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EU directive may trigger downgrading of asylum standards

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EU directive may trigger downgrading of asylum standards

2 December 2005

2 December 2005

GENEVA - The UN refugee agency has expressed concern that a controversial EU directive on asylum procedures may cause a serious downgrading of asylum standards in the European Union and beyond. The 25 EU member states formally adopted the directive without discussion on Thursday in Brussels.

The asylum procedures directive sets minimum norms on how decisions on asylum claims in EU member states should be made.

"We are worried that the implementation of the directive may lead to breaches of international refugee law if no additional safeguards are introduced, and make it harder for refugees to have their asylum claims properly heard in Europe," said Pirkko Kourula, director of UNHCR's Europe Bureau.

Ms. Kourula also warned against the wider implications of the directive, saying it could even erode international standards of refugee protection far beyond the EU.

UNHCR has been supportive of the process of harmonization of asylum in Europe since it started in 1999. But it is disappointed by the failure of member states to live up to their commitment to international asylum standards. At a meeting in Tampere in 1999, EU countries committed themselves to the absolute respect for the right to seek asylum and the full and inclusive application of the 1951 Geneva Convention.

Despite repeated concerns raised by UNHCR during the negotiation process, the final text contains serious deficiencies. UNHCR is particularly concerned about certain rules allowing states to designate "safe third countries" outside the EU, to which asylum seekers can be turned back without even having had their claims heard in an EU member state.

The directive also fails to spell out clearly that asylum seekers cannot be sent back to their countries of origin while waiting for the outcome of their appeals, thus removing the right to an effective remedy in the event that an error has been made.

The directive also permits a number of other restrictive and highly controversial practices that are currently only contained in one or two member states' national legislation but could be inserted in the legislation of all 25 EU states. UNHCR calls on member states not to aim at the lowest common level permitted by the directive when they implement the agreed rules into their national legislation, but to strive to ensure adequate safeguards and high standards of protection for refugees.

Many of UNHCR's concerns were echoed in a critical report on the directive issued by the European Parliament on September 27, 2005. However, none of the amendments by the Parliament were taken into account.

The agreed directive is the last of five major pieces of European legislation that form the first phase of a process of harmonization of European asylum law. Political agreement on the text of this directive was already reached on April 29, 2004, just days before the deadline for completing the first phase of harmonization.