Policy and Advocacy

Not all refugees in the EU are being welcomed with open arms

Photo: Aideen Elliot/Oxfam

By Dr Aideen Elliot, Oxfam Ireland’s Refugee and Migration Coordinator.

We arrived at the ‘closed controlled access centre’ or closed refugee camp on Samos island after a scenic but zigzagging drive from the closest town of Vathi, 9km of mountainous, twisting road away. In the company of two Greek lawyers from Oxfam’s local partner organisation, the Greek Council for Refugees, I stood outside the gates of the camp for half an hour while the private security guard checked our documents and called the Ministry to verify the permission to enter that we had shown them.

I felt like I was at a prison camp when I saw the elevated watch towers, the double layer of barbed wire surrounding the camp, the high metal wire gates that people enter and leave through and the CCTV tracking every move and streaming it directly back to the Ministry in Athens. When the speakers crackled to life and boomed out in different languages that there would be a census head count of residents that day it only added to that impression. There was a heavy security presence with several police and private security company cars and jeeps parked around the entrance and a few large clusters of security guards standing around.

Resident asylum-seekers are only allowed to leave and enter the camp at certain hours (there is an 8pm curfew) and to enter the camp you pass through turnstiles, magnetic gates and x-rays and scan one’s fingerprints and asylum card. Security guards also do body and bag searches of residents. I was visiting the camp with Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) as part of a research project that was collecting information and resident testimonies for Oxfam and GCR’s bulletin on closed camps (that you can read here).

Photo: Aideen Elliot/Oxfam

During our time on Samos, residents and service providers told us about the closed camp’s devastating impact on the mental health of residents, how it has made it more difficult for them to access lawyers (essential for having fair access to applying for asylum), made it virtually impossible to access health care and isolated residents from the community on Samos.

Although Samos Island might seem far away from Ireland, Ireland is strongly linked to this camp and the other four being built on Greek islands because these closed camps are 100% EU funded, so Irish money has contributed to buying the barbed wire and the metal fences that close asylum seekers off from the local community.

It is also important to remember that the policies that keep asylum seekers contained to Greek islands are EU policies and so the Irish government is part of making these policy decisions through the EU Councils of Ministers.

Detained without notice or legal basis

On 17 November, a few weeks before our visit, camp management introduced a new rule that anyone who didn’t have a ‘valid asylum card’ could no longer leave the camp. This meant that around 100 of the 450 residents were given no notice that suddenly they were indefinitely detained in this camp[1].

Οn 17 December 2021, the Administrative Court of Syros[2] confirmed that the prohibition of exit from the Samos CCAC imposed by the Greek state was unlawful. However, residents in the camp reported to the Greek Council for Refugees that the ban was still in place even after the court decision.

I have suffered mentally a lot. I suffer from traumatic experiences in my country and unbearable living conditions here. My mental health has been destroyed. It’s been three years now since 2019. I cannot understand why I haven’t succeeded in committing suicide. And now I am being held prisoner here….. I just want to go outside. They don’t let me. They are keeping me here as a prisoner.

Testimony (received 12/2021) of an Afghan young man trapped in Samos since 2019, pending the examination of his subsequent asylum application:

Mental Health Impact

All of the residents I met spoke about the stress and trauma they suffer that stops them from being able to sleep at night. Residents said that being able to leave the camp and go to language classes or to a community centre helped to take their minds off their stress. The fact that the camp is so isolated and remote and the process of passing through security to leave and enter has meant that many people no longer leave the camp and this has a very negative impact on their mental health. Médecins Sans Frontières/ Doctors Without Border (MSF) reported that the majority of their mental health patients on Samos present symptoms of depression and PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder) and linked the deterioration of these people’s mental and physical well-being to living in the new closed camp.

Access to lawyers and health care

Those providing legal support to asylum seekers in the camp said that they faced delays and challenges trying to meet their clients in the camp. They have to email for permission in advance of their visit and reported waiting for an unreasonably long time at the gate for their entrance to be approved and being followed by security guards inside the camp while visiting their clients.

Residents in Samos CCAC have limited access to healthcare. There is no doctor or medical staff based inside the camp, and residents must rely on the sporadic visits of a military doctor.

Photo: Aideen Elliot/Oxfam

“A new chapter in migration management” for the EU?

