The EU’s Hotspot Approach: Questionable Motivations and Unreachable Goals

The European Union is ‘externalizing’ responsibility for asylum seekers, but this effort only leads to more ethical, logistical, and human rights problems. The EU compels and/or finances Greece, Italy, and a number of African States to turn migrants around. Since asylum seekers must claim protection at the borders or inside the so-called Destination State, turning them around before they can reach Europe artificially lowers numbers of claimants. This process of arresting, detaining, and ejecting is called ‘interdiction’. It is meant to shore up the faltering Common European Asylum System (CEAS).

However, detaining asylum seekers on the Greek Aegean Islands and in non-European States will only lead to more detention, more harm, and worsening conditions along the migrant route. Detention will not work to deter asylum seekers from reaching European shores. As it stands, campaigns like #opentheislands focuses too heavily on scapegoating Greece and its Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. The confinement of asylum seekers to ‘hotspots’ on the Aegean Islands (namely Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros, and Kos) for periods ranging from months to more than a year,  is a consequence of EU decisions and priorities.

This article argues that while #opentheislands is a laudable campaign, we must also not lose sight of the complex, interrelated problems that cannot be resolved by externalization or transfers to the mainland: namely, that Greece serves as the gateway to Northern and Western Europe; that immigration detention in ‘hotspots’ and other externalization efforts will not work to deter migrants and asylum seekers from crossing the Mediterranean Sea and other dangerous routes; and that migration to Europe is natural, inevitable, and uncontainable by interdiction efforts.

The ’Hotspots Approach’: Immigration Detention by another Name in a Faltering Common European Asylum System

The European refugee ‘crisis’ is by now quite familiar: between January 2015 and September 2017, over 1.5 million newcomers came to Europe by sea (Mackintosh 2017). One million people arrived during the peak influx of July 2015 until March 2016. At least 9,600 individuals died or went missing (IOM 2017). The numbers continue to be significant: the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports that, only since 01 January 2017, 8,154 people entered Europe by sea, and 401 people died en route; over the four days of 7 – 10 February 2018, the Hellenic Coast Guard reported at least two incidents requiring search and rescue operations, as well as the transfers to the Greek islands of Lesvos and Samos of 74 people rescued from sinking ships (IOM 2018).

The humanitarian challenge impugned the solidarity of the EU. By this point, a series of events and trends were draining the solidarist spirit central to the pan-European experiment, including populist nationalism (Collett 2016; Inglehart & Norris 2016) and Brexit, Grexit, and even Drexit (the German exit from the Eurozone) (Pastore & Henry 2016). Many asylum seekers headed to Germany, where on 25 August 2015 Chancellor Angela Merkel had opened ‘the door’ for Syrian refugees by suspending the Dublin Procedure (to be explained below) and, on 31 August 2015, she declared a ‘national duty’ to protect the incoming refugees (Dockery 2017).

Under the pressure of the greatest mass displacement to reach European shores since World War II and the solidarity issues thereby provoked, the EU fell prey to ‘crisis thinking’.[1] But, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon (2015) characterized the moment, truly this was a ‘crisis of solidarity, not a crisis of numbers’, and the EU moved to shore up its beleaguered Common European Asylum System (CEAS), known as the Dublin System.

The Dublin System is comprised mainly of Regulation (EU) No. 604/20133 (hereafter, the Dublin Regulation) and the European Dactyloscopy (‘the Eurodac’) fingerprinting registration system (under Regulation (EU) No 603/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 26 June 2013). The Dublin Regulation establishes that every refugee must file their asylum application in the State of first landing. Through identification via Eurodac, all asylum seekers are transferred back to the first State and made to re-lodge their claims.

Due to its geopolitical position along the periphery, Greece has been a gateway to Europe for people hailing from the formerly Communist Eastern European States in the 1990s, and then increasing numbers of people from the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia over the last fifteen years (Staal 2014: 3). Frontex records that, by the end of 2010, 90 per cent of all detections of irregular crossings at external European land, sea and air borders were recorded by Greece (Staal 2014: 1). In this way, Greece – and Italy, to a lesser extent – shoulders the majority of responsibility for CEAS.

