A tussle is taking place in the Commission over the accession of Croatia to Schengen – membership of the Schengen zone through accession to the Schengen treaty. On one side, President Juncker; on the other, a handful of Member States, technical experts, and a mounting pile of evidence about violations at the border.
As is to be expected from the “political Commission”, it is a highly political issue. Rumours abound that Juncker has promised Croatian Prime Minister Plenković, an ally, that he will get it done before he’s done, and his public statements say as much.
But then there’s the situation at the borders. There is now widespread substantiated evidence of violence at Croatia’s borders, especially but not only at the border between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Evidence demonstrates breaches of international and EU law, including of the prohibition of refoulement under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights and the prohibition of collective expulsions under Article 4 Protocol 4 ECHR, of Articles 4 and 19 of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. There appears to be denial of access to the asylum procedure contravening the Asylum Procedures Directive, combined with pushbacks to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where claiming asylum is near impossible due to inadequate legal representation and administrative shortcomings.
The evidence has been gathered by variety of international and local organisations and bodies: ECRE’s Asylum Information Database (AIDA) (2019), Human Rights Watch (2018) and Amnesty International (2019); and the report on push-backs by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe which investigated the issue and adopted recommendations in June 2019. The Croatian Ombudswoman has requested that the Croatian authorities investigate alleged illegal police treatment of migrants. The request follows a complaint from inside the border police about orders from superiors to carry out illegal act, and has yet to be answered. There appears to be no pending public investigation of any incidents.
The actions are not “one-offs”, perpetrated by the proverbial bad apple. Recent research concluded that violence is systematic and organised and causes injuries that, due to a lack of medical care, go untreated. As all over Europe, violations go unpunished while those who point them out face negative consequences.
All this gives rise to concerns about Croatia’s intention to comply with Article 4 of the Schengen Borders Code, the fundamental rights piece, which requires parties to act in full compliance with the Charter, with the 1951 Convention, and with other relevant international law. Croatia cannot be deemed to be meeting these requirements, and it is hoped that the evaluation of its application of the Schengen acquis, sitting with the College of Commissioners, concludes as much.
In the short-term, the tussle is reflected in the controversy over a Communication due to be issued imminently by the Commission. If it recommends Croatia’s accession, the Member States are likely to follow suit – done deal. It has to (surely) include something on the border violence and summary returns. But what? For ECRE, drawing on the recommendations of our members and others in the country, Croatia’s accession to Schengen should be conditional on an end to violations at the border and full compliance with all relevant provisions of EU and international law. A robust monitoring mechanism needs to be in place, including clear evidence of domestic investigation into incidents reported, and there needs to be full cooperation with independent oversight bodies, and notably the Ombudsperson’s Office. The situation should be addressed before membership goes ahead.
Unfortunately, if anything at all is included, it is likely to be the standard meaningless rights-washing reference to “Croatia must comply with fundamental rights and non-refoulement obligations” with no detail on what this means, no acknowledgement of documented violations, and no list of consequences should that not be the case.
There are considerable reputational risks here to the EU and specifically to the Commission: documentation at the border will continue, and indeed more international bodies are likely to get involved. Current practices have given rise to court proceedings and further litigation efforts on behalf of those who have experienced expulsions are being explored. National courts, such as in Switzerland, have suspended Dublin transfer to Croatia due to the current practices of summary returns; ECRE and others are involved in an important case, M.H. and others v Croatia which is pending before the ECtHR. It concerns an Afghan family who entered Croatia from Serbia and were stopped by the Croatian police and summarily returned to Serbia. One of the children was hit by a train and died while the family was being expelled.
Rightly or wrongly, a soft approval of Croatia’s accession will be presented as EU complicity in violations. And this is the heart of the issue. Is anyone concerned about border violence? Who actually wants to enforce a fundamental rights clause in treaty? In the era where defence of the EU’s external border is viewed with hysterical fervour as Europe’s most important policy priority, beating back refugees gets you a gold star rather than approbation. As with the EU Accession process, where members hardly set a good example to aspirants, Schengen members themselves engage in violations. Croatia is aggrieved about the criticism because it is doing what other EU Member States and Schengen zone members, tacitly or explicitly, want it to do.
