(Brussels) - European Union (EU) heads of state meeting in Brussels later this week should put human rights at the heart of EU migration and asylum policy, Human Rights Watch said today. Migration is high on the agenda for the European Council summit on June 23 and 24, 2011, with external border control, free movement inside the EU, the Common European Asylum system, and migration cooperation with North Africa expected to be discussed.
The European Council meeting comes at a critical moment, Human Rights Watch said. Upheaval in North Africa has brought thousands of migrants and asylum seekers to European shores, and led to growing numbers of migrant deaths at sea. Efforts to reform common asylum rules and enhance solidarity within the EU remain largely stalled, while an emphasis on border enforcement has come at the expense of protecting migrants' rights and access to asylum.
"The EU talks a lot these days about promoting its values in the Middle East and North Africa," said Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. "But when it comes to migrants and asylum seekers, those values are all too often thrown out the window."
The EU currently falls short in five key areas that undermine its obligations to protect asylum seekers and migrants, Human Rights Watch said:
- The failure to reform the Dublin regulation, which requires asylum claims to be heard in the first EU state a migrant reaches. This places a disproportionate burden on states at the EU's external borders, including Greece, which has a broken asylum system.
- The continued asylum crisis and the inhuman and degrading detention conditions for migrants in Greece, with EU assistance focused more on securing its border with Turkey than ensuring humane treatment for migrants.
- Insufficient efforts to prevent the deaths at sea of boat migrants fleeing Libya and other parts of North Africa. As many as 1,500 migrants have died trying to cross to Europe during the first six months of 2011.
- Limited resettlement by EU countries of refugees from North Africa, while Egypt and Tunisia continue to host hundreds of thousands.
- The use of readmission agreements, which facilitate the return of migrants and asylum seekers entering the EU to transit countries - such as Ukraine - that lack the will or capacity to guarantee them access to asylum and to treat them humanely.
The council is expected to consider commission proposals to revise several parts of the common asylum system, including the Reception Directive, which covers assistance to asylum seekers, and the Procedures Directive, which deals with asylum procedures.
But efforts to reform the Dublin II regulation, based on the flawed premise that all EU member states share common standards and capacity to process and host asylum seekers fairly, remain stalled because of opposition from many EU governments, particularly those in the north that benefit from the status quo. In practice, it means that EU states at the front line face an unfair burden of having to process the claims of almost all migrant arrivals by land and sea, even if their asylum systems are not up to the task, Human Rights Watch said.
The asylum crisis in Greece vividly illustrates the regulation's shortcomings, Human Rights Watch said. Because of Greece's location, more than three-quarters of irregular migrants entering the EU by land in 2010 came through Greece. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has described the situation in Greece for migrants and asylum seekers as a "humanitarian crisis." Greece approved only 11 out of the first 30,000 asylum applications received in 2010. The asylum backlog currently stands at around 47,000 cases, and reforms to the Greek asylum process are slow. Meanwhile, thousands of migrants and asylum seekers in Greece face routine detention in conditions that have been held by the European Court of Human Rights to be inhuman and degrading.
In January, the court ruled that Greece's broken asylum system and detention conditions meant that Belgium's transfer of an Afghan asylum seeker to Greece in 2009 had breached the prohibition on ill-treatment and had denied him an effective remedy. At least eight countries have already suspended transfers to Greece under the Dublin regulation as a result.
Commission pressure helped push Greece to reform its asylum system. In November 2010, the EU border agency, Frontex, sent border guards from other EU states to help reinforce Greece's land-border with Turkey - along which Greek police stopped over 47,000 migrants and asylum seekers trying to enter Greece in 2010. But the EU has done little to tackle the abusive detention conditions faced by migrants who reach Greece.
"The EU seems to be far more concerned with keeping migrants and asylum seekers out of Greece, and out of Europe, than in the rights of those already there," Sunderland said. "If the EU is serious in its commitment to the right to seek asylum, it needs to fix the Dublin rule and help Greece end its abusive detention of migrants."
Ensuring access to international protection in Europe also means doing much more to prevent deaths at sea, Human Rights Watch said. As many as 1,500 people have died in the Mediterranean since the beginning of the year in desperate attempts to reach European shores. Scores have died in reported shipwrecks and capsizings, most recently over 200 off the coast of Tunisia in early June, with hundreds more unaccounted for and presumed dead. Reports that military ships in the Mediterranean allegedly failed to assist a drifting boat in late March and early April, leading to the death of 63 sub-Saharan Africans from thirst and hunger, are particularly disturbing and underscore the need for a concerted and principled EU response to boat migration, Human Rights Watch said.
All ships in the Mediterranean should rescue overcrowded migrant boats without hesitation, and heed UNHCR's call to presumptively treat all of these boats as needing rescue, rather than waiting until they are in distress, Human Rights Watch said. Italy and Malta need to step up their vital operations at sea, intensifying efforts to identify boats before they are in distress and accompany them to safe harbors.
European countries should also conduct sea evacuations of the most vulnerable civilians trapped in Libya, Human Rights Watch said. With Tunisia and Egypt already hosting hundreds of thousands of Libyans and others fleeing Libya, European countries should show solidarity by evacuating some of those trapped in Libya to Europe, where they should have access to asylum or temporary protection.
"If hundreds of people were dying on land instead of at sea, EU governments would call for common action," Sunderland said. "Stepped up rescue operations could literally save hundreds of lives."
The EU should also increase its efforts to resettle recognized refugees from North Africa and elsewhere, by increasing national quotas and moving swiftly to put plans for a joint European resettlement program into operation. So far, European countries have offered to resettle some 700 refugees from North Africa and to relocate over 300 asylum seekers from Malta, reflecting the burden faced by the tiny island nation of arrivals by sea.
Only 14 European countries have resettlement programs, including Iceland and Norway, which are not EU members. Globally, only 6 percent of resettled refugees end up in Europe. About 90 percent go to the United States, Canada, and Australia.
Enhancing control of Europe's external borders is also on the agenda at the European Council meeting. A core part of the EU migration control strategy depends on readmission agreements, which facilitate deportation of migrants to the neighboring and other countries through which they travelled to enter the EU.
Returns under such agreements are only supposed to take place after asylum claims have been considered. Yet Human Rights Watch research for a December 2010 report has shown that migrants returned to Ukraine from Slovakia and Hungary under readmission agreements were unable to claim asylum before being removed, and then faced abuse in Ukraine.
More than half had been beaten and some credibly alleged they had been subject to torture in Ukraine. Most said the Slovak and Hungarian authorities had ignored their requests to apply for asylum. The report also found that Ukraine's system was completely dysfunctional, unable to grant asylum to those found to be refugees. It also found that both Slovakia and Hungary had expelled unaccompanied migrant children to Ukraine, which lacks any special protection for them.
In a report in February, the European Commission acknowledged the potential for rights violations under readmission agreements and said it would monitor the treatment of those returned and hold member states who return migrants to abuse to account. The report's proposal for a pilot post-return monitoring mechanism for Ukraine is positive, Human Rights Watch said. But the conclusion that the return of third country migrants to Ukraine "has worked" flies in the face of significant evidence that returnees face ill-treatment.
"Before returning anyone to a transit country, EU governments should be sure the person doesn't need asylum and that they won't face abuse there," Sunderland said. "The commission should make sure that agreements with third countries have robust human rights protections and are subject to scrutiny and, if necessary, suspension."