Not cleared from scrutiny; further information requested; drawn to the attention of the Home Affairs Committee
Court of Auditors Special Report: EU response to the refugee crisis: the ‘hotspot’ approach
(38687), Special Report No.6 2017,—
22.1In recent years, irregular migration to Europe has reached a scale unseen since the aftermath of the Second World War. Managing these flows has placed a heavy burden on the main points of entry to Europe—Greece and Italy. According to the EU’s Border and Coast Guard Agency (formerly Frontex) in its Risk Analysis for 2017, the pressure at the EU’s external borders remains “exceptionally high”. Although far fewer irregular border crossings were detected in 2016—around half a million compared with 1.8 million in 2015—detections on the Central Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy have exceeded 150,000 for three consecutive years (from 2014–16) and show little sign of abating. Migratory pressure along the Eastern Mediterranean route has eased following an agreement between the EU and Turkey in March 2016 to stem the flow of irregular migrants across the Aegean Sea to Greece. Whilst fewer irregular migrants reach the Greek Islands, the numbers already present exceed the capacity to accommodate them by a ratio of nearly three to one—at the end of 2016, there were 5,450 places for 15,431 migrants.
22.2In 2015, the Commission published a European Agenda on Migration which set out a comprehensive framework to improve migration management. It included a proposal to establish first-line registration and reception centres—“hotspots”—at those parts of the EU’s external borders experiencing disproportionate migratory pressure. Each hotspot would become a focal point for operational support and funding provided by the Commission and various EU agencies—principally Frontex (now the European Border and Coast Guard), the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and Europol—working in partnership with, and under the full control of, the host Member State. Hotspots would have a number of core tasks:
22.3The Court of Auditors report (published in March) focuses specifically on the support provided by the Commission and EU agencies to assist with the implementation of hotspots in Greece and Italy from their inception in 2015 to the end of summer 2016. It recognises that the circumstances during this period were “very challenging and changing” and the operating environment “difficult and volatile”. The Court examines the location, establishment and functioning of hotspots as well as their overall effectiveness in managing migratory flows. It concludes that the hotspots have made an important contribution by increasing reception capacity, improving registration procedures and strengthening coordination amongst the different actors. The Court also identifies a number of shortcomings and makes specific recommendations to expand capacity, improve the treatment of unaccompanied children, ensure the more effective deployment of experts and clarify responsibilities, structures and operating procedures within the hotspots. The Court invites the Commission and EU agencies to undertake a full evaluation of hotspots by the end of 2017. The Commission accepts all of the Court’s recommendations without reservation.
22.4The Immigration Minister (Brandon Lewis) says that the Government “supports the principle of hotspots” as a means of improving security and asylum screening capacity at parts of the EU’s external borders experiencing migratory pressure and that their “swift and effective implementation” remains a UK priority. He sets out the human and financial resources provided by the UK to support EASO and Frontex operations in Greece and Italy, as well as direct bilateral humanitarian assistance in both countries. The Minister notes that draft Council Conclusions on the Court of Auditors report were circulated by the Maltese Presidency and discussed by senior officials in June but “an agreement is yet to be reached”.
22.5Although not included in the recommendations made by the Court of Auditors, the Minister picks up on a reference in the report to the security risk presented by the absence of “a single point of entry system” that would allow multiple migration and security databases to be consulted in one search. He urges the Commission to take forward a different set of recommendations made recently by an expert group on the interoperability of EU migration and security information systems on the grounds that greater data sharing, including in hotspots, would help both to prevent crime and protect citizens in all Member States.
22.6We note the Minister’s support for “the principle of hotspots” and welcome the assistance provided by the UK to improve their functioning and to address the wider refugee and migration crisis in the Mediterranean. We would have welcomed a more detailed analysis of the Court’s main findings and recommendations, particularly those concerning the serious shortcomings in reception capacity and facilities (especially for unaccompanied children and other vulnerable migrants), the appointment of a child protection officer within each hotspot or at every site receiving migrants, the shortfall in national experts deployed to hotspots and the bottlenecks in asylum procedures (particularly in Greece). The Commission commends the Court of Auditors for “a well-balanced analysis” and accepts all of its recommendations. Does the Government agree with the Commission’s assessment and what does it consider to be the most urgent priorities in refining the hotspot approach?
22.7We note that there has been some discussion of draft Council Conclusions on the Court of Auditors report but that an agreement has not yet been reached. We ask the Minister whether the delay reflects divisions within the Council on the substance of the Court’s recommendations and whether these are likely to be resolved.
