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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.

     
29 January 2016
  
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ECRE
NATIONAL DEVELOPMENTS
REPORTS & NGOs ACTIONS
  

ECRE

Dutch plan to return asylum seekers from Greece to Turkey violates international law – Statement

Returning asylum seekers from Greece to Turkey, as proposed by the Dutch government this week, violates European and international law. Such unlawful pushback policy is unacceptable and provides no sustainable solution in the long term, ECRE said in a statement today.

On 28 January, Dutch Labour Party leader Diederik Samsom told Volkskrant that the Dutch government, currently holding the EU presidency, planned to send asylum seekers arriving in Greece back to Turkey with ferries. This would work, according to him, if Turkey would be granted the status of ‘safe country’. “Then the return would be possible under the United Nations arrangements,” he said.

ECRE reminds that illegal pushbacks have firmly been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights. Even if a resettlement or humanitarian admission programme is welcome in principle, this cannot be conditional on preventing people from seeking asylum in Europe.

“Moreover, ECRE seriously questions whether Turkey could be indeed designated a “safe third country” for asylum seekers. Under Article 38 of the EU recast Asylum Procedures Directive the safe third country concept may only be applied where a number of safeguards are fulfilled, including respect for the principle of non-refoulement and the possibility to request and receive protection in accordance with the Geneva Refugee Convention. Turkey’s continued application of the geographical limitation to the scope of the Geneva Refugee Convention is problematic in this regard, as it means that only person coming from European countries can be recognised as Convention refugees in Turkey. Though the Law on Foreigners and International Protection provides for a status of “conditional refugee” to those coming from non-European countries, this status only allows a person to temporarily reside in Turkey, while awaiting for resettlement, while access to the labour market is not automatically guaranteed.”

ECRE also points out that a range of sources, including the AIDA report on Turkey, provide evidence to the fact that the current conditions do not ensure guarantees that the fundamental rights of migrants and refugees are respected in practice in Turkey. Amnesty International has reported that since September persons attempting to cross the Greek-Turkish land border have been detained. A Human Rights Watch report highlighted how Syrians are being denied entry to Turkey at the border and being pushed back to Syria.

In Turkey, most asylum seekers and refugees live in precarious conditions, including over 700,000 Syrian refugee children who have no access to school. Asylum seekers from other nationalities also face a largely dysfunctional asylum system under Turkey’s international protection procedure. Numerous barriers to state-funded legal aid, coupled with resource constraints on NGOs, leave asylum seekers without legal representation and advice.

“ECRE welcomes any initiative that aims at creating additional channels for refugees to access protection in the EU in a safe and legal manner as this is much needed as one of the means to reduce the loss of life at the EU’s external borders. However, trading off the creation of a resettlement programme from Turkey against an institutionalised unlawful push back policy is unacceptable and provides no sustainable solution in the long term. Rather EU Member States should invest in comprehensive solutions that effectively address the root causes of the conflict and increase the protection space in the region and in Europe by upholding international and EU standards,” the statement concludes.
 
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ECRE staff and Board express gratitude to Michael Diedring

On his last day as Secretary General, ECRE staff and Board expressed their gratitude to Michael Diedring and wished him good luck in his next endeavours. Michael has successfully navigated ECRE through one of Europe’s most turbulent times in the field of refugee protection and thanks to his tireless commitment and dedication ECRE has become an even stronger alliance.

In addition to his loyalty to ECRE’s mission, Michael Diedring’s personality and leadership has empowered the staff at the secretariat. 

The selection of the new Secretary General is underway. “I would like to express my full confidence in ECRE’s current management team and I am certain that this transition period will go smoothly,” ECRE Board Chair Morten Kjærum said.

During this transition period, Kris Pollet, ECRE’s Senior Legal and Policy Officer, will be ECRE’s Acting Secretary General. 
 
 

NATIONAL DEVELOPMENTS

Concerns over forced deportation of asylum seekers from Norway to Russia

Last Tuesday, Norway deported 13 Syrian asylum seekers to Murmansk in Russia, in the face of criticism by human rights NGOs.  

In the last few months of 2015, around 5,500 asylum seekers mainly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, entered Norway through the remote Storskog border post, forging a new migration route to Europe. Due to a legal peculiarity, which prevented crossing the border by foot they cycled over the border in snow and sub-zero temperatures. The ‘Arctic Route’ has been favoured by many as a safer alternative to taking a boat across the Mediterranean which also avoids being registered in multiple Schengen countries on the way to their final destinations with the risk of being sent back to the first EU country they irregularly crossed into.

