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EU asylum standards

Interview: Carla BleikerSeptember 3, 2015

There are three rules for how EU member countries should deal with asylum applicants. But for various reasons, no nation adheres to all of them. Human Rights Watch asylum expert Benjamin Ward told DW about the problems.

Refugee's at Budapest's Keleti train station. (Photo: Reuters/ Laszlo Balogh)
Image: Reuters/L. Foeger

DW: There are thousands of refugees arriving in the EU every day who want to apply for asylum and different member states are handling this influx in very different ways. What rules should they all go by?

Benjamin Ward: In the European Union, asylum and migration are subject to a set of common EU rules known as the Common European Asylum System. Those rules cover the minimum standards the EU states must follow in terms of their asylum procedures - in terms of reception conditions for asylum seekers and refugees and also the processes that they have to follow if they are removing a rejected asylum seeker from their territory. As of July, the revised versions of these rules are now all in force.

What exactly do these rules say?

There are three different directives. One is the asylum procedure directive and that essentially says that you need to be given the opportunity to lodge the asylum claim and that once you have done so, it is heard in a timely way. And if this claim is rejected, you must have the opportunity to appeal the decision.

Even countries with quite well developed asylum systems, like the UK and France, sometimes can take a long time to process applications. But processing them quickly doesn't necessarily mean processing them well. The Netherlands in particular relies on what is sometimes called accelerated procedures to process asylum claims.

Benjamin Ward. (Photo: Jutiar Photography)
Benjamin Ward from the Europe division of Human Rights WatchImage: Human Rights Watch/J. Photography

That can also be quite problematic. Although it resolves some of the uncertainty of having to wait a long time to find out, it can mean that the claim isn't properly considered, that there isn't time to get the necessary medical evidence or other evidence that can help support your claim. If you're someone who's traumatized because you've recently arrived from a warzone, or suffered torture or sexual violence, you may also not necessarily be ready to tell your story so quickly.

What's the second rule?

That's the reception directive, which covers the responsibility of member states to provide basic living conditions for asylum seekers. Once people have lodged their asylum claims, there are obligations, including giving them some sort of accommodation, some basic assistance. This is also an area with huge problems, because national systems are sometimes just overwhelmed by the large number of people, as can be seen right now in Greece.

In some cases, the assistance is only triggered when the formal asylum application is lodged. That's actually one of the problems in Calais, where a lot of the people haven't had the chance to formally present their asylum claims, but in the meantime, they're not eligible for any sort of accommodation. There's a big gap between the EU standards and the practice.

What is covered by the third part of the EU regulation?

That's the area of the return directive, which has to do with the removal of people whose asylum claims have been rejected and with detention of migrants and asylum seekers. There are certainly problems in this area, but they have as much to do with the law itself as with the implementation. It allows for very long detention periods of up to 18 months for a rejected asylum seeker.

In general, it's safe to say that there is a big range of European governments' approaches to asylum and migration policies. There aren't any that do it perfectly, even the countries with more experience and developed systems like the UK and France. Even Germany, which has responded very well in the current crisis has had a lot of problems with reception conditions linked to capacity.

Where do the problems with these directives lie?

Many member states actually don't meet their obligations under EU law. Greece clearly is not able to meet its obligations to asylum seekers when it comes to providing them with shelter, food, water and access to medical treatment. It's also not able to provide them with access to asylum procedures either in a timely way.

The same is true in Hungary, where the authorities are not meeting their responsibilities to provide adequate reception conditions for asylum seekers, or access to asylum itself.

A dirty room with matresses on the floor in a Greek refugee camp. (Photo: MSF)
The conditions in many Greek refugee camps, like this one in Komotini, are unsanitary and not up to EU standardsImage: MSF

So, we do actually have a common set of standards and responsibilities, but some states are just not applying the standards and meeting the obligations.

Is there any authority holding these countries accountable?

The European Commission has a responsibility to enforce these standards. They have done that to some extent in some countries. But in general, it's been pretty reluctant to step in and use the legal powers that it has, including, ultimately, the ability to take EU countries to the Court of Justice in Luxembourg to enforce these standards.

Instead, the Commission has preferred to try getting consensus around the standards and then hope that over time, EU governments would bring their domestic practices in line with them. But that hasn't happened and I think it's important to see that failure as part of the context for the crisis that we have right now.

Benjamin Ward is the deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division of the NGO Human Rights Watch. His Twitter handle is @Benjamin_P_Ward.