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The ECRE Weekly Bulletin provides information about the latest European developments in the areas of asylum and refugee protection.ECRE is a pan-European alliance of 90 NGOs protecting and advancing the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons.If you would like to know more about ECRE’s advocacy work, policy positions, press releases and projects, please visit our website at www.ecre.org, find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

     
25 March 2016
  
The ECRE Weekly Bulletin will go on a break next week. You will receive the next issue on 8 April. Keep an eye on our Facebook and Twitter pages for regular updates.
 

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AIDA Report Serbia: Transit for many, asylum for a handful

The Asylum Information Database (AIDA) has published a new country report on Serbia, written by the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, detailing the workings of the Serbian asylum system, set out by the Law on Asylum of 2007 and relevant legislation. While legislation is deemed to be generally in line with international standards, its poor implementation accounts for deficiencies in the procedure and treatment of asylum seekers, the report states.

Throughout the summer, there was a significant rise in the number of persons “expressing the intention to seek asylum” in Serbia. This status requires prospective applicants to report to one of the five Asylum Centres in the country within 72 hours, with a view to undergoing registration and submitting their asylum application. Out of 577,995 intentions to seek asylum expressed in 2015, only 583 resulted in submitted applications.

However, in September 2015, Serbia introduced a special legal status for persons transiting through the country with the intention of travelling on to other countries. These people were issued with “certificates for migrants coming from countries where their lives are in danger”. This measure has visibly led to a decrease in the number of persons expressing the intention to seek asylum in Serbia, as only 475 such intentions were expressed in the course of January 2016.

Serbia has offered limited protection to those fleeing persecution or serious harm so far. Since the establishment of the Asylum Office in 2008, only 48 persons have been granted international protection; 30 of those were recognised in 2015. International protection has been granted mainly to Syrian, Libyan and Ukrainian nationals. The report also highlights barriers to access to protection, including denial of access to the procedure for asylum seekers returned from Hungary.
 

EUROPEAN DEVELOPMENTS

EU leaders agree on EU-Turkey Deal despite serious concerns over its consequences for human rights of refugees and migrants

During the European Council meeting of 18 March, EU leaders reached an agreement with Turkey, the so-called EU-Turkey deal. According to the statement issued on the day, the objectives of the measures agreed to are to end irregular migration from Turkey to the EU and to “break the business model of the smugglers and to offer migrants an alternative to putting their lives at risk”.

Prior to the meeting some of the action points agreed were described as “immoral”, “dangerous” and “illegal” by human rights organisations, including ECRE. These include the action point on the return to Turkey of all irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to Greece after 20 March 2016 and the resettlement of one Syrian refugee who travelled from Turkey to the EU in exchange for each Syrian returned to Turkey from Greece. The agreement also states that “Turkey will take any necessary measures to prevent new sea or land routes for illegal migration opening from Turkey to the EU, and will cooperate with neighbouring states as well as the EU to this effect.”

“Resettling one Syrian to the EU for every Syrian readmitted from the Greek islands to Turkey is as Kafkaesque as it is legally and morally wrong,” ECRE stated in a Memorandum issued before the European Council meeting. It argued that resettlement should not be part of an exchange which involves persons risking their lives; resettlement should be implemented separately from readmission and return. ECRE reiterates its opposition to any solution based on the flawed assumption that Turkey is a ‘safe third country’.

Amnesty International also called the idea that Turkey is a safe country a “sham”, while revealing that Turkey detained, denied access to asylum procedures and forcibly returned to Kabul around 30 Afghan asylum seekers just after the EU-Turkey deal came into force.

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks and UNHCR welcomed some of the legal safeguards contained in the agreement, such as the adherence to international and European laws, but stressed that its implementation needs to uphold human rights. UNHCR stressed that during the implementation of the deal, people seeking international protection must have an individual interview and the right to appeal a negative decision before readmission to Turkey. Once returned, people in need of international protection must be given the opportunity to seek and effectively access protection in Turkey, UNHCR stated.

According to the agreement, the focus of the hotspots on the Greek islands will shift from “registration and screening before swift transfer to the mainland” to “implementing returns to Turkey”, which includes increasing detention capacity in the facilities. Shortly after the agreement came into force and as the hotspots were being transformed into closed detention facilities, certain organisations suspended at least some of their activities in the centres, including UNHCR, MSF, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee and OXFAM.

