The Dublin system: the ECJ Squares the Circle Between Mutual Trust and Human Rights Protection


By Cecilia Rizcallah, (*)


On Thursday February 16th, the ECJ handed down a seminal judgment in the case of C.K. and others, C-578/16 PPU. This ruling was rendered on a reference for a preliminary ruling from the Supreme Court of Slovenia asking, in substance, whether the risk faced by an asylum seeker of being a victim of inhuman and degrading treatment because of his/her individual situation, shall prevent his/her transfer to another Member State to consider his/her asylum claim on the basis of the Dublin system.

The Dublin System: Cooperation between Member States based on Mutual Trust

The Dublin system, initiated by a Convention signed in 1990 in the city whose name it bears, allocates responsibility for examining asylum applications lodged by third country nationals (TCNs) in the EU, in such a manner that, in principle, only one State has the task of examining each asylum request lodged on the European Union’s territory.  Pursuing harmonisation of Member states’ asylum policies, the Treaty of Amsterdam introduced the competence of the European Community (Article 63 EC; now Article 78 TFEU) to adopt additional measures in order to achieve a Common European Asylum System (CEAS). On that basis, the Dublin Convention was replaced by the “Dublin II” Regulation (Regulation n°343/2003) and then the “Dublin III” Regulation (Regulation 604/2013). Also, a number of directives were adopted in order to set up minimum standards on the qualification and status of refugees and persons with subsidiarity protection (Directive 2011/95/UE), on asylum procedures (currently Directive 2013/32/UE) and on reception conditions for asylum-seekers (currently Directive 2013/33/UE).

The Dublin system, which constitutes a fundamental part of the CEAS, has as its main goals to (i) ensure the access of TCNs to the asylum application procedure and to (ii) rationalise the treatment of asylum applications by avoiding forum shopping and the existence of multiple applications. It therefore establishes a set of criteria which determine which Member State is, in a particular situation, responsible for examining the application of an asylum-seeker. The general rule is that (in effect) the State of first entry into the European Union is the responsible Member State, but there are several exceptions. If another Member State is approached, that state can either, on the basis of the Dublin system, automatically transfer the asylum seeker lodging the application to the responsible state, but it can also – and it has a sovereign right to – decide to examine the application itself as it so wish (Article 17, Dublin III Regulation: the “sovereignty-clause”).

It is important to note that the Dublin system is underpinned by the fundamental idea of equivalence of Member States’ asylum systems, presuming, therefore, that asylum-seekers would not benefit from any advantage by having their application examined in a specific country.

Summary of Previous Case Law of the ECJ: Preserving Effectiveness of EU Cooperation, even at the Expense of Fundamental Rights

The automaticity of the transfer of asylum-seekers between Member States, founded on the premise of equivalence, quickly appeared problematic in terms of protection of asylum-seekers’ fundamental rights. Notably due to their geographic situation, some Member States were faced with a high number of arrivals that put their asylum-seekers’ reception infrastructures under pressure, and resulted in degradation of their national asylum systems.

It did not take long before challenges against transfer decisions were being introduced, because of the risks faced by asylum-seekers regarding their fundamental rights in the State which the Dublin system made responsible for examining their applications. One of the first landmark rulings on this issue was handed down by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), in which Belgium was held liable for breaching the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) by having transferred an asylum seeker back to Greece on the basis of the Dublin system, while this country, in its examination of asylum applications, was not fulfilling the obligations under the ECHR. The ECtHR noted, in the case of M.S.S c. Belgium and Greece (application n° 30696/09), that Belgium, being aware of, or having a duty to be aware of the poor detention and reception conditions of asylum-seekers in Greece, should have relied upon the “sovereignty-clause” of the Dublin II Regulation, to refrain from transferring this individual to a country where he faced a real risk of becoming a victim of inhuman and degrading treatment in accordance with Article 3 ECHR.

Less than a year later, the ECJ addressed the same issue with the additional difficulty of having the duty to safeguard the Dublin system’s effet utile. In the famous N.S. case (C-411/10), the Court was indeed asked whether “a State which should transfer the asylum seeker [to the responsible Member State according to the Dublin regulation] is obliged to assess the compliance, by that Member State, with the fundamental rights of the European Union”.  In addressing this challenge, the ECJ relied – for the first time in the field of asylum – upon the principle of mutual trust between Member States, founded on the presumption that “all participating States [to the Dublin system] observe fundamental rights”, to conclude that it was inconceivable that “any infringement of a fundamental right by the Member State responsible” would affect the obligations of other Member States to comply with the Dublin Regulation (§82).

To maintain the effectiveness of the Dublin Regulation despite the existence of flaws in national asylum systems, the ECJ innovated by introducing the “systemic deficiencies test”, entailing that a transfer should be prohibited “if there are substantial grounds for believing that there are systemic flaws in the asylum procedure and reception conditions for asylum applicants in the Member State responsible, resulting in inhuman and degrading treatment, within the meaning of Article 4 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (corresponding to Article 3 ECHR), of asylum-seekers transferred to the territory of that Member State, the transfer would be incompatible with that provision” (§86).

To secure a clear, effective and fast method for determining the Member State responsible for dealing with an asylum application, the ECJ thus opted for a presumption of compliance by Dublin States with fundamental rights which could be rebutted in the presence of a “systemic deficiency in the asylum procedure and in the reception conditions of asylum-seekers” where Member States would be compelled to prevent the transfer (§89). This presumption of fundamental rights’ respect by Member States was subsequently applied by the ECJ in other judgements (C-4/11, Puid and C-394/12, Abdullahi).  In fact, the latter judgment expressly limited both the substantive and procedural grounds on which a Dublin transfer could be challenged.

Heavily criticized, this approach was condemned in Strasbourg with the Tarakhel case (application n°29217/12), in 2014 in which the ECtHR reaffirmed and specified its MSSjudgement by ruling that the Dublin system “does not exempt [national authorities] from carrying out a thorough and individualized examination of the situation of the person concerned and from suspending enforcement of the removal order should the risk of inhuman and degrading treatment be established”.

Stonewalling, one of the ECJ’s arguments against the draft agreement on the accession of the EU to the ECHR (Opinion 2/13) was the ECHR requirement that Member States “check that another Member State has observed fundamental rights, even though EU law imposes an obligation of mutual trust between those Member States” (Opinion 2/13, §194). The Court’s “systemic deficiencies” test was consolidated in the recast of the Dublin Regulation (Regulation 604/2013, Dublin III) whose Article 3(2) states that “where it is impossible to transfer an applicant to the Member State primarily designated as responsible because there are substantial grounds for believing that there are systemic flaws in the asylum procedure and in the reception conditions for applicants in that Member State, resulting in a risk of inhuman and degrading treatment within the meaning of Article 4 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the determining Member State shall continue to examine the criteria set out in Chapter III in order to establish whether another Member State can be designated as responsible”.

A first move from this case law has recently been observed in another field of EU cooperation, namely in EU criminal law. The question asked to the ECJ was whether detention conditions incompatible with art. 4 of the Charter in a Member State issuing a EAW could allow or oblige the executing judicial authority of a requested Member State to refuse the execution of a European Arrest Warrant (EAW). Once again, the ECJ was faced with the dilemma between securing a EU mechanism based on mutual trust or taking human rights considerations seriously. In its landmark ruling in the case Aranyosi and Căldăraru (C-404/15), the ECJ considered that in the event of “systemic or generalised, or which may affect certain groups of people, or which may affect certain places of detention” deficiencies, and only if “there are substantial grounds to believe that, following the surrender of that person to the issuing Member State, he or she will run a real risk of being subject in that Member State to inhuman and degrading treatment, within the meaning of Article 4” (§94), the executing authority will have to postpone the execution of the EAW.

Hence, a two-step analysis has to be carried out by the national judge who must first assess the existence of general or particular deficiencies in the detention system of the requesting state, before examining, in concreto, whether the requested person faces a real risk of being subject to inhuman and degrading treatment. It remained, however, unclear whether the exception to mutual trust provided in Aranyosi and Căldăraru was more or less protective of fundamental rights. Even though a second condition was added, the deficiency requirement seemed softened.

The ruling of the ECJ in C.K. and others: A Welcome Step Towards Reconciliation Between the Dublin system and Human Rights ?

Facts and Question referred to the ECJ

A couple with a newborn child lodged an asylum application in Slovenia whereas Croatia was, according to the Dublin criteria, responsible for examining their application. Noting the absence of systemic flaws in the Croatian asylum system but observing that the mother of the child was in a very bad state of health, the Slovene court asked the ECJ whether the reliance upon the sovereignty clause (Article 17 of Dublin III) could be mandatory for the purpose of ensuring the family an effective protection against risks of inhuman and degrading treatment. In other words, the national judge inquired whether Dublin transfers were only prohibited in case of the existence of systematic deficiencies in the responsible state, subjecting asylum-seekers to risks of violations of Article 4 of the Charter, or whether a transfer also had to be precluded when such a risk was faced due to the specific and individual situation of a particular asylum seeker.

The opinion of the Advocate General

Following the NS and Abdullahi approach, the opinion of Advocate General Tanchev argued that only systemic flaws in the responsible State could require the prevention of a Dublin transfer. Unsurprisingly, he justified his opinion on the principle of mutual trust between Member States and on the need to ensure the effectiveness of the CEAS (§51). He further acknowledged that his position did not meet ECtHR standards but stressed that the EU was not bound by it (§52). He moreover underlined that Article 17 of the Regulation constituted a “discretionary” clause which, by definition, could not be construed as imposing obligations on Member States (§ 67).

The judgment of the Court

The fifth Chamber of the ECJ – quite uncommonly – did not follow the Advocate General’s opinion. To the contrary, the ECJ stated that, besides situations where “systemic deficiencies” exist in the responsible state, any transfer of asylum-seekers shall be excluded where it gives rise to a real risk for the individual concerned to suffer inhuman or degrading treatment, within the meaning of Article 4 of the Charter.  Relying upon Article 52§3 of the Charter, the ECJ recalled that corresponding rights guaranteed both by the Charter and the ECHR should receive the same scope as those laid down by the Convention.

It then quoted Strasbourg’s recent ruling in Paposhvili v. Belgium (application n° 41738/10, § 175) according to which “illness may be covered by Article 3 [of the ECHR], where it is, or risks being, exacerbated by treatment, whether flowing from conditions of detention, expulsion or other measures, for which the authorities can be held responsible”. Consequently, despite the absence of systemic deficiencies in the Croatian reception conditions of asylum-seekers (§7), Slovenia was required to suspend the transfer due to the fact that it could result, because of the particular medical condition of the immigrant, in a real risk of serious and irremediable deterioration of her health condition (§84). The suspension should, according to the judgement, be maintained as long as that risk exists. On the basis of its ruling in Aranyosi, the Court also stressed that national authorities were required to assess the risk before transferring an individual (§76).

The Court added that if the state of health of the migrant was not expected to improve, the relevant Member State had the possibility to itself examine the asylum application on the basis of the sovereignty clause contained in Article 17§1 of the Regulation (§96). However, this provision does not, according to the ECJ, oblige a Member State to examine any application lodged with it, even when read in the light of Article 4 of the Charter.

The ECJ finally concluded that this holding “fully respected the principle of mutual trust since, far from affecting the presumption of respect of fundamental rights by Member States, it ensures that exceptional situations are duly taken into consideration by Member States” and furthermore, that “if a Member State proceeded to the transfer of an asylum-seeker in such circumstances, the resulting inhuman and degrading treatment would not be attributable, neither directly or indirectly, to the authorities of the responsible Member State, but solely to the first Member State”.


The ruling of the fifth Chamber seems to introduce a crucial change in the case law of the ECJ regarding the relationship between the principle of mutual trust and the protection of individuals against inhuman and degrading treatment. Instead of putting these two imperatives in competition, the Court seems, for the first time, to obviously acknowledge their necessary interdependence.  By considering that the principle of mutual trust would be enhanced by an effective application of Article 4 of the Charter, the ECJ finally appears to take seriously the fact that this principle is precisely founded on the respect by Member States of EU values including, above all, the principle of human dignity to which the prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment is closely linked (Article 2 TEU).

It is therefore not only in case of systemic or generalised flaws in the asylum system of a responsible Member State that a transfer may be prevented. Specific and individual considerations of asylum-seekers must be taken into account in order to assess whether he or she could suffer treatment incompatible with Article 4 of the Charter because of his/her transfer. The Court moreover endorses this requirement by holding that in case of failure in addressing this risk, the first Member State will shoulder responsibility for breach of the Charter.

It should however be stressed that, while the first judgements prioritising the principle of mutual trust were delivered by the ECJ Grand Chamber, the ruling in the case at hand was handed down by a Chamber of five judges whose authority could be considered as being weaker. Nevertheless, the ruling follows the general evolution of the case law of the ECJ which already underlined several times, following the last recast of the Dublin regulation, the fact that the changes of the system were “intended to make the necessary improvements, in the light of experience, not only to the effectiveness of the Dublin system but also to the protection afforded applicants under that system” (C-63/15, Ghezelbash, §52) The latter judgment (from June 2016) had already overturned the procedural aspects of the Abdullahi judgment; the CK ruling now overturns the substantive aspects.

This valuable step in favour of asylum-seekers’ fundamental rights protection nevertheless raises a number of practical questions. One could ask first – and this question was already put forward by other commentators – whether the risk of the violation of other fundamental rights than the prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment must justify an exception to the Dublin distribution of responsibilities and, thereby, to the principle of mutual trust. We think that, given the emphasis put by the Court on the exceptional character of the situation, not any breach of any fundamental rights would prevent Member States to rely upon the principle of mutual trust in order to transfer an asylum-seeker. To the contrary, only very serious risks of violation of absolute fundamental rights (Chapter I of the Charter) would in our view justify a mandatory suspension of the transfer of asylum-seekers.

Additionally, the ruling raises questions as regards the consequences of a suspension. As pointed out by the Court, a Member State would never be obliged to itself assess, on the basis of the sovereignty clause (Article 17.1 Dublin III), an asylum application which falls within the responsibility of another State. What if, because of the individual situation of the asylum seeker, the transfer should be suspended in the long term? The finding of the ECJ could then result in the existence of “refugees in orbit”, asylum-seekers who lose the certainty of having their application examined by any Member State of the Union – something which the Dublin system especially seeks to prevent and that could, in itself, constitute an inhuman and degrading treatment.

