A successful lobby by the Portuguese government resulted in the relocation of twenty four refugees belonging to the Yazidi religious minority from Greece to the Northern city of Guimarães Portugal, in March 2017. As I write this piece in January 2018, Saman Ali is the only remaining. The rest of the group abandoned the country, deciding instead to settle in another EU Member State, namely Northern countries seen as prime destinations for asylum. In Portugal, despite favourable laws and a welcoming government, 42% of relocated refugees have chosen to leave. In this piece I will look into how the EU28 framework on asylum-seekers and refugees has been hindered by secondary movements within the Schengen Area, particularly noticeable in the high abandonment rate in Portugal.

Unequal distribution

There is an unprecedented number of forcibly displaced people in the world today, which has prompted the largest population movement in European history. In 2016, Eurostat reports that 1,259,970 persons applied for asylum in the EU28. FRONTEX, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, has signalled that the main nationalities of asylum-seekers are Syrian, Iraqi, and Pakistani for the Eastern Mediterranean route, Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan for the Western Balkan route, and Nigerian, Guinean and Bangladeshi from the Central Mediterranean route. An unequal distribution of refugees among the twenty-eight sovereign states of the EU quickly developed, as some countries appealed to the incoming forced migrants as ideal destinations for labour opportunities and family networks while others were dismissed as transit countries with less established reception systems and lower wages.

Latest UNHCR data shows that Germany is the prime destination for asylum – it accounts for 51.6% of the 884 461 asylum applications filed in European countries between April 2011 and October 2016. Portugal, in comparison, received 851 asylum applications. In fact it is the only Western member to not display a figure above 1,000 – neighbour Spain reports 12,127 applications, for instance. Hungary also shows high rates (8.4% or 77,056 persons) despite not implementing EU-mandated quotas, due to its geographical position which renders it vulnerable to inflows. In contrast, the Baltic countries and countries which have openly resisted relocating refugees report extremely low numbers.

The EU Commission launched an emergency relocation scheme in September 2015 to manage the unprecedented flows and combine quotas, in seeking to alleviate the pressure on arrival countries by relocating a total of 160,000 asylum-seekers in Italy and Greece among the other Member States. The official EU Council Decision 2015/1601 stipulates that ‘’a robust mechanism of identification, registration and fingerprinting for the relocation procedure should be ensured by Italy and Greece so as to quickly identify the persons in need of international protection who are eligible for relocation.’’ This decision prescribed a harmonisation of reception conditions among all Member States in order to ‘’limit secondary movements of applicants for international protection influenced by the variety of conditions for their reception.’’ In fact all states are bound by solidarity obligations and respect for international treaties, in which it is essential to assure asylum seekers awaiting a decision on their application live in dignity, instead of being forced to move to another Member State to have appropriate conditions.

However, in practice, refugees don’t stay in their designated country of asylum. Secondary movements are common and have rendered Portugal into a transit country. In Guimarães alone, of the 43 refugees that have arrived since 2015, 20 have left for other countries. The main question here is why they decide to leave, if asylum and safe conditions have been granted. Ultimately, when discussing refugee abandonment there is more at stake than policies and guidelines: the human aspect of family dynamics, personal ambitions and social networks play a critical role in integration.

Abandonment rates

All refugees who have left Portugal after arriving through an UNHCR resettlement programme or an EU relocation programme have sought out Northern countries to settle in. The most common factors influencing this decision are the prospects of better opportunities and greater support from social connections speaking louder than the granting of lawful asylum in a less appealing country.

Nevertheless, EU law determines that once refugees leave Portugal after having been granted in this Member State, they must be sent back according to the current Dublin Regulation’s provisions on Member State responsibility. The Regulation does follow the principle of non-refoulement, in that a refugee must not be sent back to its country of asylum registration if he would be subject to inhumane conditions, but this does not apply to Portugal. Ultimately what happens is many who are caught and returned ending up fleeing again.

