor of political decisions and in direct violation of international conventions.
For example, during the latest refugee influx and the collapse of the Dublin treaty, the European courts, not wanting to set judicial precedents, intentionally delayed decisions so the asylum cases could pass more than 6 months, enabling the refugees to re-apply for asylum in a second European country. If a Belgian court could have ruled against Sweden or Germany for human right abuses toward the refugees the whole EU system would have collapsed. So why not do some good and turn a blind eye and a deaf ear?
This kind of justice cannot last, because justice cannot be based on good will. So, instead of trying to harmonise the asylum system, an exercise that has already failed with the Dublin treaty, it would be easier and more prudent for the Commission to focus on guarding the human rights of asylum seekers. If the union does so, everything will fall in place naturally with no need for other directives.