The EU is in dangerous territory with “safe” country lists for asylum-seekers

Lampedusa (Photo: noborder network/ Sara Prestianni)

Lampedusa (Photo: noborder network/ Sara Prestianni)

On 20 July the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council recommended that EU member states assess whether to include Western Balkan countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo) in a possible common EU list of “safe countries of origin”. However, the “safe countries of origin” concept has little to do either with EU member states’ human rights obligations or with an evidence-based, rational assessment of the current reality of asylum in Europe.

Since 2005, EU law allows member states to designate certain countries as “safe” to make the asylum process quicker and cheaper. The asylum applications of those from “safe” countries can be examined at the border or in transit zones and in fast-track procedures. But quick and cheap can come at the expense of legality and fairness.

“Safe countries of origin” procedures are inherently unfair. The general presumption is that a country on the “safe” list does not “normally” produce refugees, so its nationals’ asylum claims are unfounded. It is up to the asylum seeker to prove otherwise – which is difficult to do, since documents and other evidence are often lost during long and turbulent journeys. The task becomes almost impossible since national accelerated procedures for “safe” countries impose strict time limits, which can be as short as two or three days.

Not only is this unfair; it is inherently discriminatory. What “safe countries of origin” procedures ultimately boil down to is that some asylum seekers are presumed to be bogus solely on the basis of their nationality. The prohibition of discrimination based on nationality is one of the most fundamental principles of international law, recognized in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and numerous others international agreements. Only three days after the EU decision, Canada’s Federal Court struck down as unconstitutional and discriminatory a government decision to designate 26 EU countries and the USA as “safe countries of origin” (2015 FC 892).

The assumption that people coming from certain countries do not need protection because their country is inherently “safe” runs against one of the key foundations of refugee law, i.e. the individual nature of the need for international protection. The idea that someone’s risk of being persecuted may be assessed on the basis of whether or not there is “generally” persecution in their country is simplistic. In fact, specific individuals (journalists, lawyers, opposition leaders, human rights defenders or members of ethnic or religious minorities) face persecution exactly because of what makes them the individual that they are: their gender, race, ethnicity, political and religious beliefs, sexual orientation, etc.

For this reason, even countries that portray themselves as “generally safe” can produce asylum seekers and refugees. EU countries are no exception. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), at the end of 2014 nearly 50,000 people from the 28 EU member states had been recognized as refugees around the world, while a further 3,000 EU nationals were waiting for their asylum case to be decided (source: UNHCR Global Trends 2014).

With respect to Western Balkan countries, the EU decision ignores that in 2014 the French Conseil d’Etat and the Belgian Conseil d’Etat respectively withdrew Kosovo and Albania from their country’s list of “safe countries of origin”. The decision also ignores the fact that in certain states within the Balkans, specific groups may be at real risk of persecution. Few countries are, for example, able to provide LGBTI people or independent journalists whose lives are at risk with adequate protection. In Kosovo, UNHCR has identified a number of groups at “particular risk of persecution or serious harm… including through cumulative discriminatory acts”, including Serbs and Albanians in a minority situation and Roma.

So, if there is no such thing as a “safe country of origin”, what was behind the EU decision to potentially consider Western Balkan states as “safe”? The decision mentions these countries’ “European perspective” and the fact that their nationals are exempt from visa requirements. In other words, Western Balkans countries may be considered to be “safe” merely because they are or may become candidates for EU accession, not because of their ability to respect, protect and promote human rights. The arbitrary nature of any determination of “safe countries of origin”, either at the EU or at the national level, is evident.

In sum, “safe countries of origin” procedures are unfair, unlawful and absurd. The possible selection of Western Balkans countries is superficial and arbitrary. The very substantive danger of returning to persecution someone whose asylum claim is valid should outweigh any consideration based on expediency.

Thank you to: Nicola Delvino, Conor Fortune, Sian Jones and Anna Shea.

How to cite this article:
Francesca Pizzutelli, “The EU is in dangerous territory with “safe” country list for asylum-seekers”, The Rights Angle, https://therightsangle.wordpress.com/, 24 July 2015.

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