13th Apr 2024

EU states embedded 'Rwanda clause' into new asylum rules

  • 'This is the similar to the legal nonsense that the UK is pursuing in trying to pass a law which states that #Rwanda is safe which actually it is not,' said Catherine Woollard of ECRE. (Photo: Sara Prestianni)
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A so-called 'Rwanda clause' slipped into the overhaul of EU asylum law will undermine the UN refugee convention, say critics.

Coined after failed efforts by the UK to offshore asylum to Rwanda, the EU Council, representing member states, embedded the clause into the regulation dealing with asylum procedures.

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The bill has already generated criticism by campaigners, who say it will lead to a mushrooming of detention-like centres, amid recently disclosed French-led efforts to also imprison children.

Under the reforms, EU states are allowed to designate a country as safe if that person has family ties or other connections.

But the 'Rwanda clause' allows them to bypass those requirements if a prior EU agreement has been made with that country, says Catherine Woollard, who heads the Brussels-based European Council on Refugees and Exiles, in an email.

Such possible deals echo a similar EU arrangement with Turkey in 2016, whereby all arriving asylum seekers on the Greek islands are sent back in exchange for political or financial incentives.

Last year, Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, and Slovakia had pressed for similar Turkey-like deals further afield.

And Woollard said the 'Rwanda clause' generated a presumption that the foreign state was safe, noting that the mere existence of an EU agreement did not mean that a country was safe in reality.

"This is similar to the legal nonsense that the UK is pursuing in trying to pass a law which states that Rwanda is safe which actually it is not," she said.

And she warned that the changes undermined the UN refugee convention and ran counter to the EU treaties and EU charter of fundamental rights.

Italy-Albania deal

The warnings come amid closer scrutiny of an Italian deal to process some 3,000 people plucked from international waters by Italian boats and sent to facilities in a port in Albania.

But unlike Rwanda or Turkey, the deal with Albania circumvents safe-country concepts and opens up even more possibilities for EU states to offload people elsewhere.

"What's distinguishable about this is that it's not a discussion about whether Albania is a safe third country," senior European Commission official Michael Shotter told MEPs in Brussels on Wednesday (14 February).

"It may be Albania but for legal purposes, it's still Italy because Italy has said that it is applying Italian law no matter that it is in Albania," he added.

The Italians claim their own laws, transposed by EU directives and regulations, will be mirrored in the Albanian centres.

And they also say that women and children will be excluded, as well as other vulnerable people.

But making such vulnerability assessments is prompting tricky questions from legal experts, as well as how to ensure fundamental rights are truly respected once people are in the facilities.

Among them is professor and medical doctor Nora Markard from the University of Münster.

She said it could lead to the circumvention of EU legal standards and international standards. And she cast doubt that the deal would actually achieve its aims, noting high running costs.

Committee MEPs endorse deal

The debates follow a rubber-stamping of the reforms known as the pact on asylum and migration, by MEPs sitting on the civil liberties committee.

The committee voted it through earlier this week, with the pact now set to be formally adopted in an April plenary session in Strasbourg.

But not everyone was happy, leading some to vote against their political party lines.

This included Isabel Santos, a Portuguese socialist. She voted against the asylum procedure regulation, the Eurodac biometric law, as well as a crisis regulation.

The crisis regulation was spearheaded by a Spanish socialist MEP.

Asked why she dissented, Santos said it gave EU states too much power and would erode rights.

"This [crisis] regulation may also open the door for the criminalization of humanitarian assistance," her office said in an email.

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