July 31, 2014

Experience shows that once a country like Ukraine is placed on a “safe country of origin” list, the UK government is not likely to act quickly to remove it – even as the numbers of dead bodies quickly mount or as the first waves of refugees make their way to neighbouring countries.

Bill Frelick, Refugee Rights Director

With horrendous reports of death and destruction coming from Ukraine, the UK Home Office continues to regard it as a “safe country of origin” for asylum seekers. That means a Ukrainian asylum seeker landing at Heathrow tonight would still be forced to overcome a presumption that his asylum claim is frivolous.

The UK established its “designated” lists as a way to quickly reject as “clearly unfounded” requests from asylum seekers coming from countries considered safe. Section 94 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act of 2002 strips such asylum seekers of the right to appeal whilst in the UK.

The order that designates countries as safe says that the secretary of state believes that asylum seekers coming from these places have “no serious risk of persecution” if sent back. But in the real world, a country may look calm one day and blow up the next.

Experience shows that once a country like Ukraine is placed on a “safe country of origin” list, the UK government is not likely to act quickly to remove it – even as the numbers of dead bodies quickly mount or as the first waves of refugees make their way to neighbouring countries.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, on the other hand, is issuing advisories telling British citizens not to travel to various parts of Ukraine, and warns: “Events in Ukraine are fast moving. You should monitor this travel advice regularly.”

Back in March, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, called on European countries to remove Ukraine from safe country lists. This month, it sent out guidance on how governments should consider Ukrainian asylum claims. Calling the situation in Ukraine “volatile,” the agency advised, “In the current circumstances, UNHCR considers a designation of Ukraine as a ‘safe country of origin’ not appropriate, and recommends States to remove Ukraine from ‘safe country of origin’ lists.”

The number of internally displaced people in Ukraine is fast reaching 100,000, and new Human Rights Watch research indicates that the conditions they face are very poor. The numbers of asylum seekers heading into the EU are still relatively small, but the situation on the ground is well beyond the point where Ukraine can automatically be considered safe.

Let’s be clear: this is not about declaring Ukraine unsafe or saying all Ukrainians should be granted temporary protection, but only that their claims for asylum should not be disadvantaged because of an assumption they are coming from a safe place.

More generally, the UK should take a hard look at the whole concept of safe country lists. There may be circumstances in which it is quite beneficial to speed up bureaucratic procedures, but the process of making life-and-death decisions is not one of them. Bureaucrats should not be encouraged to cut corners when deciding whether asylum seekers will face generalized violence, persecution, torture, or worse upon return. But the first step is for the Home Office to catch up with what’s happening on the ground.

Bill Frelick is the Refugee Rights Program director at Human Rights Watch.