Berg av flytvästar på den grekiska ön Lesbos, år 2016.
The Greek border island Lesbos, in January 2016.
Photo: Alexandra Bousiou

Humanitarian crisis at EU’s borders under current asylum regime


The current governance of the European asylum regime at the Greek border islands has resulted in severe human rights violations and humanitarian emergencies. This is argued in a new dissertation from the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg. The thesis offers valuable insights to policy makers since the reform of the Common European Asylum remains high in the priorities of the EU.

The Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros received over the period of a year between 2015 and 2016, 80 percent of all refugee arrivals to the EU. In a dissertation, Governing the European Asylum System at the Greek Border Islands, Alexandra Bousiou analyses the process from a multi-level governance perspective.

“In my analysis I divide the asylum policy into three sub-areas: the right to seek asylum, humanitarian reception conditions, and border controls. This allowed me to demonstrate how the asylum processes were severely undermined, and the reception conditions corresponded to a humanitarian crisis, while border controls increased,” says Alexandra Bousiou.

Competing goals lead to more suffering

She argues that the political sub-areas have competing goals. The objective of securing the right to seek asylum cannot be exercised in accordance with the extended legislation and current practice of border controls. In addition, the confinement of asylum seekers hinders all opportunities for humane living conditions in the camps.

According to the dissertation, the sub-area border controls is prioritized in comparison with humanitarian reception conditions and the right to seek asylum. Since 2016, and following the agreement between the EU and Turkey, many voices at EU and national level have presented the reduction in the number of refugees arriving to the islands as a success (European Commission 2018). According to Alexandra Bousiou, however, the reduced number of arriving refugees can be interpreted in different ways.

“My analysis of asylum management on the islands indicates that the asylum processes have been seriously undermined, and it shows the complexity that surrounds every statement that agreement between the EU and Turkey is a success,” says Alexandra Bousiou.

Differences between the islands

The dissertation also shows that although the many common rules and processes in the EU regarding the management of the asylum system, local differences remain striking. The involvement of many actors from the EU, the national government, and the local governments as well as from the civil society, in combination with a complicated set of laws and practices create challenges in reaching the aims of refugee protection, humanitarian reception conditions and border controls.

“Although it has been argued that migration policymaking within multilevel systems is geared towards solving problems, my evidence indicates that even actors from similar local contexts in equivalent hierarchical positions, such as the mayors on the five different islands, might have different interpretations of how to solve problems,” says Alexandra Bousiou.

By including the concept of peripheralisation - a dynamic process involving the socio-spatial degradation of an area - Alexandra Bousiou also wants to show how the EU asylum regime not only aims to be an effective administration according to the European Commission, but also aims to protect the EU Northern member states against an increasing flow of asylum seekers.

More information

Alexandra Bousiou successfully defended her thesis Governing the European Asylum System at the Greek Border Islands at the School of Global Studies on 22 January 2021.

Read a summary of Alexandra Bousiou's doctoral thesis (Gupea).