The Italian government has recently instituted a policy of returning asylum-seekers back to abusive conditions in Greece without reviewing their claims, an approach in conflict with both national and international obligations. Italy has continued to pursue this policy of summary return of both Greek asylum seekers and persons from northern Africa who originally were seeking asylum in Greece despite requests from observers, including Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks and the UN Special Rapporteur on rights of migrants François Crépeau, that the state discontinue the practice. As immigration law is currently enforced, both adults and children are generally deported via commercial ferries and confined in makeshift holding cells or engine rooms under the custody of the ship’s captain. According to media reports, asylum-seekers are sometimes denied adequate food and, upon return, Greece has been unable to provide the individuals with basic requirements of safety and shelter. This maltreatment is attributable to Greece’s overburdened asylum system—a system which leaves little chance that asylum-seekers will receive adequate support within Greece and has led to numerous reports of human rights violations perpetrated by Greek authorities.

The Dublin Regulation (Dublin II), to which both nations are bound, governs the interaction between Italy and Greece regarding which state should process claims by asylum-seekers. The European Union (EU) regulation requires that asylum claims be dealt with by the first Member State in which the asylum seeker arrives. Should the individual leave that first State, the individual can be returned to the State of entry in the EU. The assumption under Dublin II is that EU Member States will comply with their international obligations toward asylum-seekers under the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the Qualification Directive, and the EU Charter. The stated goal of Dublin II is to ensure that one Member State is responsible for the examination of individual asylum claims in a manner that respects the fundamental rights of asylum-seekers. Additionally, it is meant to promote judicial efficiency of the asylum process and to deter individuals from filing multiple asylum claims. In practice, however, refugee rights advocates note that Dublin II often acts as a roadblock to refugees by causing extensive delays in the examination of asylum claims by sending asylum seekers back to their point of entry and increasing pressure on EU border countries that receive a disproportionate number of asylum-seekers compared to northern European countries.

The use of Dublin II in relation to the Greece and Italy situation has drawn concern. In December 2009, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees recommended that governments stop sending asylum seekers back to Greece and stop applying Dublin II provisions until further notice, a request with which many nations complied. In 2011, the European Court of Human Rights in M.S.S. v. Belgium & Greece held that Belgium had violated Articles 3 and 13 of the ECHR by sending asylum-seekers back to Greece under Dublin II. Also in 2011, the EU Court of Justice held in NS v. ME that Member States have an obligation not to transfer asylum seekers to Member States where they would face inhuman or degrading treatment in violation of Article 4 of the EU Charter.

By returning asylum seekers to Greece without fully examining individual asylum requests, Italy has failed to address the concerns raised by the courts and intergovernmental organizations. Further economic issues, especially in Greece but throughout Europe, continue to impede States’ abilities to provide integration services for migrants in the continent. Although movement has been made to standardize EU practices throughimplementation of a Common European Asylum System, as the States negotiate the asylum-seekers continue to face hardships.

Such hardships are not made easier by the economic hardship faced by the southern European countries that is exacerbated by their proximity to northern Africa, currently the source of a high number of asylum-seekers. Many such individuals enter via undocumented transportation, making it exceedingly difficult to regulate the numbers of people entering the European countries. Without assistance from northern European countries, it is difficult for the migrant-receiving countries in the south to process asylum claims under Dublin II. In 2011, the Italian Minister of the Interior appealed explicitly for this kind of additional support from fellow European states. Italy may be violating its responsibilities under Dublin II and various human rights documents, but without support from other European states, Italy’s economic burdens make it difficult for them to meet these obligations. Nevertheless, continent-wide cooperation could create a viable path to adequately process asylum requests under Dublin II that respects the individuals seeking protection.