Negotiations on a common asylum system progress with the involvement of the European Parliament

The establishment of a common area of protection and solidarity, based on a common asylum procedure and a uniform status for those granted protection remains one of the prime objectives of the EU. Following the implementation of the first phase, the European Commission submitted (in late 2008 and early 2009) a set of proposals for the recasting of existing legal instruments as well as the setting up of a European Asylum Support Office (requested by the Council in the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum). These proposals aim to commence the second phase of EU asylum policy with the overall objective of bringing in a Common European Asylum System.

The European Parliament, in its new capacity as co-legislator in a co-decision procedure with the Council, gave its position on these proposals at first reading on 7 May 2009, expressing an overall favourable opinion.

In October 2009 the Commission submitted its two most recent proposals for the recasting of the Directive on minimum standards on procedures for granting and withdrawing refugee status and the Directive on minimum standards for qualification for refugee status and the status of beneficiaries of international protection and the content of the protection granted. The LIBE Committee appointed two rapporteurs, Sylvie Guillaume and Jean Lambert, to study these proposals. An initial debate was held in committee on 16 March 2010.

Following the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty which endowed the Parliament with new responsibilities in the setting up of new legal instruments in this field, the LIBE Committee requested in 2008, a study to the Odysseus network (the Academic Network for legal studies on immigration and asylum in Europe) “Setting up of a Common European Asylum System – on the application of existing instruments and proposals for the new system”.

Some of the most important findings of this study  (which will be available in May 2010) were presented during the roundtable organised by the LIBE Committee on 26 April 2010.  The debate, far from exhaustively analysing the questions at stake, focused on a number of cross-cutting issues with relevance for many of the legal instruments currently under debate, namely:

  1. General principles of European law as guidelines for the definition of procedural guarantees for asylum seekers
  2. Trust among Member States on each others’ asylum systems
  3. Detention of asylum seekers: Distinction between detention and restriction to freedom of movement
  4. Identification of asylum seekers with special needs
  5. Responsibility towards asylum seekers when the EU and its Member States act outside their territory
  6. Alignment of subsidiary protection and exceptions with international law and Member States’ practices and alignment of equal rights with refugees
  7. Development of a coherent common European asylum system: accession to the Geneva Convention, reinforcement of the powers of the support office or creation of a European asylum court.

1. General principles of European law as guidelines for the definition of procedural guarantees for asylum seekers

The prohibition on refoulement is the cornerstone of international refugee and asylum law.  According to this principle States are obliged not to return a person to his country of origin, or any other country, where he/she is at risk of being subject to serious harm or human rights violations.

Current instruments, such as the Geneva Convention and protocol, recommendations of the UNHCR, the Convention on Human Rights  Council of Europe’s recommendations, rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), rulings of  the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), do not establish common procedural guarantees for asylum seekers at the European level.

In order to establish such a common set of guarantees, it is suggested to look at the general rulings of the ECJ as well as the general principles established and transpose them in procedural safeguards. These will then could form a catalogue which allows to address the shortcomings of the directive and look at the proposals of the Commission.

The two concrete interlinked examples of the right to legal aid and the right to appeal help explaining such an approach

Right to legal aid

Legal aid to asylum seekers should  be mandatory and should be appropriate to the needs of those who need it. In order to define what appropriate means it is useful to refer to what the jurisprudence has established in this regard, namely that when somebody is vulnerable it is desirable that mandatory and free legal assistance is provided.

More specifically, the right to have access to legal aid should be determined on the basis of two criteria:

–       the weaker the user and

–       the higher the nature of the right at stake

the higher the legal assistance .

Right to appeal

The right to appeal by asylum seekers should foresee the possibility to suspend the removal of the individual who appealed.

In this regard the new proposals currently under negotiations saw  the Parliament proposing a number of amendments designed to strengthen asylum seekers’ rights, in particular by ensuring that they receive free legal assistance and by improving the arrangements for the transfer of asylum seekers between Member States.

2. Trust among Member States on each others’ asylum systems

The concept of mutual trust entails the idea that asylum seekers transferred on the basis of the EU Council Regulation establishing the criteria and mechanisms for determining the Member State responsible for examining an asylum application lodged in one of the Member States by a third-country national (Dublin Regulation) are not subject to inhuman, unfair treatment and that such a provision is in conformity with the principle of non refoulement.

