ECRE members call for safe and legal channels to the EU for refugees
The ECRE Annual General Conference (AGC) took place last week in The Hague, together with the UNHCR NGO Consultations. The AGC was an occasion for all ECRE member organisations to come together and discuss the most pressing issues, as well as to plan ahead for the next years of work.
At the end of the three-day conference, ECRE Members issued a statement urging European leaders to act with responsibility and to show solidarity, “not only within the EU but towards those neighbouring countries that have hosted the vast majority of refugees,” reminding them of the great solidarity efforts showed by citizens and civil society across Europe in welcoming refugees to their countries.
“Europe should not focus on fences and razor wire, but rather work together with its neighbours to offer humane solutions for people in need of protection. Finding these durable solutions requires the active involvement of civil society, the private sector, cities and governments. During our General Conference in The Hague, I was inspired by the numerous initiatives of ECRE members to protect refugees’ rights and ensure protection, including integration,” stated Morten Kjærum, ECRE Board Chair.
Celebrating, on the same occasion, the 40th anniversary of the consultation that led to the creation of ECRE, its members showed a tremendous commitment to, and support for, the work undertaken by the network, and highlighted the need to strengthen its actions and visibility, building upon the highly valued credibility and reputation that the network was able to achieve since its foundation.
A keynote speech was delivered by Halleh Ghorashi, Professor of Diversity and Integration at the VU University of Amsterdam. Building upon her personal experience of being an asylum seeker in The Netherlands, Professor Ghorashi underlined how important the first years of the integration process of refugees are, and how poignant it is to make sure that people are not isolated, and are instead given the chance to be active in society from the early stages, capitalising on the positive energy brought.
A second keynote speech was delivered by Volker Türk, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection. Mr. Türk highlighted the positive contribution of ECRE and its members over the last 40 years in the field of asylum and refugee law in Europe, and stressed its utmost importance in the present times, when we are faced by an unprecedented challenge in terms of numbers and complexity of displacement worldwide.
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ELENA Celebrates 30 Year Anniversary
The European Legal Network on Asylum (ELENA) was created in 1985 and now extends across most European states, involving over 500 lawyers and legal counsellors. Their work is strengthened by the legal research, litigation expertise, training and information exchange via national coordinators and the Weekly Legal Update, facilitated by the network. ECRE has published a note celebrating the achievements of ELENA and asylum practitioners in Europe.
The note highlights the numerous advocacy and litigation successes of ELENA and asylum lawyers over the past 30 years, which have contributed to better protection for asylum seekers and refugees across Europe, in line with international and human rights law. The importance of the network was highlighted by ECRE’s founding members at ECRE’s AGC last week, with its first Secretary General Philip Rudge describing it as an important instrument for training and raising awareness amongst legal counsellors on refugee protection and human rights questions. Volker Turk, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection also congratulated ELENA for its achievements and its value for asylum practitioners over the past three decades.
ELENA’s 30th Anniversary Advanced Course on ‘Legal avenues for strengthening international protection in Europe’ will take place in Bologna from 30-31 October.
ECRE argues against a common EU list of ‘safe countries of origin’
ECRE has published comments on the European Commission’s proposal for a Regulation establishing a common EU list of ‘safe countries of origin’ and amending the recast Asylum Procedures Directive. In the document, ECRE seriously questions the compatibility of the ‘safe country of origin’ concept with international refugee law, finding it at odds with the obligation on States under the 1951 Refugee Convention to treat refugees without discrimination based on their country of origin. ECRE is opposed to the adoption of a common EU list of ‘safe countries of origin’ as proposed by the Commission.
The use of ‘safe country’ lists, at national or EU level, contributes to a practice of stereotyping certain applications on the basis of their nationality and increases the risk for applicants coming from a specific country of being denied a thorough examination of their individual cases.
The proposed Regulation raises important protection concerns and may result in a ‘race to the bottom’ as regards safeguards available for applicants in the asylum procedures, while the added value of the proposal from a harmonisation perspective is likely to be very minimal.
ECRE believes that this is part of a worrying development in EU asylum law, to increasingly associate the nationality or profile of an asylum applicant to a decision of a manifestly unfounded application, without prior examination of the asylum application.