Editorial: Catherine Woollard, Secretary General for the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE)
The European Commission has delivered its “Progress report on the Implementation of the European Agenda on Migration” four years after its conception in 2015. As key achievement the report highlights the fact that irregular border crossings into the EU fell to 150,000 in 2018.
The number of arrivals in 2018 represents the lowest figure in five years due to “stronger cooperation with partner countries” and arrangements such as the EU-Turkey Statement. Already in its-mid-term review, ECRE underlined the dangers of judging the success of the EU Agenda on migration by reduction of arrivals, as this effectively amounts to blocking access to protection for those who urgently need it. A case in point is EU’s support of the so-called Libyan coast-guard that regularly intercept people fleeing towards Europe and returns them to detention centres where abuse and torture have been well-documented.
Other areas of progress praised by the Commission include solidarity and support to member states on migration management and laying the groundwork for “future strong and fair asylum rules”. ECRE has offered its assessment of the proposed reform of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) and recommends focusing on compliance with existing acquis as the Commission’s proposals would lead to a significant lowering of protection standards.
The progress report also highlights key areas that according to the Commission require immediate steps to be taken, including the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean where an increase in arrivals has put strain on an already fraught system. It encourages more states to participate in temporary arrangements to facilitate disembarkation following search and rescue in the Central Mediterranean which could serve as an inspiration for other parts of the Mediterranean. Finally, the Commission emphasises the need to accelerate evacuations from Libya and encourages states to step up resettlement efforts under the Emergency Transit Mechanisms in Niger and Rwanda.
Regarding resettlement targets, an essential means of providing safe and legal pathways, two weeks before the initial deadline of October 31, 20 EU countries have fulfilled 78% of the 50, 000 places they pledged two years ago. The commission calls on Member States to maintain the momentum and ensure that the remaining pledges are filled before the scheme expires, naming the end of the year as the new deadline.
For further information:
While this week over 500 people have been rescued and brought to Europe by civilian and state agents more than 200 have been intercepted before reaching Europe. According to a UN report more than half of people departing from Libya have been returned to places where they may face abuse and torture.
A number of rescues have been carried out at the Mediterranean this week. Tuesday, the Armed Forces of Malta rescued 76 people and brought them to a Maltese port. The rescue came after the NGO Alarm Phone, which runs a hotline for migrants in distress at sea, stated that it had informed the Maltese authorities about the boat already on Monday, but did not receive a response. The same day, the Italian coastguard rescued 180 people from a small boat in the Maltese Rescue zone, 35 miles off Lampedusa. reportedly bringing them to Malta. On Monday, they had rescued 108 people from two boats and disembarked them in the port of Rocella, Southern Italy.
The rescue vessel Ocean Viking, operated jointly by the NGOs SOS MEDITERANEE and Doctors without Borders (MSF), disembarked 176 rescued people in the Italian port of Taranto on Wednesday morning. The ship under Norwegian flag rescued 74 and 102 people in to operations off the coast of Libya on Sunday.
A number of vessels carrying refugees or migrants were Intercepted before reaching Europe. Tunisian authorities reported blocking a boat carrying 110 people from setting off for Italy. Tunisia's Interior Ministry said three coast guard boats pursued the alleged smuggling vessel after it left Friday night from the city of Sfax, Tunisia, and eventually forced the boat back toward Tunisia. They picked up 25 people who had jumped into the sea.
A Spokesman of the so-called Libyan coast guard (LGC) stated that they intercepted a rubber boat with 90 people off the Libyan coast, east of Tripoli, on Tuesday. Those intercepted were reportedly brought to shore on Wednesday and will be taken to a Tripoli detention center. A 2019 update of the “Desperate Journeys” report by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) found that 58% of people who departed from Libya by sea in 2019 were later disembarked back in Libya, usually following interception or rescue by the Libyan Coast Guard.
UNHCR continues to stress that due to the volatile security situation in general as well as reports of serious abuses against refugees and migrants in detention, centres Libya cannot be considered a safe port, and no one should be disembarked there after rescue at sea.
More lives were lost at the Mediterranean this week. A two-month-old baby and a child died on Monday after a boat carrying 35 people sunk off the coast of Ayvalık district in Turkey's Balıkesir province. The group was trying to reach Greece from Turkey. The Turkish coast guard rescued 33 people after being alerted by Alarm Phone.
Italian authorities also retrieved the bodies of at least 12 people who drowned last week after a boat capsized off the island of Lampedusa.
