General aspects and problems of refugee status in EU


Иностранные языки, филология и лингвистика

The status and legal definition of a refugee is set out in the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees that has been signed and ratified by all EU Member States. The provisions of the Geneva Convention are implemented through the national legislation of each country.



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Tetiana Tkachuk

Human Right’s group, 1st year

General aspects and problems of refugee status in EU

The status and legal definition of a refugee is set out in the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees that has been signed and ratified by all EU Member States. The provisions of the Geneva Convention are implemented through the national legislation of each country. There are approximately 1.5 million recognised refugees living in the twenty seven Member States of the European Union plus Norway and Switzerland. This compares to a global figure of approximately 16 million.

EU Member States retain a large degree of sovereignty over the way asylum seekers and refugees are treated. This means that the conditions and benefits asylum seekers and refugees receive in each EU Member State can vary significantly.

The EU Member States have taken the first steps in trying to harmonise the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees living on their territory. At the Tampere European Council in October 1999, European Union (EU) countries undertook to set up a Common European Asylum System (CEAS) based on the full and inclusive application of the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, as supplemented by the 1967 New York Protocol, to affirm the principle of non-refoulement and to ensure that nobody is sent back to persecution. Establishing such a system entails, in the short term, closer alignment of the rules on the recognition and content of refugee status. This directive sets out minimum standards for granting refugee or subsidiary protection status to non-EU country nationals or stateless persons and the content of the protection to be granted to them. The directive applies to all applications made at the border or on the territory of an EU country. In addition, EU countries are free to introduce or retain more favourable standards.

Since 1999, the EU has been working to create a Common European Asylum System (CEAS) and improve the current legislative framework.

Between 1999 and 2005, several legislative measures harmonising common minimum standards for asylum were adopted. Also important was the strengthening of financial solidarity with the creation of the European Refugee Fund. And in 2001, the Temporary Protection Directive allowed for a common EU response to a mass influx of displaced persons unable to return to their country of origin. The Family Reunification Directivealso applies to refugees.

After the completion of the first phase, a period of reflection was necessary to determine the direction in which the CEAS should develop. A 2007 Green Paper was the basis for a large public consultation. The responses, together with the results of an evaluation of how existing instruments were implemented, were the basis for the European Commission’s Policy Plan on Asylum  presented in June 2008. As stated in the Policy Plan, three pillars underpin the development of the CEAS: bringing more harmonisation to standards of protection by further aligning the EU States' asylum legislation; effective and well-supported practical cooperation; increased solidarity and sense of responsibility among EU States, and between the EU and non-EU countries.

The Common European Asylum System is the motor behind this harmonisation and contains a number of legal instruments covering issues such as which Member State is responsible for hearing an asylum claim, the procedures to be used in reviewing the asylum claim and the living conditions pending a decision.

The Common European Asylum System has not however, eliminated differences in the way Member States treat asylum seekers and refugees. The European Parliament and Member States are therefore negotiating revisions to the existing legislation that have been proposed by the European Commission.

After analyzing The Report from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council of 16 June 2010 on the Application of Directive 2004/83/EC of 29 April 2004 on minimum standards for the qualification and status of third country nationals or stateless persons as refugees or as persons who otherwise need international protection and the content of the protection, we conclude that several provisions of the Directive have been transposed incorrectly or only partially, including lower standards than set out in the directive. Consequently, the manner in which EU countries grant protection and the content of that protection vary greatly.
For example, transposition was problematic for the following provisions concerning the granting of international protection:

  1.  list of issues to take into consideration when assessing applications;
  2.  actors of persecution;
  3.  qualification for subsidiary protection;
  4.  cessation of or exclusion from protection, and EU countries’ burden of proof to demonstrate the reasons thereto.

On the other hand, almost all EU countries transposed the provisions regarding actors of protection and acts of and reasons for persecution.
As to the content of protection granted, some EU countries failed to transpose the provisions concerning vulnerable persons and minors and access to information, healthcare and integration facilities. The provision on non-refoulement was transposed by all EU countries. In addition, a number of EU countries grant longer residence permits than provided by the directive and authorise access to employment.
The differences in EU countries’ implementation is, to some extent, the result of the vagueness and ambiguity of certain concepts in the directive, such as actors of protection and international protection, which can only be remedied by amending the relevant provisions.
In short, the aim of harmonising the qualification and status of beneficiaries of international protection and the content of that protection has not yet been fully achieved.

Bright illustration of modern EU refugee policy is ECHR Case  from 21/01/2011 “M.S.S. v. Belgium and Greece”.  M.S.S. worked as an interpreter for international troops in Kabul. Then, in 2008, when he found himself the target of a Taliban assassination attempt, he fled the country. From Afghanistan, he traveled through Iran and Turkey and arrived, finally, in Greece, where he was arrested for illegal entry. He was released a week later and ordered to leave the country.Rather than seeking status in Greece, M.S.S. continued on to Belgium, where he applied for asylum. He said that he had chosen Belgium “after meeting some Belgian NATO soldiers, who had seemed very friendly.” Instead, when M.S.S. got to Belgium, he encountered full force one of the great myths surrounding European refugee protection. When the Belgian authorities learned that M.S.S. had come through Greece, they decided, rather than deal with his asylum request themselves, that they would send him back there. Belgium was entitled to do so because European Union law provides that the EU country an asylum seeker first enters is responsible for dealing with any asylum request. This system was initially put in place to ensure a better and fairer distribution of asylum seekers among EU members and to prevent certain countries from being overburdened.