ECRE presented suggestions for the European Commission to amend the proposed Regulation and the Asylum Procedures Directive, in case of adoption of the proposal:
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- Ensure that asylum seekers originating from a country presumed safe have access to an appeal with automatic suspensive effect;
- Strengthen the mechanism to suspend countries from the common list by requiring that the Commission’s substantiated assessment is informed by all sources of information, including from NGOs and the expert opinion of UNHCR in particular; and
- Delete references to some of the indicators used by the Commission, such as membership of the Council of Europe and status as an EU Accession country, to argue the inclusion of countries in the common list as these indicators do not serve as evidence of the observance of human rights in those countries.
AIDA Update: New rules in Switzerland on detention and unaccompanied children
The Asylum Information Database (AIDA) published this week the updated report on asylum in Switzerland. The report discusses the new rules for administrative detention of asylum seekers in the Dublin procedure, and provides information on the rules for support of unaccompanied minors, both in force since July 2015.
Several of the rules on administrative detention seem problematic and are not in line with the Dublin III Regulation, notably the broad definition of the “risk of absconding” and the maximum duration of detention. Moreover, given that Switzerland is not an EU Member State, there is no possibility to access the Court of Justice of the European Union to clarify these issues, warns the Swiss Refugee Council.
According to the new rules, a representative for unaccompanied children must now be present in the first interview, with tasks more closely defined than before, including providing advice before and during interviews, support in naming and obtaining elements of proof, as well as support during contact with authorities and medical institutions. Furthermore, the law now requires representatives to have knowledge of asylum law and the Dublin procedure.
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Western Balkans: Insufficient protection for unaccompanied children as winter approaches
According to UNHCR, despite improvements in the registration procedures, by 1st October only one third of refugees arriving in Macedonia have been registered. More problematic, many vulnerable refugees, including unaccompanied children, are not adequately identified, thereby undermining their specific protection needs.
In Presevo (Serbia), reports stress the absence of effective mechanisms to properly identify most vulnerable refugees, including unaccompanied children, who, consequently, are at high risk of trafficking. This is also due to insufficient registration and accommodation capacities. For instance, on 8 October, 2,000 refugees had to spend the night in the cold, outside the Presevo centre. Similarly, as highlighted by UNHCR on 8 October, there was no mechanism for the identification and referral of vulnerable refugees arriving in Croatia.
Winter temperatures cause further challenges for refugees crossing the Western Balkans, who are often forced to sleep in the open, due to insufficient reception capacities. International organisations and NGOs continue to provide refugees with humanitarian and medical support, such as additional temporary shelters, special winter equipment, as well as raincoats, blankets and winter clothes. Nevertheless, more and more refugees remain in need of further medical assistance and winter items.
Between 25 September and 14 October, due to discontinuous transportations, refugees had to travel across Macedonia packed in overcrowded trains, paying ticket prices three times higher than that required for Macedonian citizens. Most vulnerable refugees received prior transportation, resulting in many families being separated at border crossing points. Both in Macedonia and Serbia, UNHCR has been working to reunite family members that were split up. At the Croatian border, as of 8 October, NGOs and volunteers have faced difficulties to gain access and provide assistance for refugees at the Tovarnik crossing point.
From 3 to 14 October, the Macedonian police, in cooperation with lawyers from the Macedonian Young Lawyers Association (MYLA), have registered more than 30,000 refugees who expressed their intention to seek asylum. This brings the total up to 143,279 refugees registered from June 2015. In Serbia, according to IOM, 173,891 refugees entered the country up to 14 October,. Increasing number of refugees also arrived from Bulgaria; 350 refugees entered through Dimitrograv on Wednesday 6 October.
On Thursday 8 October, EU ministers, and their counterparts from the Western Balkans, agreed on a declaration, at the high-level Conference on the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Balkans Route. The EU confirmed the intention to; increase immediate humanitarian assistance, improve accommodation capacities and assistance and strengthen registration and return procedures. Meanwhile, refugees will have to pass stricter border checks and negotiate reinforced border police surveillance.
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Killing of 19 year old Afghan at Bulgarian-Turkish border demonstrates focus on border control instead of protecting refugees
On 16 October 2015, 19 years old Ziahullah Vafa from Afghanistan was shot when trying to cross the Turkish-Bulgarian border by Bulgarian border guards. According to unanimous testimonies collected by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee of 20 people who were trying to cross the border with Ziahullah, the group dispersed in different directions one intercepted by four or five border police officers. No one from the group resisted or behaved aggressively towards the officers but two of them started shooting.