Finally, the question of the applicability of this approach to EU criminal cooperation should also be raised. The Court seemed, until its holding in the Aranyosi case, very reluctant to acknowledge any exception to the principle of mutual trust in the framework of the European Arrest Warrant (see, among others, the cases C-396/11 Radu and C-399/11, Melloni). The ruling in C.K. should however, in our opinion, be seen as applicable also in the field of criminal cooperation if such exceptional circumstances are met since the ruling especially relies upon the judgment in Aranyosi and also due to the absolute character of the prohibition laid down in art. 4 of the Charter Now the two lines of case law have been brought together, but they raise parallel questions about the long-term consequences. Indeed, the Court of Justice has already been asked to elaborate on the Aranyosi ruling, in the pending Aranyosi II case. So its ruling in that case may be equally relevant to Dublin cases.

In any case, the change of position of the ECJ seems much more in compliance both with the ECHR and, also, with the constitutional requirements of certain national legal orders. Indeed, the German Constitutional Court did not hesitate, in its judgment of 15 December 2015, to make an exception to the principle of mutual trust, as implemented by the EAW system, in order to protect the right of human dignity, which, according to this ruling, forms part of German constitutional identity.

One can henceforth wonder whether the C.K. and Aranyosi rulings generally overturn the Opinion 2/13 argument based on the principle of mutual trust opposed, among others, by the ECJ against the EU’s draft accession agreement to the ECHR… Either way, this new setting should, without a doubt, have an important impact on today’s and future’s relationships between the EU legal order, on the one hand, with the ECHR and national legal orders, on the other.

(*)  Research Fellow at the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research affiliated to the Centre of Interdisciplinary Research in Constitutional Law of Saint-Louis University (USL-B) and the Centre of European Law of the Free University Brussels (ULB). The author wishes to thank the Professors E. Bribosia and S. Van Drooghenbroeck for their valuable advice.


Terrorisme et droit des réfugiés, des liaisons dangereuses ? Libres propos sur le « Muslim Ban » et la jurisprudence Lounani de la Cour de justice


par  Henri Labayle

Les polémiques entourant l’application de l’Executive Order signé le 25 janvier 2017 par Donald Trump, président des Etats Unis nouvellement élu, interdisant temporairement l’entrée aux Etats-Unis aux ressortissants de sept pays et suspendant le jeu de la protection internationale, ont quitté les colonnes médiatiques pour pénétrer les prétoires. Motivé par le désir de lutter préventivement contre le terrorisme, selon ses auteurs, et par une volonté discriminatoire envers les musulmans, selon ses détracteurs, le texte pose de graves problèmes juridiques.

L’attention qu’on lui porte ne doit pas masquer qu’au même moment, le 31 janvier 2017, la Cour de justice de l’Union prononçait un arrêt important sur les liens qui peuvent être établis entre la nécessité de lutter contre le terrorisme et le dispositif protecteur des réfugiés politiques (CJUE, 31 janvier 2017, Lounani, C-573/16).

Si l’on ajoute à ces épisodes majeurs l’émoi provoqué en Turquie le 26 janvier 2017 par le refus de la Cour suprême grecque d’accepter l’extradition de huit militaires turcs qualifiés eux-aussi de « terroristes », on mesure à quel point les liaisons dangereuses désormais établies au grand jour entre le droit des réfugiés et la lutte contre le terrorisme deviennent monnaie courante et alimentent le débat public, juridique ou pas.

Ce constat mérite un éclairage et suscite une réflexion d’autant plus nécessaire que ces liaisons sont parfois fondées, malheureusement. Depuis le 11 septembre 2001, la lutte contre le terrorisme met en question ouvertement le jeu des règles du droit des réfugiés, à force d’amalgames (I), au risque de fragiliser la protection qui est due à ces réfugiés (II). D’où l’intérêt d’un contrôle attentif du juge, interne comme européen (III).

1. La stigmatisation croissante du droit des réfugiés

Dès le lendemain des attentats du 11 septembre, la brèche s’est ouverte aux yeux de tous. On se souvient en effet qu’en réaction, lors de sa session extraordinaire du 20 septembre, le Conseil « Justice et affaires intérieures » avait immédiatement invité la Commission à examiner le « rapport entre la sauvegarde de la sécurité intérieure et le respect des obligations et instruments internationaux en matière de protection ». A cette insinuation à peine dissimulée, la Commission avait opposé un rappel du droit positif en la matière (COM (2001) 743).

S’il n’était guère envisageable, à l’époque, de remettre sérieusement en question la protection offerte par les règles de l’asile conventionnel, même au vu des attentats du WTC, en revanche, quinze ans plus tard, le contexte a changé. La montée en charge du terrorisme aveugle éclaire différemment l’attitude politique des Etats, sinon des institutions de l’Union, et la tentation des uns ou des autres est grande d’infléchir le droit.

Un nombre grandissant d’affaires, pas toujours contentieuses, ont ainsi fait la démonstration que les deux questions, terrorisme et protection internationale, n’étaient plus aussi étanches que par le passé. La mise à jour de leurs relations a obligé à une réflexion d’ensemble, entamée sans états d’âme par exemple avec l’élargissement des missions de Frontex aux questions sécuritaires. La connexion des deux grands volets de l’Espace de liberté, sécurité justice de l’Union, ceux de la sécurité et de la migration, s’est désormais opérée sans que l’on en ait mesuré exactement les risques et les implications.

Lointaines peuvent sembler à ce titre ces premières interrogations de la fin des années quatre-vingt, lorsque le Conseil d’Etat français autorisa la livraison vers l’Espagne de terroristes basques malgré leurs prétentions au refuge, tout en exigeant la perte de leur statut protecteur. Tout aussi éloignés paraissent les débats relatifs au fait du prince d’un ancien président de la République, se croyant en droit d’accorder le refuge à un ancien terroriste italien, avant que le Conseil d’Etat ne dénie toute portée juridique à cette prétention. Beaucoup plus douloureuses, en revanche, sont des affaires comme celle de l’inspirateur présumé de l’attentat d’Istanbul, Ahmed Tchataïev, auquel l’Autriche accorda le statut de réfugié politique et dont la CEDH avait interdit la livraison à la Russie en 2010. Bien plus parlantes, enfin et parmi d’autres, sont les affaires Nasr et Ghali c. Italieet Abu Qatada c. Royaume Uni, tranchées par la Cour européenne des droits de l’Homme.

Dans la première, à Rome, la « restitution extraordinaire » d’un membre d’un mouvement islamiste considéré comme terroriste, effectuée par des services secrets américains, va ainsi donner l’occasion de constater que l’intéressé, condamné par la justice italienne pour des faits de terrorisme, n’en bénéficiait pas moins du statut de réfugié politique délivré par l’Italie. Dans l’autre affaire, relative à un prêcheur islamiste radical convaincu de liens avec Al Qaida et chantre du terrorisme favori des tabloïds britanniques, il s’avèrera à l’examen que, là encore, les autorités locales lui avaient accordé le statut de réfugié politique.

Que, le plus souvent, le refuge soit accordé en raison du risque de traitements attentatoires aux droits de l’Homme dans l’Etat où ils sont poursuivis laisse cependant les opinions publiques nationales aussi indifférentes à l’explication juridique qu’incrédules devant ce qu’elles interprètent comme une défaillance de la puissance publique. Pire, elles en attribuent la responsabilité à l’intégration européenne.

D’autant que ces brèches dans l’idée, généralement partagée jusqu’alors, selon laquelle les demandeurs de protection internationale sont avant tout des victimes et non des bourreaux se sont notablement s’élargies à la suite des attentats en France et en Belgique.

Les enquêtes judiciaires démontrent en effet que la crise migratoire de l’été 2015 a été utilisée, ponctuellement mais à plusieurs reprises, par les commandos ayant frappé en France pour circuler en toute impunité. Ce dont atteste le rapport annuel 2016 de Frontex sur l’analyse des risques, constatant que deux des responsables des attentats de Paris en novembre avaient utilisé la couverture du flot de réfugiés pour pénétrer illégalement dans l’Union. Pratique identique à celle de suspects d’un attentat avorté à Dusseldorf en 2016, avant que le dossier de l’auteur de l’attentat du marché de Noel de Berlin ne révèle qu’il avait été auparavant demandeur d’asile. L’effet de ces constats est dévastateur pour l’acceptation du droit des réfugiés et sa légitimité.

Aux yeux de l’opinion publique, l’équation terrorisme/réfugiés ou migration s’ancre ainsi progressivement, irrationnellement, comme le constate en vain Gilles de Kerchove, coordonnateur de la lutte contre le terrorisme. Que le Rapporteur spécial du Conseil des droits de l’homme sur la promotion et la protection des droits de l’homme et des libertés fondamentales dans la lutte antiterroriste de l’ONU, Ben Emmerson, s’efforce de faire la démonstration de cette absence de liens ou même que les Etats Unis d’avant Donald Trump aient ouvertement reconnu que les deux questions n’étaient pas liées n’émeut pas davantage.

Une rhétorique nouvelle au sein de l’Union européenne s’en nourrit et prospère. A l’Est notamment, hostile à la fois à l’accueil et au jeu de la solidarité dans la répartition des demandeurs de protection dans l’Union. Le risque terroriste sera ainsi ouvertement évoqué par les dirigeants de plusieurs Etats lors de la crise migratoire, quand leur propre justice ne qualifiera pas de « terroristes » ceux qui franchissent leurs frontières …

Comment ne pas comprendre que cette dérive ait alors inspiré la mise en application du programme de Donald Trump et que son action ait reçu un écho parfois favorable dans certaines capitales ? Du Premier ministre slovaque, Robert Fico, désireux « d’empêcher la création d’une communauté musulmane dans le pays » aux réticences polonaises et au blocage hongrois, tout va concourir dans une partie de l’Union à la chaude approbation du décret du nouveau président américain par son homologue tchèque : « Trump is protecting his country, he’s concerned with the safety of his citizens… the safety of Czech citizens is a priority. Now we have allies in the US ».

En droit, et ce n’est pas le plus simple à manier aux yeux des citoyens de l’Union, il n’en va pas aussi facilement.

2. L’étendue de la protection offerte par le droit des réfugiés

Sous deux angles très différents, l’Union européenne et les Etats Unis d’Amérique viennent d’être confrontés à cette relation délicate qu’il convient d’établir entre les obligations relatives à la protection internationale d’une part, et, d’autre part l’impératif qu’il y a à prévenir et à lutter contre le terrorisme international. Avec une intelligence certaine, la Cour de justice s’emploie ainsi à démontrer que la protection offerte par le droit des réfugiés, celui de Genève comme celui de l’Union, n’est pas sans limites. Balayant toute nuance, l’exécutif américain a choisi au contraire la brutalité.

Les termes du droit international positif sont clairs, posant des interdits autant que des possibilités d’agir (a). Au nom de la prévention du terrorisme et en des termes très politiques, l’Executive order signé par Donald Trump, le 27 janvier 2017 a pourtant défrayé la chronique internationale par son ampleur (b) . A l’opposé, dans une démarche très juridique, la Cour de justice s’est efforcée de démontrer que le cadre existant ne privait pas les Etats de moyens de répondre au terrorisme, le 31 janvier 2017 dans l’affaire Lounani (a).

a) – Le contenu des obligations pesant sur les Etats

L’article 1er F de la Convention de Genève, au respect desquels les Etats Unis d’Amérique comme les Etats membres de l’Union sont tenus, la déclare non applicable « aux personnes dont on aura des raisons sérieuses de penser :

a)  qu’elles ont commis un crime contre la paix, un crime de guerre ou un crime contre l’humanité, au sens des instruments internationaux élaborés pour prévoir des dispositions relatives à ces crimes; 

b)  qu’elles ont commis un crime grave de droit commun en dehors du pays d’accueil avant d’y être admises comme réfugiées ; 

c)  qu’elles se sont rendues coupables d’agissements contraires aux buts et aux principes des Nations Unies».

A cela, la jurisprudence de la Cour européenne ajoute ses interdits quant à l’impossibilité de renvoyer un individu, quel qu’il soit, vers une destination où il risquerait d’être soumis à un traitement prohibé par les articles 2 et 3 de la CEDH. Ce qui a permis à la protection dite « subsidiaire » de trouver reconnaissance sans que cela signifie un seul instant une quelconque approbation de la cause défendue.

Deux articles clés de la Convention de Genève, ordonnent ensuite le débat autour de cette « pierre angulaire » du régime juridique applicable aux réfugiés, comme la Cour de justice s’en est fait déjà l’écho (CJUE, 9 novembre 2010, B et D (C‐57/09 et C‐101/09, point 77).

Son article 33, d’abord, interdit à la fois l’expulsion et le refoulement dans son §1er : « aucun des Etats Contractants n’expulsera ou ne refoulera, de quelque manière que ce soit, un réfugié sur les frontières des territoires où sa vie ou sa liberté serait menacée en raison de sa race, de sa religion, de sa nationalité, de son appartenance à un certain groupe social ou de ses opinions politiques ». La force de cette interdiction est soulignée par le fait que, en vertu de l’article 42 du texte, aucune réserve étatique n’est admise à ce sujet.

Certes, en vertu du §2 du même article 33, le bénéfice de cette disposition ne peut être invoqué par un réfugié qu’il y aura des raisons sérieuses de considérer comme un danger pour la sécurité du pays où il se trouve ou qui, ayant été l’objet d’une condamnation définitive pour un crime ou délit particulièrement grave, « constitue une menace pour la communauté dudit pays ».

D’où la confrontation de ces interdits avec les pratiques américaines ou européennes, qu’il s’agisse de prévenir le terrorisme ou de lui répondre.

b) – Droit des réfugiés et prévention du terrorisme

Telle est la motivation avancée par le texte de l’Executive order du 27 janvier 2017. Il ne fait aucun mystère des liens qu’il établit a priori entre terrorisme et immigration irrégulière et son intitulé est sans ambiguïté aucune à l’instant d’expliciter son objectif : « Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States ».

Aussi, indépendamment des questions portant sur la suspension des visas des ressortissants d’un certain nombre de pays tiers, dont sept Etats ciblés au Proche Orient (Irak, Iran, Libye, Somalie, Soudan, Syrie, Yémen), la volonté présidentielle vise-t-elle spécifiquement les étrangers à la recherche d’une protection. Ce que la section 5 du texte exprime en affichant un « Realignment of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for Fiscal Year 2017 ». Celui-ci comporte des mesures clairement contraires aux obligations internationales pesant sur les Etats Unis.

