The truth about asylum seeker reception in Europe.

, by Ella Powell

The truth about asylum seeker reception in Europe.
Credit: Edu Aguilera/Flickr. Creative Commons licence.

December 2020. A cold, dark night. A small group of protesters gather outside the Home Office in Cardiff with signs, damp from the driving rain, that read ’Stand up to racism’ and ’Refugees welcome here’. It is one of several protests organised against the inhumane standards of the Penally Reception camp for asylum seekers, situated in old military barracks in Pembrokeshire. Reports are of inedible food, harassment from right-wing protestors, and over-crowding, among other things. Towards the end of January 2021, it was reported actions were being taken to close down the camp that hosted asylum seekers in inhumane conditions. But this problem is not unique to Penally. EU law sets out a standard for the reception of asylum seekers in the EU Common Europe Asylum System which stipulates a ‘dignified standard of living’, but across the rest of the UK and wider Europe, asylum seeker and refugee accommodation is far from dignified.

EU Law

Article 17 of these standards states that an ‘adequate standard of living’ must be met to ensure ‘subsistence’ that ‘protects physical and mental health’. This is vague and open to free interpretation, allowing reception states to stretch to the lowest limits of ‘adequate’ accommodation. With austerity cuts and lack of a common system, the ‘harmonisation of conditions’ expected across EU states is far from a reality.

The temporary reception accommodation that houses refugees - for what can be months on end - is their first step in gaining asylum, yet the poor conditions that many are forced to undergo while waiting for their applications to be processed offer little hope for their future in the country.

Often this accommodation has been developed from repurposed buildings. It is not uncommon to find army barracks, warehouses and office buildings being used to house asylum seekers and refugees, often without the facilities necessary to make them fit for use. They can be extremely isolated from the rest of society: as particularly noted in Cyprus where there are some refugee detention centres in the no man’s land between north and south Cyprus, and in Greece on hard-to-reach islands. As the UN has identified interaction with people from the receiving nation as a key factor in the successful integration of refugees, holding them in places far from communities is damaging to their first experiences in a new place, following the potentially traumatic experiences that have led to their migration in the first place.

Outsourcing and Privatisation

While the responsibility for establishing accommodation and enforcing a minimum quality of living falls to the state, many countries have chosen to outsource their asylum system, either wholly or partially. By sourcing the services from private companies, profit becomes the priority over human rights and welfare. The UK was the first country in the EU to initiate a process of privatization of its asylum system in 1971 when G4S, the company that also serves prisons and border security, ran reception centres near Heathrow airport. Since 2012 in the UK, 100% of the accommodation provided for asylum seekers by the Home office has been privately sourced. Tragically, countries with the highest number of reported asylum seeker deaths have either partially or wholly privatised refugee services.

Among these countries is Germany, the destination for many asylum seekers in Europe. There, the company European Homecare, that provides social services to underage refugees and foreign deportees in prison, saw profits rise by 66% since 2014.

Whether as a direct consequence of the privatisation of refugee services or not, it is possible to identify a correlation between increased outsourcing of asylum seeker services and deaths of people using those services. In 2015 the Institute of Race Relations found that 123 out of the 160 deaths of clients in the asylum care system in the EU that year died because of that very system, half of which were to suicide. 29 of these deaths were in Germany and 22 in the UK. These governments are turning a blind eye to the undignified and inhumane conditions asylum seekers are welcomed with, and continue to contract out services to the cheapest option.

Accommodation and Covid-19

Given the health crisis we find ourselves in, it would be expected that refugees and asylum seekers would be extremely vulnerable to the virus, living in conditions where hygiene measure such as frequent hand washing, mask wearing, and social distancing aren’t possible. Filippo Grandi, The UN High Commissioner for Refugees stated:

“The coronavirus disease knows no borders, no language barriers. It threatens everyone on this planet – including refugees and other displaced people.”

This has certainly been the case in some countries such as Singapore where 93% of all Covid-19 cases were from dorms housing migrant workers, and Greece where 148 asylum seekers accommodated in the same hotel tested positive. Yet this has not always been the case, as in the UK, where case rates for service users has remained low. Where this has been found to be true has been attributed to refugee and asylum seeker’s exclusion from society, exposing the true isolation of their living conditions.

Hope for the future?

Charities, such as Stand Up to Racism, are calling for conditions like those described above to become a thing of the past. This is not an impossible goal. Initiatives like ‘Solidarity Cities’, created by the European Union network ‘Eurocities’ to work on a more cohesive European approach, have united many European cities in their aim to create a welcome refuge for unaccompanied children. Calls to stop isolating methods, such as remote accommodation and labels such as refugees, and encouragement to instead consider immigrants as newcomers and fellow citizens, are said to encourage inclusivity and diversity as well as a sense of responsibility towards our new neighbours. This is something that has been advocated by the Inclusive Cities network of 12 cities in the UK, a University of Oxford knowledge-based initiative applying research on integration and migration into practice. While the quality of asylum-seeker accommodation is in the hands of Europe’s governments, it is through the work of initiatives like these that a society that welcomes everyone with respect and equality can become intolerant to the hostile conditions currently faced by seekers of asylum.

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