"It is shameful that people fleeing to the EU to access the international protection they need are met by violence at our borders. This incident demands a full and independent investigation so that the necessary safeguards or changes in procedures can be put into place," stated ECRE Secretary General Michael Diedring.
The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee has issued a statement raising concerns over the significant inconsistencies in the Interior Ministry’s accounts of the event, which claims that the group was aggressive and resisted arrest resulting in one of the officers producing a warning shot in the air which accidentally wounded and killed someone in the group – a 56 year old man.
The organisation calls for a thorough, prompt and impartial investigation of this tragic event, in particular to establish whether the firearm was used under conditions of absolute necessity, as required by Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Bulgarian legislation.
EUROPEAN COURT OF HUMAN RIGHTS
ECtHR rules against expulsion of asylum seekers from Russia to Syria
In the first judgment on the issue of risk of danger to life or ill-treatment in the context of the Syrian conflict, the European Court of Human Rights unanimously found that the forced return of the three asylum applicants to Syria would violate their right to life (Article 2) and lead to a real risk of torture or inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 3) under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The case related to two Syrian nationals and a stateless Palestinian from Syria who were arrested in 2014 for administrative offences of breaching immigration rules and working without a permit. They claimed asylum stating that they feared for their lives in Syria and providing information on the ongoing conflict. A Russian court ordered their expulsion to Syria, and their detention, pending deportation. Their appeal was rejected, but an interim measure from the ECtHR prevented their deportation until it had considered the matter.
The Court noted that this was its first judgment on this issue, partly due to the fact that most European countries did not carry out forced returns to Syria, which were suspended in practice for all Syrian nationals, with most asylum applicants receiving positive decisions. In view of international reports and individual information presented by the applicants relating to the risk they would face if they returned, their allegations that expulsion to Syria would breach Articles 2 and 3 ECHR were well-founded. It found the approach of the Russian courts ‘particularly regretful’ as it had failed to adequately assess the risk of ill-treatment in Syria, focusing instead on establishing that the applicants’ presence in Russia was illegal.
The Court also found a violation of their right to liberty under Article 5 ECHR, considering that their detention became unlawful from May 2014 when no real action had or could be taken to carry out their deportation, also finding that there was no procedure by which they could challenge the lawfulness of their detention in national law. The Court ordered the immediate release of the applicants from detention, who had been unlawfully detained for almost 18 months.
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REPORTS & NGOs ACTIONS
SHARE Conference: UN, local authorities and civil society jointly respond to crisis
On 20 October 2015, the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) co-hosted, together with the Committee of the Regions, the SHARE Network Conference: ‘Protecting and Welcoming Refugees in Europe: responding to an unprecedented refugee crisis’. On that occasion, good practices and lessons learnt in protecting and welcoming refugees in Europe were presented by representatives from international and European organisations, such as UNHCR and ECRE, as well as from national NGOs and local municipalities that have supported and actively participated in the SHARE project since 2012.
Under the SHARE project, networking, information exchanges, mutual learning practices between local authorities and civil society have demonstrated that the engagement of municipalities, NGOs, volunteers and diaspora groups is crucial for the integration of refugees. This includes access to education, employment and housing. The SHARE project has helped local authorities and other stakeholders to identify and overcome challenges in the implementation of resettlement programmes, local partnerships as well as public awareness activities, such as better understanding, cooperation and coordination between the actors involved.
“We need to involve all kinds of actors, from schools to churches, to doctors, to local services,” urged Michael Diedring, Secretary General of ECRE. “We all have shared responsibility to provide quality and sustainable protection. Civil society and citizens are critical actors and we are prepared to play our role in partnership with all other stakeholders. Our primary concern however, should always be the welfare of persons in need of protection and their desire to find safety and hope in host communities,” he added.
On the current situation in Europe, Diedring reiterated ECRE’s view that the EU should open legal avenues for people seeking refuge in Europe.
“Refugees need to be able to get here safely and legally and Member States need to use all the means at their disposal to make this possible, such as humanitarian visas, family reunification, as well as resettlement and relocation,” he said.
