Families waiting for a bottle of water and a sandwich per person at a camp in Idomeni, Greece, March 2016.

(Brussels) – European Union leaders should signal a change in course and affirm strong human rights principles in EU asylum policy and foreign relations, Human Rights Watch said today. Heads of state from the 28 EU countries meeting in Brussels on December 15, 2016, are expected to assess migration cooperation with selected African countries, evaluate implementation of the EU-Turkey deal to stem boat migration to the Greek islands, and discuss proposals for further reform of EU asylum rules.

“EU leadership has never been more vitally important than now,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The EU moves to outsource responsibility for asylum seekers and limit refugee rights will do little to stave off populist anti-immigrant movements, but will significantly harm both people desperately seeking refuge and the EU’s global standing.”

In a recent report, Human Rights Watch analyzed the human rights consequences of EU migration and asylum policy trends, and set out recommendations on how the EU can place human rights at the core of its response to boat and other migration. The focus on deterrence has come at the expense of concerted action to increase safe and legal options for refugees such as resettlement, Human Rights Watch said.

The problematic EU-Turkey deal and the so-called migration “compacts” with African countries demonstrate the EU’s increasing focus on foreign policy and aid to leverage cooperation by countries of origin and transit. Providing aid to improve people’s lives in countries of origin and the lives of refugees and host communities in countries of first arrival and asylum is positive. But the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has warned  against a “carrot and stick” approach, which risks creating incentives for governments to implement abusive policies to block departures or restrict freedom of movement. This would have a devastating impact on the ability of asylum seekers to reach places of genuine safety and of everyone in those countries to exercise their right to leave their own country, Human Rights Watch said.

On December 8, the European Commission proposed changes to the EU-Turkey deal that would make it even harder for vulnerable groups or family members of people already in Europe to avoid being forcibly returned to Turkey. The changes would also further accelerate asylum procedures for people from countries considered to be “safe countries of origin” on the assumption that they do not need protection.

The Commission is pressing Greece to speed up the work of Greek Appeals Committees and to explore ways to limit their opportunities to review cases. This would effectively reduce their ability to block returns of asylum seekers even if they believe that Turkey is not a safe country for return. The committees have been blocking returns in almost all of these cases.

The Commission has also indicated that EU countries should be able, as of mid-March 2017, to gradually resume returns to Greece of asylum seekers who passed through the country, applying the EU asylum rule known as the Dublin regulation. European and national courts have blocked returns of asylum seekers to Greece under the Dublin regulation because of Greece’s failure to provide effective protection and decent reception conditions for asylum seekers.

EU leaders are expected to consider a raft of changes to EU asylum laws proposed by the European Commission. These include measures to make it harder to qualify for protection in EU countries, to punish asylum seekers for moving between EU countries, and to impose compulsory reviews to facilitate revoking protection and forced returns. While the Commission proposals include some positive aspects, the overall package would lower standards and protection, Human Rights Watch said.

Mismanagement and the failure to act collectively and share responsibility fairly among EU member states are causing unnecessary hardships for asylum seekers and migrants, Human Rights Watch said. Numerous organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, have criticized the conditions and treatment in processing centers, called hotspots, in Italy and Greece.

Over 62,500 asylum seekers and migrants remain stranded in Greece, and the EU policy of containment on the Greek islands in implementation of the EU-Turkey deal is exacerbating terrible conditions and tensions on the islands. The asylum system in Italy is also increasingly overwhelmed. The poorly designed and implemented relocation plan has done little to alleviate the stresses on these two countries, or help people seeking protection. Only 8,162 people have been relocated to other EU countries, just 5 percent of the initial total target of 160,000.

Since the beginning of 2016, over 350,000 asylum seekers and other migrants have reached the EU by sea, almost evenly split between Italy and Greece. Despite rescue efforts by nongovernmental groups and EU states, more than 4,700 people have died or been reported missing at sea in 2016, the deadliest year on record.

“EU leaders like to be seen talking tough about keeping people out of Europe, when their time would be much better spent figuring out how the EU can be a real leader in the global displacement crisis,” Sunderland said. “That starts with sharing responsibility and protecting rights here in Europe, increasing resettlement, and tackling the human rights abuses that drive forced displacement.”