It can be explained that refugees are not eager to settle in Portugal for asylum because it does not offer the long-established reception schemes and integration mechanisms other EU countries do. Portugal is notable in its displays of great solidarity from the government and civil society, but nonetheless plays an isolated role in the European refugee crisis: the system of reception and integration is undeveloped, the resources and capacity are scarce and human factors of familial aspirations and reunification affect its appeal as destination. Saman Ali, for instance, the only Yazidi refugee still living in Portugal, presents the important factor of having also been the only one that came alone to the country, having lost his entire family in the war. For this reason, pretensions of reunification or familial pressures did not influence his willingness to integrate into the Portuguese system.

The refugee snowball effect

In contrast to late bloomers in refugee hosting, countries such as Germany and Sweden started taking in refugees and responding to the crisis at an earlier stage and have since built up notorious reputations as ideal destination countries. Sweden was the destination of 28,939 asylum-seekers in 2016 alone, receiving more refugees per-capita than any other country and labelling itself as a ‘humanitarian superpower’. As the Member State hosting the most refugees, Germany is the front runner for refuge from persecution but also labour opportunities and socioeconomic stability. Germany carries a long history of welcoming immigrants and refugees, known as Willkommenskultur – the Federal Statistics Office reports that Germany’s foreign population actually consists of more non-EU citizens (5,094,714 persons) than EU (4,013,179 persons).

In view of this history of integration, a snowball effect is produced in that new incoming refugees chase countries with already-established networks to more easily settle into the labour market and communal living. These host countries have long been flagged by influential transnational networks of friends or family already integrated there, communicating with asylum-seekers still in the camps or the countries of origin. The absence of a social support system in the form of refuge networks, which asylum-seekers are attracted to in other EU countries, contributes to Portugal’s weak exposure and, thereupon, low refugee rates and poor refugee networks. Therefore, the underdevelopment of Portuguese refugee services is both a cause and a consequence of the relatively low flow of refugees to Portugal.

Saman Ali, for instance, went into a hunger strike in November 2017 in protest to delays in the attribution of his refugee status by the Portuguese Immigration and Borders Service (SEF). Three days later it was announced that his international protection application process had been finalised, valid for the next five years and open to renewal. It appears the Portuguese system is eager to host those in need, but not yet experienced enough to do so in a deep-rooted manner. The improvement of the protections and services offered in Portugal has grown in reaction to calls of need.

The way forward

The Portuguese government stands out with its welcoming stance to migrants and refugees. This, however, must be matched with solid reception mechanisms and integration policies in order to achieve the desired outcome of stabilising retention rates. Insofar, the Portuguese refugee integration system has shown to be the sum of several systems and services that are still new and untested considering the influx since 2015 is the first significant refugee wave into the country. I encourage the Portuguese government to create a single specialised agency on asylum and refugee issues, by merging the role of the Portuguese Immigration and Borders Service (SEF), civil society organisations and ad-hoc volunteer initiatives. As numbers and political concern rise, so must the action plans. This would facilitate the collection of data to assure proper assessment of the population and issues at hand. It would also enable clear accountability regarding asylum applications and refugee integration.

At the end of the day or at the end of each newly-tested EU-wide refugee plan, there are both strengths and weaknesses to consider. In light of the high rates of secondary movements and the regional divide in refugee distribution, it is important to acknowledge that solidarity must be matched with appropriate systems in order to improve retention rates.

Bárbara Matias
Bárbara Matias works for the European Commission as Desk Officer. Currently in the DG INTPA's Southeast Asia unit leading the Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Laos files, she previously led the Armenia joint programming file in DG NEAR. Before that, Bárbara worked as Programme Officer in NATO's Operations Division, on Iraq capacity-building and on Covid-19 aid coordination with the EU. She previously worked in Kosovo as Research Fellow at the Group for Legal and Political Studies focused on the EU enlargement strategy for the Western Balkans. Bárbara has written for online political platforms and peer-review journals since 2015. She holds a Master in Human Rights Studies from Columbia University, New York where she was a Fulbright Graduate Scholar and undergraduate lecturer, and speaks 6 languages.

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