“We will not allow our assistance to be instrumentalized for a mass expulsion operation and we refuse to be part of a system that has no regard for the humanitarian or protection needs of asylum seekers and migrants,” stated Marie Elisabeth Ingres, MSF Head of Mission in Greece. 

Furthermore, immediately after the European Council meeting, the European Commission presented a proposal amending the Council Decision on relocation of 22 September 2015, making available for resettlement from Turkey the 54,000 yet unallocated places intended for relocation from Italy and Greece.

“Although the deal requires an individual assessment and access to an effective remedy for those claiming international protection, it is clear to everyone, including the EU institutions, that this is not yet the case in Greece”, said Catherine Woollard, ECRE’s Secretary General. “An effective remedy is simply not available as the Appeals Committees have not been operating since September 2015 and access to legal assistance is almost non-existent on the islands. This deal is legally and morally wrong and will not turn Turkey into a safe country. The EU should invest time and energy in large scale resettlement, implementing relocation, and support for Greece instead of short-sighted containment strategies”.

Further information:
 

COUNCIL OF EUROPE

Council of Europe warns of risk of asylum seekers and refugees becoming victims of trafficking in Europe

Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing violent conflicts and taking dangerous routes to reach Europe are at high risk of exploitation and trafficking, with unaccompanied and separated children being particularly vulnerable, highlights the Council of Europe group of experts on anti-trafficking (GRETA) in a newly published report. GRETA is responsible for monitoring the implementation of countries’ obligations under the Anti-Trafficking Convention and regularly publishes evaluation reports.

The report raises concerns regarding the significant number of unaccompanied asylum seeking children who go missing from their reception centres, disappearances from which are often orchestrated by traffickers. GRETA has made recommendations to 36 out of 40 countries evaluated with the aim of improving the identification of child victims of trafficking. Furthermore, the report warns that the increasing proportion of women and girls reaching Europe heightens the risk of trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

It repeats its call on states to ensure that migration policies and measures to combat smuggling do not risk the lives and safety of trafficked people, given that law enforcement efforts aimed at reducing irregular migration may not adequately identify and protect victims. GRETA’s president emphasises that regardless of the refugee crisis states still have legal obligations to identify victims of trafficking which they cannot derogate from.  “People attempting to reach Europe are easy prey for traffickers, especially as they often face barriers to getting help. States’ legal obligations of identification and protection are a bulwark against the trafficking and exploitation of human beings and a weapon against traffickers,” Nicolas Le Coz said.

The report also reiterates the difference between the terms ‘smuggling’ and ‘trafficking’ which are often used interchangeably by the media, but refer to distinct issues requiring differing responsibilities.

For further information:
 


PACE Migration Committee calls for collective action in response to situation in Western Balkans

In response to the failure of Europe to find a proper, sustainable response to the humanitarian situation faced by refugees and migrants in the Western Balkans, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) Committee on Migration has called for collective action and equitable sharing of responsibilities with full respect for human rights and international law.

On 22 March 2016, the Committee adopted a draft resolution, based on a report by rapporteur Tineke Strik which details the increasingly restrictive measures taken by countries along the Western Balkan route: Greece, FYROM, Serbia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. The report describes the evolution of the human rights situation over the past few months, leading to the current situation of closed borders and thousands of refugees and migrants trapped in Greece, which lacks reception capacity and has a dysfunctional asylum system.

It describes the discriminatory practice of nationality screening, arbitrary denial of access to protection based on asylum caps and failures to comply with the principle of non-refoulement. Excessive force against refugees and migrants has regularly been documented in FYROM, Croatia and Hungary. People are also vulnerable to other exploitation, trafficking and abuse along the route. The Committee condemns Hungary’s asylum procedures and detention policy as incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), EU law and the 1951 Refugee Convention.

It also criticises the European response to the situation in the Western Balkans, in particular regarding the failure to implement the decisions on relocation from Greece, given that only 322 refugees had been relocated over six months. The follow up to commitments on reception capacity made at the Western Balkans Route Leaders’ Meeting in October 2015, has been undermined by unilateral action and a focus on border control and containment in Turkey, the report argues.

