23rd Oct 2016

EU court backs refugees' free movement, in most cases

  • People with international protection status can, in most cases, live and reside anywhere in the hosting EU state (Photo: IFRC)

People granted international protection can freely live and move anywhere they want in a member state but may be ordered to reside at a specific address in limited cases.

The European Court of Justice on Monday (1 March) ruled "a place-of-residence condition" can be imposed if the person is somehow unable to integrate.

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In practice, the restriction would apply in few cases.

The residency restriction is narrow, can't be imposed on refugees, and can't be justified on the basis that the burden of social assistance should be distributed across the state.

It also applies only if the person has a subsidiary protection status and receives welfare benefits at the same time.

Subsidiary protection limits residency permits of an asylum seeker to one year.

Few fulfil such conditions in Germany, where the case was first filed by two Syrian nationals.

Out of the 282,726 asylum decisions made in Germany last year, only 0.6 percent (1,707) led to a subsidiary protection status. And not everyone with the subsidiary status is on welfare.

The limitations are likely to stir controversy after Germany lost track of some 130,000 registered asylum seekers last year.

Central EU states and Austria are instead pushing to clamp down on borders along the Western Balkan route. Around 8,500 are currently stranded on the Greek side of the Macedonian border.

The UN agency for refugees (UNHCR) said on Tuesday Europe is now "on the cusp of a largely self-induced humanitarian crisis" as result of the Greek asylum build-up on the border.

Pro-migrant rights groups have praised the court's ruling because people with international protection are now broadly allowed to live and move anywhere in the EU state.

"It clarifies that the freedom of movement encompasses both the right to move freely and choose the place of residence within the member state that granted international protection," Julia Zelvenska, a senior legal officer at the Brussels-based European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), told this website.

She noted that the "residence restriction is permissible only in very specific situations and only with a view of facilitating the integration for those granted subsidiary protection."

People with subsidiary protection status in Germany receive a temporary residence permit for at least for one year and in most cases for two years.

After fives years of residence, they can apply for a permanent permit.

Integration unanswered

But the court's ruling leaves some outstanding issues.

It is now up to the German federal administrative court to determine what defines the integration difficulties that underpin the "place-of-residence condition".

Integration rights of people with subsidiary status protection is outlined in the EU's qualification directive.

It notes they should have access to integration facilities "taking into account specific integration needs".

The Luxembourg-based court's ruling is also unlikely to have much bearing on the EU's relocation scheme to distribute people arriving in Greece and Italy among other member states.

The EU plan, launched last September, intends to distribute some 160,000 asylum seekers. Asylum seekers, which under EU law have no freedom of movement, only obtain international protection once granted such status by the hosting member state.

The European Commission, for its part, said it will review the ruling.

"The ruling clarifies that it is possible to impose residency requirements and this is important in the context of possible secondary movements," commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud told reporters in Brussels.

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