Il procède, en premier lieu, à la suspension du programme d’admission des États -Unis pour les réfugiés (USRAP) pendant 120 jours. Ces quatre mois permettront au Secrétaire d’Etat d’examiner l’état du droit existant, pourtant déjà réputé comme restrictif, et de déterminer les modifications éventuelles des procédures garantissant que l’admission des réfugiés ne constitue pas une menace à la sécurité et le bien-être des Etats-Unis.

Cette suspension est assortie d’une précision chiffrée quant à la capacité d’accueil des USA : leur président « proclaim that the entry of more than 50,000 refugees in fiscal year 2017 would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, and thus suspend any such entry until such time as I determine that additional admissions would be in the national interest » (Section 5, d)).

Il y ajoute ensuite des instructions particulièrement problématiques visant à distinguer les « bons » des « mauvais » demandeurs d’asile et à leur donner priorité, notamment à partir de critères religieux : invitation est ainsi faite au Secrétaire d’Etat, en consultation avec son homologue à la Sécurité intérieure, de modifier les pratiques existantes, « to the extent permitted by law, to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious- based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality » (Section 5, b)).

Enfin, pour ce qui est des ressortissants syriens qui sont aujourd’hui l’objet d’une préoccupation majeure de la Communauté internationale du point de vue des besoins de protection, le couperet tombe : leur entrée en tant que réfugiés est jugée comme « contraire aux intérêts des Etats Unis » et donc interdite par principe jusqu’à réexamen : « I hereby proclaim that the entry of nationals of Syria as refugees is detrimental to the interests of the United States and thus suspend any such entry until such time as I have determined that sufficient changes have been made to the USRAP to ensure that admission of Syrian refugees is consistent with the national interest ».

Inversant la logique qui structure le droit humanitaire, celle qui voudrait qu’il profite avant tout à la personne, l’Executive order du 27 janvier reconnaît la possibilité de dérogations discrétionnaires mais bornées par un constat sidérant. Ainsi, une admission dérogatoire peut être envisagée, au cas par cas, si elle est « in the national interest » (sic !!!), et pour des motifs liés notamment à l’existence de persécutions religieuses dont on voit bien à quoi elles réfèrent.

Il est donc difficile de ne pas conclure à un mépris délibéré des obligations internationales des Etats Unis. Cela est à la fois potentiellement avéré pour ce qui est de l’obligation de non-refoulement et tout à fait évident pour ce qui est de l’article 3 de la convention de Genève.

Ce dernier affirme que « les Etats Contractants appliqueront les dispositions de cette Convention aux réfugiés sans discrimination quant à la race, la religion ou le pays d’origine ». Rapidement qualifié par la presse et les opinions publiques comme un « Muslim Ban », le texte du président nouvellement élu est clairement discriminatoire, ce dont son auteur ne faisait guère mystère lors des débats électoraux. On comprend alors la volée internationale de bois vert qui l’a accueilli, d’Angela Merkel au Secrétaire général des Nations Unies et de nombre de ses collaborateurs en matière de droits fondamentaux sans que le HCR, vraisemblablement inquiet pour ses modalités de fonctionnement, ne se signale par une virulence particulière.

Il reste qu’en dehors d’une action étatique improbable devant la Cour de justice, rien ne menace en fait l’unilatéralisme américain en l’espèce. ce dernier n’en serait qu’à ses débuts si l’on en croit la promesse d’un nouvel Executive order relatif à la position des Etats Unis dans les négociations des traités relatifs aux droits de l’Homme…

c) – Exclusion du statut de réfugié et participation à des activités terroristes

La question n’est, malheureusement, pas nouvelle. La Cour de justice a déjà eu à en connaître à propos d’individus convaincus de connivences terroristes avant leur arrivée sur le territoire de l’Union, dans un pays tiers, et désireux soit de conserver soit d’obtenir le statut de réfugié (CJUE, 9 novembre 2010, B et D (C‐57/09 et C‐101/09 précité). Le juge avait eu à cette occasion à interpréter les « clauses d’exclusion » de la protection telles que les définit l’article 12 de la directive 2004/83 dite « qualification ». Elle avait eu aussi à se pencher sur les conséquences à en tirer quant à un titre de séjour, comme l’on en a traité déjà vu ici (CJUE, 24 juin 2015, H.T, C-373/13).

Le 31 janvier, le problème posé était sensiblement différent, à plusieurs égards. Le requérant, Mostafa Lounani, s’était vu reconnaître, en appel et en 2010, la qualité de réfugié par le Conseil belge du contentieux des étrangers, au motif de sa crainte de persécution en cas de retour dans son pays d’origine.

Inscrit sur la liste antiterroriste des Nations Unies depuis 2002, ce ressortissant marocain avait été condamné en 2006 en Belgique à une peine de six ans d’emprisonnement pour « participation aux activités d’un groupe terroriste », en l’occurrence un réseau islamique, ceci en tant que membre dirigeant. Il participait en effet à l’activité d’une cellule apportant son soutien logistique à un mouvement terroriste envoyant des « combattants étrangers » en Irak. L’activité terroriste incriminée se situait donc ici sur le territoire de l’Union, à l’inverse de l’affaire B. et D.

Pourtant, le juge national des étrangers estimait que les faits spécifiquement reprochés à M. Lounani ne constituaient pas des infractions terroristes en tant que telles, sa condamnation ayant été prononcée pour son « appartenance » à un groupe terroriste et non pour la commission précise et individualisée d’un acte terroriste. Selon le juge interne, aucun des agissements pour lesquels M. Lounani avait été condamné n’atteignait le degré de gravité requis pour être qualifié d’« agissements contraires aux buts et aux principes des Nations unies » au sens de la directive 2004/83, ce pourquoi le juge avait refusé de modifier sa position, malgré une première censure par le Conseil d’Etat.

Plutôt que de poursuivre un bras de fer inutile avec le Conseil du contentieux des étrangers, le Conseil d’Etat belge désirait donc savoir dans quelles conditions un demandeur de protection peut être exclu du statut de réfugié pour des « agissements contraires aux buts et aux principes des Nations unies » lorsqu’il a fait l’objet d’une condamnation pénale pour participation aux activités d’un groupe terroriste, sans avoir lui-même commis un acte de terrorisme. Il avait donc saisi la Cour de justice à titre préjudiciel sur ce point.

Répondre à cette interrogation impliquait de mobiliser à la fois le droit de l’Union applicable aux réfugiés mais aussi celui relatif au terrorisme et, notamment, la décision-cadre 2002/475 dont l’article 1er liste les « infractions terroristes », le tout à la lumière du droit de Genève. Conclure à la coïncidence de l’article 12 §2 de la directive 2004/83 et de l’article 1er F de la Convention de Genève était donc l’enjeu de l’arrêt rendu le 31 janvier. Une lecture commune des « agissements contraires aux buts et principes des Nations Unies » figurant dans les deux textes aurait ainsi établi une passerelle susceptible de stigmatiser les actes terroristes mais aussi la participation aux activités d’un réseau terroriste.

Le juge a donc été en charge d’opérer les rappels nécessaires au droit, au plan interne américain comme au plan européen.

3. La complémentarité des protections juridictionnelles

Paradoxalement et bien qu’ils aient été saisis dans un contexte qui n’est absolument pas comparable, le juge interne américain et européen ont, à quelques jours près, et la coïncidence est remarquable, parlé le même langage : celui de la légitimité de la défense de l’Etat dans un contexte terroriste, couplée à son caractère démocratique.

a) – la protection offerte par le juge interne

Si elle a défrayé bruyamment la chronique en ce qu’elle a tenu en échec un président nouvellement élu auquel elle infligeait un démenti cinglant, l’intervention du juge fédéral américain est, quasiment pour l‘essentiel, située sur le terrain du droit interne. Elle est, à ce titre, largement approuvée par la doctrine américaine et la presse. Elle n’en est pas moins instructive quant à la haute image que le juge se fait de sa fonction.

L’Etat de Washington et celui de Minnesota ayant eu gain de cause dans un premier temps devant un juge fédéral avec la suspension de l’Executive order, le 3 février 2017, l’appel de Donald Trump formé devant la Cour d’appel de San Francisco était particulièrement attendu, par les observateurs comme par les milliers de personnes touchées par la mesure. Ce dernier a conduit à un débat contentieux centré sur des questions de nature constitutionnelle, tranché par un rejet de l’appel prononcé à l’unanimité (State of Washington, State of Minnesota V. Donald J. Trump No. 17-35105).

L’essentiel de l’enjeu, aux yeux de la quinzaine d’Etats, des 130 entreprises et des 300 professeurs de droit s’étant transformés en « amicus curiae », était moins d’ordre conventionnel que constitutionnel : quel contrôle judiciaire effectuer sur une telle décision de l’exécutif, au risque de transgresser la séparation des pouvoirs comme ce dernier le défendait devant la Cour ?

La réponse unanime de la Cour d’appel est sans détours. Elle renvoie solennellement aux composantes d’un Etat de droit : « there is no precedent to support this claimed unreviewability, which runs contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy ».

A cet égard, elle devrait calmer les ardeurs des partisans de la poursuite de la querelle devant la Cour suprême : « although our jurisprudence has long counseled deference to the political branches on matters of immigration and national security, neither the Supreme Court nor our court has ever held that courts lack the authority to review executive action in those arenas for compliance with the Constitution. To the contrary, the Supreme Court has repeatedly and explicitly rejected the notion that the political branches have unreviewable authority over immigration or are not subject to the Constitution when policymaking in that context ». En d’autres termes, « it is beyond question that the federal judiciary retains the authority to adjudicate constitutional challenges to executive action ».

La question centrale pour notre propos, celle de la situation contentieuse des demandeurs de protection et de la violation évidente du principe de non-discrimination, a donc été largement évitée, même si elle était lourdement mise en avant par les Etats fédérés et diverses associations.

Néanmoins, conscient de la gravité des enjeux et des conséquences individuelles du texte, le juge d’appel est visiblement préoccupé par la facilité avec laquelle le terrorisme fournit un alibi facile aux gouvernants pour porter atteinte aux principes fondamentaux. S’il se borne à quelques remarques qui font mouche, au point de laisser douter de l’utilité d’un recours au juge constitutionnel, il n’en démonte pas moins ouvertement la crédibilité des arguments avancés pour adopter le « Muslim Ban », multipliant les allusions directes à l’absence de démonstration probante d’une menace terroriste par ses auteurs.

Quant à la discrimination religieuse que niait l’exécutif malgré de nombreux propos publics tenus lors de la campagne électorale, la Cour note l’importance des griefs soulevés par les Etats sur ce terrain constitutionnel : « in light of the sensitive interests involved, the pace of the current emergency proceedings, and our conclusion that the Government has not met its burden of showing likelihood of success on appeal on its arguments with respect to the due process claim, we reserve consideration of these claims until the merits of this appeal have been fully briefed ».

Quant au sérieux de la motivation de l’Executive order, enfin, le juge fédéral est cruel pour son auteur : « the Government has pointed to no evidence that any alien from any of the countries named in the Order has perpetrated a terrorist attack in the United States. Rather than present evidence to explain the need for the Executive Order, the Government has taken the position that we must not review its decision at all. We disagree, as explained above ».

De façon plus générale, à l’instant de mettre en balance intérêt général et intérêts individuels, « the Government has not shown that a stay is necessary to avoid irreparable injury …. Although we agree that “the Government’s interest in combating terrorism is an urgent objective of the highest order …, the Government has done little more than reiterate that fact. Despite the district court’s and our own repeated invitations to explain the urgent need for the Executive Order to be placed immediately into effect, the Government submitted no evidence to rebut the States’ argument that the district court’s order merely returned the nation temporarily to the position it has occupied for many previous years ».

La coupe est alors pleine : « finally, in evaluating the need for a stay, we must consider the public interest generally… Aspects of the public interest favor both sides, as evidenced by the massive attention this case has garnered at even the most preliminary stages. On the one hand, the public has a powerful interest in national security and in the ability of an elected president to enact policies. And on the other, the public also has an interest in free flow of travel, in avoiding separation of families, and in freedom from discrimination. We need not characterize the public interest more definitely than this; when considered alongside the hardships discussed above, these competing public interests do not justify a stay ».

b) – l’interprétation extensive du juge de l’Union

Incapable de se plier à ses propres décisions de relocalisation des réfugiés, l’Union est encore bien loin de tels débats… Une toute autre logique anime donc la Cour de justice dans l’affaire Lounani où il lui revenait de délimiter le champ d’application de la protection offerte par le statut de réfugié, en cas de lien de son bénéficiaire avec le terrorisme et ceci dans le silence de l’article 1er F de la convention de Genève à propos de la nature de ces liens. Interpréter les dispositions de ce droit de manière à ne pas entraver la lutte nécessaire des Etats contre le terrorisme, tel était le défi à relever et le message à leur adresser.

Lire les clauses d’exclusion du statut de réfugié de la directive 2004/83 de façon étroite, en les calquant sur les infractions terroristes énumérées dans l’article 1er §1 de la décision-cadre 2002/475/JAI était une option. Elle ne permettait pas de saisir la « participation » pour laquelle M. Lounani avait été condamné en Belgique. Au contraire, faire le choix d’interpréter ces clauses d’exclusion à la lumière de la Convention de Genève permettait d’élargir leur champ.

La Cour de justice va retenir cette démarche, le 31 janvier 2017, dans la droite ligne de sa jurisprudence antérieure (CJUE, 9 novembre 2010, B et D, C‐57/09 et C‐101/09, préc.  pt 78 ; CJUE 2 décembre 2014, A e.a., C-148/13 à C‐150/13, point 46). Parce que la directive 2004/83 se réfère expressément dans sa motivation et son article 12 §2 relatif à « l’exclusion » aux « agissements contraires aux buts et aux principes des Nations unies tels qu’ils figurent dans le préambule et aux articles 1er et 2 de la charte des Nations unies », il lui est facile de répondre. Cet article « correspond en substance à l’article 1er, section F, sous c), de la convention de Genève, lequel prévoit que les dispositions de cette convention ne seront pas applicables aux personnes dont on aura des raisons sérieuses de penser qu’elles se sont rendues coupables d’agissements contraires aux buts et aux principes des Nations unies (pt 43).

