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European Union leaders would do well to take note of a July 24 Canadian Federal Court ruling that Canada’s “safe country of origin” (SCO) list is unconstitutional because it is “discriminatory on its face” and serves to “marginalize, prejudice, and stereotype” asylum seekers coming from countries the government has designated as safe. 

Kosovar refugees wait in Keleti (Eastern) railway station in Budapest, Hungary, February 10, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

European Union member states agree on very little about sharing responsibility for asylum seekers, but make up for the lack of consensus by finding new ways to limit their numbers overall. Although EU interior ministers meeting on July 20 fell short of a previously agreed goal to relocate 40,000 asylum seekers, they did agree to harmonize their national SCO lists. 

Although there is no provision in EU law for an EU-wide SCO list, the ministers agreed that first up on the harmonized non-list would be the countries of the Western Balkans. The idea, as expressed in an information note to the ministers from the European Commission, is to enable “swift processing of asylum applications from countries designated as safe” so that “return procedures can more swiftly be initiated for persons whose claims are rejected.”

“Swift processing” means fast-tracked examination of asylum claimants from the SCO list at the border and in transit zones, and weaker safeguards for claimants deemed “manifestly unfounded,” including restrictions on appeal and quick deportation and reentry bans, according to national laws.

While it might seem reasonable to weed out claims of people coming from stable countries that respect human rights, the fact that Ukraine remained on the United Kingdom’s SCO  list throughout the crisis there – and still is today – is a warning how these lists can quickly become obsolete and not reflect changes in countries of origin. This is not to say that Ukraine should have been designated as unsafe, but neither should it be presumed that human rights are fully respected throughout the country and no refugees can come from there. In fact, the conflict in Ukraine has produced 1.3 million internally displaced people and more than 800,000 refugees.

The same week EU interior ministers agreed to put Western Balkans countries on their respective safe lists, Human Rights Watch issued a 69-page report documenting physical attacks and threats, including death threats, punitive lawsuits, and smear campaigns against journalists in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Serbia. While the report was specific to attacks on the right of free expression, it calls into question whether it’s a safe assumption that these countries respect rule of law and human rights.

Even if asylum approval rates from these Western Balkan countries are currently low, should the EU feel sufficiently comfortable with the political stability of these countries and with their treatment of journalists, political dissidents, and minorities – such as the Roma – to presume asylum claims from these countries are bogus? Given the large numbers of asylum seekers straining European asylum procedures, expedient measures are understandable, but measures that are prejudicial, as the Canadian court suggests, not only cut due process corners but violate human rights as well.


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