Hassan and his wife Sheri, both Iraqi Kurds, walk along train tracks in Röszke, Hungary after crossing the border with Serbia. September 3, 2015.

© 2015 Daniel Etter for Human Rights Watch

(Brussels) – European Union leaders meeting on September 23, 2015, focused on how to stem the flow of asylum seekers instead of strategies for a responsible, humane response to the crisis at its borders, Human Rights Watch said today.

“Listening to EU leaders, you could almost be forgiven for thinking there is no refugee crisis,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of bold collective action to live up to the EU’s obligations to refugees, the agenda focused on reinforcing borders, trying to stop people from getting here, and sending back those who do.”

The seven-hour meeting produced a two-page statement that makes a nod to full implementation of the common European asylum system – a set of binding laws to ensure harmonized procedures, recognition rates, and reception conditions. But the reality is that asylum seekers face a protection lottery in the EU due to wide disparities in standards and conditions, Human Rights Watch said.

Instead of addressing those issues, the statement proposes “orientations” toward “operational decisions” for upcoming meetings and largely focuses on reinforcing external borders, limiting arrivals, and expediting returns. It proposes intensified work with African countries to tackle irregular migration and strengthening controls at EU external borders with additional resources for Frontex, the EU’s external border agency, and Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, as well as EASO, the European Asylum Office.

The statement also envisions greater assistance to Western Balkan countries – now a major transit corridor for asylum seekers and migrants – to handle refugee flows. The European Commission has proposed, with broad support, an EU-wide list of “safe” countries to enable rapid returns of asylum seekers originating from Western Balkan countries. But it has not considered proposing a list of unsafe countries, such as Syria and Iraq, that would simplify and expedite procedures for recognizing protection needs for people from these countries. Hungary has declared Serbia a “safe third country” for asylum seekers from outside the region, even though it has not been able to manage existing flows, even on a temporary basis.

EU leaders endorsed increasing assistance to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), the World Food Programme, and other aid organizations, as well as aid to countries hosting large numbers of Syrian refugees. The agreement includes a pledge to give €1 billion to UN agencies and humanitarian organizations.

“More aid to help improve the lives of refugees outside the EU is valuable, and these agencies need to see the money fast,” Sunderland said. “But it’s no substitute for making sure those who reach the EU are treated humanely and offered the protection they need, or for expanding safe and legal channels into the EU.”

The extraordinary summit of EU heads of state came on the heels of a divisive meeting of interior ministers, on September 22, which approved by a qualified majority vote a relocation scheme proposed by the European Commission to transfer a further 120,000 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece in addition to 40,000 already agreed upon. The plan was approved despite opposition from Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Romania.

The United Kingdom exercised its opt-out privilege under EU treaties, while Ireland and Denmark agreed to take some asylum seekers despite having the same option. Slovakia has announced it intends to challenge the decision in the European Court of Justice. The relocation plan could be an important first step toward an effective response if implemented quickly and in a way that respects asylum seekers’ rights, Human Rights Watch said.

Earlier the same day, the European Commission announced 40 infringement proceedings for failure to abide by EU asylum laws with respect to procedures, qualifications for refugee status, and reception conditions. This brought to a total of 75 the number of such proceedings against a total of 23 member states. These actions can lead to legal action in the European Court of Justice and significant fines.

“It makes a mockery of the Common European Asylum System that 23 out of 28 EU countries are not doing right by asylum seekers,” Sunderland said. “It’s vital for the European Commission to vigorously pursue actions against countries that do not abide by EU law.”