Enhancing and diluting the legal status of subsidiary protection beneficiaries under Union law – the CJEU judgment in Alo and Osso

ORIGINAL ON EU LAW ANALYSIS (Wednesday, 9 March 2016)

by Louise Halleskov Storgaard, (*)

Is it in accordance with the Qualification Directive (QD) to restrict the freedom of movement within the host country of beneficiaries of subsidiary protection (a form of protection parallel to refugee status) in receipt of social security benefits? This question was addressed by the CJEU in its ruling of 1 March 2015 in the Alo and Osso case. The Court’s answer and its reasoning is equally interesting, groundbreaking and controversial as it, on the one hand, strengthens the impact of the Geneva Convention (the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees) on the QD standards and the substantive content of subsidiary protection while it, on the other hand, creates uncertainty about the applicable non-discrimination standard in such cases.

Facts

Mr Alo and Mr Osso are Syrian nationals who, independently of each other, in 2012 were granted subsidiary protection status in Germany. German law prescribes that, where beneficiaries of subsidiary protection receive social security benefits, their residence permit is issued subject to a condition requiring residence to be taken up in a particular place of the country. This condition does not apply to third-country nationals legally residing in Germany on other grounds than international protection (ie, subsidiary protection or refugee status). Since both Mr Alo and Mr Osso had been in receipt of social security benefits since they arrived in Germany, their residence permits required them to take up residence in, respectively, a specific town and specific parts of a region in Germany. They both disputed this requirement and on appeal the Bundesverwaltungsgericht (German Federal Administrative Court) decided to stay the proceedings in both cases and ask the CJEU to clarify the conformity of the place-of-residence condition with the QD.

The relevant provisions of that directive read:

Article 29

Social welfare

  1. Member States shall ensure that beneficiaries of inter­national protection receive, in the Member State that has granted such protection, the necessary social assistance as provided to nationals of that Member State.
  1. By way of derogation from the general rule laid down in paragraph 1, Member States may limit social assistance granted to beneficiaries of subsidiary protection status to core benefits which will then be provided at the same level and under the same eligibility conditions as nationals.

Article 33

Freedom of movement within the Member State

Member States shall allow freedom of movement within their territory to beneficiaries of international protection, under the same conditions and restrictions as those provided for other third-country nationals legally resident in their territories.

Judgment

The CJEU started out by providing important new guidance on the interpretation of the QD. It reiterated the statements most recently made in El Kott concerning the necessity of ensuring consistency with the Geneva Convention and a full and inclusive application of that Convention. The CJEU then went one step further as it declared that the Geneva Convention is to be used as interpretative guidance also in cases involving subsidiary protection beneficiaries. To justify this approach the CJEU referred to statements made in the preamble about the European asylum system, as a whole, being based on the full and inclusive application of the Geneva Convention and about the intention of the EU legislature to establish a uniform status for all beneficiaries of international protection subject only to necessary and objectively justified derogations.

Against this interpretative backdrop the CJEU ruled that since Article 33 QD does not specifically allow for difference in treatment between refugees and subsidiary protection beneficiaries, and since Article 26 of the Geneva Convention on freedom of movement of refugees includes the right for refugees to choose their place of residence, the same must apply as regards Article 33 QD. Consequently, the place-of-residence condition constitutes a restriction with the freedom of movement guaranteed by Article 33 QD. Similarly, Article 29 QD was interpreted by the CJEU in light of Article 23 of the Geneva Convention leading to the conclusion that the place-of-residence condition also constitutes a restriction on the access to social welfare of beneficiaries of subsidiary protection when it is not also imposed on German nationals.

The CJEU continued to the question of whether these restrictions could be justified by the two aims put forward by the German authorities: 1) achieving an appropriate distribution of the burden of paying certain social benefits among the various institutions competent in that regard; and 2) preventing social segregation and its negative consequences for integration (integration policy considerations).

To that end the CJEU established a general test as it explained (para. 54):

”[n]ational rules could legitimately provide for a residence condition to be imposed on beneficiaries of subsidiary protection status, without such a condition being imposed on refugees, third-country nationals legally resident in the territory of the Member State concerned on grounds that are not humanitarian or political or based on international law and nationals of that Member State, if those groups are not in an objectively comparable situation as regards the objective pursued by those rules.

Applying this test to the first aim invoked by the German authorities, the CJEU acknowledged that the movement of recipients of social security benefits or the fact that such persons are not equally concentrated throughout a Member State entails the risk of an uneven distribution of the financial burden. However, the Court pointed out that this risk relates not only to subsidiary protection beneficiaries but also to refugees and other third-country nationals residing legally in receipt of social benefits. For that reason the place-of–residence condition is in breach of Articles 29 and 33 QD.

Concerning the second aim relating to integration policy, the CJEU first explained that Article 29 QD is not relevant to consider because beneficiaries of subsidiary protection status and German nationals are not in a comparable situation as far as the objective of facilitating the integration of third-country nationals is concerned. As regards Article 33 QD, the CJEU left it for the Bundesverwaltungsgericht to assess whether beneficiaries of subsidiary protection status are in a situation that is, so far as concerns the integration aim, objectively comparable with the situation of third-country nationals legally residing in Germany on grounds that are not humanitarian or political or based on international law.

The CJEU offered some guidance as it explained that theBundesverwaltungsgericht will have to determine whether the fact that the person receiving welfare benefits holds international protection, in this case subsidiary protection status, means that he or she will face greater difficulties relating to integration than third-country nationals holding another immigration status than international protection. That might particularly be the case if the latter group of persons are eligible for welfare benefits only after a certain period of continuous legal residence in the host Member State since it can (para. 63):

“be assumed from such a period of residence that the third-country nationals concerned are sufficiently integrated in that Member State and therefore would not be in a situation comparable with that of beneficiaries of international protection so far as the objective of facilitating the integration of third-country nationals is concerned.”

Comments

This is the CJEU’s first judgment on the revised “second-phase” QD. Four interrelated aspects of the case deserve particular attention:

First, the case cements the Geneva Convention’s function as a cornerstone of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) measures by enhancing the strong link between that Convention and the QD. In that respect the Court’s extension of the applicability of the Geneva Convention to cases involving subsidiary protection beneficiaries is groundbreaking. One of the key features of the second-phase QD is precisely that it improves the substantive content of subsidiary protection, and by allowing for the Geneva Convention to function as the guiding standard to ensure equality of treatment between refugees and subsidiary protection beneficiaries when interpreting Chapter VII QD, the CJEU secures that Union law also in practice complements the ECHR and the Geneva Convention in this area. The CJEU’s reasoning on this point therefore illustrates the gradual EU law development towards an alignment of the two statuses of international protection which was fuelled by the Stockholm Programme and has been implemented not only in the QD, but also the second-phase Dublin and Eurodac Regulations and procedures and reception conditions Directives.

Second, unlike in the Bolbol and El Kott judgments concerning the first-phase QD, the CJEU did not justify the application of specific provisions of the Geneva Convention by the fact that the relevant text of the QD refers to these provisions. Instead, the CJEU referred to the preamble to the QD where it is stated that the directive responds to the Stockholm Programme’s call for a uniform international protection standard and that equality between the two statuses shall be granted as regards rights, benefits and conditions for eligibility “with the exception of derogations which are necessary and objectively justified”. To buttress the argument the CJEU referred also to Article 20 (2) QD, according to which Chapter VII QD (which concerns the content of status, ie what recognized refugees and people with subsidiary protection are entitled to) applies to both refugees and subsidiary protection beneficiaries unless otherwise indicated. As the Court’s reasoning on this point is not limited to cases involving Articles 29 and 33 QD, the Geneva Convention can be used as a yardstick for the interpretation of all provisions in Chapter VII QD. However, it remains to be seen whether the CJEU in future cases is willing to extend the applicability of the Geneva Convention to cases involving subsidiary protection beneficiaries beyond situations concerning the substantive content of this status – within or outside the QD. Since all second-phase CEAS directives contain elaborate references to the call for uniformity in the Stockholm Programme, there is some room for arguing that the Geneva Convention should also guide e.g. the interpretation of the Procedures Directive in cases involving procedural arrangements and status determination of persons eligible for subsidiary protection.