‘Hotspots’ were introduced through the European Agenda on Migration,[2] and formally endorsed by the European Council of 25-26 June 2015. Eurodac records asylum seekers’ fingerprints. Then, a small minority are transferred to the mainland (7,583 from 1 June 2016 to April 2017) (d’Angelo et al 2017: p. 21).

The 18 March 2016 E.U.-Turkey Statement authorized transfers of refugees from Greece and Italy back to Turkey. Turkey hosts about 3.5 million Syrian asylum seekers (Syria Regional Refugee Response 2018) with the vast majority living without a residence permit and tolerated under a ‘temporary protection’ status. The EU-Turkey Statement incentivizes Turkey both to detain refugees and prevent them from crossing into the EU, and to take in people deported from the EU; in return, Turkey receives funding and its bid to accede to EU Member State status is taken much more seriously. The Statement also incentivizes and creates a legitimizing narrative for the hotspots.

Why are people not simply leaving for the Greek mainland? The hotspots residents are prevented from leaving by the so-called ‘geographical restriction’. Policy does not codify this restriction. It is only implicit in the EU-Turkey Statement. Asylum seekers with a positive first- or second-instance decision can journey to the Greek mainland, and the rest will be deported to Turkey. As such, most asylum seekers are confined to one of the five islands where hotspots are located Their mental and physical health8 is deteriorating due to uncertainty about the future, as well as lack of access to basic services (e.g., medical care and sanitation facilities) as they go through their long, complex admissibility or asylum procedures.

Migration scholars are familiar with these sorts of programs. Less-powerful States leverage their detention capacities to gain financial and material power from more-powerful States or groups of States (e.g. Mainwaring 2014). In this way, elements of the EU-Turkey Deal echoes agreements signed between Malta and the EU, Libya and the EU, and Mexico and the United States, respectively (see, e.g. Calleros-Alarcón 2015: 93; Hiemstra 2017; Mainwaring 2014). Hotspots can also be usefully compared to Asia-Pacific predecessors, the ‘Pacific Solution’ (2001 – 2008) and ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ (2013 – ongoing) whereby Australia pays Pacific island states like Papua New Guinea to intercept and detain seaborne migrants. The Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled on 26 April 2016 that detention breached the right to personal liberty in their State’s constitution, and ordered the facility to be shuttered (Doherty, Davidson, & Karp 2016). However, Operation Sovereign Borders bars the resettlement to Australia of the 700 detainees, the vast majority of whom are refugees. The situation has become violent and unstable with no resolution in sight.

Externalization, Detention, and their Discontents

A key effect of CEAS is to ‘externalize’ migration control through immigration detention. A nebulous hybrid of criminal, civil, and administrative law, detention is the extra-judicial use of incarceration for people who have irregular migration statuses but not necessarily criminal records. Detention operates outside of, parallel to, and often overlaps with criminal incarceration. Detention occurs inside and outside a state’s territory through bi- and trilateral agreements (Nakache and Losier 2017; Silverman and Nethery 2015) that are, essentially, externalization strategies that logically imply a reduction in asylum seekers’ chances of obtaining protection in safe, wealthier, and Refugee Convention-signatory States.

Research demonstrates that detention does not deter migration (Sampson 2015) but rather re-routes individuals and families along more dangerous corridors. The US Operation Gatekeeper (1994 – ) ‘funnels’ migrants coming from Mexico into the Sonora Desert, the Rio Grande, and other treacherous geographic borderlands (Nevins 2010); 11,000 people are estimated to have died attempting this crossing (Taylor 2017). Likewise, in addition to those lost in the Mediterranean Sea, fear of confinement to the hotspots is compelling migrants to traverse the Greek-Turkish Evros region: in December 2012 a four-meter-tall, barbed-wire fence was completed along the 12.5 kilometer part of the land border with Turkey that does not run along the Evros River, and Greece decided to deploy an additional 1800 police officers to the border region under operation ‘Aspida’ (Shield) (Staal 2014: 37) Migrants are not forced to cross the below-freezing Evros River, and the area is thought to have the largest number of unidentified and unburied bodies in Greece (International Committee of the Red Cross 2017). Also extremely dangerous is the development of a child trafficking network allegedly reaching in to the hotspot at Samos, due to that Island’s close proximity to Turkey (Montero 2017).