22.8The Court of Auditors report does not address the impact of increased migratory pressures in the Central Mediterranean since the beginning of the year on the operation of hotspots in Italy. Does the Minister consider that increased capacity in the existing hotspots, or the creation of new hotspots, will be needed to manage the flows and, if so how, how should this be funded? We would welcome further information on Member States’ response to the Action Plan presented by the Commission at the informal meeting of Justice and Home Affairs Ministers in July which set out a number of measures to support Italy? Does the Minister consider that the package of measures is likely to be sufficient to ease pressures on Italian hotspots? What is the Government’s position on an initiative by the Italian authorities (also included in the Action Plan) to draw up a Code of Conduct for NGOs involved in search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean? Is this likely to ensure better coordination or result in more deaths at sea if NGO vessels involved in search and rescue are refused access to Italian ports?
22.9We have commented on the challenges presented by interoperable migration and security information systems in our First Report agreed on 13 November 2017.
22.10Pending further information, the Court of Auditors report remains under scrutiny. We draw this chapter to the attention of the Home Affairs Committee.
22.11The Court examines whether the hotspots were in the right place, had been set up in a timely manner and had sufficient capacity to meet actual needs. It finds in the case of Greece that:
22.12In the case of Italy, the Court finds that:
22.13The Court examines the support provided for the hotspots by the Commission and EU agencies, as well as the Commission’s role in ensuring overall coordination of effort. On the former, the Court explains that the Greek and Italian authorities first had to indicate how much additional support they needed. The relevant EU agencies, Frontex and EASO, then invited Member States to provide the necessary resources through the deployment of national experts whose principal tasks were to assist with identification, nationality screening, registration, fingerprinting and debriefing. Both agencies also provided “cultural mediators” to communicate with newly arriving migrants.
22.14The Court observes that far fewer experts were deployed than were actually needed—Member State pledges only covered around 65% of requests by Frontex and 57% of requests by EASO for direct support within the hotspots—and that the frequent turnover of national experts entailed “a significant efficiency loss”. The shortfall was particularly marked in Greece where the number of experts deployed to assist EASO was insufficient to cope with the increased number of asylum applications.
22.15The Commission set up the Structural Reform Support Service in 2015 to oversee the coordination of support for hotspots. Coordination also takes place at national level, at operational level through Regional Task Forces, and within the hotspots. In Greece, the development of standard operating procedures had been delayed by the EU-Turkey deal which “fundamentally” changed the functioning of hotspots. The Court notes that the Greek authorities had yet to appoint an individual or authority responsible for the overall management of the hotspots, meaning that it was often difficult to identify who was in charge of each hotspot. By contrast, Italy had shown “strong ownership of the hotspot approach” and consulted all of the main stakeholders on its standard operating procedures which took effect in May 2016. The Court nevertheless highlights “a perceived lack of a clearly defined ‘focal point’ for each hotspot” as the demarcation of responsibilities amongst the different bodies—local authorities, police and NGOs—involved in hotspots was not obvious.
22.16The Court considers whether adequate monitoring procedures were in place and whether the hotspot approach was an effective means of managing migratory flows. It notes that the Commission has published frequent reports which “contribute to a transparent and open reporting framework” on the implementation of hotspots, adding that the Commission “does not hide challenges or lack of progress” but is at times “overly optimistic” in the conclusions it draws (for example, on the feasibility of meeting EU targets for the relocation of asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other Member States). The Court suggests that there is scope to improve performance measurement by developing a performance monitoring framework for each hotspot.
22.17The Court concludes that the hotspot approach has improved the rate of registration, identification and fingerprinting of incoming migrants, a crucial first step in determining which follow-up procedures to apply. Although there are only four operational hotspots in Italy, the hotspot approach has been applied in other ports of disembarkation and made an important contribution towards improving border management. The Court draws attention to flaws in the legal framework governing access to various national, European and international security databases, noting:
“[…] the problem of interoperability of the security databases (lack of a single point of entry system that would allow consultation of multiple databases with one search) is a challenge for systematic security checks that cannot be solved in the short term.”
22.18The Court says that bottlenecks in follow-up procedures have had a damaging effect on hotspots, particularly in Greece where there have been significant delays in processing asylum claims, identifying candidates for relocation and implementing returns to Turkey which have led to serious overcrowding and growing tension. The main bottleneck in Italy stemmed from the shortage of Member State pledges to relocate asylum seekers and the low implementation rate for return decisions (less than 20% in the first half of 2016).
22.19The Court’s Recommendations seek to address shortcomings in reception capacity and facilities (particularly for unaccompanied children), the shortfall in the deployment of national experts, fragmentation in the structures for coordinating support within individual hotspots and longer-term evaluation and monitoring. The Court invites the Commission and EU agencies to:
22.20The Court makes clear that the Commission should insist on the appointment of a child protection officer for each hotspot or site receiving migrants.