In response to this increase in asylum seekers, the Norwegian government rushed through a number of restrictive changes to its asylum law in under a week with very little consultation. In November 2015 it issued instructions for a fast track procedure for asylum seekers deemed to have arrived in Norway through a ‘safe’ third country where they were not persecuted, which included Russia. This means that asylum seekers do not have their claims individually considered and instead are liable to be rapidly returned to Russia under a readmission agreement regardless of whether they applied for asylum there or not. Those with residence permits, long term visas or multiple entry visas in Russia are assumed to be able to return and reside there safely with no risk of ill-treatment.

The Norwegian Minister of Migration and Integration wishes to send all those that entered via Storskog back to Russia, while Russia has only agreed to accept 700 of this group. Among these people are several asylum seekers who have no connection to Russia and merely transited through on their way to Norway, buying multiple entry visas from smugglers which would put them in a precarious position if returned. ECRE member NOAS believes that in Russia they will be denied access to a satisfactory processing of their asylum applications which ensures that those in need of protection will not be sent back to a country where they fear persecution.

The designation of Russia as a safe third country is questionable given a number of deficiencies in its asylum system. Vincent Cochetel, Director of UNHCR’s Europe Bureau, stated that those deported “can end up in a no-man’s land where they risk freezing to death. There are large cracks in the Russian asylum system. We believe Norway is wrong to regard Russia as a safe country for people who need protection”. UNHCR’s Director for Northern Europe Pia Prytz Phiri has echoed this denouncing the Norwegian measures for failing to comply with its obligations under international law, in particular, the right to claim asylum. Access to asylum in Russia is highly problematic with low recognition rates, inadequate assessment of claims, poor reception facilities, corruption among migration officials and a significant risk of detention and refoulement. Last October, the European Court of Human Rights found Russia in violation of the ECHR for attempting to forcibly return three Syrian asylum seekers, without adequately assessing their risk of ill-treatment.

NOAS, along with the Helsinki Committee and Amnesty International have expressed their concerns to the UNHCR that Norway is acting in violation of the right to seek asylum. The first group of asylum seekers was deported by bus to Russia on 19 January, with further returns planned. However, later that week deportations were temporarily suspended until further notice at the request of the Russian authorities, in order to better coordinate returns amidst disputes between the two countries as to which was responsible. Meanwhile, asylum seekers in Norway wait in uncertainty to find out their fate. Having gone on hunger strike earlier this month, many have now left Norwegian reception centres in fear that they will be sent to Russia and then returned to their countries of origin where they fear persecution.

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UK ordered to admit four Syrian asylum seekers from ‘the Jungle’ in Calais

In a ground-breaking decision last week, UK judges ordered the government to immediately allow four asylum seekers who were residing in intolerable conditions in ‘the Jungle’ camp in Calais to enter the UK to join their relatives.

The case involved three unaccompanied minors of Syrian nationality, and the 26 year old brother of one of them who suffers from mental health problems. They were traumatised by their experiences in Syria and were living in conditions of squalor at Calais, waiting to join their brothers who have refugee status in the UK. Lawyers argued that under the Dublin Regulation they should be entitled to enter the UK to have their asylum applications processed, in line with the provisions which prioritise family unity, as well as their right to family life. Normally this would require them to apply for asylum in France and then wait for the authorities to request that the UK take charge of their applications. However in this case, the tribunal accepted the argument that this system was not working due to bureaucratic failings and lengthy delays. Instead of waiting for the French authorities, the British government were ordered to act immediately and allow them to enter the UK to be with their relatives while their asylum applications are processed.

They arrived last Friday where they were welcomed by their relatives and a crowd of well-wishers. Tragically, an Afghan asylum seeker named Masud who was part of the legal challenge and also had a right to have his asylum claim considered by the British authorities, was unable to wait for the ruling and suffocated in a lorry after attempting to join his sister in the UK. 

The ruling has significant implications for the many other unaccompanied minors in Calais hoping to join their relatives in the UK safely and legally, as well as for the functioning of the Dublin Regulation as a whole. Judith Dennis, Policy Manager at ECRE’s member organisation, the British Refugee Council stated “This ruling has shone a welcome light on the plight of refugees seeking protection in Europe who are desperately trying to reach their relatives. Everyone has the right to live in safety with their loved ones.  European governments must work together to ensure families are reunited safely and speedily, especially when it comes to children and other dependant family members.”

