UNHCR says EU directive may trigger downgrading of asylum standards

The UN refugee agency has expressed concern that a controversial European Union directive on asylum procedures that was formally adopted on Thursday in Brussels may cause a serious erosion of asylum standards in the EU and beyond.

The latest EU asylum directive may lead to some refugees being turned back from the EU without having had their claims heard at all.   © UNHCR/H.J.Davies

GENEVA, December 2 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Friday expressed concern that a controversial European Union directive on asylum procedures that was formally adopted without discussion the previous day in Brussels may cause a serious downgrading of asylum standards in the EU and beyond.

The asylum procedures directive sets minimum standards 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 about the possible ramifications 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, the agency's spokesman Ron Redmond told reporters in Geneva on Friday. "But we are disappointed by the failure of member states to live up to their commitment to international asylum standards," he said, referring to a meeting in Tampere in 1999, at which 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," Redmond said, adding that the UN refugee agency 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.

In addition, the directive 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," the agency said in a statement issued on Friday.

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 reached on April 29, 2004, just days before the deadline for completing the first phase of harmonization. However, it was not formally adopted until Thursday's meeting of EU's justice home affairs ministers.