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UNHCR "disappointed" in EU asylum directive

UNHCR "disappointed" in EU asylum directive

The European Union's Asylum Procedures Directive agreed on Thursday may lead to breaches in international law by allowing states to continue worst practices for determining asylum claims, thereby endangering refugees.
30 April 2004
Asylum seekers in Europe risk being sent back to their home countries under the EU Asylum Procedures Directive.

GENEVA, April 30 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency today said that it was disappointed in a European Union asylum directive that may lead to breaches in international law by allowing states to continue worst practices for determining asylum claims, thereby endangering refugees.

UNHCR was responding to the Asylum Procedures Directive agreed by EU Justice and Home Affairs ministers in Luxembourg on Thursday. This directive regulates how decisions are made on asylum claims in EU countries.

"Taking a very good European Commission draft as its starting point, the long process of inter-state negotiations has resulted in an Asylum Procedures Directive which contains no binding commitment to satisfactory procedural standards, allowing scope for states to adopt or continue worst practices in determining asylum claims," said UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond at a news briefing in Geneva Friday.

"UNHCR is disappointed that EU states have failed to live up to the commitments they made at the beginning of the harmonization process in Tampere in 1999," he said, recalling that they had affirmed their "absolute respect of the right to seek asylum" - and commitment to work towards establishing a common European asylum system based on the full and inclusive application of the 1951 Geneva Convention.

Redmond noted that the final text of the Asylum Procedures Directive contains "serious deficiencies" despite repeated concerns raised by UNHCR during the negotiating process, and attempts by the Irish Presidency and the European Commission to broker a text acceptable to all.

Of particular concern are the designation - without adequate safeguards - of "safe third countries" to which asylum seekers can be returned, and rules that allow countries to deport rejected asylum seekers before their appeal results are known, which in practice removes their right to an effective remedy in the event of an error.

These rules mean that asylum seekers may not have access to an individual examination of their claim or an effective opportunity to rebut the presumption that a given country is safe. Those who travel through "super safe" third countries may not even be granted access to an asylum procedure in the first place.

According to UNHCR, insufficient safeguards in the "super-safe" and "safe" third country provisions are potentially dangerous for refugees, who may be forced back to their home countries in direct contravention of international law, as a result of chain deportations by a string of countries, starting with an EU member state.

The restrictions on appeals are also risky, considering that in some EU countries, between 30 and 60 percent of refugees were only recognised after an appeal.

The directive also risks succumbing to the lowest common denominator because it permits other restrictive and highly controversial practices that are currently only contained in one or two member states' national legislation but could, as of May 1, be inserted in the legislation of all 25 EU states.

The Asylum Procedures Directive is the last of five major pieces of legislation comprising the first phase of the effort to harmonize EU asylum law. Another key directive, the Qualification Directive that defines who is a refugee and who qualifies for subsidiary protection, was agreed in March and formally adopted on Thursday.

Despite some reservations about the text of the Qualification Directive, UNHCR has welcomed its definition of a refugee that includes victims of persecution by entities other than state authorities. On subsidiary protection however, the agency said it regretted the very narrow scope for persons fleeing armed conflict and generalised violence.

"However, the harmonization process is not over - just the first very important phase," said Redmond. "The next phase will also be extremely important. The Directives set only minimum procedural norms. UNHCR will be urging all 25 member states to set higher standards as they begin to transpose the EU legislation into their national laws."