18th Jan 2019

Current EU rules bad for asylum seekers, says Council of Europe

  • Not wanted in the EU: asylum seekers from conflict zones (Photo: European Commission)

The Council of Europe, the continent's main human rights watchdog, on Wednesday slammed Greece for not being able to grant "basic safeguards" to refugees but pleaded for a change to current EU rules on asylum seekers.

Under the so-called Dublin regulation, member states can transfer any asylum seeker back to the first EU country he or she set foot on, even if the respective government is overcrowded with asylum claims.

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The situation in Greece, for instance, is such that "asylum seekers face enormous difficulties trying to gain access to the asylum procedure, and do not always enjoy basic safeguards such as interpretation and legal aid," Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's high commissioner for human rights said.

His comments were part of a first-ever hearing as a third party in a case before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The court's ruling will give guidance to other states, such as Ireland, which are also planning to send batches of asylum seekers back to Greece.

The case involves an Afghan refugee who entered the EU via Greece and applied for asylum in Belgium. He appealed a transfer order issued by Belgian authorities on the grounds he risked "detention in appalling conditions in Greece" and feared he would be sent back to Afghanistan, where his life was endangered.

He says he escaped a murder attempt by the Taliban for having worked as interpreter for Western soldiers based in Kabul.

The plaintiff was transferred back to Greece in June 2009 and detained for several days in conditions he says "were overcrowded and insalubrious." Following his release, he lived on the streets with no means of subsistence. More than one year later, he is still waiting for a first interview with the Greek asylum authorities.

Mr Hammarberg said his institution "supports the European Commission's proposal for a mechanism that would suspend transfers and give states under particular strain short-term relief from their responsibilities under the 'Dublin Regulation', as well as the possibility to seek financial or technical assistance to cope with the situation."

"Such a system could help ensure that asylum seekers are not denied their right to a full and fair determination of their asylum claims," the official said. Southern EU states, such as Greece, Italy and Malta are often the first landing place for migrants coming from Africa.

The reform of the Dublin regulation was tabled by the EU commission in 2008, pending agreement between member states and the European Parliament.

It came as a response to harsh criticism from the Council of Europe and the United Nations for the conditions asylum seekers face in the southern EU states, Greece in particular. In April 2008, Finland announced it would stop transferring any asylum seeker back to Greece, while Germany and Sweden have limited the suspension of transfers to unaccompanied children only.

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