Refugees and asylum-seekers have for many years been housed in inhumane and undignified conditions in a number of EU countries, including Greece where they sleep in tents in extreme heat of summer and the snow and rain of winter in overcrowded camps without adequate hygiene and toilet facilities. The EU and the Greek government have praised the new ‘closed controlled access centres’ as the solution to these inhumane conditions because these closed camps have more sanitation facilities and containers instead of tents. The EU and Greece plan to open closed centres on five islands:  Leros, Kos, Lesbos, Chios and Samos. The camp on Samos that we visited was the first to open and the ‘blueprint’ for future camps.

EU officials have called these closed camps “a new chapter in migration management” but there is cause for concern about what that this “new chapter” looks like when the camps are like prisons and the Greek Minister for Migration has explicitly said that “the new closed controlled structures act as a deterrent[3]” to people fleeing to come to the EU to look for protection.

Everyone fleeing persecution or serious harm in their own country has the right to ask for international protection. Seeking asylum is a fundamental right and enshrined in both the 1951 Refugee and in Article 18 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Making conditions bad in camps as way of deterring people fleeing from seeking protection in Europe is not in line with our responsibilities. This is especially so in a context where 83% of the refugees in the world are hosted in low and middle income countries[4].

Ireland has a responsibility to advocate for change

The EU is negotiating a New Pact on Migration and Asylum at the moment that is supposed to recognise these past failings. However, the policies on the table fail to address the flaws that have led to the overcrowded and inhospitable conditions in Greece. As an EU member state, Ireland is involved in negotiating the New Pact on Migration and Asylum. The Irish Government should push for real responsibility sharing by relocating asylum seekers from border states to other EU member states, including Ireland.

 In the short term, Irish Ministers urgently need to highlight the need to improve conditions in camps with their Greek counterparts and call for the establishments of a human rights monitoring system for these EU funded camps. In the longer-term, Ireland needs to encourage the Greek government and the European Commission to abandon the policy of closed camps and instead allow people to move freely while having their asylum-applications assessed, as they have committed to do in Ireland, by agreeing to close the direct provision system.

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Reaction: WTO negotiations on patents for COVID-19 Vaccines in developing countries

Responding to news that governments at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) have agreed a deal on patents for COVID-19 vaccines in developing countries, Jim Clarken, CEO, Oxfam Ireland said:

“This is absolutely not the broad intellectual property waiver the world desperately needs to ensure access to vaccines and treatments for everyone, everywhere. The EU, UK, US, and Switzerland blocked that text. This so-called compromise largely reiterates developing countries’ existing rights to override patents in certain circumstances. And it tries to restrict even that limited right to countries which do not already have capacity to produce COVID-19 vaccines. Put simply, it is a technocratic fudge aimed at saving reputations, not lives.

“The conduct of rich countries at the WTO has been utterly shameful. The EU has blocked anything that resembles a meaningful intellectual property waiver. The UK and Switzerland have used negotiations to twist the knife and make any text even worse. And the US has sat silently in negotiations with red lines designed to limit the impact of any agreement. 

“Ireland, represented at the talks by the EU, have continued to show inaction, which now must be seen as a huge moral failure. Furthermore, this inaction is a show of disregard towards the will of the Irish public, given that the majority of the Irish public, the Seanad, the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence are all in favour of a full TRIPS waiver and have called on the Irish Government to reverse their opposition.

“South Africa and India have led a twenty-month fight for the rights of developing countries to manufacture and access vaccines, tests, and treatments. It is disgraceful that rich countries have prevented the WTO from delivering a meaningful agreement on vaccines and have dodged their responsibility to take action on treatments while people die without them.

“There are some worrying new obligations in this text that could actually make it harder for countries to access vaccines in a pandemic. We hope that developing countries will now take bolder action to exercise their rights to override vaccine intellectual property rules and, if necessary, circumvent them to save lives.”

ENDS

For more information or to arrange an interview please contact:

Alice Dawson Lyons | alice.dawsonlyons@oxfam.org | 0831981869

Notes to editors:

  • Spokespeople are available for interview, including in Geneva, where the WTO is hosting its 12th ministerial conference.
  • The trade related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS) waiver would facilitate the local production of Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments in low and middle-income countries. The IP waiver was proposed in October 2020 and is supported by over 100 countries; however it is still being blocked by the EU, the UK, and Switzerland. The final text agreed is a watered down waiver of one small clause of the TRIPS agreement relating to exports of vaccines. It also contains new barriers that are not in the original TRIPS agreement text.
  • In June, the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment formally recommended that the Irish Government supports a TRIPS waiver in the context of COVID-19 vaccines and other measures to ensure equitable and safe distribution of vaccines. This recommendation followed the passage of a unanimous motion in the Seanad in December 2021 calling on the Government to support the TRIPS waiver.