This principle, entails the idea that the Member State responsible for the asylum seeker transfer is also responsible for the individual’s non refoulement.

That is why it is appropriate to talk about qualified, rather than absolute trust between Member States. In this respect, since all Member States signed the 1951 Geneva Convention and the Convention on Human Rights it is assumed that signatories respect the obligations enshrined in these legal instruments.

However, Member States should be in the position to challenge the Dublin Regulation and refrain from transferring an asylum seeker to a State when they doubt that the principle of non refoulement is respected.

This represents a fundamental guarantee for individuals especially given that human rights standards varies greatly between Member States. Indeed the report of the UNHCR concluded that not all Member States’ standards are in line with international human rights standards.

The sovereignty clause however is not sufficient per se to guarantee adequate and effective safeguards to asylum seekers. Additional safeguards are necessary and that is why the Commission’s proposals are welcomed.

3. Detention of asylum seekers

The detention of asylum seekers is in principle an admissible instrument of preventing unauthorised entry or residence into the EU territory.

Member States possess a broad discretion to decide whether to detain potential immigrants.

According to the ECtHR decision in the Saadi case (Art. 5 para. 1(f)) ECHR does not prohibit that asylum seekers may be detained to prevent unlawful entry, even if detention is not “necessary” in an individual case.  Detention, however, is subject to the principle of proportionality, forbidding arbitrariness and excessively long detention.

According to EU law, asylum seekers must not be detained for the mere fact of filing an asylum application and detention should not impede individual to claim international protection. In fact their request should be processed in a priority manner.  The same principle can be found in the Reception Conditions Directive (Art. 14 paragraph 8).

The detention of asylum seekers is increasingly used not only as a consequence of a rejection of an application but also upon arrival of an individual. This measure contributes to the overall tendency to blur the lines between genuine refugees and ‘irregular’ migrants in public perception as well as in the management of public policies. Therefore, its legitimacy should be assessed especially against the risk of violation of fundamental rights.

Detention has become a measure of  prevention of ‘irregular’ flows where the control strategy is taking over from the exigencies of bona fide asylum seekers and refugees. This phenomenon raises humanitarian as well as legal concerns and that is why detention as a deterrence strategy for prevention of abuse of the asylum system cannot be justified.

In conclusion, detention should be only used as an exceptional measure. However European states’ practice indicates a wide range of approaches to detention which not always ensure the full respect of fundamental rights of asylum seekers. The proposals under revisions should therefore take into considerations the proportionality of such measure vis à vis the risk of violation of fundamental rights.

4. Identification of asylum seekers with special needs

The only legal instrument containing obligations on Member States is to be found in Article 17 of the Reception Directive. A study conducted by Odysseus in 2007 concluded that the majority of the Member States have not transposed the directive correctly and in some cases have not transposed it at all .

This is mainly due to the fact that Article 17 does not explicitly require, from a legal point of view, a specific procedure to be put in place in order to identify those asylum seekers with special needs.

The system rests on an identification of these persons, therefore progress towards a system of identification could be achieved either by:

  • obliging Member States to draw up a specific procedure for the identification of special needs (ex via  medical screening, assessment on whether or not individuals have the mental and physical capability to be transferred), or
  • by obliging authorities via clear regulations to contact asylum seekers, refer those with special needs and then provide adequate reception conditions.

The proposal of the Commission touches upon this aspect, trying to provide more legal certainty in this respect. Paragraph 20  of the proposal for a directive introduces an obligation for the Member States to carry out identifications.

However, the problem is the overall concept. The Commission has not specified that vulnerability should be considered as a criteria on its own right in order to carry on an accurate identification of individuals with special needs.

Therefore, although the second phase in the development of a common asylum system is an attempt to have a more cross -cutting approach, it still falls short on implementation provisions

5. Responsibility towards asylum seekers when the EU and its Member States act outside their territory

European primary and secondary law oblige the EU and its Member States to uphold the non refoulement principle and related procedural rights towards asylum seekers also when operating outside the EU territory.

