It would appear obvious to anyone paying the least bit of attention to the turmoil in Ukraine that it’s not the safest place to be right now. But in the eyes of the United Kingdom, France and Norway, Ukraine is considered a “safe country of origin.” That means that if a Ukrainian asylum seeker lands at Heathrow tonight, he would be forced to overcome a presumption that his asylum claim is frivolous.

Governments create “safe country of origin” lists as way of speeding up asylum claims. If the asylum seeker comes from one of the countries on the list, the claim can be quickly rejected as unfounded. An asylum seeker coming from a country designated as safe is hard pressed to overcome the presumption that they can be safely sent back home. The claimant is oftendenied many of the appeal and review protections that are built into normal procedures. 

The problem, of course, is that things are not so cut-and-dried in the real world. Countries that appear calm on the surface may, in fact, be powder kegs ready to explode, as can be seen over the years in places as diverse as Rwanda, Syria, and Ukraine. Experience shows that once a country like Ukraine is placed on a “safe country of origin” list, a government is not likely to act quickly to remove that country from the list – even as the piles of dead bodies quickly mount or as the first waves of refugees make their way to neighboring countries.

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. Ukraine has been going through serious civil unrest. Human Rights Watch has documented human rights violations connected to the protests that began in November, and things could get worse.Yesterday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees quite rightly called on governments to drop the safe country designation for Ukraine.

More generally, governments should take a hard look at the whole concept of safe country lists.There are certainly circumstances where 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 persecution, torture, or worse upon return.