(Brussels) – The European Commission proposals on European Union asylum policy overwhelmingly reflect the negative political climate in Europe and the trend toward curtailing refugee rights, Human Rights Watch said today.
The commission’s communication, released April 6, 2016, proposes some important and positive measures. But it emphasizes restrictive, even punitive, steps to deter asylum seekers’ access to the EU and their movement between EU countries.
“The commission rightly focuses on fixing the EU’s broken asylum system and expanding safe and legal channels,” said Judith Sunderland, acting deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But the European Commission proposals have little that is new or concrete, and some of the most specific measures would punish asylum seekers and refugees and curtail their rights.”
The commission set out two options for political debate. Under the first, the EU would adopt a new emergency distribution mechanism that could be triggered when a particular EU country faces a significant influx of asylum seekers. The second option would involve deeper reform of the existing EU Dublin system, which places the primary responsibility for processing asylum applications on the first country of arrival. It would instead establish a centralized system that would assign responsibility for asylum seekers, regardless of first country of arrival, on the basis of criteria such as relative size, wealth, and absorption capacity of each country. The commission hopes to finalize a proposal by the summer.
Both options draw inspiration from the relocation plan imposed on EU countries in September 2015. That plan foresaw the relocation of 160,000 asylum seekers from front-line states like Greece and Italy over the next two years. But only 1,111 have been resettled to date. The fierce opposition to that relocation plan, and its poor implementation, bode ill for a permanent distribution mechanism, Human Rights Watch said.
“Dublin overhaul is necessary and long overdue,” Sunderland said. “Any new system should reinforce mechanisms for reuniting family members and take into account asylum seekers’ individual circumstances in determining the country responsible for processing their asylum claim.”
The commission proposes changes to EU directives on asylum procedures and the criteria for qualifying for refugee status and subsidiary protection – a more temporary status, with fewer rights, for example with respect to family reunification – to further harmonize the approach across all EU countries. Eliminating disparities and member states’ discretion on key aspects is important, but the proposal’s specifics suggest a push to the lowest common denominator rather than across-the-board improvement, Human Rights Watch said.
In a key passage, the commission says it will study how the level of rights afforded to people granted refugee or subsidiary protection might be adapted “to reduce both undue pull factors and secondary movements” and to propose even greater differences between refugee status and subsidiary protection, but with few details about the impact on beneficiaries. It does say it wants EU countries to systematically review protection status, with a clear view to more regularly revoking refugee status or subsidiary protection based on changed circumstances in the country of origin.
The commission also reiterates its objective of an EU-wide list of “safe countries of origin,” which would mean all nationals of those countries would be subject to accelerated procedures to review their claims for protection on the presumption that they don’t genuinely need international protection. This approach is inherently problematic because it creates bias in the examination of individual asylum claims, Human Rights Watch said.
In practice, safe-country-of-origin lists are difficult to change in response to developments on the ground. Ukraine, for example, remained on several EU member states’ safe-country lists for months after conflict and deteriorating human rights conditions there had caused the displacement of many thousands of people. Developing a list of “unsafe” countries, whose nationals are presumed to need international protection, would be a far better approach and could also help reduce backlogs in asylum systems.
The commission also proposes harsh measures to prevent and punish asylum seekers for moving from one EU country to another to apply for asylum, known as “secondary movement.” These measures would include restrictions on movement and detention if an asylum seeker has attempted to move to another country or is seen as intending to. It includes accelerated procedures for those who have attempted to move on, under which such an effort could be used to discredit the asylum claim. Recognized refugees in one EU country who attempt to relocate to another would also be penalized.
Inequitable distribution of responsibility for asylum seekers among EU countries is inextricably linked to disparities in conditions and prospects for asylum seekers and recognized refugees, Human Rights Watch said. Punishing asylum seekers for making choices about where they believe they have the best chances to rebuild their lives, including with their loved ones, is cruel, misguided, and shortsighted. Whether a person has attempted a secondary movement should have no bearing on determining the credibility or merits of any asylum claim.
On the positive side, the communication endorses the need for safe and legal pathways to Europe, a longstanding recommendation of human rights and refugee rights organizations. But it does little more than to reiterate its plan for an EU-wide resettlement policy, and to encourage EU countries to help refugees and asylum seekers reach the EU via private sponsorships and other kinds of visas – for example, for students, workers, or researchers. There is no clear commitment to push for robust programs for humanitarian visas, to help asylum seekers travel lawfully and safely to the EU for the purposes of applying for asylum, or for facilitating family reunification.
The commission’s proposals come against the backdrop of the deeply flawed deal with Turkey to return migrants and asylum seekers who have reached Greek islands since March 21, when the deal went into effect. Steps are under way to allow authorities to consider inadmissible all asylum applications from those arriving to Greece from Turkey. The deal includes a dehumanizing one-for-one refugee swap, resettling a different Syrian refugee to an EU country for every Syrian returned to Turkey.
Lack of transparency and uncertainty about the fate of returnees to Turkey have marred the first returns, Human Rights Watch said.
“We need to hold the commission and all EU countries to the vision of a Europe that serves as a global leader on refugee rights,” Sunderland said. “That means repealing this terrible deal with Turkey, and advancing large-scale refugee resettlement, humanitarian visas, and family reunification guided not by migration control but by a commitment to safe and legal alternatives to human smugglers for people who need refuge.”