Le considérant 22 de la même directive renvoyant aux résolutions pertinentes des Nations Unies, il lui est également aisé de déduire de la résolution 1624 (2005) du Conseil de sécurité que les « agissements contraires aux buts et aux principes des Nations unies » ne se limitent pas aux « actes, méthodes et pratiques terroristes ». En effet, le Conseil de sécurité y invite les États, pour lutter contre le terrorisme, conformément aux obligations qui leur incombent en vertu du droit international, à priver d’asile et traduire en justice « quiconque prête appui au financement, à l’organisation, à la préparation ou à la commission d’actes de terrorisme, y concourt, y participe ou tente d’y participer, ou donne refuge à leurs auteurs » (pt 47). Postérieure à la décision-cadre 2002/475, la directive 2004/83 n’a donc pas entendu s’y référer et limiter son champ d’application à sa lumière.

Il restait alors à conclure sur le fait de savoir si des actes de « participation aux activités d’un groupe terroriste », tels que ceux ayant motivé la condamnation de M. Lounani, pouvaient relever de la cause d’exclusion alors même qu’il n’avait ni commis ni tenté ou menacé de commettre un acte de terrorisme. Ici, la Cour ne se laisse en rien brider par les débats en cours au Parlement européen relatifs à l’adoption de la directive remplaçant la décision-cadre 2002/475 et démontre, quasi-explicitement que le terrorisme ne saurait se réclamer de la protection du droit de l’Union.

Pour la Cour, il est acquis que la clause d’exclusion « ne saurait être limitée aux auteurs effectifs d’actes de terrorisme mais qu’elle peut également s’étendre aux individus qui se livrent à des activités de recrutement, d’organisation, de transport ou d’équipement bénéficiant à des personnes qui se rendent dans un Etat autre que leur Etat de résidence ou de nationalité dans le dessein, notamment, de commettre, d’organiser ou de préparer des actes de terrorisme » (pt 69). Elle estime que « la participation aux activités d’un groupe terroriste peut couvrir un large éventail de comportements d’un degré de gravité variable » (pt 71).

Evaluer l’impact de la condamnation pénale nationale s’avérait alors essentiel ici, d’aucuns estimant qu’elle valait automatiquement exclusion ou, a minima, « présomption réfragable » comme le gouvernement français l’avançait. La Cour a déjà rejeté cette conception dans sa jurisprudence précitée B. et D, relative au seul fait d’appartenance à une organisation terroriste, car les conditions d’exclusion présupposent un examen complet de toutes les circonstances propres à chaque cas individuel. Elle avait ainsi précisé que « l’autorité compétente doit notamment examiner le rôle qu’a effectivement joué la personne concernée dans la perpétration des actes en question, sa position au sein de l’organisation, le degré de connaissance qu’elle avait ou était censée avoir des activités de celle-ci, les éventuelles pressions auxquelles elle aurait été soumise ou d’autres facteurs susceptibles d’influencer son comportement » (pts 87 et 94).

La Cour de justice réitère ici ce point de vue en indiquant que l’exclusion ne peut avoir lieu qu’après « avoir procédé, pour chaque cas individuel, à une évaluation des faits précis dont elle a connaissance en vue de déterminer s’il existe des raisons sérieuses de penser que les actes commis par l’intéressé, qui remplit par ailleurs les critères pour obtenir le statut de réfugié, relèvent de ce cas d’exclusion » (pt 72).

Elle reprend à son compte implicitement à propos du cas Lounani la précision procédurale proposée par son avocat général, à savoir vérifier dans un premier temps si l’organisation en cause est une organisation terroriste avant d’évaluer les faits spécifiques imputés à la personne concernée (appréciation de la structure de l’organisation, de la position de la personne en son sein, de sa capacité à influencer les activités du groupe, de son implication dans la planification, la prise de décision ou la direction d’autres personnes en vue de commettre des actes de terrorisme…). En bref, il s’agit dans son esprit d’éviter la hâte avec laquelle, parfois, la lutte anti-terroriste s’affranchit des garanties procédurales individuelles.

Sur cette base, en l’espèce, sa conclusion est sans appel : « la circonstance, à la supposer établie, que le groupe dont M. Lounani était un membre dirigeant n’aurait pas perpétré d’acte de terrorisme ou que les volontaires souhaitant se rendre en Irak aidés par ce groupe n’auraient finalement pas commis de tels actes n’est, en tout état de cause, pas de nature à exclure que les agissements de M. Lounani puissent être considérés comme contraires aux buts et aux principes des Nations unies » (pt 77). Il n’est donc pas exigé qu’il ait été l’instigateur ou l’acteur de l’infraction pour procéder à son exclusion.

Dans ce contexte, la prise en considération de la décision de justice nationale est particulièrement pertinente, sans pour autant transformer la directive 2004/83 en instrument d’application de la lutte contre le terrorisme en mécanisant l’appréciation de l’Etat. Cette décision « revêt, dans le cadre de l’évaluation individuelle à laquelle doit procéder l’autorité compétente, une importance particulière » mais elle conserve intact en l’état le pouvoir d’évaluation de la situation à l’instant de se prononcer.

Au total, en ce début d’année et à l’inverse de ce qu’il est souvent avancé, le juge interne comme européen révèle ici la richesse de son office, malgré un contexte de crise sécuritaire particulièrement lourd : garantir les intérêts de la défense de la société, dans le cadre démocratique d’une Communauté et d’un Etat de droit. Faut-il vraiment se féliciter que l’actualité lui ait fourni l’occasion de nous le rappeler ?

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Hotspots and EU Agencies: Towards an integrated European administration?


by Lilian Tsourdi, European University Institute 

We continue our series of blogs aimed at providing an enriching background to the topics that will be discussed during our annual conference titled “Beyond ‘crisis’? The State of Immigration and Asylum Law and Policy in the EU” , which will take place in Brussels on 10 February 2017.

The ‘hotspot approach to migration management’ is one of the building blocks of EU’s response to what has been perceived as a crisis. Studies by the research unit of the European Parliament and ECRE have outlined its functioning and commented on the fundamental rights challenges it raises. Francesco Maiani reflected in this blog on its pertinence to enhancing solidarity and fair-sharing within the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), concluding that it undermines it instead. This contribution focuses on another aspect, notably the trends in the implementation of the asylum policy vividly portrayed through operations as part of the hotspot approach. I illustrate this through studying the evolving role of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) in operational activities.  Aspects of this contribution draw on a broader study soon to be published in the e-journal European Papers 1(3) under the title ‘Bottom-up Salvation? From Practical Cooperation towards Joint Implementation through the European Asylum Support Office’.

Hotspot: what is in a name?

The meaning of the terms ‘hotspot’ and ‘hotspot approach to migration management’ is not self-evident. In fact, there is no precise legal definition, nor a concerted legal framework regulating these concepts that have flooded the EU policy debate and practice. After being evoked in a feasibility study conducted at the Commission’s behest, the ‘hotspot approach’ emerged in the Commission’s EU Agenda on Migration. It basically concerns inter-agency collaboration, where deployed national experts under the coordination of a specific agency operationally assist national administrations. This approach is novel: although the respective agency regulations foresaw deployments, the element of interagency collaboration in what is in essence a single operational framework was never before so clearly articulated. The deployed experts are operational, conducting a variety of tasks (such as identification, registration, etc.) alongside national administrations. On the other hand, a ‘hotspot area’ is in essence an EU external border section facing high numbers of arrivals of third country nationals. In the policy discourse, the individual centres of identification and registration operating in such border areas are also referred to as ‘hotspots’.

The ‘hotspot approach’ finds its expression through the Migration Management Support Teams. This term was initially only included in policy documents. More recently, it has been defined in the new European Border and Coast Guard Regulation as:

a team of experts which provide technical and operational reinforcement to Member States at hotspot areas and which is composed of experts deployed from Member States by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency and by the European Asylum Support Office, and from the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Europol or other relevant Union agencies.

The intensity of collaboration between agency-coordinated deployed experts and national administrations in hotspot areas, reflected below by the case of EASO, is such that one can speak of an emerging integrated European administration. This constitutes an important shift in the administration modes of the asylum policy.

EASO operational support: from expert consultants towards joint implementation?

In the initial policy design, practical cooperation between Member States was envisaged to support the implementation of the European asylum policy. It basically consisted in information exchange through administrative networks and ad-hoc projects. These collaborative efforts soon met their limits in boosting Member States’ capacity to implement the asylum policy. Their inadequacy to live up to the implementation challenges led to an institutionalisation push. Institutionalisation of practical co-operation efforts in the asylum policy came to fruition in 2010 through the adoption of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) founding regulation.

Operational support activities constitute one of the three main areas of activity of EASO. They are pursued through the Asylum Support Teams (ASTs) which are predominantly made up of seconded national experts. Operational support activities were among the first tasks EASO was called upon to fulfil, with the Greek Government requesting the deployment of ASTs as early as February 2011. Operations gradually grew in number, as well as in scope. The agency adopted a flexible definition of what constitutes pressure and examined this in relative, rather than absolute terms, providing, for example, assistance in Luxembourg and Cyprus. This approach is correct since every Member State is called to implement its obligations mainly through its own financial and human resources. Deployments under ASTs during a first period were not operational in the same sense as the FRONTEX border guard teams which interacted with individual migrants at external borders. Most of the work consisted in expert advice provided to relevant ministry departments, or involved training and study visits of members of national administrations.

Gradually, the agency separated deployments from the situation of pressure altogether through the testing of joint processing pilots. These started out involving tasks that did not entail administrative discretion, such as initial registration, or archiving of data. They evolved beyond that, reportedly including, for example, the assessment of the merits of individual cases through deployed experts that conducted the asylum interview as in the case of the Netherlands pilot. However, they were small-scale and short term.

Operations in hotspots signal a further development. EASO deployees have begun to move away from expert consulting and undertake more hands-on tasks, such as providing information to arriving third country nationals, and assisting with the relocation process. This is exemplified by the case of Greece. A law adopted in April 2016 and amended in June 2016, transposing among other elements the recast Asylum Procedures Directive, establishes an accelerated border asylum procedure, addressing also the situation at hotspots. It states that in case of large number of arriving third country nationals or stateless persons who seek asylum at border areas, in transit zones, or in centres of reception and identification (which is the name given under Greek legislation to hotspots), an exceptional procedure applies.  Its main elements are: a) asylum claims may be recorded by personnel of the Greek Police or the Greek Armed Forces; b) interviews with applicants for international protection may be conducted by personnel made available by EASO; c) extremely truncated deadlines for asylum processing, notably a deadline of one day for applicants to prepare for the first-instance interview, and a maximum of 3 days for deciding on appeals. This exceptional procedure may not be applied to individuals belonging to vulnerable groups, or to persons falling within the family provisions of the recast Dublin Regulation. The national law also contains provisions on finding an application inadmissible, which include protection in a safe third country and first country of asylum.

The provisions in national law on EASO involvement were amended in June 2016 to reflect the evolving nature of the collaboration between the Greek Asylum Service (the administrative body responsible for first-instance decision-making) and EASO-coordinated experts. Notably, the original April 2016 version of Law 4375/2016 stated that interpreters, as well as seconded personnel made available by EASO, may assist the Greek Asylum Service in recording the claim, the interview and any other process. The prior version of the Greek law was compatible with the limitations upon EASO according to its mandate, notably that it ‘shall have no powers in relation to the taking of decisions by Member States’ asylum authorities on individual applications for international protection’. That version of the law stated that the Greek Asylum Service can be assisted (μπορεί να επικουρείται) by EASO experts and interpreters. However, it did not reflect the administrative reality on the ground. Hence, the law was amended in June 2016 to state that deployed experts can conduct asylum interviews.

EASO-deployed experts at hotspots in Greece are independently conducting a part of the asylum process that entails discretion. They conduct the asylum admissibility interviews on behalf of the Greek Asylum Service, at least in the majority of cases, then submit their findings, on the basis of which the Service issues the final admissibility decision. Inherent parts of this process are assessing the credibility of the applicants, detecting vulnerability, and making a finding on the safety of third countries; all of these entail elements of discretion. The administrative reality is that this moves beyond assisted processing, to the realm of common processing. In terms of EU administrative law then, there is already an emergence of a variant of procedures that could be understood as de facto composite, or mixed, administrative procedures. These operations at hotspots arguably give ‘powers in relation to the taking of decisions on individual applications’, in the very least indirect powers. In this sense, they exceed the legal limits under the EASO Regulation.

Nevertheless, this administrative reality does not exceed the legal limitations placed by EU primary law, i.e. Article 78(2)(e) TFEU which foresees that ‘a Member State’ is to be responsible for the examination of an application. The deployed experts are only formulating an opinion, which is not binding on the Greek Asylum Service according to law. It is the Greek Asylum Service that formally adopts the admissibility decision, and it has the power to adopt a decision that goes against the proposal of the deployed experts.

This operational involvement of the EU also poses subsequent procedural questions. Notably, what rights do applicants enjoy during this interview with deployed experts, which is a crucial part of the asylum procedure? Normally, this process being a part of the asylum procedure, applicants should enjoy the full array of rights foreseen by the recast Asylum Procedures Directive and the Greek national law no matter who is conducting the interview; the fact that the EU level is operational should not lead to a diminution of procedural rights. However, on the ground there is uncertainty as to the procedural rights available, as illustrated for example by the contribution of Catharina Ziebritzki in this blog.

The rise of a ‘European Union Agency for Asylum’: ingraining common processing?

The Commission proposal on a European Union Agency on Asylum confirms these integrative trends. Overall, it enhances the agency’s mandate and resources. The first article of the new Regulation sets the ambitious tone of the proposal:

[t]he European Union Agency for Asylum (the Agency) shall ensure the efficient and uniform application of Union asylum law in Member States. It shall facilitate the implementation and improve the functioning of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), and it shall be responsible for enabling convergence in the assessment of applications for international protection across the Union.

These elements go far beyond support or administrative cooperation. Rather, it seems that the Agency will be the vessel through which the implementation challenges of the asylum policy will be overcome. The agency’s functions would evolve to include processes that include directly steering implementation, as well as a monitoring function. In addition, elements of not only assisted, but also common processing would be ingrained in the mandate. The proposal decouples operational support from situations of disproportionate pressure, envisaging that operational support would be available in a broader context, as long as it remains limited in time.

