European court ruling makes it easier to turn away asylum seekers

Tents set up for Afghan refugees in a Belgian church. (Credit: Gue/NGL/flickr)

The top court in the European Union ruled that countries do not have to allow people in on humanitarian grounds. It allows countries to determine who is allowed in at a time when governments are under public pressure to address the increased flow of migrants and refugees into Europe.

The ruling comes ahead of this week’s European Union summit addressing the issue. A joint statement signed by more than 160 NGOs urged European leaders to reject xenophobia and enact policies that support asylum seekers. They worry that new steps will double down on recent deals that contributed to the development of new and more deadly routes across the Mediterranean Sea.

“We hear you repeating your commitment to European values – respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and human rights,” the joint statement read. “But we expect to see them in your actions, too. Too many leaders have been preoccupied with stopping people from reaching Europe, at the risk of reducing access to protection for those who need it the most.”

The European Court of Justice ruled on a case involving a Syrian family that fled Aleppo and was denied a visa to Belgium. The advocate general for the court unsuccessfully argued that the visas for asylum seekers were legally mandated by European Union law. Belgian officials felt it was up to them to determine who is allowed a visa for entry. The court agreed.

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“Member States are not required, under EU law, to grant a humanitarian visa to persons who wish to enter their territory with a view to applying for asylum, but they remain free to do so on the basis of their national law,” said the court, according to Reuters.

The ruling is a blow for advocates trying to make it easier for asylum seekers to settle in Europe. NGOs say that it is the responsibility of European leaders to “manage migration in a fair manner.” Their statement urges leaders to balance the humanitarian needs of asylum seekers with the political pressure to keep people out.

European countries are not living up to their promises, said European Commission officials last week. Countries pledged to resettle 160,000 asylum seekers living in camps in Greece and Italy in 2015. Less than 10 percent of that total have been relocated. Only Malta and Finland are on track to meet their obligations.

“There are no more excuses for the member states not to deliver. It is possible and feasible to relocate all those who are eligible from Italy and Greece by September,” Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU commissioner of migration, said at a news conference. “It entirely depends on the political will and perseverance of member states to make it happen.”

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One of the proposals at the upcoming EU conference in Malta is for the Libyan coast guard to prevent all travel to Europe. The European Commission also issued new guidance on how countries can detain and return migrants without valid travel papers. A response from more than 90 NGOs said the recommendations “lower the bar” for how countries should treat migrants and refugees.

“There is no evidence that immigration detention or forced removal has a deterrent effect, or is sustainable,” according to the NGO response. “Detention and forced returns are extremely harmful practices that have long-lasting severe physical and mental health impacts as well as high risks of suicide. Re-emigration rates among returnees are high and forced removal has not been shown to lower the migration aspirations of the communities where people are returned to.”

Previous attempts to stop people from making the deadly trip have failed. A record high of more than 5,000 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean last year. Fatality rates for the start of 2017 show that the pace of travel is not slowing down.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.