Externalization transforms pariahs into migration ‘partners’. The EU partners with Libya (Nakache and Losier 2017) and, in 2016, Sudan received a €100 million ‘special support measure’ from the EU in recognition of its position at ‘the forefront to fight irregular migration and human trafficking and smuggling in Sudan and the Horn of Africa’ (Mimica 2016).  Sudan detains mostly Eritrean, Somali, and Ethiopian refugees before they cross into Libya. Along with slave-trading in the region, there is evidence that the notorious Janjaweed militia is being repurposed as the Rapid Support Forces immigration police, and that the Sudanese government is enabling and profiting off the smuggling and trafficking networks that the EU is paying them to contain (Suleiman and van Dijken 2018). In the midst of this, Sudan is also hosting approximately 1,007,000 South Sudanese refugees, of whom 66 percent are children (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 2018).

Human Rights Challenges of Detaining in ‘Hotspots’

According to the European Stability Initiative (2017:2), ‘between 20 March 2016 and end-September 2017, a total of 46,598 people arrived on the Greek Aegean islands. 13,456 were still on the islands by the end of September 2017. The average duration of stay on the islands has been 4 to 5 months in 2017.’ The Initiative claims that the problem is that people are staying too long on the Islands: that if the processing times could be reduced to 2 months then issues of capacity – and hence, conditions – would be resolved.

It is true that Lesbos, Samos, and Chios are over capacity: in December 2017, 10,925 people were staying in facilities with a capacity of 3,924 beds (International Rescue Committee 2017). Approximately 18,500 minors are detained across the mainland and island camps, more than 2,500 of whom are unaccompanied and 600 of whom are classified as ‘complex cases’ necessitating drug rehabilitation or having experienced sexual abuse or violence (Montero 2017).

This overcrowding puts women detainees at particular risk in the hotspots.  Unfortunately, in 2017, the UNHCR received reports from 622 survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) on the Islands; 28 per cent of these informants report SGBV after arriving in Greece, including inappropriate behaviour, sexual harassment, and attempted sexual attacks, with particularly high reports coming from Moria and Vathy (Samos) (Pouilly 2018; Action Aid et al. 2017a). In the chaos of securing any sort of shelter, some women are forced to share tents with unrelated men, putting their privacy and safety at risk (Amnesty International 2017). Médecins Sans Frontières (2017b) reports that women are wearing adult diapers out of fear of using the dangerous and broken toilets in Moria.

Second, survival in these sites is undoubtedly a testament to the resilience of the migrants. However, the hotspots have become sites of mental, emotional, and psychosocial devastation. Between April and June 2017, the number of people arriving on the Greek Aegean Islands nearly quadrupled, but the capacity of actors responsible for providing medical care and identifying vulnerable people halved (Médecins Sans Frontières 2017c). The Island residents present alarming rates of self-harm, increased aggression, anxiety, and depression (Médecins Sans Frontières 2017a). The Aegean Islands’ capacity to deliver mental health services cannot meet the needs. For example, the NGO Save the Children reports increasing distress amongst children detained in the Greek hotspots, including incidents of self-harm in children as young as nine years old, and suicide attempts by children as young as 12 years old (Myers & Aoun 2017). The stress of being detained, ‘including the continued violence and the lack of appropriate services .. are pushing them into hopelessness and are greatly compounding their mental health suffering’ (Médecins Sans Frontieres 2017a: 3). Further, in a reversal from practice prior to the EU-Turkey Statement, the geographic restriction forces vulnerable people to stay on the Islands until their first asylum interview, which can take months or years.