The envisaged measures as part of operational support are variegated. They include preparatory acts of the asylum procedure that do not entail administrative discretion, such as assistance with the identification and registration of third country nationals, or assistance with the provision of information on the international protection procedure. However, a subsequent provision [Article 19(h)] referring to Operational plans includes the following reference:

regarding assistance with applications for international protection, including as regards the examination of such applications, specific information on the tasks that the asylum support teams or the experts from the asylum intervention pool may perform as well as reference to applicable national and Union law.

Already there is a hint that assistance may involve the examination of applications, or some part of it. Things are clear where it concerns the migration management teams deployed at hotspots. Among their tasks the following is stated: ‘the registration of applications for international protection and, where requested by Member States, the examination of such applications’. This formulation leaves little doubt that what is contemplated here is the examination of the application itself, rather than assistance, or facilitation of examination.

This provision on the hotspot related deployments should be read together with Recital 46 of the proposed Regulation which states: ‘[t]he competence to take decisions by Member States’ asylum authorities on individual applications for international protection remains with Member States’. Once again therefore de jure the proposed Regulation seems not to raise issues; even if deployed experts have examined an application, it will, at the very least, be rubberstamped by ‘a’ national authority. The European Parliament in its draft first reading position released in December 2016 insisted through its amendments that ‘this does not preclude, however, the joint processing of applications for individual protection by a Member State and the Agency’.


The institutionalisation of practical cooperation through the establishment of EU agencies in the Home Affairs area was a first decisive step into intensifying the EU-coordinated involvement in implementation, a stage initially designed to be predominantly operationalised by Member States, through their own resources. The working methods of agencies led to greater integration between the EU level and national administrations. For example, EASO, possessing but a small financial envelope and limited human resources, had recourse to Member States’ experts in order to fulfil its mandate. Several EASO outputs are jointly produced with Member States experts, such as COI reports and training modules. Administrative integration is more visible in EASO operations through the asylum support teams which are made up predominantly of seconded national experts. The first such operations were launched shortly after the agency’s establishment, and then gradually grew in number and scope. Most of the work consisted in expert advice provided to relevant ministry departments, or involved training and study visits of members of national administrations.

The next push came through the ‘refugee crisis’ and the roll-out of the hotspot approach with EASO deployees becoming more ‘operational’, alongside providing expert advice. As pressures increased, forms of common rather than assisted processing emerged in Greece, with deployed experts undertaking admissibility interviews and submitting opinions that, despite being advisory and non-binding on national authorities, entailed administrative discretion. This new role is ingrained in the May 2016 Commission proposal that envisages an agency with a boosted mandate unsettling the status quo. It potentially tasks deployments with the ‘examination of claims’, while repeating that the final decision remains the competence of Member States.

Developments point to the emergence of an increasingly integrated administration in the field of asylum. This is neither inherently positive, nor inherently negative. However, it brings with it novel challenges of both a constitutional and practical nature. While the first concern the division of powers between the EU and national levels, the latter concern effectively upholding applicants’ fundamental and procedural rights. Broadening agencies’ powers in the Home Affairs area, and the nascent forms of joint implementation, will have to be coupled with a rethink in EU administrative law and the establishment of effective guarantees. Cognizant of that fact, the European Parliament has proposed in its draft position on the European Union Agency on Asylum the establishment of a Fundamental Rights Officer; a Fundamental Rights Strategy; an individual complaints mechanism; and a robust role for the agency’s Consultative Forum in that setting. These proposals recognise the increasingly operational role this agency has to play, and reflect similar developments regarding the EU Border and Coast Guard. They form necessary, but still insufficient, measures that this evolving implementation set-up calls for. The dedicated workshop in the Odysseus Network Annual Policy Conference on the 10th February 2016 will present a forum to critically assess and further debate on these developments.

Expulsion of seriously ill migrants: a new ECtHR ruling reshapes ECHR and EU law


by Dr Lourdes Peroni*, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Ghent University Human Rights Centre (ECHR aspects) and Professor Steve Peers (EU law aspects)

In what is possibly one of the most important judgments of 2016, Paposhvili v. Belgium, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has memorably reshaped its case law on when Article 3 ECHR (which bans torture or other inhuman or degrading treatment) applies to the expulsion of seriously ill migrants. In a unanimous judgment, the Court leaves behind the restrictive application of the high Article 3 threshold set in N. v. the United Kingdom and pushes for a more rigorous assessment of the risk of ill-treatment in these cases. For us at the Human Rights Centre of Ghent University, it was a thrill to intervene as a third party in such an important case. In our third party intervention we submitted that Paposhvili offered a unique opportunity to depart from the excessively restrictive approach adopted in N. We are delighted that the Grand Chamber has seized the opportunity to re-draw the standards in this area of its case law in a way that does fuller justice to the spirit of Article 3.

This main part of the post addresses the ECtHR’s interpretation of the ECHR in Paposhvili, while in the Annex to this post, Steve Peers considers its application within the scope of EU law.

The ECHR judgment

Mr. Paposhvili, a Georgian national living in Belgium, was seriously ill. He claimed that his expulsion to Georgia would put him at risk of inhuman treatment and an earlier death due to the withdrawal of the treatment he had been receiving in Belgium (for more on the facts, see my previous post). He died in Belgium last June, while his case was pending before the Grand Chamber. The Court did not strike his application out of the list. It found that “special circumstances relating to respect for human rights” required its continued examination based on Article 37 § 1 in fine ECHR (§ 133). The Court held that there would have been a violation of Article 3 if Belgium had expelled Mr. Paposhvili to Georgia without having assessed “the risk faced by him in the light of the information concerning his state of health and the existence of appropriate treatment in Georgia.” It found a similar violation of Article 8 if Belgium had expelled him without having assessed the impact of his return on his “right to respect for his family life in view of his state of health.”

Opening Up “Other Very Exceptional Cases”

The Chamber judgment in Paposhvili followed N. and Yoh-Ekale Mwanje v. Belgium where the Court had taken into account that “the applicants’ condition had been stable as a result of the treatment they had been receiving, that they were not ‘critically ill’ and that they were fit to travel” (§ 119). The Chamber thus concluded that though Mr. Paposhvili suffered from “a fatal and incurable disease … his conditions are all stable and under control at present; his life is therefore not in imminent danger and he is able to travel” (§ 120).

As readers might remember, the N. Grand Chamber established that removing a non-national suffering from a serious illness to “a country where the facilities for the treatment of that illness are inferior to those available in the Contracting State may raise an issue under Article 3, but only in a very exceptional case” (§ 42). The Grand Chamber concluded that the applicant’s circumstances in N. were not exceptional, as found in D. v. United Kingdom (§ 42). D was critically ill, close to death, and had no prospect of medical care and family support in his home country. The N. Grand Chamber, however, left a window open: it did not exclude that “there may be other very exceptional cases where the humanitarian considerations are equally compelling” (§ 43, emphasis added).

In our third party intervention, we argued that being medically stable and fit to travel as a result of the treatment received should not be a determining criterion in allowing an expulsion. We respectfully invited the Court to develop a less extreme approach, one that considered the difference between applicants’ suffering in the sending state and the suffering they would face in the receiving state. The aim, we submitted, should be to determine whether the reduction of applicants’ life expectancy and the deterioration of their quality of life would be such as to reach the level of severity required by Article 3. The applicant argued that his expulsion to Georgia would place him at risk of “a severe and rapid deterioration in his state of health leading to his swift and certain death” (§ 148). He asked the Court “to go beyond its findings in N. v. the United Kingdom” and to define “a realistic threshold of severity that was no longer confined to securing a ‘right to die with dignity’” (§ 149).

The Paposhvili Grand Chamber enters through the window N. left open. It notes that since N. no other “very exceptional cases” had been found (§ 178). It importantly recognizes that the application of Article 3 only to persons close to death has deprived those whose condition was less critical but who were still seriously ill from “the benefit of that provision” (§ 181). In a pivotal paragraph, the Grand Chamber considers

… that the “other very exceptional cases” within the meaning of the judgment in N. v. the United Kingdom (§ 43) which may raise an issue under Article 3 should be understood to refer to situations involving the removal of a seriously ill person in which substantial grounds have been shown for believing that he or she, although not at imminent risk of dying, would face a real risk, on account of the absence of appropriate treatment in the receiving country or the lack of access to such treatment, of being exposed to a serious, rapid and irreversible decline in his or her state of health resulting in intense suffering or to a significant reduction in life expectancy. The Court points out that these situations correspond to a high threshold for the application of Article 3 of the Convention in cases concerning the removal of aliens suffering from serious illness (§ 183). Emphasis added.

This is a graceful move that softens the unduly restrictive approach that had so far been followed in cases concerning the expulsion of seriously ill migrants. Paposhvili thus comes to fill what Judge Lemmens calls a “gap in the protection against inhuman treatment” (concurring opinion in Paposhvili § 3) by including as exceptional more than just cases of imminent death. My first impression is that the Court does not formally leave behind N.’s exceptional character and the high threshold of Article 3 in cases concerning the expulsion of seriously ill non-nationals (see last sentence § 183 and Judge Lemmens’ opinion § 3). Rather, it appears to open up what in practice has resulted in a limited application of the high threshold. The commendable effect of the Court’s move is, in any event, a less extreme approach more compatible with the spirit of Article 3. Elements of both our third party intervention and the applicant’s arguments are reflected positively in the Grand Chamber reasoning in this regard.

Real Rather Than Theoretical Access to “Sufficient” and “Appropriate” Care

In our third party intervention we proposed that the risk assessment should consider the adequacy of the medical care available in the receiving state and the person’s actual access to such care. The question, we argued, is not just whether adequate treatment is generally available but, crucially, whether the available treatment would in reality be accessible to the person concerned. The applicant argued that the alleged Article 3 violation should be examined “in concreto,” taking into consideration, among other things, “the accessibility of treatment in the country of destination” (§ 139).

The Grand Chamber seizes the occasion to meticulously set out a range of procedural duties for the domestic authorities in the ECHR state parties. All these duties point in one clear direction: a more rigorous assessment of the risk as required by the absolute nature of the Article 3 prohibition (Saadi v. Italy § 128). In assessing the alleged risk of ill-treatment, the domestic authorities should verify whether the care available in the receiving state is “sufficient and appropriate in practice for the treatment of the applicant’s illness so as to prevent him or her being exposed to treatment contrary to Article 3” (§ 189, emphasis added). The domestic authorities should also consider “the extent to which the individual in question will actually have access to this care and these facilities in the receiving State” (§ 190, emphasis added). Referring to existing case law, the Court points to several factors to be taken into account: “cost of medication and treatment, the existence of a social and family network, and the distance to be travelled in order to have access to the required care” (§ 190).

Duty to Obtain Assurances from the Receiving State

With reference to Tarakhel (a 2014 ECtHR ruling on the application of the EU’s Dublin rules on allocation of asylum responsibility), our third party intervention proposed that Article 3 impose on the domestic authorities in the returning state the procedural duty to seek or obtain assurances from the receiving state that the person concerned would actually have access to the treatment s/he needed. We argued that access to appropriate medical care should not be a theoretical option, but a real and guaranteed one, and the burden of proving that such a real option exists should lie on the expelling state (on assurances and the benefits of adopting this path, see Eva Brems’ commentary on Tatar v. Switzerland).

On this point, the Grand Chamber states in paragraph 191:

Where, after the relevant information has been examined, serious doubts persist regarding the impact of removal on the persons concerned – on account of the general situation in the receiving country and/or their individual situation – the returning State must obtain individual and sufficient assurances from the receiving State, as a precondition for removal, that appropriate treatment will be available and accessible to the persons concerned so that they do not find themselves in a situation contrary to Article 3 (on the subject of individual assurances, see Tarakhel, cited above, § 120).


There is so much more to say about the Court’s reasoning in Paposhvili. I have highlighted some of its most remarkable Article 3 principles. Together with others, such as the one establishing when the responsibility of the returning state is engaged (§ 192), these principles firmly move a body of the Court’s case law closer to its principles on the absolute nature of the Article 3 prohibition.

*This part of the post is reblogged  from the Strasbourg Observers blog

Annex: the impact on EU law

By Professor Steve Peers

How does this judgment impact upon EU law?

First of all, it’s necessary to explain the existing EU law position, set in the Abdida and M’Bodj judgments of the ECJ, which was referred to in the ECtHR judgment (paras 120-22), and which I discussed further here. In short, ‘medical cases’ are not within the scope of EU asylum law, either as regards refugee status or subsidiary protection (M’Bodj). However, if the person concerned faces an expulsion order, then the Returns Directive applies. (Note that the latter Directive doesn’t apply to the UK, Ireland or Denmark.)

Although the Returns Directive was mainly intended to ensure removal of irregular migrants from the territory, in ‘medical cases’ (at least), as interpreted by the ECJ in Abdida, it has the opposite effect. According to the Court, the requirement in Article 5 of the Directive to ‘respect the principle of’ non-refoulement means that irregular migrants who fall outside the scope of EU asylum law but nevertheless face an Article 3 ECHR risk, as defined in the case law of the ECtHR, cannot be removed. Moreover, in further displays of legal alchemy, the ECJ ruled that the challenge to their removal must have suspensive effect, and they must receive the necessary health care and social benefits.

The ECJ has not developed this case law since, although further relevant cases are pending. In MP, the Court has been asked to clarify the line between asylum cases and medical cases, where the medical conditions are more directly linked to persecution or serious harm suffered in the country of origin. In Gnandi, it has been asked to clarify the suspensive effect of a legal challenge in medical cases, following a failed asylum application. In K.A. and others, the Court has been asked about the requirement to ‘take due account’ of family life in Article 5 of the Returns Directive; its ultimate ruling might be relevant to the ‘non-refoulement’ aspect of the same clause by analogy. Equally in Nianga the Court has been asked whether Article 5 applies to the decision to issue a return decision or removal order in the first place: a crucial point because if it does not apply, the person concerned might well fall outside the scope of EU law entirely.

What impact will the new ECtHR ruling have on the interpretation of EU law? First of all, there’s nothing to suggest it will, by itself, move the dividing line between asylum cases and medical cases, as applied by the ECJ. So we are still looking at the interpretation of the Returns Directive, if that Directive applies.

Since the ECJ committed itself to follow the case-law of the ECtHR as regards medical cases when interpreting the non-refoulement provision of the Returns Directive, it should follow that the new ECtHR ruling applies to the Directive too. Therefore this enlarges the group of people who can benefit from the specific provisions of EU law as interpreted by the ECJ, as regards suspensive effect of appeals and access to health care and social benefits.