In response to an appeal led by Save the Children for the UK to offer refuge to 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children in Europe, the UK government has announced that it will increase efforts to resettle those in this group, with the assistance of UNHCR. However the focus is on ‘exceptional cases’ and only involves children in conflict regions where resettlement in the UK is deemed to be in the best interests of the child. It will also provide further funding at the hotspots in Italy and Greece to help identify children at risk upon entry to the EU, who could be allowed in to the UK if they have a family connection. This change in policy would have no impact on unaccompanied children in Calais, and elsewhere in Europe.

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Europe's race to the bottom: Denmark turns its back to refugees

On Tuesday 26 January, the Danish parliament voted on the controversial bill reducing refugees and asylum seekers rights in the country. The bill was approved by 81 votes to 27, with the support of all rightwing parties and, notably, of the leading opposition party, the Social Democrats.

While the headlines have focused on that part of the bill which allows police to search and seize refugees' valuables over a certain amount that is not the most worrying development, as the number of refugees who arrive to Denmark with that amount of money is negligible. In any case, as ECRE's Senior Legal and Policy Officer Kris Pollet stated in an interview with Newsweek, "It’s hard to see how that would in any way help to address the costs relating to the accommodation of asylum seekers...This is a very deplorable practice."

What is more concerning is the delay in family reunification procedures to three years, which in practice means that vulnerable people will be asked to remain in life-threatening situations for a longer time before they have a chance to be reunited with their loved ones. Andreas Kamm, Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council - an ECRE member - stated that this delay "hampers the integration process for those who already arrived and it leaves alone those who are back in the region, as vulnerable groups. It's very worrying and it's very inhumane."

There are also other restrictions to refugees' rights foreseen in the bill, which have not been publicised so widely: restrictive eligibility requirements for permanent residency, the introduction of a fee of around 900 euros for the family reunification procedure and reductions to the duration of temporary residence permits. “The international community must call Denmark out as it enters a race to the bottom. Denmark was one of the first champions of the Refugee Convention, but its government is now brazenly creating blocks to the well-being and safety of refugee families,” stated Amnesty International in a press release published before the bill was approved.

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Germany to accelerate deportation of Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian asylum seekers

Similar to what happened with the Western Balkan countries in 2014 and 2015, the coalition in Germany is discussing the possibility to declare Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia “safe countries of origin” in order to facilitate the rejection of asylum claims made by their nationals.
 
If this plan were to be approved by the Bundesrat, the Federal Council, Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian asylum seekers would not be placed in reception centres at state level, and would be placed in federal level initial reception centres where their Refugee Status Determination interview would take place. During their stay in those centres, asylum seekers have no access to the labour market.
 
Determining whether a country is “safe” is a delicate issue. According to the recast Asylum Procedures Directive, “a country is considered as a safe country of origin where, on the basis of the legal situation, the application of the law within a democratic system and the general political circumstances, it can be shown that there is generally and consistently no persecution as defined in no torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and no threat by reason of indiscriminate violence in situations of international or internal armed conflict.”
 
As claimed by some organisations, human rights in North African countries are far from being fully respected. Protesters, activists and reporters are persecuted, arbitrarily arrested and in some cases tortured. Karl Kopp, director of European affairs at German organisation Pro-Asyl said, that “Germany has long been welcoming Moroccan and Algerian communities of economic migrants. Undoubtedly many people coming to Europe are following the same track. However, in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia human rights and civil liberties are not to be taken for granted and inequality and corruption create a hostile environment where protesters and activists are too often silenced with prison. Refugee Status Determination must be carried out regularly in order to accord them the right to asylum to those who deserve it”.
 
This seems to be somewhat echoed in recent recognition rates in Germany. According to Eurostat, while in 2014 only 1.2% of Algerians and 1.8% of Moroccans were granted protection in Germany, in 2015 the rates rose to 5% and 7.3% respectively.
 
According to the German Interior Ministry, in the final months of 2015 the number of Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian asylum seekers rose from a few hundreds to a few thousand, while the Cologne New Year events exacerbated the debate concerning the alleged connection between the arrival of asylum seekers and criminality.
 
Germany has requested cooperation from Morocco and Algeria in taking back their rejected nationals and Morocco has so far agreed on taking back irregular migrants and rejected asylum seekers. Germany signed a readmission agreement with Algeria on 14 February 1997, which entered into force on 12 May 2006. Even though it has been used since 1 November 1999, its application is not always regular. The majority of the alleged Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian citizens are lacking identity documents, which makes it hard to put into place the agreement, as they cannot be identified.
 