Concerning primary law, Article 78 of the TFEU makes a clear reference to international law and inter alia to the Geneva Convention and the principle of non refoulement.

Also case law both at the national and international level confirm that the EU and the Member States are responsible towards individuals under their jurisdiction.

As soon as a contact between an individual and an EU or national authority is established,  all the activities related to it involve an exercise of jurisdiction requiring international human and refugee rights to be observed by the EU and /or the Member States , even if the contact does not take place in the EU territory.

Although there is no case law of the ECJ  in this regard as yet,  such aspect is indeed touched upon by other case law, namely in the field of competition and freedom of movement.

The European Charter of Fundamental Rights  in Art. 18 also contains references to obligations under international law. Furthermore, Art. 51 CFR, which regulates the CFR’s scope, does not take territory into account, only the authority responsible.

Also EU secondary law establishes such obligations:

  • The Qualification Directive (Art. 21 para. 1 of Directive 2004/83/EC): covers both refugee protection, in accordance with the Charter of Fundamental Rights and subsidiary protection
  • Asylum Procedures Directive (Art. 3 para. 1): member states are obliged to accept and examine requests for international protection submitted on their territory – this includes requests made at the border or in transit zones.
  • The Schengen Borders Code (Art.3): entry controls must be implemented “without prejudice to […] the rights of refugees and persons requesting international protection, in particular as regards non-refoulement”. Even though non-refoulement does not include a general right to admission, in practice it means that member states are obliged to allow temporary admission for the purpose of verifying the need for protection and the status of the person.

The current revision of the Frontex Mandate represents a very good opportunity to spell out such responsibilities. It has been demonstrated that Frontex is indeed responsible towards asylum seekers when carrying on operations outside EU territory. It is not true that Frontex is only responsible for the logistic of its operations. Frontex is responsible to conduct its activity in full respect of human right law, including the respect of the principle of non refoulement.

To reach this goals it is fundamental that the new revised mandate grants the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees the participation to the operational activities of Frontex in order to have an effective and transparent monitoring of the agency and ensure that no violation of human rights takes place.

6. Alignment of subsidiary protection and exceptions with international law and Member States’ practices and alignment of equal rights with refugees

The EU Directive on refugee definition and complementary protection (EU Qualification Directive) established for the first time an obligation of the Member States to grant subsidiary protection status to persons who do not qualify as refugees, but are nevertheless in need of international protection.

Therefore, subsidiary protection is granted in some countries when expulsion would be in conflict among others with Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights, because such acts would be considered inhuman or cruel treatment.

The current scope of the qualification directive with its use of the subsidiary forms of protection is limited  and it does not provide for a  widely recognised definition of subsidiary protection .

The application of various solutions to these problems resulted in emergence of practice whereby different statuses were granted, such as “status B”, “subsidiary protection”, de facto status” and “humanitarian status”.

There is no international document, listing all persons that may be eligible for subsidiary protection, but EU Qualification Directive provides three categories of individuals to whom this protection may apply:

– persons who because of reason of death penalty or execution;

– torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in the country of origin;

– serious and individual threat to life or person by reason of indiscriminate violence in situations of international or internal armed conflict are unable, or owing to such risk, unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of the country of origin.

Despite this no provision regulates cases in which a person who is excluded from subsidiary protection by reason of having committed a serious crime, is  unable to return to the country of origin due to threat of torture.

The revision of the directive should address this aspect, as well as the problem related to family reunification, which is not provided by any EU directive.

7. Development of a coherent common European asylum system: accession to the Geneva Convention, reinforcement of the powers of the support office or creation of a European asylum court.

The development of a coherent common European Asylum System can take place either by reforming the current structure or establishing a completely new structure.

Since experience shows that revolutionary interventions are difficult to be put into place, it is probably more realistic to look at possible ways to modify the existing system of EU asylum policies.

The EU already has a series of legal instruments which provide guarantees and rights to asylum seekers. The problem is that they do not have the necessary legal effect.

For example the principle of equality is at best relative in asylum law.

Therefore it is necessary to look at different options to develop a coherent system.

Accession to the Geneva Convention

The accession to the Geneva Convention might be feasible. However it goes much further than EU law in  terms of rights recognised to asylum seekers. Therefore, the EU and the Member States in this case should align their system to meet the same standards.