Equally the ECtHR’s strong stress on the procedural elements of such cases logically applies by analogy to cases falling within the scope of the Returns Directive. While the ECJ in the Abdida judgment did not refer to its own jurisprudence on the right to a hearing for irregular migrants (discussed here), it is now necessary to update that approach in light of the ECtHR ruling, given the strong link which the latter judgment establishes between the procedural and substantive aspects of what I have referred to as ‘alternative protection’. The ECJ will have an opportunity to address this issue in the months to come, in the pending cases referred to above.

While the ECtHR judgment referred to a need to cooperate with the country of origin in order to check conditions there, in the EU context this might arguably in some cases entail by analogy a check on health conditions in another Member State, which would be responsible for that person under the Dublin rules. The ECJ has yet to determine how its interpretation of the Returns Directive in medical cases fits together with the application of the Dublin rules, which in principle apply if the person concerned has at one point applied for international protection (refugee status or subsidiary protection) within the EU. (Mr. Paposhvili was originally subject to the Dublin rules, but it seems that the plan to remove him to Italy pursuant to those rules petered out).

Finally, it should be noted that the ECtHR also found a breach of Article 8 ECHR (the right to family life), on similar procedural grounds. This might be relevant to interpretation of the EU’s family reunion Directive, for those who fall within the scope of that Directive and who argue on the basis of the factors to consider during expulsion proceedings pursuant to Articles 17 and 18 of that law.

Human & humanitarian smugglers: Europe’s scapegoat in the ‘refugee crisis’


by Rachel Landry, Fellow for Refugee Policy, Center on National Security, Fordham Law School

In the middle of one night in January 2016, Salam Aldeen received what had now become a routine call regarding boats in distress off of the coast of Greece. Since co-founding Team Humanity, a volunteer rescue organisation, in September 2015, Aldeen had responded to distress calls from approximately 200 boats with a total of approximately 10,000 refugees on board. As per protocol, Aldeen informed the Greek coast guard that he was going out in search of the boats. Yet on this particular evening, Aldeen and the four other volunteer lifeguards with him never reached the refugees in need of rescue.

When a military ship came threateningly close to their rescue boat, they altered course and headed back to shore. Before they reached land, two military vessels and the Greek coast guard surrounded them, ultimately arresting them and confiscating their boat. Their alleged crime: human smuggling. Their actions: attempting to fulfil the widely acknowledged duty to rescue at sea. Aldeen was released from prison after paying a significant fee, but is unable to leave Greece and is required to check in weekly with the Greek authorities. He awaits trial and faces up to ten years in prison.

The arrest of Aldeen and the four volunteers is far from unique. Deeply entangled within the EU’s robust fight against human smuggling in the current ‘refugee crisis’ is the threat of criminalisation of a range of humanitarian acts, which should not be punished but rather praised. The European Commission (EC) has rhetorically acknowledged the importance of ‘avoiding risks of criminalisation of those who provide humanitarian assistance to migrants in distress’, yet the actions of individual Member States suggest otherwise.

The EC is scheduled to release a proposal by the end of 2016 to ‘improve the existing EU legal framework to tackle migrant smuggling’. As such, it has been reviewing Council Directive 2002/90/EC of 28 November 2002 defining the facilitation of unauthorised entry, transit and residence (Facilitation Directive), legislation that governs human smuggling in addition to other acts facilitating the transit and stay of irregular migrants. Given the much-needed review of the Facilitation Directive and the current strategy to combat abhorrent and ‘humanitarian’ acts of smuggling alike, it is a critical moment to reflect upon the moral quality and complexities of human smuggling.

I offer five observations as a preliminary framework for considering the deficiencies in the Facilitation Directive and where the boundary between blameworthy acts of smuggling and blameless acts of ‘humanitarian smuggling’ should be drawn. These observations stem from my recently published research through the Refugee Studies Centre, The ‘humanitarian smuggling’ of refugees: Criminal offence or moral obligation?

  1.       Combatting human smuggling and all humanitarian acts construed as such are in service of the larger goals of deterring and securitising irregular migration.

The EU is employing all possible tactics to deter refugees and migrants from attempting to reach its Member States’ shores – from the United Nations Security Council Resolution permitting EU security forces to intercept vessels suspected of human smuggling off the coast of Libya, to the deployment of NATO warships in the Aegean Sea, to the EU-Turkey deal to send those arriving irregularly back to Turkey. These policies of deterrence and securitisation are neither ad hoc nor unprecedented. Rather, they are integral to EU law governing irregular migrants and those who assist them.

Notably, the Facilitation Directive is first and foremost concerned with deterring irregular migration. As the first paragraph of the Directive states: ‘[o]ne of the objectives of the European Union is the gradual creation of an area of freedom, security, and justice, which means, inter alia, that illegal immigration must be combatted’. Prohibiting the facilitation of irregular entry is merely one means to combat irregular migration. As Spena argues, ‘[p]aradoxical as it may seem, in the Facilitation Directive’s approach, smuggling, as a form of facilitation, is only wrongful in an ancillary way, as if it was only a form of complicity in the real wrong which is the wrong of irregular migration’. The focus on deterring irregular migration produces a disregard for the smuggled migrants themselves, highlighted by the fact that the Directive does not define its relationship to international human rights or refugee law.

  1.     The Facilitation Directive, as transposed into national law, permits the criminalisation of genuinely humanitarian acts.  

The infringements set out in the Facilitation Directive mirror its expansive intent to sanction, most regularly through criminal law, a wide range of activities that may support irregular migration. Article 1.1.a stipulates that Member States:

shall adopt appropriate sanctions on: any person who intentionally assists a person who is not a national of a Member State to enter, or transit across, the territory of a Member State in breach of the laws of the State concerned on the entry or transit of aliens.  

Article 1.2 includes an optional ‘humanitarian clause’, which applies only to Article 1.1a such that ‘[a]ny Member State may decide not to impose sanctions…where the aim of the behaviour is to provide humanitarian assistance to the person concerned’.

The majority of Member States have transposed Article 1.1a expansively, permitting the criminalisation of a broad range of individuals facilitating irregular entry – from members of smuggling rings putting refugees in deliberate danger to volunteers rescuing refugees in peril at sea. The optional humanitarian exemption ultimately permits the criminalisation of what seems to be a limitless spectrum of activity at the national level, failing to enable subjects to orientate their behaviour accordingly and even prohibiting ethically defensible, if not praiseworthy, acts like those of Aldeen. According to a 2014 report by the Fundamental Rights Agency, the optional ‘humanitarian clause’ has been explicitly transposed in a variety of forms at the national level in only eight Member States.

  1.        The historic example of the rescue of the Danish Jews during World War II clearly illustrates, with the benefit of hindsight, the moral necessity and praiseworthiness of certain acts of smuggling.

The current ‘refugee crisis’ is regularly referred to as the largest crisis since World War II. Equally, international cooperation to resettle refugees in the aftermath of WWII is frequently invoked as a response that should be emulated today. Less frequently invoked, however, are those ‘humanitarian smugglers’known today simply as heroes – who rescued Jews from persecution long before the international community stepped in.

In 1943, 95% of the Jewish population in Denmark was able to escape deportation to concentration camps, in large part due to the collective action of fellow citizens and the Danish resistance movement. When the Nazi regime formalised the order to deport Danish Jews to concentration camps in September 1943, within two weeks Danes mobilised to successfully smuggle more than 7,200 Danish Jews and 680 non-Jewish family members to safety in Sweden, predominantly by way of Danish fishermen.

Those individuals who effectively evacuated almost the entire Jewish population out of Denmark not only made an assessment of the likely consequences and certainty of the impending harm for the Danish Jews if they did not act, but also accepted significant risks to their own lives as a result of their actions. If caught by the Nazis, those who aided and abetted Jews faced criminalisation and even possibly execution. The heroic rescue of the Danish Jews from impending deportation to concentration camp is but one reminder of the historical continuity, praiseworthiness, and unfortunate necessity of ‘humanitarian smuggling’.

  1.     The drafters of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention) considered including a safeguard against penalisation for individuals assisting refugees to cross borders irregularly on humanitarian grounds.

Under certain circumstances, Article 31 of the Refugee Convention provides that presumptive refugees may cross borders irregularly and nevertheless be exempt from punishment. The drafters recognised that given the unique and vulnerable predicament of refugees, a refugee may have no choice but to cross borders irregularly and should not be penalised for doing so.

In light of the expansive scope of the Facilitation Directive and the threatened criminalisation of humanitarians like Aldeen, it may come as a surprise that some of the drafters – in particular the Swiss government – recognised that safeguards should exist not only for refugees, but also their rescuers. According to the French representative, organisations assisting refugees to reach safety were engaging in ‘an obvious humanitarian duty’. The French government was nevertheless opposed to modifying the language of Article 31, fearing it would encourage refugee organisations to become ‘organisations for the illegal crossing of frontiers’. Similarly, the United States representative acknowledged that the failure to include a safeguard for those proving humanitarian assistance to refugees irregularly crossing borders might be ‘a possible oversight in the drafting of the article’. Yet, the United States government did not support including protections for those providing assistance.

There is, of course, no safeguard for ‘humanitarian smugglers’ in the Refugee Convention. Yet, there was a recognition that governments should not – and a false assumption that they would not – criminalise those assisting refugees for humanitarian reasons.

  1.     The November 2015 landmark Supreme Court of Canada case, R. v. Appulonappa, may set a legal precedent for a more narrowly drafted smuggling offence in the Facilitation Directive to decriminalise ‘humanitarian smugglers’.

The November 2015 Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) case, R v. Appulonappa, sets a legal precedent for a narrower smuggling prohibition. The SCC ruled that its law criminalising smuggling, S. 117 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, was overbroad and should be ‘read down…as not applying to persons providing humanitarian aid to asylum-seekers or to asylum-seekers who provide each other mutual aid (including aid to family members)’. S. 117 is not dissimilar to Article 1.1 of the Facilitation Directive in that it theoretically criminalises anyone who facilitates irregular entry, regardless of motive or the means by which the act is carried out.

The SCC ruled that S. 117 exceeded its legislative intent of criminalising organised crime: ‘[a] broad punitive goal that would prosecute persons with no connection to and no furtherance of organised crime is not consistent with Parliament’s purpose’. Possible amendments to S. 117 may serve as a model for a more narrowly drafted prohibition that more accurately delineates between blameless and blameworthy acts of smuggling.


These five observations offer entry points into the moral complexities of human smuggling and the legal imperative of decriminalising humanitarian acts of the facilitation of irregular entry. Ultimately, if the EC intends to provide recommendations to amend the Facilitation Directive that reflect the need to avoid criminalising humanitarian assistance to irregular migrants, it will first need to more narrowly and clearly define acts of the facilitation of irregular entry worthy of criminalisation. The EC’s challenge lies with the fact that the primary purpose of the Facilitation Directive is to deter irregular migration and a narrower directive would ultimately undermine this objective.

In the current crisis, human smugglers – and all individuals deemed as such – have become Europe’s scapegoat. Targeting human smugglers worthy of criminalisation and those ‘humanitarian smugglers’ worthy of praise is Europe’s Band-Aid solution to a problem that can only be solved through safe and legal pathways for refugees to reach Europe.


Establishing the European Border and Coast Guard: all-new or Frontex reloaded?


by Herbert Rosenfeldt, (Research Assistant and PhD candidate, University of Passau)


Attending a birthday party at a remote checkpoint at the Bulgarian external border with Turkey does not sound like fun. Unless you are the adventurous type, you would probably hesitate to join in if it was not for someone special. Indeed, last Thursday high ranking EU and Member States’ officials visited Bulgaria’s Kapitan Andreevo Border Checkpoint to inaugurate the new European Border and Coast Guard Agency a.k.a. Frontex.

This is so far the most visible sign of the coming into force of the European Border and Coast Guard Regulation on the same day. Not lacking pathos or high expectations (Donald Tusk: “To save Schengen, we must regain control of our external borders. A new European Border and Coast Guard Agency is being created”), the new EBCG seeks to reinforce external border control against the background of last year’s migratory pressure put on the southern and south-eastern EU Member States with external Schengen borders. According to EU officials’ analyses, national border guards had been unable or unwilling to “protect” the Schengen area effectively by stopping the influx of irregular migrants. Frontex, on the other hand, was held to have been too ill-equipped in terms of powers, personnel and equipment to render sufficient support or remedy the situation. There is a simple, perhaps simplistic, rationale behind the new EBCG – one that gathered broad consensus among Member States and EU institutions resulting in a fast track legislative procedure of less than a year. The stronger EU external border control, the less permeable borders are for migrants; the smaller the number of migrants arriving, the smaller the problems within the Schengen area. Those problems comprise allocating asylum seekers and processing their claims, providing food and shelter, or safeguarding internal security and freedom of movement. The focus on external borders has been accurately criticised, inter alia, here and here.

Is the new EBCG truly a “milestone in the history of European border management”, as suggested by birthday guests but contested by others? Is the new agency something special at all? Hence is it worth joining the congratulants (if belatedly)? What birthday wishes should be made? Surely only time and further in-depth analysis can tell. Steve’s earlier post here gave the broader picture of last year’s legislative proposals on border control and migration. For now, and after two preliminary thoughts, I would like firstly to make some observations on the changing concept of EU external border management. Secondly, I highlight some institutional changes. Thirdly and fourthly, I will focus on two much debated novelties in external border control: emergency interventions and the complaints mechanism in the context of Fundamental Rights accountability.

Towards Securitisation

The drafters of the new regulation were discernibly concerned by the loss of control at Europe’s southern and south-eastern borders. Adapting to the ongoing political discourse, the wording of the Regulation (Article 1, see also Articles 4 and 15) gives top priority to regaining and keeping control of the migration situation and to efficient border management. Migration challenges and potential future threats are mentioned in succession, followed by serious cross-border crimes. The aim to be achieved is a high level of internal security within the Union while safeguarding the free movement of persons within it. In a subtle way, this almost equates migratory pressure through irregular migration with potential threats to internal security and cross-border crime. In further construing Article 1 of the Regulation, it appears that affording international protection and protecting human rights are clearly no objectives of European border management. Rather, they are perceived as restrictions to securing EU borders.