Oxfam Ireland urges Tánaiste Leo Varadkar to support full TRIPS waiver as nearly 30,000 people have died every day from Covid-19 since TRIPS waiver first proposed

A majority of the Irish public, the Seanad and the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment are in favour of a temporarily waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics (known as the TRIPS waiver). The TRIPS waiver would facilitate the local production of Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments in low and middle-income countries.

Nearly 30,000 people have died every day from Covid-19 since WTO talks on a TRIPS waiver began back in 2020. 81 per cent of people in Ireland have gotten two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine compared to less than 13 per cent of people in low-income countries. The waiver is necessary to address these grave inequities and prevent further death and illness amongst those in the global south.

For more than a year, vaccines were not available and once supplies began, they were sporadic and too often delivered too close to expiry to be used in full. This has limited countries’ ability to plan effective vaccine rollouts. Furthermore, it has undermined trust between the EU and countries in Africa.

The IP waiver was proposed in October 2020 and is supported by over 100 countries; however it is still being blocked by the EU, the UK, and Switzerland. In recent months, the public, the Seanad, the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment as well as leading thinkers in Ireland including Mary Robinson, President Michael D. Higgins, and 350 Irish experts have called for a TRIPS waiver. This call is being ignored by the Irish Government and is resulting in the needless loss of life.

The public and other government bodies are urging the Irish Government to use our influence in the EU to advocate for a TRIPS waiver. Next week, the World Trade Organisation will hold a ministerial conference at which the TRIPS waiver will be up for negotiation. Ireland will be sending representatives to this meeting. However, Ireland is ignoring calls for a full TRIPS waiver. This will result in many more unnecessary deaths. Low-income countries cannot afford to wait any longer.

If you are interested in hearing more about the vaccine inequity, you can watch a conference Oxfam Ireland co-hosted here.

If you would like to email your TD’s to urge the government to support a TRIPS waiver, you can find an email template here.

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New EU corporate accountability law ‘riddled with loopholes’

99% of Irish businesses to be excluded from new EU rules aimed at preventing corporate damage to the environment and exploitation of communities.

A coalition of Irish humanitarian aid organisations, trade unions and academics has today criticised new rules proposed by the EU aimed at cleaning up global supply chains and minimising negative global impacts of business on workers, communities, and the environment, warning that they are inadequate and full of flaws and exemptions.

Under the proposed law, some EU companies would be required to undertake ‘due diligence’ checks along their full supply chains to prevent human rights and environmental abuses. However, it will apply only to companies with an annual turnover of over €150 million and more than 500 employees. In high-risk industries like agriculture and fashion, companies with more than 250 employees would be covered. All other businesses would be exempt.

Sorcha Tunney, Coordinator of the Irish Coalition for Business and Human Rights (ICBHR), established to champion greater corporate accountability, said: “This is a crucial step forward but we need to get it right. Communities around the world have been waiting years for new EU rules to end exploitation and prevent abuses along global supply chains.”

She added: “We need to take forced labour, deforestation and oil spills out of our shopping baskets once and for all, but this proposal just doesn’t go far enough and is riddled with loopholes. It looks like an ineffective tick-box exercise that only very few companies will be required to undertake.”

The coalition said that by limiting its scope to so few companies, the proposal turns a blind eye to many harmful business impacts. The European Commission has stated that, if passed in its current form, 99% of companies would be exempt. Based on latest CSO data, the ICBHR estimates that less than 700 Irish companies will have to do checks, including several in particularly high-risk sectors.

Conor O’Neill, Head of Policy & Advocacy at Christian Aid Ireland, said: “Neither turnover nor staff size alone can properly measure a company’s capacity to harm human rights or the environment. We work with communities badly impacted by the infamous Cerrejón mine in Colombia, now facing pollution of their air and water. While the coal is mined and shipped to Europe, the Dublin-based Coal Marketing Company (CMC) that sells it would not be covered as it has only 27 employees. How can we clean up supply chains if so many businesses are exempt?”

Earlier this month, over 100 high profile companies, investors, business associations and initiatives, including IKEA, Primark, Danone and Patagonia, called for ambitious and mandatory corporate human rights and environmental due diligence (mHREDD) legislation from the EU. They state that “many European SMEs, including signatories to this statement, acknowledge that responsibility for human rights and the environment is not a matter of company size”, arguing that all businesses should be required to carry out proportional checks along their supply chains.