The German coalition is also envisaging measures to discourage family reunification by lengthening the waiting period for recognized refugees to be joined by family members to 2 years.

 

REPORTS & NGOs ACTIONS

UK Home Office fails Eritrean asylum seekers using flawed Country of Origin Information

ECRE member, the British Refugee Council, publicised a new independent report by Dr. John Campbell which reviews the Country of Origin Information guidelines on Eritrea used by the Home Office to adjudicate asylum claims. The report, commissioned by the Advisory Group on Country of Origin Information (IAGCI), denounces vehemently the Home Office for the use - selective and misleading - of the evidence provided in the guidelines.

The guidelines are used by Home Office officials to assess the country situation and adjudicate whether an asylum claim is genuine or not - and whether a person can be safely returned to his/her home country if found not in need of international protection.

In November 2014, a report on Eritrea by the Danish Immigration Service stated that conditions in the country had improved, that mandatory military conscription was limited to 18 months and that people could safely return to the country. The report was based on a fact-finding visit, but did not cite any source. Human Rights Watch strongly criticised it and deemed it “more like a political effort to stem migration than an honest assessment of Eritrea’s human rights situation.”

In March 2015, the UK Home Office adopted a new set of guidelines on Eritrea, largely based on the findings of the Danish report, which led to a consistent drop in the recognition rate of Eritrean asylum applications - even though the Danish government later distanced itself from the 2014 report and stated that Eritreans will continue to receive protection in Denmark. Moreover, the statistics for the granting of international protection to Eritreans at the appeal stage is a staggering 86%.

In June 2015, a UN Commission of Inquiry reported systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations in Eritrea and strongly urged "continued international protection for Eritrean refugees fleeing human rights violations, and warn[ed] against sending them back to danger in a country that punishes anyone who tries to leave without permission."

IAGCI subsequently published its criticisms of the UK guidelines, taking into consideration the new evidence of the flawed Danish report, and the UN Commission of Inquiry report. The latest report by Dr. Campbell, commissioned in October 2015, was discussed with IAGCI and the Home Office in December 2015, but its conclusions were not accepted by the Home Office.

"Since political conditions in Eritrea have not suddenly changed, the only possible explanation for the conclusions reached in this report is that the Home Office wants to block Eritreans – who are among the largest group of individuals seeking asylum here – from acquiring asylum,” stated Dr. John Campbell, author of the report.

British Refugee Council Chief Executive Maurice Wren said: "Making decisions about whether or not to grant refugee protection is often a matter of life or death, yet the Government’s own statistics reveal it gets a staggering number of decisions on Eritrean cases wrong. "The Government should not let its obsession with controlling immigration override its legal and moral responsibility to protect refugees.”

For further information:
 

BEYOND EUROPE
Afghanistan: Rise in abductions and unpredictable violence – EASO report

The European Asylum Support Office (EASO) noticed significant security developments in Afghanistan in the second half of 2015, including a rise in civilian abductions on the roads and more unpredictable violence in the cities.

EASO’s new Country of Origin Information (COI) report on security situation in Afghanistan reveals that armed insurgent groups, such as the Taliban and Hezb-e Islami Afghanistan, have increasingly conducted large-scale attacks on the Afghan National Security Forces. The insurgents have been increasingly successful in taking control of and holding territory. This trend culminated in the events at the end of September 2015, when the northern city of Kunduz fell to the Taliban – the first time since 2001 that the Taliban was able to gain control over a provincial capital.

In these events, the civilian population was severely affected, including during the following counter-operations and retaliatory actions; a clear example was the US warplane attack against a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz. A new development was the appearance of Islamic State on the Afghan security scene which led to atrocities against civilians, mainly in Nangarhar, but also in other provinces.

The reference period for the security report runs from 1 November 2014 until 31 October 2015. The numbers of violent incidents and civilian casualties in the first half of 2015 remained consistent with the same period in 2014.

ECRE recently reported that the security situation in Afghanistan calls into question deportation policies of EU Member States. Although there is a high EU-wide rate of Afghans being granted international protection of 70%, a number of EU countries have become increasingly restrictive in their policies towards Afghan asylum seekers, evidenced by a growing determination to deport them, despite ongoing security concerns and violence in the country. Afghan nationals make up the second largest group seeking asylum in Europe, with 56,700 first time applications, which includes a large number of unaccompanied and separated children.

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