Another feature of this security-orientated approach is new migration management support teams to be deployed in hotspot areas (Article 18). Support in processing asylum claims and returning third country nationals does not help to protect the Schengen area from migrants at first sight. However, if it is done rapidly in hotspot areas, migrants are effectively not entering the Schengen area, hence apparently more security. Along the same line of reasoning, increased capacities to support return operations (Article 18, 28 et seq.) reflect political demand for enforcing third country nationals’ returns.

Legal instruments rearranged

The law of EU external border control is no role model for legal clarity and certainty. Legal acts such as the Frontex Regulation have frequently been amended, and they are intertwined with various other EU legal acts. The new Regulation at least partly smoothes this scattered landscape by merging the Frontex Regulation and the Regulation on Rapid Border Intervention Teams into one. Furthermore, the Schengen Borders Code has been amended (see below). Although based on the same EU competence (Article 77 (2) (d) TFEU), applied at the external Schengen borders and closely related to the work of Frontex and the national external border guards, Regulations on EUROSUR and surveillance of the external sea borders remained untouched. Hence the legislator missed the opportunity to create a single comprehensible piece of legislation apart from the SBC, the latter covering other subject matters such as entry conditions of third country nationals and internal border controls anyway.

New concept of external border controls

Before, States with external Schengen borders were exclusively tasked with policing those borders. Under the Frontex Regulation, border control fell into the sole competence of the Member States. Frontex’s main task then was to render border control more effective by coordinating Member States’ joint activities and providing surveillance data, technical support and expertise. The common conceptual framework informing border controls, called “integrated management system for external borders” (now Article 77 (1) (c) TFEU), only featured in strategy papers and policy recommendations of the Commission and the Council such as the non-binding Updated Schengen Catalogue 2009.

The new EBCG consists of the EBCG Agency and the national border and coast guards. Although Member States retain primary responsibility for border management, there is a clear shift towards responsibility shared with the Agency (Article 5 of the Regulation). On scrutiny, the new system arranges the Agency and the Member States in a hierarchical order. It is the Agency’s task to establish a technical and operational strategy for integrated border management. All national strategies will have to comply with it. Although co-operation outside the Agency’s remit remains possible, this is limited to action compatible with the Agency’s activities. Therefore, there is not just well-known supremacy of EU law at work in this area of shared competences, but supremacy of the Agency’s strategies, broadly phrased tasks and objectives. On paper (see the eighth and eleventh recitals), the political development of integrated border management is left to the EU organs, whereas technical and operational aspects will be clarified by the Agency. The dividing line is of course far from clear. As a result, the Agency will almost inevitably assume a more proactive role.

In my view, shared responsibility serves as a chiffre to justify taking away Member States’ discretionary powers in border control. In practice, the Agency gains greater impact and tools of supervision and coercion, as will be seen below. Still, the new Regulation has to be given credit for legally defining components of European integrated border management for the first time ever.

Institutional changes

In short, Frontex becomes … erm … Frontex! Despite last week’s “all-new” rhetoric, little will change in the constitutional setting of the Agency. As a decentralised (i.e. regulatory) agency it remains an independent EU body with legal personality. Its headquarters will remain in Warsaw. The Agency’s official name, which nobody used before, changes to a shorter name, which probably nobody will use going forwards – and that is alright because it reflects that the Agency is not founded anew but continues all its activities, albeit with expanded tasks and more resources.

To this end, the Agency’s staff grows from 309 in 2015 to 1,000 in 2020. The number of Member States’ border guards deployed in EBCG teams remain subject to annual bilateral negotiations. At the same time, a rapid reaction pool of 1,500 European border guards as a standing corps operational within 5 days has been inscribed in the Regulation. The Agency continues to maintain a technical equipment pool composed of equipment owned by either the Agency itself or by the Member States. With an increase in budget to more than twice the amount of 2015 (€143.3 to €322 million in 2020), the Agency might actually start acquiring equipment on its own in the future.

Of the Agency’s tasks (see the long list in Article 8 (1) of the Regulation), most have been assigned to Frontex before. Characteristic of the new supervisory role are vulnerability assessments carried out by the Agency to evaluate the capability and readiness of Member States’ border guard to act in emergencies. The assessment might lead to binding recommendations by the Executive Director. To disregard them can eventually result in a situation requiring urgent action as described further below. Moreover, Frontex shall deploy liaison officers in the Member States monitoring and reporting on national external border management. It is true that command and control in EBCG operations remains with the host Member State. However, from now on, the host Member State has not only to consider the Frontex coordinating officer’s views, but also to follow them as far as possible.

Another noteworthy development concerns the Agency’s support rendered to Member States coping with migratory pressure at so-called hotspots. The existing provisions on hotspots in EU Decisions on relocation of asylum-seekers have been codified in Article 18 of the Regulation, which now assigns a supportive role to Frontex in migration management. This includes screening, registering and providing information to third country nationals on their right to apply for international protection. It further includes facilitating their return right from the hotspot area.

One might argue that the European Asylum Support Office is better placed to do all that. However, in my opinion the crucial question is to what extent any EU agency involved influences or determines the Member States’ decisions on entry, to afford international protection or to return migrants. Such executive powers have not been granted to EU institutions and therefore – at least by law – they remain firmly within the Member States’ jurisdiction. The provisions provide for tailor-made support teams coordinated by all relevant Union agencies under the auspices of the Commission. Thus, the new Regulation acknowledges the role of agencies and the significance of hotspots without clarifying much. It remains to be seen how the agencies will delineate their respective contributions. If you have always been looking for a legal definition of hotspot area, at least you will find one in the new Regulation (Article 2 (10)).

Situations requiring urgent action – right to intervene?

How to deal with emergency situations at the external borders of Member States unwilling to act – that was the only matter of serious contention during the legislative process. In normal operation and as before, a Member State at first formally requests the Agency’s support and the launch of EBCG operations (Articles 14 (1), 15 (1) and (2), 18 (1) et al). At the second stage, the Member State and the Executive Director agree on the operational plan (Article 16 (2)). Lastly, the host Member State itself retains command for the whole operation (Article 21 (1)). The Commission proposal for the Regulation challenged those safeguards for the Member States’ sovereign right to border protection. The Commission envisaged itself initiating emergency interventions conducted by the Agency and supported by the Member State concerned. Boldly, this was labelled the Agency’s “right to intervene”. Understandably, it stirred criticism among Member States.

The subsequent trilogue put things in order again: Now it is an implementing act of the Council (proposed by the Commission) which substitutes the Member State’s request at the first stage if (a) the State did not follow the recommendations resulting from vulnerability assessments or (b) it faces specific and disproportionate challenges at his external borders without requesting or supporting joint EBCG operations (Article 19 (1)). The implementing act of the Council authorises the Agency to take various measures. It is binding upon the Member State. In turn, it becomes evident that the Member State’s formal request in accordance with the normal procedure might no longer be as voluntary as the wording suggests. Because if joint European action is deemed necessary, there is always the possibility that an emergency intervention will eventually be initiated.

Yet, at the second stage, the Member State still has to agree on the operational plan submitted by the Agency (Article 19 (5)). This might be interpreted as linking emergency interventions to the Member State’s consent after all. However, in the light of the purpose of emergency interventions, I submit that the duty to fully comply with the Council decision and to this end cooperate with the Agency entails the duty to consent to the operational plan. Otherwise, it would always be possible for reluctant Member States to impede the whole procedure depriving it of much of its force.

For the implementation of the measures prescribed by the Council, the Member State concerned still acts as host state. As a consequence, that State retains command and control of the operations and can be held liable as in normal operations. It can be questioned whether an unwilling State should be forced to lead a joint operation in times of emergency. At the same time, however, it is most likely that different entities will be engaged in the process. The decision not to conduct operations or to request assistance is often taken at a high political level, whereas operational command is exercised within the national border guard authorities.

Lastly, Article 19 (10) most remarkably links the Member State’s non-compliance with the Council decision and failure to cooperate with the Agency to prospective national measures taken within the Schengen area. According to newly amended Article 29 of the Schengen Borders Code, the Council upon proposal by the Commission may recommend to Member States the reintroduction of controls at their internal borders if the Member State’s behaviour (a) puts the functioning of the area without internal borders at risk, and (b) leads to a serious threat to public policy or internal security. This mechanism can be triggered only 30 days after the Council takes its (urgent?!) decision. As a result, Member States that do not – for whatever reason – cooperate at their external borders in emergencies can de facto be temporarily excluded from the area of free movement. The much-stressed concept of solidarity (Article 80 TFEU) hence turns into its evil twin: showing solidarity means complying with the EBCG activities à la EU. It becomes the prerogative of the EU institutions to determine who is in solidarity, and the lack thereof entails serious consequences.

In sum, the new Regulation establishes a legal obligation to cooperate in situations requiring urgent action of the Member State concerned. If the State does not comply, there is no way to enforce this duty or to deploy EBCG teams on his territory against his will. The only sanction seems to urge other Member States to close their internal borders instead.

Human Rights complaints mechanism and accountability

When Frontex was established in 2004, the Fundamental Rights (FR) implications of its work had been completely overlooked. The founding Regulation did not contain any specific references to FR. Over the following years through a piecemeal approach, largely affirmative and declaratory FR obligations found their way into the Regulation. More importantly, Frontex drew up an FR strategy (followed by an action plan) in 2011. At the same time, a consultative forum and an FR officer were established to give advice on FR matters and strengthen FR compliance. With the new Regulation, there are minor improvements on the human rights record. Article 1 now mentions FR, they form part of compulsory reporting and evaluation schemes as set out in the operational plan, and there is a single comprehensive provision spelling out FR obligations (Article 34).

The Regulation finally introduces a FR complaints mechanism (Article 72, discussed here) as demanded by European Parliament, EU Ombudsman and Council of Europe since 2013. Any person directly affected by actions of staff during EBCG operations can file a complaint about FR violations with the FR officer. The FR officer is responsible for setting up the complaints mechanism, administering complaints and deciding on their admissibility. He or she then directs them to either the Executive Director or the competent national authority for them to decide on the merits and an appropriate follow-up. The FR officer then again monitors this decision as well as the follow-up.

In my view, the effectiveness of the mechanism depends on two preconditions. Firstly, the FR officer’s resources should increase significantly to stem the Herculean tasks ahead of him. Secondly, his institutional independency within the Agency has to be reinforced, bearing in mind that he is a member of staff and dependent on good working relationships with other members of staff. Several open questions remain. For example, the provision leaves open how the FR officer will enforce the appropriate follow-up by the Agency or the Member States. It does not make clear that the complaints mechanism does not affect other remedies, nor does it foresee an appeals procedure with an independent body. The FR officer and ultimately the Executive Director or the Member States authorities will have to answer difficult legal questions on who is “directly affected” by an action and who is responsible for it (see below). For the development of the law, it would have been better if a court or tribunal had had subsequent jurisdiction. So far, actions for annulment or damages (Articles 263, 268 TFEU) have not generated any EU case law regarding Frontex, and except for its judgment in Hirsi Jamaa, the ECtHR was not able to fill the gap neither.

“The extended tasks and competence of the Agency”, the 14th recital of the Regulation reads, “should be balanced with strengthened fundamental rights safeguards and increased accountability”. But does the new Agency live up to the claim? Apart from the complaints mechanism, the FR framework largely stays the same, and so does the general liability framework: The home Member State takes disciplinary action whereas the domestic laws of the host Member State determine criminal liability. It is also the host Member State incurring civil liability for the EBCG teams. The Agency itself incurs non-contractual liability according to the general principles of EU law (Article 340 (2) TFEU). There are no provisions determining which acts or effects of external border control are attributed to the Agency or to the Member States involved (a problem of multi-actor scenarios, where the 2011 ILC Articles on the Responsibility of International Organizations might be of help). Following recent revelations on the frequent use of firearms in joint operations, MEPs wrote to Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri asking for more information and general guidance on responsibilities in certain operational scenarios. The ignorance displayed by Frontex’s designated watchdogs (see Article 7 of the Regulation) is further evidence for the need of more transparency and legal clarity in this regard.


On the 6th of October 2016 the landscape of EU external border control did not change dramatically, but it did change. To repeat: No new agency has been founded, no EBCG under EU command and control was established, no right to intervene at Member States’ external borders against their will has been introduced. In fact and most notably, the Member States’ external border guard is placed under increased scrutiny of the EBCG Agency. Failure to comply with integrated border management standards could eventually lead to reintroducing internal border controls to the detriment of the disobedient Member State. At the same time, the Agency’s enhanced tasks and powers will go hand in hand with more responsibility and accountability, but the latter has yet to be improved. Although the complaints mechanism is a step in the right direction, its design could have been more effective. This holds true especially for the follow-up mechanism. In practice, much will depend on the Fundamental Rights officer’s assertiveness on the one hand, and the Executive Director’s responsiveness on the other hand.

After all, the distinguished guests to the celebrations at Kapitan Andreevo Border Checkpoint last week did not witness birth or rebirth, but rather Frontex’s coming of age both in terms of leverage and responsibilities. Frontex, I wish you well indeed.

Dublin ‘reloaded’ or time for ambitious pragmatism?


(Click here  to hear Francesco Maiani’s (Swiss Member of the Odysseus Network) intervention at the LIBE Committee of the European Parliament on this issue – 4:10 – 22:20)

While the largely failed relocation scheme of 2015 is still in force, the European Commission has put forward a proposal for revising the Dublin III Regulation. Since comments have already been made in the blogosphere (see Hruschka on this blog and Gauci) and a comprehensive study on the need to reform the system has been recently released by a member of the Odysseus Network and presented to the LIBE Committee of the European Parliament (see Maiani), this entry will not provide a general description of the proposal and focus instead on some selected aspects by putting forward some proposals to make the Dublin system less dysfunctional.

A plea against taboos and ‘conservative’ options

Many EU documents repeatedly underline that the Dublin system is a “cornerstone” of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS). Indeed, taking into consideration Article 78(2) TFEU, there is a need to organise the distribution of responsibilities  since the competence for assessing claims and the  provision of protection lie with Member States.  Despite this, we should not let Dublin become a taboo, impermeable to discussions on its past and current contents. If the so-called ‘cornerstone’ is ill-conceived, the overall structure of the CEAS becomes unstable, unfair and ineffective.

Drawing from private international law terminology, we can say that the main objective of Dublin is to prevent positive and (most commonly) negative conflicts of jurisdiction, by rapidly determining a single responsible Member State (MS). Decades of legal thinking and state practice show that any set of rules (both domestic or international) allocating jurisdiction should be based on rational criteria and on a reasonable degree of connection (i.e. genuine link) between the competent State and the situation at stake. Although due consideration must be given to the fact that “asylum jurisdiction” is a peculiar field of law and that the interests at stake are specific to this area, decision makers must take into account the principles of rationality, fairness and compliance.