European Asylum Support Office

It is currently too early to foresee the direction that the European Asylum Support Office will take. Its activities and development have already been criticised. However, it is necessary to support the further development of this office because in order to be able to reach its goals it must have a comprehensive picture of all migration factors.

Therefore, the Parliament has sought, by means of its amendments, to clarify the tasks of the European Asylum Support Office in the area of the collection, management and analysis of information, in particular as regards countries of origin, with a view to the establishment of common assessment criteria, to clarify the arrangements for cooperation with the UNHCR and the NGOs concerned, and to lay down more precise rules governing the deployment and role of the asylum support teams.

European Asylum Court

These elements however are not sufficient to develop a coherent common European Asylum System. In order to reach a real protection of fundamental rights rather than a simple management of EU asylum policies, it is necessary to eliminate the divergences that exist between the EU and national asylum legislation.

Therefore on the one hand the European Asylum support office should impose further obligation on member States to ensure that principles of EU law is correctly transposed. On the other hand it would be necessary to have a specialised asylum court.

However, this last suggestion might be less realistic due to obstacles in the Treaty of Lisbon as well as the renowned jealousy of the ECJ to keep its own competencies.

In conclusion, in a context of a single space where freedom of movement is one of the funding principles of the European Union, it is paradoxical and counterproductive to still have a mosaic of asylum systems that differ from state to state. The proposals for amendments of the Dublin Regulation, Eurodac, Reception Directive, Qualification Directive and Procedures Directive represent an improvement compared to the previous situation. However, this does not mean that the modified proposals represent the best possible solutions. Indeed, several shortcomings and loopholes have been highlighted in relation to the right of asylum seekers also in relation to the new proposals.

It is true that the EU is building a stronger asylum system, in line with the international standards. However, the asylum system start to apply only once an individual has reached a State territory. Hence, protection is subordinated to admission according to general immigration laws, which generally include a series of clauses that make the access to EU territory increasingly difficult also for those entitled to international protection.

The European Union and its Member States will probably have to put into place a third phase of asylum harmonisation takling the above mentioned shortcomes, including the problems resulting from an increasingly restrictive immigration policy.

LB

Action Plan on the Stockholm Programme released by Statewatch

European Commission: Stockholm Programme: Statewatch Analysis: Action Plan on the Stockholm Programme: A bit more freedom and justice and a lot more security (pdf) by Tony Bunyan: “The “harnessing of the digital tsunami” as advocated by the EU Future Group and the surveillance society, spelt out in Statewatch’s “The Shape of Things to Come” is embedded in the Commission’s Action Plan as it is in the Stockholm Programme….There is no mention of the European Security Research Programme (ESRP). Much of the technological development is being funded under the 1.4 billion euro security research programme. See: Statewatch/TNI report: Neoconopticon: EU security-industrial complex.

Statewatch Briefing: European Commission: Action Plan on the Stockholm Programme (pdf) Comments by Professor Steve Peers, University of Essex – Full-text: Communication from the Commission: Delivering an area of freedom, security and justice for Europe’s citizens Action Plan Implementing the Stockholm Programme (COM 171/2010, pdf)

http://www.statewatch.org/


Cutting bureaucracy: Simplifying applications of third-country nationals

On the 22 February the LIBE Committee of the European Parliament will hold an orientation vote on the ‘Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on a single application procedure for a single permit for third-country nationals to reside and work in the territory of a Member State and on a common set of rights for third-country workers legally residing in a Member State.’

The purpose of this directive is to allow for a single application and a single permit for third-country nationals who wish to reside and work in an EU Member State. The aim of the directive is also to allow for the third-country nationals to have equal rights to the nationals of the Member State they will subsequently reside in if given a permit. However, this directive does not affect the competence of the Member States to decide on the admission of third-country nationals to their labour markets.

Continue reading “Cutting bureaucracy: Simplifying applications of third-country nationals”

Towards a European regime of sea border rescue operations?

How is it possible to avoid conflict of competences between Member States concerning the surveillance of maritime borders in the south of the Mediterranean, as well as possible conflict concerning the responsibility to rescue vessels in danger or to reject illegal immigrants at the border?