“This is a crisis for refugees, not a refugee crisis,” stressed George Joseph from Caritas Sweden, an ECRE member. “This is a crisis for the European society that face challenges in helping refugees to find safety and protection in Europe.”
Final remarks were made by Cecilia Wikström, Member of the European Parliament (ALDE) and Peter Sutherland, President of the ICMC.
“If someone builds a four meter high wall, somebody else will make a five meter high ladder to climb over. It won’t work. So, we should focus on helping refugees rather than trying to keep them away. In addition, for economic reasons alone, Europe needs more people. Otherwise, it will be a shrinking and sinking continent,” Ms Wikström said.
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ECRE interviews Volker Türk: We should not forget history when addressing current challenges
On occasion of ECRE’s Annual General Conference and UNHCR NGO Consultations, ECRE talked to UNHCR’s Volker Türk about the most pressing issues for refugees in Europe, such as the lack of safe and legal channels, the proposal of a common EU safe countries of origin list, the Temporary Protection Directive and what is the role of UNHCR and organisation such as ECRE in advocating for improved guarantees for displaced people in Europe.
Volker Türk is UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection and previously was the Director of the Division of International Protection from September 2009 to February 2015. He held a number of assignments for UNHCR in the field in various parts of the world, including in Malaysia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Kuwait.
What safe and legal channels to Europe is UNHCR advocating for and is there already any work being done with the EU on this subject?
Over the last couple of years, ever since we started working on Syria, and when we realised that the neighbouring countries were shouldering a refugee influx of over 4 million people, we asked European countries to look into possibilities for legal pathways to Europe. This includes resettlement, humanitarian admission or scholarships. Indeed we see a lot of young people on the move who could not continue their studies, either in the neighbouring countries or even in Syria, and who want to just get on with their lives.
We also ask for better family reunification procedures, though unfortunately we have seen a number of countries in Europe restricting family reunification possibilities, which precisely leads to the despair that we see unfolding today. There are a number of very specific pathways that we have been advocating for and I must say that we see a lot happening now, but it’s too little and too late.
On resettlement for example, we were asking for 130,000 resettlement and humanitarian admission places and only over this summer we finally managed to fulfil these pledges. In fact, we need 400,000 places, so this is a big challenge and we need organisations like ECRE and its members to help us advocate for it.
“Had governments listened to our calls earlier, we would probably be faced with a different situation today.”
What is the importance and the role of civil society and organisations like ECRE in protecting and advancing the rights of refugees?
ECRE has played an incredibly important and valuable role over the last 40 years, ever since it was founded. And what we see today, more than at any time before, is that civil society almost dictates politics. It was because civil society was so upset about the loss of life at sea that suddenly governments took action.
I believe it was because civil society and civil society actors – private citizens, companies, non-governmental organisations - showed an incredible outpouring of sympathy and also demonstrated people-to-people solidarity that we now see governments being pushed to do the right thing.
There’s always a bit of an opportunity in a crisis. Had governments listened to our voices earlier, when we were doing our advocacy, we would probably be faced with a different situation today. It is important to point this out and turn it into an advantage: we can pressure governments by saying ‘Look, we warned you, so now let’s do something about it, let’s take action’.
In this sense, ECRE being a knowledgeable actor on refugee rights, plays an extremely important role as opinion leader, as informer and as coordinator among the different civil society organisations.
What are UNHCR’s view on the relocation mechanism?
Relocation is a process agreed by EU Member States which includes the establishment of “hotspots”. We have consistently advocated for solidarity measures especially for the countries that are directly affected by large scale arrivals, so relocation was one of the answers which governments and the European Union chose actually to implement.
We think it is very important to support it as much as we can and to see whether this system can actually work. However, it cannot work unless it is combined with proper reception and registration arrangements and with the possibility for people to apply for asylum in the countries of first arrival. UNHCR is more than willing to assist EU Member States with its long-term expertise in resettlement and humanitarian admission.
In a statement about the Commission Package on 9 September, UNHCR referred to the EU Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) and mentioned that it has never been activated. In the statement, UNHCR highlights that the Directive “was designed to ensure a uniform status and rights across the EU and would allow for fast and simplified processing, resulting in efficiency gains and cost reductions for national asylum systems”. Does UNHCR think that the activation of the TPD would be justified under the current circumstances?