The policy is based on the understanding that across the EU resources for asylum seekers are essentially equivalent. That understanding, unfortunately, is wrong. And in practice, the system has given richer EU countries a mechanism for pawning off their asylum seekers on usually poorer countries and abandoning them to often disgraceful circumstances.

The shortcomings of the Greek system, in particular, are no secret. Greece has a backlog of about 44,000 asylum cases, no functioning system for legal aid, and asylum seekers commonly endure inhuman detention conditions.

Given that, M.S.S. asked Belgium to consider his asylum claim and admit him as a refugee. Belgium refused and sent back him to Greece.

In Athens, M.S.S. was immediately apprehended at the airport. He was held in an overcrowded prison, locked up in a cramped space with 20 other detainees, and given access to toilets only at the discretion of the guards. He was not allowed out into the open air, given very little to eat, and slept either on a dirty mattress or on the bare floor.

After three days he was released, without any housing, social or medical care or any other support or means of subsistence. He was told that to pursue his asylum request he would have to report to the police and provide them with an address. But with nowhere to live, he slept in a park in central Athens alongside other Afghan asylum seekers.

With the help of a Belgian lawyer—who stayed in contact after his client was shuttled back to Greece—M.S.S. filed complaints before the European Court of Human Rights against both Belgium and Greece. The complaint against Greece concerned his treatment both in detention and following his release, as well as the risk of being deported to Afghanistan without having his asylum claim properly considered. The complaint against Belgium argued that by sending him to Greece, the Belgian authorities had subjected him to inhuman and degrading treatment. He claimed that the procedure Belgium followed did not provide him proper protection against the treatment he subsequently received in Greece.

The case became a flashpoint for the EU, with a range of member states intervening before the ECHR in support of Belgium and Greece—all trying to maintain the myth that human rights and refugee protection is the same across the union. They sought to maintain the fiction in the face of the steady stream of reports from a range of human rights organizations— the UNHCR, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, Medecins Sans Frontières, the Council of Europe’s own Human Rights Commissioner—about appalling conditions and profoundly unfair asylum procedures in many EU countries.

Last week the myth was finally, formally, debunked. The ECHR issued a landmark judgment in favor of M.S.S., significantly strengthening protection of refugees in Europe.

The ECHR found that the conditions to which M.S.S. was subjected—his initial detention and his subsequent lack of subsistence, medical care and housing support—constituted inhuman and degrading treatment. It underlined that asylum seekers are a particularly underprivileged and vulnerable population group in need of special protection.

The Grand Chamber of the ECHR—its most authoritative body composed of 17 European judges—ruled that a state always has the responsibility to verify the conditions, treatment and legal safeguards to which an asylum seeker will be subjected if he is transferred, even when that transfer is from one EU member state to another. It can no longer be automatically assumed that human rights protections will be upheld in another EU member state just because it is in the union.

The court held that Belgium was also responsible for the mistreatment to which M.S.S. was subjected to in Greece, and for not having provided him with an effective means of contesting his transfer. And moving forward, governments and national courts will both have to give serious consideration to the reports and reasoned opinions of specialized human rights and refugee protection organizations.

In the short term, the judgment will stop all transfers to Greece from other EU members, while Greece sorts out its conditions and procedures for processing asylum claims. Greece will need help doing that and the EU must recognize its responsibility in that process. With similar cases pending about transfers of asylum seekers to Italy and Malta, one can hope this is the beginning of a more honest and humane regime.

To sum up, we can say that nowadays more and more importance is gaining the definition of "refugee", adopted at the regional level (especially those aimed at extensive, detailed interpretation of "refugee" as defined by the Convention in 1951 and the 1967 Protocol.) particularly within the EU legal acts carry a clear distinction of the legal status of refugees, asylum seekers, displaced persons enjoying temporary protection in cases of mass influx of refugees, and those who use additional forms of protection.  Also the movement to create a common European asylum system in the EU contributes to the well-defined single pan-European approach to ensuring the implementation of the legal status of refugees (regulated by the provisions of Council Directive 2004/83 / EC of 29 April 2004 on minimum standards for the qualification and status of third countries and stateless persons as refugees or as persons who otherwise need international protection, as well as the amount of protection granted). The main status, which may have in the EU of persons enjoying international protection (third-country nationals and stateless persons) - a refugee status ("refugee status") and the status of the person who uses additional forms of protection ("subsidiary protection status "). In the EU alone attention is focused on promoting the implementation of the legal status of refugees who are stateless or aliens (citizens of non-member countries) - given that within the European Union stipulates that the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and stateless persons, protected by generally should not differ from the rights of third-country nationals legally residing in the EU Member States (MFN) and provided domestically (eg Ukraine) national treatment is quite difficult to ensure in practice.

In general, Member States in implementing their relevant provisions of international instruments at the national level is marked by lack of synchronicity and quite significant differences in the choice of priority issues to address and strategies and ways to address them. Overall, rules governing the legal status of refugees in the EU Member States, is complicated by the Member States reduces the amount of social security of refugees and asylum seekers to "scare" new refugees and resolve the issue of financing of priority measures to promote the implementation their individual rights (the right to social security, the right to housing, the right to employment). Another issue is that although the relevant international legal instruments of the EU to protect the rights and the legal status of refugees is not provided for the establishment of separate time limits to implement only certain rights specified population (such as their right to work in the country of asylum), but in some member States such restrictions applied in practice.


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