These questions have been raised several times in the past by both the press and assiduous public opinion. Starting from the case of Cap Anamur, debates spread at the European Union level, where the control of the external borders of the Schengen area is now regulated by the Schengen Borders Code (which entered into force on 13 October 2006, CE Regulation  N. 562/2006 of the EP and the Council).

In fact the Schengen Code does not include a comprehensive regulation on sea borders control although it foresees, respectively in articles 12 and 13, surveillance modalities and rejection by costal guards. (*)

Events related to marine assistance and rescue are not regulated and therefore Member States refer to international conventions (and related protocols) such as the Montego Bay United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 – UCLOS- which requires the master of a ship to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger or distress under article 10 of the 1989 Convention on salvage, or, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea of 1974 (SOLAS), – and more importantly  the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue of1979 –SAR-.

The main problems arises at the particle level. Thought the regulation may be consistent, the implementation varies widely between Member States. As the European Commission pointed out in its Study on the international law instruments in relation to illegal immigration by sea in 2007, “There is indeed a duty to respect fundamental rights when implementing the Schengen Code, but it is not stated explicitly in relation to surveillance operations. As regards the principle of non-refoulement, there are differences in the Member States’ interpretations of this principle of international law, with some Member States, for example, contesting its applicability in international waters.”

“Another difference between Member States relates to how they identify a situation requiring assistance: for some Member States the vessel must be on the point of sinking; for others it is sufficient for the vessel to be unseaworthy; some Member States require the people on board to request assistance, while others do not. The proposal is based on the SAR system and stipulates that as soon as there is any question about the safety of a vessel or a person the SAR authorities must be contacted and given all the information they need to determine whether or not this is an SAR situation According to the Sar Convention each search and rescue area have been delimited for each of  the country concerned search and rescue regions for which they are responsible and these regions do not necessarily correspond to the existing maritime borders.”

The SAR Convention also imposes a precise obligation to rescue and assist persons and ships in distress at sea regardless of nationality, status or circumstances in which the persons are found. The obligations relating to search and rescue include the transport to a safe place.

According to the Commission “Deciding where the people rescued should be taken is a difficult question and is seen as one of the weaknesses of the SAR system. The 2004 amendments require all states to cooperate in resolving SAR situations; the state responsible for the SAR region must, with their cooperation, decide where those rescued will be taken. One Member State did not accept these amendments. A particular point of contention was where those rescued should be disembarked if the state responsible for the SAR region failed to fulfil its obligations in this respect. Some Member States are reluctant to take part in operations because they fear that they will end up having to take those rescued to their own country.”

Such difficulties often become emergencies for the persons involved in the rescue operations. Therefore, last November the Commission suggested to integrate the Schengen Code with the main international norms applicable in the field of marine search and rescue and the disembarking of individuals in safe harbours in order to guarantee fair and equal treatment at the European level and clear signing rules especially when surveillance operations take place under the coordination of the Frontex Agency.

Initially, the proposal did not obtain the support of national experts; however it may go through after the abstention of Italy and Malta.

If the Council adopts it, it will then be up to the European Parliament to intervene. In this case the legislative assembly will have time up to the 7 April to raise its objections concerning the procedure followed by the European Commission to integrate these provisions within the Schengen Code.

The European Commission defined these provisions as purely implementing measures (which seems a rather brave interpretation given the nature of their content), allowing therefore for their quicker adoption than if they were considered as measures having a fundamental impact in the Code. Within a few weeks it will be possible to know what will be the outcome of this, nonetheless, good initiative of the Commission.
EDC.

(*)From the SCHENGEN CODE
Article 12

Border surveillance

1. The main purpose of border surveillance shall be to prevent unauthorised border crossings, to counter cross-border criminality and to take measures against persons who have crossed the border illegally.

2. The border guards shall use stationary or mobile units to carry out border surveillance. That surveillance shall be carried out in such a way as to prevent and discourage persons from circumventing the checks at border crossing points.

3. Surveillance between border crossing points shall be carried out by border guards whose numbers and methods shall be adapted to existing or foreseen risks and threats. It shall involve frequent and sudden changes to surveillance periods, so that unauthorised border crossings are always at risk of being detected.