According to Missing Migrants at least 1077 people have died trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean in 2019.
For further Information:
- ECRE, Med: More than 20 Feared Dead after Shipwreck off Lampedusa, October 2019
- ECRE, Med: At 6th Anniversary of Lampedusa Shipwreck Death Toll Reaches 1000, October 2019
- ECRE, Operation Sophia: Ships Remain Suspended while Support of Libyan ‘Coast Guard’ Continues, September 2019
- ECRE, Mediterranean: Over 400 Rescued while Deaths Continue, September 2019, September 2019
- ECRE, Stand-offs Continue at the Mediterranean Despite New Government in Italy, September 2019
- ECRE, MED: Silver Lining Looms on the Horizon while NGOs Endure Salvini’s ‘Final Blow’, September 2019
- ECRE, Deaths and Standoffs on the Med Reinforce Calls for State-led SAR, August 2019
- ECRE, Mediterranean: Deaths, Rescues and Political Manoeuvres Continue, June 2019
- ECRE, UN Agencies Raise Alarm over Libya on Land and Sea, June 2019
- ECRE, Interception and Return of 170 Refugees to Libya, May 2019
- ECRE, From Bad to Worse for Migrants Trapped in Detention in Libya, May 2019
- ECRE, Last Breath of Operation Sophia Should Push Coalition of the Willing, March 2019
- ECRE, A Contingency Plan for Disembarkation and Relocation, January 2019
Pushbacks and violent policing practices in the Balkan Region remain a serious matter of concern according to a report published by the Border Violence Monitoring Network.
The report gathers testimonies, photographs and other evidence of violent border practices carried out by law enforcement authorities during September 2019. It raises particular concern with regard to the increased use of police dogs in Croatia and Hungary, which resulted in the hospitalisation of several bite victims. It further reports that 50% of the persons interviewed in September were pushed back from Croatia and forced into the rivers that they had used to cross the border, putting their life at risk. Humiliating and degrading practices have also been reported in Hungary, with people in transit zones being forced to stand in the cold water of an inflatable swimming pool while police officers were recording and taking pictures of them. There are also reports of illegal detention - whereby persons are being held in informal hangars and garages with no access to information - and beatings by the police in several countries.
In recent years, Balkan countries have stepped up border patrols following an increasing number of people transiting through the area. This has resulted in the adoption of emergency measures to prevent migration and in granting law enforcement authorities with increased powers, as illustrated by the recent announcement of prolongation of the state of crisis until March 2020 in Hungary.
For further information:
- ECRE, Second EU Agreement on Border Cooperation in the Balkans with More to Follow, October 2019
- ECRE, Report on Illegal Pushback and Border Violence, August 2019
- ECRE, Clashes at Croatian-Bosnian Border, November 2018
- ECRE, Effects of new Bosnian route being felt in Slovenia, May 2018
- AIDA, Country report Hungary, March 2019
- AIDA, Country report Croatia, March 2019
- AIDA, Access to Protection in Europe, October 2018
The Greek authorities have introduced an announced overhaul of the country’s asylum legislation and appeals to NATO as well as the EU over the expected increase of arrivals from northeastern Syria. Fire and violence caused havoc in Samos camp.
Greek authorities are alarmed by the situation in northeastern Syria where 160,000 people have been displaced since the Turkish military operations began on October 9. Athens called for increased NATO naval control of the Aegean and are appealing for EU solidarity during the European Council meeting in Brussels. Greek minister for migration Giorgos Koumoutsakos stated that: “Europe shouldn’t be caught unprepared again nobody can be certain what is going to happen.”
In response to increasing numbers of arrivals, the Greek government has introduced a Draft International Protection Act, according to local media “geared mainly towards accelerating deportations”. The changes in the countries asylum legislation include: New grounds for accelerated procedure, beyond those set out in the Asylum Procedures Directive; lowering of duration of residence permits for subsidiary protection beneficiaries to minimum standard set by the Qualification Directive (1 year); new mandatory waiting period of 6 months for asylum seekers' access to the labour market, which was currently granted upon lodging of the application; procedure for establishing a list of safe third countries and additional detail on the requirement of a connection between the applicant and the third country; new modification of the composition of the Appeals Committees, now to be made up by three administrative judges (UNHCR no longer nominating a member). The bill also establishes a single-judge composition to deal with inadmissible and accelerated procedure cases; shorter deadlines in the fast-track border procedures, namely three days to appeal a negative decision; no suspensive effect of appeals against certain inadmissibility and accelerated procedure decisions; substantial lowering of procedural safeguards and prolongation of duration of detention of asylum seekers, and immediate provisions bringing about automatic rejection of all asylum applications and appeals lodged before 31 December 2016, and an obligation on all beneficiaries of international protection to leave the camps within two months.