22.21The Minister expresses the Government’s support for “the principle of hotspots” and EASO’s efforts to coordinate activity in Greece and Italy with a view to “improving border security and asylum screening capacity at parts of the EU external border most under pressure”. One of the functions of hotpots is to identify individuals in clear need of international protection who are eligible for relocation to another Member State under the EU’s emergency relocation mechanism. The Minister notes that the UK does not participate in EU relocation measures and says that hotspots should not focus exclusively on facilitating relocation but contribute to “better management of the EU’s external border with more focus being given to the rapid return of those without a legitimate asylum claim”.
22.22The Minister describes the resources deployed by the UK through the EASO to assist Greece and Italy:
“In support of the EU-Turkey agreement in May 2016, the previous Home Secretary (Theresa May) announced a package of UK support to Greece consisting of up to 75 expert staff. The first UK staff arrived in Greece in early June 2016, and our pledge to send 75 expert staff was fulfilled in January 2017. In November 2016, the UK offered an additional package to Greece under the EU-Turkey deal of up to 40 extra expert staff over the winter period to support this trial, including flow management experts, caseworkers, interpreters, and returns experts to support the admissibility process and ease overcrowding on the islands. These teams include experts in supporting vulnerable groups, such as unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and those trained to tackle people trafficking. All staff have now been committed, and these 40 with the 75 already in Greece take our total commitment to 115.”
22.23The UK has also supported Frontex operations in Greece (Poseidon) and in Italy (Triton). Border Force has committed “debriefers” (122 months-worth of deployment) and “screeners” (24 months) to help gather information on the routes migrants take to Europe and the involvement of organised crime groups in facilitating their journey or in trafficking, and to establish the nationality of migrants so that those with no basis for staying in Europe can be returned.
22.24The UK is working bilaterally with authorities in France, Greece and Italy, as well as with the UN Refugee Agency and NGOs, to identify unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who may be eligible to come to the UK under section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016, as well as those eligible to be transferred to the UK under the Dublin rules on the grounds that they have family in the UK. The UK has also offered support and advice to Italy on returns, including through the procurement of charter flights. The Minister “notes” Italy’s plans to increase significantly its detention capacity.
22.25In terms of financial support, the Minister explains that the UK has:
22.26The Minister says that the UK has already committed more than £100 million of humanitarian assistance in response to the Mediterranean migration crisis, adding:
“At the June European Council, the Prime Minister announced a further £75m focused on the Central Mediterranean route. This will meet the urgent humanitarian needs of migrants, facilitate voluntary returns and build the capacity of governments to manage migration.”
22.27The Minister picks up on a reference in the Court of Auditors report concerning access to relevant migration and security databases. The Court highlighted “the problem of the interoperability of security databases (lack of a single point of entry system that would allow consultation of multiple databases with one search)” and suggested that this presented “a challenge for systematic security checks that cannot be solved in the short term”. The Minister observes:
“We encourage greater data sharing as a means to prevent crime and protect citizens in all Member States. We welcome the progress made at the Commission’s recent High Level Expert Group (HLEG) on information systems and interoperability. The UK supports the three key implementation proposals set out in the HLEG’s final report which include: creating a common search engine, known as the ‘European Search Portal’, allowing Member States to consult all the information held about an individual by EU databases, provided they are entitled to see it, in a single query; for work to begin on a biometric matching service, allowing Member States to compare fingerprints and, when possible, facial images with all those held on EU systems; and work on a common identity repository, which would enable Member States to discover all the names by which an individual is known on different EU databases. We welcome these proposals and are keen to see the Commission take its recommendations forward.”
None on this document.
289 See Frontex’s .
290 See the European Commission , A European Agenda on Migration published in May 2015.
291 See para 38 of the Minister’s Explanatory Memorandum.
292 See our First Report HC 301–i (2017–19), (13 November 2017).
293 See the on measures to support Italy, reduce pressure along the Central Mediterranean route and increase solidarity, SEC(2017) 339, 04.07.2017.
294 See our First Report HC 301–i (2017–19), (13 November 2017).
295 See p.28 of the Court of Auditors report.
296 See p.30 of the Court of Auditors report.
297 See p.31–2 of the Court of Auditors report.
298 See p.36 of the Court of Auditors report.
299 See p.37 of the Court of Auditors report.
300 See p.40 of the Court of Auditors report.
301 See para 24 of the Minister’s Explanatory Memorandum.
302 See para 25 of the Minister’s Explanatory Memorandum.
303 See para 27 of the Minister’s Explanatory Memorandum.
304 See the issued by the Government in April on section 67 of the Immigration Act 1967, as well as the of the then Immigration Minister (Robert Goodwill) (Hansard, 26 April 2017, col 66WS).
305 See para 35 of the Minister’s Explanatory Memorandum.
306 See p.40 of the Court of Auditors report.
307 See para 26 of the Minister’s Explanatory Memorandum.
28 November 2017