More than twenty years of implementation of the Dublin system (see Guild and othersHruschka and Maiani) showed that, as currently framed, Dublin simply does not work, both in normal periods and in times of crisis. Among other things, the fact that no reasonable room is given to consider asylum seekers’ preferences or their prospects for integration creates an evident trend against spontaneous compliance and towards secondary movements.

The deficient system generates high costs of different natures, such as:

(a) waste of public money in repressive actions and in administrative as well as judicial procedures not producing durable results;

(b) diplomatic tensions between Member States;

(c) profit-making for criminal networks providing smuggling services;

(d) social exclusion and frustration for asylum-seekers (potentially leading to human rights violations or various forms of criminality);

(e) lack of integration, with increased costs for social services and public expenditure.

Against this background, a fresh and innovative approach was expected when the EU institutions finally recognised in 2015 the need for a general overhaul of the Dublin III Regulation. However, the proposal that is now on the table does not envisage an overall reframing of the system, but a rather modest introduction of several corrections (some more significant than others) to a bad architecture that is not fundamentally questioned.

The criterion of the “Country of first entry” or “the irrational rationale

The first point of the proposal deserving severe critique regards the way in which the Commission treats the allocation criteria and, in particular, the insistence on the questionable criterion of the country of first entry. The explanatory memorandum of the proposal underlines that, according to some MS, the criterion of first entry must be preserved and that alternative connecting factors (such as personal preferences) would add confusion and give the wrong signal that asylum seekers can choose their country of final destination. In the meantime, it is acknowledged that other MSs and relevant stakeholders (for instance UNHCR, para. 6, at 7;  specialised NGOs such as ECRE and others) called for a different vision, focusing on the preferences or characteristics of asylum seekers (in  view of their speedy and satisfactory integration).

Yet, the explanatory memorandum merges the personal preferences and the characteristics of asylum seekers in the same concept, and uses the same rationale to discard both the ‘free choice’ approach and the ‘personal characteristics’ approach. To make my point clear, merely subjective preferences are different than objective personal characteristics (liable to increase prospects of integration in the host MS): while the ‘free choice’ approach may be swiftly questioned as a solution for allocating people (although it should not be summarily discarded, as recently advocated by Maiani, at 46-48), the verification of a reasonable connection with a country is a totally different issue. Even more surprisingly, the Commission seems to ignore the indications from other parts of EU secondary law. For instance, Recital No. 34 of Decision No. 2015/1601 (establishing provisional measures in the area of international protection for the benefit of Italy and Greece) clearly states that:

“The integration of applicants in clear need of international protection into the host society is the cornerstone [sic] of a properly functioning CEAS”.

Following the same logic, the provision on the safe third country concept (defined in the Asylum Procedures Directive) underlines that the latter may be applied only if due regard is given to the existence of “a connection between the applicant and the third country concerned on the basis of which it would be reasonable for that person to go to that country” [Article 38(2)(a)].

This being said, let us try to follow the reasoning of the Commission. What is the rationale behind the first country of entry criterion? Commentators agree on the fact that the drafters of the Dublin Convention and of the subsequent Dublin II and III Regulations intended to establish a linkage between the allocation of responsibility in the field of asylum and the respect of MS obligations in the protection of the EU external borders (as confirmed by the same communicationof April 2016, at 7). Put in another way, if a MS  lets an asylum seeker enter its territory, then it would be logical (sic!) to establish responsibility for assessing the asylum claim and, if the outcome is positive, to define that MS as the new place of residence for the beneficiary of international protection.

However, it is well known that the principle of non-refoulement is applicable on entry regardless of the efficiency of checks at the external borders. Likewise, the combined effect of current EU visa policy, EU carrier sanctions regimes and the nature of flows to Europe unavoidably overburdens frontline States (the number and identity of which may change in time). Thus, we can question whether the above mentioned rationale is…. rational! Or whether it is in line with the principle of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility recognised in Article 80 TFEU. Would it perhaps sound malicious to advance the idea that this criterion and especially its continued maintenance are simply the result of the (undeclared) will of some MS to put the responsibility and the related burden of international protection on other MS?

A “genuine link” approach: not a panacea, but surely deserving of further enquiry

With the aim to be constructive, this article puts forward another approach for giving more weight to objective links between an asylum seeker and a given MS, which would favour his or her speedy and efficient integration. A series of objectively verifiable elements connecting an applicant with a certain MS can be proposed in order to establish the relevant jurisdiction, according to a ‘genuine link’ approach (see also here for further elaboration on this methodological proposal and on its potential benefits both for MSs and asylum seekers):

  • Wider family links: The Commission proposes to broaden the scope of ‘family members’ so as to include siblings, which is a positive step. In additional to that, taking into account the presence of relatives in a MS deserves a more careful consideration. In many countries of origin, relatives are as important in family life as core family members, due to the cultural concept of family and related moral obligations of mutual assistance and care. Besides, in occasions where the original nuclear family may be dispersed or deceased, the only form of family life available to the asylum seeker may be represented by a cousin, an aunt, a nephew or a grandparent. It is clear that this widened concept of family might be seen as “too generous” by MS, but considering wider family links for Dublin purposes should be at least further discussed. Some categories of relatives could also be included in the alternative criteria of verified sponsors (see below);
  • Language skills: Some States whose official language is widely spoken outside of Europe (for instance, English or French) might fear to be penalised by this criterion. Nevertheless, it could pragmatically work even for indicating a MS where the population in general and civil servants in particular are usually fluent with a second language (for instance, English in some northern European countries). In any case, a saving clause would apply in case of numbers exceeding a reasonable quota (see below);
  • Previous study or work experience in a given MS, or other forms of regular stay: If compared with the lack of any relevant “contact” with a national community, a previous regular residence is usually able to create a potential for integration (unless it is ascertained that during that stay anti-social behaviour occurred);
  • Verified private sponsorship: Apart from relatives, private individuals – be they EU nationals or third country nationals (TCN) regularly residing in the EU – may have a strong and verifiable personal link to an asylum seeker. In a globalised world, with plenty of transnational activities and personal mobility, a person may act as a sponsor for a TCN, for instance due to previous professional or personal exchange developed during a stay in Europe or in third countries. A similar reasoning might apply to non-profit organisations or firms, subject to some eligibility criteria. In the different setting of legal avenues to reach the EU, the Fundamental Rights Agency recently argued that private sponsorship is one of the most promising and under-exploited means (see here, at 6). Similarly, the Commission showed an interesting openness towards such an option (see theCommunication of April 2016, at 15-16). This possibility may cause some concern about possible risk of abuse, false declarations or coverage of illicit smuggling networks, but it should at least be the object of a serious and open minded discussion.
  • Existing legal tools facilitating the recognition of professional qualifications: The network of bilateral treaties already in force between MS and third countries of origin requires proper evaluation, because this could offer pragmatic solutions where the then protected person could easily play the role of an economic actor, instead of depending on social assistance.

One may question which of these factors is more suitable and which pre-requisites should be established to put them in place, but new paradigms need to be seriously explored in order to alter the current overall unsatisfactory performance of Dublin.

In the same vein, the quantitative impact of the proposed approach might be doubted. It must be acknowledged that no precise data are available and that no serious estimate may be done as to the impact of this proposal. Nevertheless, it is very likely that a large number of secondary movements is motivated by the intention to reach a country where some connections exist, so there is an evident normative need to set this empirical phenomena into a more credible legislative framework. The alternatives are to turn a blind eye (with no solution to the current problems to be expected) or to increase the sanctions regime for asylum seekers not complying with the current rules (a scenario that is even more debatable and problematic in the perspective of fundamental rights of asylum seekers: see  the post of Hruschka and the in-depth study of Maiani). By applying this new approach, some MS that are already under strain might become the responsible MS. To avoid undesired side effects, a saving clause might be connected to the overall system (see below).

Filters and corrections: the strange idea of treating persons as objects

As mentioned, the proposal does not change the main criteria for asserting jurisdiction, but it does introduce some novelties. Two of them seem particularly relevant here: the process at the early stages of the procedure (a kind of “pre-Dublin stage”) and the corrective mechanism, conceived as an evolution of the idea of a permanent scheme of relocation in times of emergency.

This pre-Dublin stage consists of a systematic assessment of the admissibility of the asylum claim, having regard to various deflective concepts (such a safe country of origin, first country of asylum, safe or ‘super safe’ third country, and a security screening of the applicant). These enquiries must be conducted by the first country of entry: only if the claim stands admissible, the enquiry into the Dublin criteria is carried out.

It must be observed that the two main actors (the asylum seeker and the national authorities) in this procedure are placed in a relationship of conflict: little chance seems to be left to the asylum seeker to actively participate in the procedure, and public officers are unavoidably perceived as hostile by him/her. This ‘applicant-unfriendly’ environment will not stimulate spontaneous compliance and full account of personal stories, thus generating systemic deficiencies.

The corrective mechanism is interesting, although in the current formulation is rather puzzling. A centralised system of registration of asylum claims will be put in place. Additionally, a reference key (composed of each MS’ GDP and population, each given 50% weighting) will determine which share of claims are assigned to each MS. The system will monitor in real time during the year the correspondence between the total number of asylum claims lodged in the EU and the division of them among the various MS. If a certain MS (MS#1) receives more than 150% of its assigned quota, then the corrective mechanism is automatically triggered. Additional asylum seekers will then be automatically assigned to other MS which are below their capacity (MS#2). If MS#2 refuses to take charge of an asylum seeker, a high amount has to be paid (€250,000 per person). The idea to impose a sanction (although the proposal uses a different vocabulary) on non-collaborative MS is not bad in principle, but it may be doubted that such an amount is proportionate.

Apart from that, what is really questionable is that the asylum seeker plays no role in this corrective procedure, and that the proposal does not indicate a method to identify MS#2. Maybe it is the MS which in that moment has the lowest performance of its assigned share? Or another MS? And in the latter case, will this be decided by a computer applying a casuistic algorithm? The proposal is incredibly ambiguous on this crucial point, and this “blind lottery approach” must be severely criticised. Again, people are treated as the object of procedures impinging on their lives: is all this human, rational and fair?

Finally, it must be taken into account that – even under the corrective mechanism – the overburdened State (MS#1) is, in any event, obliged to process the pre-Dublin stage and to conduct a dialogue with the assigned State regarding public security issues. To put it differently, there is no immediate relief for the overburdened State. Only after the person is moved to the automatically assigned MS#2, will this country verify the applicability of the Dublin criteria and then proceed with the subsequent steps (assessment of the claim or Dublin transfer to a MS#3). Thus, there is the possibility of a second mandatory movement: once again, is this rational? And cost-effective? And humane?

Time for ambitious pragmatism: Some ideas for EU policymakers

Drawing on the Commission proposal, it seems possible to improve some elements and reframe others. The purpose of the following suggestions is to reconcile the Dublin system with the authentic cornerstones of the CEAS (seeArticle 78(1) and also Article 80 of the TFEU) and with basic principles of rationality and fairness, both for MSs and applicants. To put it clearly, the proposal of the Commission is not all bad but it needs a robust correction.

Firstly, a permanent assessment of reception capacities (to be conducted through a reference key) and a centralised collection of all asylum claims (to be conducted as soon as possible) are highly needed. This idea of the proposal is good and should help to reduce instrumental and sterile political discussions. It is simply untenable that some MS must undergo a relevant pressure as frontline countries or as second-line favorite places of secondary movements while others give scarcely relevant support, or no support at all. It may be questioned which criteria should integrate the key and with which weight, but the overall idea is defensible.

Secondly, it is untenable to include a correction to an inherently bad system: the main standard criteria must be changed (in a similar vein, see Gauci). A primary role must be given to objectively verifiable preferences: after verification of admissibility of the claim (with full guarantees for the concerned applicant), an asylum seeker should be allocated to a given MS according to (wider) family links and other genuine links (see above). There would not be a simple or unqualified free choice of the applicant (as advocated by some NGOs): the applicant would be obliged to specify why a certain country is preferred and verification would be conducted by the interested MS.

It may be questioned if this solution would produce lengthy procedures or an excessive administrative burden on the first MS of entry. Well, this country is already obliged to conduct significant administrative activity under the pre-Dublin phase: a file is created, human resources are employed, time is spent on this activity and an interview is conducted. Is it so absurd to insert at such an early stage an ‘extra’ procedure aimed at showing a friendly face to the asylum seeker? One should also take into account that this extra procedure would be greatly facilitated by the asylum seeker’s cooperation, and that a different scenario would probably lead to a form of legal challenge by the asylum seeker, or his/her absconding. Would this be cost effective and desirable from a systematic point of view?

In this scenario, the asylum seeker would be asked to actively participate and to give clear indications regarding the presence of family members and of other connecting factors. In the case of several connected MSs (a circumstance which is not so probable), the choice could be left to the applicant.

In order to reassure MS whose asylum systems have undergone or are facing severe pressure (e.g. Germany or Sweden), if the competent State is already over its quota, the asylum seeker would be assigned to another (less) connected country, or only as extrema ratio to the State with the lowest performance rate of its share. In case of refusal of this MS to receive the concerned person, a proportionate financial disincentive should be established.

With the aim to reduce possible tensions coming from asylum seekers or from MS, a certain degree of freedom of movement of the beneficiary of protection should be accepted. If after recognition of refugee status or subsidiary protection by the designated MS, the person receives an effective job offer in another MS and security checks are fulfilled, the holder of international protection should have the possibility to accept this job offer, thus leading to a better allocation of the workforce. In this case, the issue should be raised as to whether, after voluntary establishment in another MS, protection duties should continue to bind the original MS or should be transferred to the second one, or whether such duties should simply cease.

Finally, a corrective emergency-mechanism should be conceived only for sudden and massive inflows and for supporting extremely precarious national asylum systems.

Do all these proposals look too innovative and unconventional? We all know perfectly what will happen if the Dublin system as it stands is maintained, or if only the limited ‘corrections’ set out in the Commission proposal are introduced. Should we wait for the next political crisis of the EU? Why not try to think of pragmatic and innovative way which could avoid tensions between MS, limit profits for smugglers as well as space for human rights abuses, avoid unnecessary sufferance, save public money and use human resources in a better way?

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