In the latest illustration of the critical situation in the overcrowded camps on the Greek islands fires in the Samos camp destroyed tents and housing containers forcing 600 people to seek emergency shelter from NGOs. Clashes in the camp left six people hospitalised. Despite a capacity for 650 people, the camp in Samos is currently housing 5,700. The Moria camp in Lesvos now has a record 13,800 inhabitants.
Greece has had 50,720 arrivals as of October 13 this year, and in one week Lesvos, Chios and Samos has seen 1,563 arrivals. .
For further information:
A monitoring report by the NGOs ASGI, Borderline and ActionAid draws attention to the critical conditions asylum seekers are facing in the hotspot in Messina, Italy, while they are waiting for relocation.
The monitoring was carried out through five meetings with about 35 asylum seekers rescued by the Sea-Watch 3 and a visit to the hotspot center, which included talks with an official of the prefecture and with staff of the managing body of the hotspot center. The group rescued by the Sea-Watch 3 had been living in the centres since July 5 waiting for their redistribution to other EU member states that agreed to take them.
In an open letter to the authorities, the monitoring NGOs underline that hotspots are designed to accommodate people for the few days necessary to complete identification procedures. They are therefore absolutely inadequate for welcoming foreign citizens who are waiting for redistribution procedures for weeks and, often, months.
They describe the situation in the hotspot as “extremely critical” and call on the responsible authorities to take all necessary measures to adhere to national and European law and ensure the right to private and family life, access to medical care and psychological support, adequate legal support and provision of adequate interpreting services.
For further information:
On 10 October 2019, the European Commission issued a reasoned opinion to Hungary concerning the failure to provide food for individuals held in transit zones at the Hungarian-Serbian border. This next step of the infringement procedure comes after the European Court of Human Rights had to issue interim measures in numerous cases.
The Commission notes that failure to provide food to persons held in transit zones is in direct contradiction to Hungary’s obligations under European law. The persons affected are primarily those who have had applications for international protection rejected and are therefore waiting to be returned to their country of origin. Indeed, the statement adds that compelling persons to stay in the transit zones while they await orders to be returned to their country of origin is effectively equal to detention.
The Commission has encouraged the Hungarian authorities to promptly comply with European law, setting a one month deadline for the State to respond. If this deadline is not met, the Commission may refer the issue to the Court of Justice, where a similar case concerning the detention of asylum seekers in Hungarian transit zones is currently pending. Moreover, the Commission notes that the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has intervened in several cases obliging Hungarian authorities to provide food for those detained and awaits a response from the Hungarian authorities on this matter.
ECRE member the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) has challenged the practices of the Hungarian Immigration and Asylum Office (IAO) on a case by case basis at the ECtHR to stop the starvation of detainees. Since August 2018, the ECtHR issued 16 cases of interim measures under Rule 39 to the Government of Hungary, to ensure that people detained in the Hungarian transit zones are not deprived of food, according to HHC.
For further information:
- ECRE, ECtHR: Freedom of the Press to Report on the Living Conditions in Reception Centres, October 2019
- ECRE, Hungary: Government Extends the “State of Crisis due to Mass Migration”, September 2019
- AIDA, Hungary: New police department takes over responsibility for asylum, 19 June 2019
- ECRE, Hungarian Helsinki Committee Update Reveals Continued Violations in Transit Zones, April 2019
- ECRE, Hungary Gives Afghan Families ‘an Offer You Can’t Refuse’, May 2019
- ECRE, Hungary: Constitutional Court fails to give sufficient protection to people and organisations working to protect the rights of asylum seekers, March 2019
- AIDA, Country Report Hungary, 2018 Update, March 2019
- HHC/ECRE, Crossing a Red Line: How EU Countries Undermine the Right to Liberty by Expanding the Use of Detention of Asylum Seekers upon Entry, 8 February 2019
The Slovenian Constitutional Court ruled on 18 September 2019 that Article 10b of the Aliens Act, setting out measures of temporary suspension of the right to asylum, was contrary to the principle of non-refoulement.