Finally, in addition to the paucity of medical care, the hotspots suffer from poor access to robust asylum procedures and a lack of interpreters. The goal of the hotspots is to fingerprint for EURODAC, not to provide long-term protection. Access to justice for asylum seekers is located mostly onshore; however, the onshore system is also deficiently funded and organized, and there are no clear paths to international protection, social rights, or integration there (Action Aid et al 2017c).

The #opentheislands Campaign Misunderstands the Problem

The 19 refugee-serving NGOs’ letter and the impetus behind #opentheisland is to bring the plight of detained asylum seekers back into collective sights and minds. Yet, for the reasons explained below, neither detention in hotspots nor speedy transfers to the Greek mainland are sufficient for resolving the multifaceted, overlapping problems confronting asylum seekers and those helping them find protection.

First, detention on the mainland and the Islands is unable to control or stem migration (Bosworth, Fili, and Pickering 2016). Detention does not deter asylum seekers who fear for their lives, it only re-routes them to more dangerous and fraught paths. Transferring the current population of the hotspots without putting thoughtful contingency plans in place will leave the next – and inevitable – groups of asylum seekers vulnerable to similar deprivations. Second, Greece is an unenviable geopolitical position. It is currently a ‘gatekeeper’ in the EU-Turkey Statement as well as a frontier state subject to financial privation. Much of the Greek population professes favourable views about deploying criminal justice measures against migrant populations (Cheliotis 2017: 86). This viewpoint calls into question whether the locals would support a mass relocation that is anything less than mass detention or an arrangement similar to the hotspots. Third, with CEAS and the Dublin System in place, there will inevitably be hundreds of thousands of ‘returns’ and ‘transfers’ to Greece of asylum seekers located in other EU Member States. Indeed, Germany has already begun such transfers (Smith & Oltermann 2017). Fourth, the EU-Turkey Statement is contingent on Greek official cooperation and support. This cooperation is in turn premised on the possibility of mass detention in order to track, demobilize, and ready asylum seekers for deportation to Turkey. The EU-Turkey Statement’s ‘geographical restriction’ also presents the legal impossibility of transferring hotspot detainees to the mainland without first assessing their asylum claims; it is unknown for whom, and for how long, this restriction would be sidestepped. Fifth, evidence from Libya, Sudan, and elsewhere indicates the dangers of normalizing detention as a migration management strategy. Indeed, normalization of detention on the Greek Aegean Islands legitimizes the EU’s arrangements with non-Refugee Convention States like Turkey as well as its interdiction contracts with formerly pariah States like Sudan. In order to stop asylum seekers from reaching its shores, the EU empowers militias and warlords by calling them border police and funding their detention centres. These moves will undoubtedly lead to more corruption, exploitation, slavery, and, most paradoxically, asylum seekers trying to cross in to the EU to claim international protection.


[1] As part of a longer statement, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker admitted to the European Union being plunged into a depth of ‘crisis thinking’: ‘Even if we are now moving away from crisis mode, it is evident that migration will remain a challenge for a generation of Europeans.’ (European Commission 2017). More generally, ‘crisis thinking’ is a form of populist impressions of the world that is characterized by its central tautology that an ‘out-of-control, unwanted, and potentially dangerous inflow of non-citizens is amassing at the gates’ and so extreme measures are warranted; extreme measures such as containment, detention, and deterrence should be enacted because new migrants are unknown commodities, possibly ISIL-affiliated, and are amassing at the gates (Mainwaring and Silverman 2017: p. 22). The migration studies scholarship is rich with historical examples of European and other States ‘selecting certain migration flows to interpret and broadcast as crises’ (Ibid: 27, cf. Hyndman 2012; Chimni 1998; Huysmans 2000; Huysmans and Squire 2010).

[2] Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. (2015) Communication: European Agenda on Migration, Brussels, 13.5.2015 COM (2015).


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