Third, it is worth noting the road not taken by the CJEU. In his opinion, AG Cruz Villalón argued that the circumstances of the case warrant that Article 33 QD must be interpreted through the lens of the non-discrimination provisions in Article 21 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and Article 14 ECHR in conjunction with the fundamental right to freedom of movement set out in international human rights law, including Article 2 of Protocol 4 to the ECHR. Since the AG too found that the place-of-residence condition constitutes a restriction on the right guaranteed by Article 33 QD, he assessed whether that condition could be justified under the general rule on limitations on Charter rights in Article 52 (1) of the Charter in light of the two aims referred to by the German authorities. The AG found both aims to be legitimate but when assessing the proportionality of the restriction, he concluded that the economic burden-sharing objective was not appropriate to this aim. The AG left it for the referring national court to assess whether integration policy considerations could justify the restriction.

Fourth, the AG’s reasoning is interesting because it may offer insight as to how the CJEU came up with the above-quoted “comparable-test”. Arguably, this test is not easily comprehensible and depending on how it is applied by national courts and by the CJEU in future cases, it can dilute some of the above-identified impact of the Court’s findings concerning the application of the Geneva Convention to subsidiary protection beneficiaries. The essence of the Court’s reasoning is (seemingly) that even though equality of treatment is the main rule, and even though a derogation is not explicitly provided for, then subsidiary protection beneficiaries can be treated differently than refugees as regards the rights guaranteed under Chapter VII QD, “if those groups are not in an objectively comparable situation as regards the objective pursued by those rules”. The same applies as regards difference in treatment compared to other legally resident third-country nationals and nationals.

There is no information in the judgment about the origins of this test. Unlike the AG opinion, the judgment does not contain any reference to non-discrimination provisions or other fundamental rights standards, and there is no indication as to whether it is a reformulation of the “necessary and objectively justified”-requirement listed in the Stockholm Programme either.

Still, it is safe to say that the Court’s reasoning bears resemblance to the non-discrimination test under Article 21 Charter and Article 14 ECHR (i.e. that difference of treatment of persons in comparable situations on account of a prohibited discrimination ground must be objectively and reasonably justified). It is therefore important to note that the CJEU links the fulfilment of the comparable situation-requirement under the QD to the objective of the disputed national provision, which is a different and (from an applicant’s perspective) less favourable approach than that applied by the ECtHR in non-discrimination cases. In the Hode and Abdi case (relied on by the AG), the ECtHR thus ruled that refugees who married after leaving their country were in an analogous position with refugees who married before this point in time as well as with third-country national students and workers solely because the immigration status held by all groups was of a limited nature. The ECtHR disregarded the UK Government’s objection concerning the purpose of the various immigration statuses being fundamentally different. In fact, from a non-discrimination perspective, the CJEU’s reasoning in Alo and Ossois entirely confusing since the assessment of both aims put forward by the German authorities is better characterised as a proportionality assessment (similar to the one conducted by the AG) than an assessment of the “objective comparability” of subsidiary protection beneficiaries with other groups of legally residing third-country nationals as regards the aims pursued by the place-of-residence condition. This is illustrated by the fact that the CJEU’s arguments concerning the economic burden-sharing aim in reality concerns whether the place-of-residence condition is an appropriate means to reach that aim.

Although it is far from certain that the CJEU intended to or even found it relevant to align the test developed under Articles 29 and 33 QD with that of Article 14 ECHR, the vocabulary chosen by the Court makes it reasonable to draw parallels and compare with that provision. And by departing from the approach of the ECtHR in a very similar case and leaving it for the referring national court to apply the test in practice in light of relatively abstract guiding criteria, the CJEU creates undue legal certainty about the applicable non-discrimination standard in cases involving difference of treatment of international protection beneficiaries.

(*) Assistant Professor, Aarhus University

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