If one looks at the numbers of people arriving, one could be led to think that if Europe faces a large scale influx, it would perhaps be the right moment to look very actively into whether or not to activate this directive. I think a number of the conditions are present. Some of the solidarity measures included in the TPD could be advantageous, although they are not binding enough. If the EU were to go down the line of activating the TPD, this measure would have to be accompanied by a more permanent solidarity and distribution mechanism within the EU. So I think the directive is a beginning of perhaps a more permanent emergency mechanism dealing with large scale influxes, but it is not going to be sufficient.
ECRE has recently published comments on its concerns on an EU list of safe countries of origin, raising questions about its compatibility with international refugee law. What is UNHCR position on this?
We have consistently held the position that if countries decide to declare some other countries as safe countries of origin it is extremely important that this is done in an individual procedure – you need to listen to the story of the individual and see what the background of the individual is. And if this leads to a presumption of non-eligibility, people have to be able to refute this presumption, in a proper procedure.
Moreover, in some instances we know that there are groups at risk even within so-called safe countries of origin. And of course, to designate a country as a safe country of origin, you need to look very carefully at the human rights record, at vulnerable groups, at groups at risk, even at international protection recognition rates within asylum countries. Only then I think one could see whether it is an appropriate mechanism.
ECRE Annual General Conference is taking place in the Netherlands this year. The Dutch Presidency of the Council of the EU is coming up shortly. In light of these occasions, what do you think the country could do to lead by example?
UNHCR clear and strong hope is that there will be an increase in resettlement quotas, not just in the Netherlands, but in countries around the world. We are already seeing that, and even countries outside Europe – for instance Australia or the US – have just announced higher resettlement quotas, for Syrians in particular. We need those commitments also within Europe.
Some countries are more effective than others; at present it is clearly Germany and Sweden that are most effective, with Austria joining the ranks, while other countries are less effective. Therefore, there needs to be some sort of solidarity mechanism among countries, and that could find an expression in higher resettlement places.
“It is very important, especially in Europe, that we remember why the 1951 Convention was crafted, in the wake of the World War II.”
The issue of asylum is currently increasingly politicised by politicians from one end and the other of the spectrum, so what can UNHCR and other organisations do to make sure that the institution of asylum as such remains non-political as it should be?
I think that is also one of our big worries to be very honest: asylum is too politicised, there are too many people who have no clue about it who talk about it, it is not seen in the historical context that it arose. It is very important, especially in Europe, that we remember why the 1951 Convention was crafted, in the wake of the World War II. Moreover, we should not forget that in our recent history there were different waves of refugee movements inside Europe, and that some countries that are now the most outspoken against relocation were countries that produced refugees not too long ago.
I think it is important to work through some of the historical reasons why asylum was so necessary then and why it is so necessary now. History is one part that has a role to play, to describe and show to the population at large what it means to be a refugee and to make sure that they understand the stories behind it. It is going to be a joint effort to work with the public at large, and this is one of our biggest challenges.
What kind of challenges do you see for UNHCR going forward?
I think the biggest challenge today is the magnitude of displacement, not just in terms of numbers but also in terms of scope - 15 conflicts either erupted or re-ignited over the last five years alone, with displacement as a massive characteristic of them. Another great challenge is the complexity of the current situation, with the international community not able to resolve these conflicts on one hand, and people in protracted refugee situations for very long times without any solutions in sight on the other hand.
I believe that we all need to seize the current moment of attention and inspire political leaders around the world to really do something about refugee issues, understand them and deal with them in a humane way, in a way that is in accordance with the fundamental values that we are all very happy to aspire to.
- 30 and 31 October 2015, Bologna, ELENA’s 30th Anniversary Advanced Course: Legal avenues for strengthening international protection in Europe, ECRE
- 5 November, Brussels, “Comb, cushion, constitution: What can we offer our refugees?”, Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit
- 18 November, Brussels, Refugees’ integration in the EU labour market: seizing the opportunities - tackling the challenges, ILO
- 24 November, Brussels, Border Stories: From there to here. How innovative research into personal experiences can help the EU address Intra EU mobility and Third Country Migration, London Higher Europe