The provision, introduced in 2017 as part of amendments to the Aliens Act, allowed for the suspension of the right to asylum upon parliamentary order in cases where migration poses “a threat to public order and internal safety in the Republic of Slovenia”. Though never activated to date, the measures would require the Police to reject all intentions to apply for asylum as inadmissible as long as the persons wishing to apply entered Slovenia from a neighbouring EU Member State in which there are no systemic deficiencies of asylum procedure and reception conditions which could lead to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment. The Police would then be able to return the persons back to the neighbouring countries in question.
The Constitutional Court annulled the provision on the ground that it was contrary to the principle of non-refoulement, enshrined in Article 18 of the Constitution, insofar as the measures would not guarantee individuals a fair and efficient process determining whether their removal would amount to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment. The Court also highlighted that the determination of “a threat to public order and internal safety in the Republic of Slovenia” under the Aliens Act did not imply the existence of a state of emergency pursuant to Article 92 of the Constitution, which could justify the limitation of certain rights.
For further information:
REPORTS & NGO ACTIONS
A comparative report published by AIDA, managed by ECRE, provides an overview of the structure, composition and functioning of asylum authorities at first instance. It aims to offer a better understanding of their operation and demonstrates that their ability to conduct a rigorous and fair examination of applications for international protection is inherent to their internal organisation and resources.
Despite the overall decrease of the number of applications for international protection in the European Union (EU), figures on the first half of 2019 indicate that asylum authorities continue to face important difficulties in processing asylum claims. The number of pending cases remains at a very high level, exceeding the number of first instance decisions in several countries, and the average processing time of these remains a matter of concern, with asylum applicants being scheduled an interview up to several months - or even years - after lodging their application in certain countries.
Taking these deficiencies into consideration, the report analyses the institutional architecture of determining authorities and the administrative arrangements that have been set up to carry out the asylum procedure efficiently. It further looks at the implementation of the legal guarantees foreseen by the EU asylum acquis, as Member Stares are required to provide asylum authorities with appropriate means, including competent personnel. The report thus sheds light on the financing, staffing and training of asylum authorities as well as on the tools used to examine and decide on applications for international protection. A final part analyses the quality assurance and control mechanisms that have been established in certain countries with a view to continuously improve the quality of decisions.
*This information was first published by AIDA, managed by ECRE.
Choose Respect: Together We Can Tackle Anti-Migrant Hate Speech. Hate speech against migrants and refugees is all too common, both online and in the real world. But it isn’t always easy to know how to react effectively – and it’s even harder to respond in a way which changes attitudes. In the run-up to elections, politics is a frequent topic of debate. But if the discussion turns nasty – either around the dinner table or on your social media feed – here are some tips to help you make a constructive contribution to a more positive discourse.
- 21-22 October 2019, Brussels, SHARE Network Conference: Expanding Resettlement across Europe: From Policy to Practice
- 23-24 October 2019, Brussels, ECRE Annual General Conference & UNHCR-NGO Europe Consultations
- 24-25 October 2019, Brussels, International Conference: "Public opinion and forms of mobilization concerning asylum seekers and refugees in anti-immigrant times. Global challenges and local solutions", Université Libre de Bruxelles, ULiège, KU Leuven
- 24-25 October 2019, Helsinki, European Conference : From Tampere 20 to Tampere 2.0, Odysseus Network
- 28 October 2019, The Hague, Farewell Lecture Tineke Strike, T.M.C. Asser Institute
- 5 November 2019: Brussels: Launch of “Common Home: migration and development in Europe and beyond”, Caritas Europe
- 5 November 2019, London: CEILA Annual Lecture: Migration as Decolonization, Queen Mary University of London
- 8-9 November 2019, Sevilla, Advanced ELENA Course on International protection in Europe: persistent challenges and litigation opportunities, ECRE, registration by 26 September 2019
- 26 November 2019, Sydney, Kaldor Centre Annual Conference 2019 Good decisions: Achieving fairness in refugee law, policy and practice, UNSW Sydney
CALLS FOR PAPERS & OPEN CALLS