The draft resolution therefore calls on Western Balkans countries, Greece and Austria to ensure compliance with the principle of non-refoulement for asylum seekers at their borders, to refrain from implementing policies that deny access to protection on discriminatory grounds or administrative convenience, and to ensure that border forces do not use excessive force. It further urges them to take necessary measures to ensure that national asylum systems meet applicable legal standards and that national reception capacity is sufficient. It calls on the EU to ensure that human rights are given priority in its policies on the Western Balkans, to ensure the full implementation of previous decisions and to reform the Dublin system with a view to more equitable sharing of responsibility.

For further information:
 


CoE Human Rights Commissioner raises concerns over treatment of refugees and migrants in the UK 

On 22 March, a number of concerns were raised about the negative human rights impact of restrictive policies on asylum and immigration in the UK by Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. These were published in a Memorandum which follows up on his visit to the UK earlier this year. He states that, “the treatment afforded by states to immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees constitutes a litmus test for states’ effective observance of and respect for fundamental human rights principles.”

The Commissioner welcomes the UK’s commitment to providing international aid to Syria and neighbouring countries, as well as its pledge to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees and ongoing efforts relating to unaccompanied children in conflict areas and in transit in Europe. However he is critical of the UK’s failure to participate in the EU emergency relocation scheme, which shows a lack of solidarity with other European countries. In this context, he notes the comparatively small number of asylum applications received by the UK in 2015 with per capita applications lower than in 16 other EU member states and the EU-wide average.

Muižnieks also raises serious concerns over the long-standing plight of 67 refugees and asylum seekers who have been in a precarious situation since their arrival on a UK sovereign base area in Cyprus in 1998. An agreement between the two countries means that this is under UK’s effective responsibility and control, but their legal status is unclear which has negatively affected their rights to welfare and healthcare and led to many suffering from serious psychological problems. He calls on the UK to resettle them, but the government, in its response has denied any legal obligation to do so.

In his Memorandum, the Commissioner denounces the alarmist political rhetoric and language of criminalisation used to describe migrants by politicians and reproduced or distorted by the media, which contributes to the public opinion that they are a threat to society. He underlines that claims often made about the negative impact of migrants are imbalanced and not backed up by expert evidence. He urges leaders to reflect on the language they use and avoid the term ‘illegal immigrant’, to promote a more nuanced and careful public narrative.

The Commissioner also adds his voice to concerns raised by a number of stakeholders about the length of immigration detention in the UK, where there is no time limit or automatic right to review of detention by a court.

For further information:
 
 

EUROPEAN COURT OF HUMAN RIGHTS

European Court of Human Rights condemns Sweden for attempting to deport Iranian Christian convert without properly assessing human rights risk

On 23 March 2016, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Sweden, in the case of F.G. v. Sweden. F.G, an Iranian national, claimed that if he were deported to Iran, he would be at risk of ill-treatment or the death penalty on account of his political opposition to the regime, and his conversion from Islam to Christianity. This would violate his right to life and the prohibition on torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, protected in Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Court found that, although the applicant did not initially raise his conversion as a ground for asylum, once the Swedish authorities were aware of this matter, they had an obligation to assess the risk arising from it and had failed to do so. They could not deport him to Iran without a fresh and up to date assessment of the consequences of his conversion.

ECRE submitted joint written observations in this case, with the AIRE Centre and the International Committee of Jurists.

For further information:
 

REPORTS & NGOs ACTIONS

"Migrants and refugees have rights": new report by Caritas Europa

In a report released recently, Caritas Europa analyses the impact of EU policies on accessing protection. The report includes testimonials from refugees, asylum seekers and migrants and undertakes a thorough analysis of a full spectrum of migration-related issues - access to international protection, non-refoulement, family reunification, labour migration and irregular migration - and includes a series of recommendations to the EU and its Member States to improve access to protection.

Asylum seekers face  considerable challenges in accessing protection in Europe, starting from the  lack of legal  paths to enter the EU. The use of detention, criminalisation of irregular entry, the externalisation of border controls and the European measures taken over 2015 are analysed in the report.

Caritas Europa calls on the EU and its Member States to authorise the issuing of humanitarian visas for people seeking protection, to establish a mechanism based on solidarity for the sharing of asylum seekers and to establish mutual recognition of positive asylum decisions across the EU. The organisation further urges the EU to uphold the principle of non-refoulement and to refrain from using the safe country of origin concept.

For further information:
 
 

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