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10th Dec 2023

Human rights court deals blow to EU asylum system

  • Asylum seekers trying to file their claims in Greece (Photo: Ikolas Kominis - Studio Kominis)

EU's asylum system known as the "Dublin regulation" was dealt a blow on Friday (21 January), as the European Court of Human Rights ruled that an Afghan translator should not have been sent back from Belgium to Greece, where he faced degrading and inhuman treatment.

The Strasbourg-based judges found that both the Greek and the Belgian governments violated the European Convention on Human Rights when applying the EU law on asylum seekers and were given fines to the tune of some €6,000 and €30,000, respectively.

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The case was brought forward by an Afghan translator who first arrived in Greece in 2008 and later applied for asylum in Belgium. Under the "Dublin regulation", member states are allowed to send back refugees to the first EU country where they arrived.

Belgium did so, despite the plaintiff's warnings that he would be subjected to degrading treatment and put in prison-like facilities. The Belgian system also did not provide for a proper appeal from the asylum seeker.

On 15 June 2009, the Afghan was sent back to Greece and, upon arrival at Athens airport, he was immediately placed in detention, locked up in a small space with 20 other detainees where they were given little food, some dirty mattresses to sleep on and no access to the toilets or fresh air. Three days later, he was issued an asylum seeker's card and released, being forced to live on the streets, as he had no means of subsistence. His asylum applicant card was renewed in December 2009, but no housing was ever offered to him.

In reaction to the Friday ruling, Belgian immigration minister Melchior Wathelet said his country had already suspended in October all transfers to Greece - a similar decision being taken earlier this week by Germany. The UK, Sweden, the Netherlands, Iceland and Norway also have halted expulsions to the Mediterranean peninsula.

"Greece effectively endangers the trust needed among member states to create a common asylum system," Mr Wathelet said in a statement, while urging Athens to shape up its asylum system as soon as possible.

Another 960 cases related to the Dublin regulation are pending in the Strasbourg court, most of which concern Greece, whose conditions for migrants were slammed by the UN, the Council of Europe, Human Rights Watch and other organisations.

But human rights groups said that the ruling is also highlighting the "fundamental flaw" of EU's asylum rules and the need to bring it more in line with the reality on the ground.

"It's a blow to the Dublin system, because it shows how false its premise is - that protection of asylum seekers is granted all over Europe and their rights respected," Maria Hennessy from the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) told this website.

An umbrella organisation for NGOs working on immigration issues, ECRE has been pushing for a long time for a revision of the "Dublin regulation", but finds the proposals put on the table by the European Commission not bold enough.

"There is some humanitarian reform in those proposals, but they don't address the underlying flaw of equal treatment. Also, they have to take into account the choice of the asylum seekers themselves," Ms Hennessy stressed.

The Dublin rules were initially put in place in a "convention" among 12 member states in 1990, at a time when "refugees in orbit" were unsuccessfully trying to apply for asylum in several European countries - in a bid to establish some kind of responsibility to the country that first receives them.

"But this has led to more pressure on a handful of countries and goes against the responsibility and solidarity principles in the EU," the ECRE expert argues.

Meanwhile, the European Commission reacted in line with the mood among member states - who see the development more as proof of Greece's incapacity to manage its borders than the need to scrap or change the Dublin regulation.

"I invite Greece to continue working to enhance the humanitarian situation of migrants," EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said in a statement. She also called on member states and the European Parliament "to work for a balanced compromise" on the amendments to the "Dublin regulation". Among the envisaged changes, Ms Malmstrom exemplified an "emergency mechanism" allowing to suspend transfers "in cases of particular pressure on the asylum system."

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