4. Surveillance shall be carried out by stationary or mobile units which perform their duties by patrolling or stationing themselves at places known or perceived to be sensitive, the aim of such surveillance being to apprehend individuals crossing the border illegally. Surveillance may also be carried out by technical means, including electronic means.

5. Additional rules governing surveillance may be adopted in accordance with the procedure referred to in Article 33(2). (Paragraph modified by the (CE) Regulation N. 296/2008 of the European Parliament and the Council of 11 March  2008)

Article 13

Refusal of entry

1. A third-country national who does not fulfil all the entry conditions laid down in Article 5(1) and does not belong to the categories of persons referred to in Article 5(4) shall be refused entry to the territories of the Member States. This shall be without prejudice to the application of special provisions concerning the right of asylum and to international protection or the issue of long-stay visas.

2. Entry may only be refused by a substantiated decision stating the precise reasons for the refusal. The decision shall be taken by an authority empowered by national law. It shall take effect immediately.

The substantiated decision stating the precise reasons for the refusal shall be given by means of a standard form, as set out in Annex V, Part B, filled in by the authority empowered by national law to refuse entry. The completed standard form shall be handed to the third-country national concerned, who shall acknowledge receipt of the decision to refuse entry by means of that form.

3. Persons refused entry shall have the right to appeal. Appeals shall be conducted in accordance with national law. A written indication of contact points able to provide information on representatives competent to act on behalf of the third-country national in accordance with national law shall also be given to the third-country national.

Lodging such an appeal shall not have suspensive effect on a decision to refuse entry.

Without prejudice to any compensation granted in accordance with national law, the third-country national concerned shall, where the appeal concludes that the decision to refuse entry was ill-founded, be entitled to correction of the cancelled entry stamp, and any other cancellations or additions which have been made, by the Member State which refused entry.

4. The border guards shall ensure that a third-country national refused entry does not enter the territory of the Member State concerned.

5. Member States shall collect statistics on the number of persons refused entry, the grounds for refusal, the nationality of the persons refused and the type of border (land, air or sea) at which they were refused entry. Member States shall transmit those statistics once a year to the Commission. The Commission shall publish every two years a compilation of the statistics provided by the Member States.

6. Detailed rules governing refusal of entry are given in Part A of Annex V.

Immigration, asylum and borders: the priorities for the next 18 months

Interesting elements  emerge on the implementation of the Stockholm Programme (2010-2014) from the working document of the Council presidency. It is necessary, as it is often the case for official documents, to interpret the silences as well as some cryptic or general information. It therefore follows a summary of the main proposals with some complementary explanatory notes.

Continue reading “Immigration, asylum and borders: the priorities for the next 18 months”

Communication problems between EU Member States concerning immigration and asylum

The European Commission has recently published a Communication summarising the most relevant information in the field of migration and asylum which shall be transmitted by the Member States on the basis of the European Council Decision of 2006.

This Decision was adopted following the self-evident remark that national measures in the areas of immigration and asylum are likely to have an impact on other Member States given the absence of border checks in the Schengen area, the close economic and social relations between Member States and the development of common visa, immigration and asylum policies.

Hence, the systematic exchange of information seemed an obvious necessity in order to increase the Member States’ reciprocal understanding of these policies and improve their coordination, influence the quality of the EU legislation and increase mutual trust.

Continue reading “Communication problems between EU Member States concerning immigration and asylum”

The new powers of the Court of Justice after the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty

The press release published on November 30th by the Court of Justice is worth reading by everybody interested in the European Law as well by the every individual whishing to bthe protection of its rights.
The very essential and clear text is the following:

The Treaty of Lisbon and the Court of Justice of the European Union

The Treaty of Lisbon, which was signed on 13 December 2007 by the 27 Heads of State or Government of the Member States of the Union, comes into force on 1 December 2009. It amends the two fundamental treaties – the Treaty on European Union (TEU) and the Treaty establishing the European Community, with the latter to be known in future as the ‘Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union’ (TFEU). (1)
The Treaty of Lisbon makes changes to the organisation and jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Continue reading “The new powers of the Court of Justice after the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty”