EU court delivers blow to asylum seekers
People seeking safe passage for asylum in the EU suffered another blow, following a ruling by Europe's top court in Luxembourg.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled on Tuesday (7 March) that EU law was not applicable in a case that pitted a family of Christian Syrians against the Belgian state.
"This was the easiest way to kick the ball out of the playground, for sure," Tristan Wibault, the lawyer representing the Syrians in the case, told EUobserver.
The ECJ said that member states are not required under EU law to grant a humanitarian visa to people who want to enter their territory in order to then apply for asylum.
Belgium had last year refused visas to a Syrian couple and their three young children after they had submitted applications to the Belgian embassy in Beirut.
The family hails from Aleppo, a large city in Syria that had been relentlessly besieged by the forces of al-Assad's regime.
Wibault said the family is still in Syria. With the ECJ ruling against them, Wibault said their fate was now an issue that needs to be handled by Belgium's national courts.
"What that means for my clients, I don't know precisely," he said.
Belgium's immigration minister Theo Francken, a Flemish nationalist, had refused to grant visas to the Syrian family.
"NGOs wanted to open EU borders in embassies abroad, ECJ very clear: humanitarian visa are national competency," Francken said in a tweet following the judgment.
He also thanked the European Commission for supporting Belgium on the matter.
But Wibault accused Francken of double-speak.
He noted that the minister had, on the one hand, supported helping Christians from Syria, but then on the other had shown "no obligation or no responsibility whatsoever" to the fate of the Christian family in the latest judgment.
The ECJ judgment also comes as a surprise given that the advocate-general, in an opinion issued in February, said member states would be required to issue humanitarian visas.
The visas are viewed as a legal means for people to get safe passage towards EU states, instead of having to rely on smugglers.
Visa code reform and humanitarian visas
But the ruling is also likely to embolden other EU states to follow Belgium's lead and undermine efforts by the European Parliament to include humanitarian visas in broader visa code reforms.
Swedish Green MEP Bodil Valero, who is working on the issue, said there is a need for EU legislation on humanitarian visas.
"It is now for the governments of the EU member states to make sure this is reflected in EU law," she said in statement.
But the European Commission said it would not comment on the ECJ case and refused to take a stand on humanitarian visas.
"We will take a look at it, we will note it, I don't have a lot to say about that right now," chief EU commission spokesperson Margaritis Schinas told reporters in Brussels.
In an internal document, EU states in February described the EU Parliament's move to include humanitarian visas in the visa code reforms as a "red line".
Instead, on Tuesday, they backed moves to further tighten security by carrying out identity checks on everyone, including EU nationals, crossing into an EU external border.
NGOs are livid at the ECJ ruling.
Thomas Huddleston, at the Migration Policy Group in Brussels, said the decision is a missed opportunity.
"This ruling underlines the absurd impasse facing most potential asylum-seekers," he said, in a statement.