Jim Clarken, CEO of Oxfam Ireland, said: “Businesses, including businesses in Ireland, have been calling for a level playing field which will allow them to actively separate themselves from the worst human rights and environmental abuses around the world. But this proposal is a long way from the Commission’s ‘gamechanger’ aspirations. We need a law that makes all companies, not just the biggest, responsible for their human rights and environmental violations, and provides real certainty for business, workers and consumers.”

In October the ICBHR published a report “Make it Your Business” highlighting corporate human rights abuses in low-income countries around the world by Irish companies. It sets out the need for strong corporate accountability legislation requiring businesses operating in Ireland, to identify and prevent human rights abuses and environmental damage occurring in their operations, anywhere in the world. An effective law would ensure companies can be liable for any harm done to communities affected by their activities.

Caoimhe de Barra, CEO of Trócaire, another coalition member said: “Our leaders need to fix this draft EU law and make it work. As the legislation is hammered out in Brussels, the Irish Government and MEPs must step up and ensure it’s free of loopholes. We need this new law to be strong and effective if we’re to clean up the supply chains of Irish and EU companies, keep people safe from harm and help prevent runaway climate change. It should apply to all Irish businesses, put clear responsibilities on companies to prevent abuses in their supply chains, and allow communities to seek justice in Irish courts if abuses happen.”

Andrew Anderson, Executive Director of Front Line Defenders, said: “While we welcome this significant move towards holding companies to account for their actions, moving forward any future legislation should acknowledge that engaging with human rights defenders and rightsholders on the ground is crucial for companies to effectively identify and address harm.

While we are happy to see the expansion of Directive (EU) 2019/1937 (the Whistle-blower directive) to also cover the protections of persons reporting breaches in this new directive, we regret that the draft law makes no explicit reference to human rights defenders or to the risks that they face despite the high levels of attacks against human rights defenders around the world, and despite effective due diligence relying on the information human rights defenders share. The EU has made significant commitments to the protection of human rights defenders, and we expect the forthcoming legislation to reflect these commitments.”

The new EU Proposals:

  • Human rights and environmental due diligence: Under the proposed law, some EU companies would be required to undertake ‘due diligence’ along their full supply chains to prevent human rights and environmental abuses. Due diligence is a process of identifying, preventing, ceasing, mitigating and accounting for the negative impacts of business activities, including those of subsidiaries, subcontractors, and suppliers.

  • Limited scope: the proposed legislation will apply only to companies with an annual turnover of over 150 million euro and over 500 employees. In high-risk industries like agriculture and fashion, companies with more than 250 employees would be covered, while all other businesses would be exempt.

  • Dangerous loophole: while companies will have a duty of care for their entire supply chains, the proposed law contains a dangerous loophole. The extent of a company’s duty of care can be weakened through contractual agreements with companies lower in the supply chain, which could effectively allow companies to offload their due diligence obligations onto their suppliers.

  • Barriers to taking cases against Irish companies: under the proposed law, companies could be held liable for harms committed at home or abroad by their subsidiaries and contractors along their supply chains, and their victims will have the opportunity to file lawsuits before Irish courts. However, the draft law does nothing to address the serious legal hurdles that communities face to take such cases – including high costs, short time limits, limited access to evidence, and a disproportionate burden of proof. The Commission wants companies to adopt a climate transition plan in line with the 1.5 degree target of the Paris climate agreement. However, the proposal does not foresee any specific consequences for the breach of this duty, which risks making the climate duty ineffective.

  • Community consent not included: A corporate obligation to obtain consent from indigenous peoples when business projects may affect their land, territory and resources, is also missing from the text. Around the world, indigenous peoples are dispossessed or denied rights to their land and attacked, threatened, and killed for defending their territories, often from corporate activities.

  • Stakeholder engagement is not included: The Directive does not require engagement with rightsholders only saying that companies shall carry out consultations with potentially affected groups where relevant.

  • Human rights defenders are not named as key stakeholders: The proposal does not name human rights defenders as key to the HREDD process and there are no requirements to address reprisal risk against human rights defenders and other participants in consultations or complainants to grievance mechanisms.

  • Irish public support: a national opinion poll conducted through IPSOS/MRBI in June 2021 for the Irish Coalition for Business & Human Rights showed strong public support for strong new corporate accountability laws for Irish businesses, with 81% of Irish people believing that an Irish company acting unethically in a low-income country should be subject to regulation here in Ireland.

The Irish Coalition for Business and Human Rights is a coalition of civil society organisations, academic experts and trade unions working collaboratively to progress corporate accountability, based on respect for human rights and the environment.

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