Any such thing as a ‘safe’ country?

LONDON, 8 September 2015 (IRIN) – At the same time as European Union nations consider opening their doors to more Syrian refugees, they are looking for ways to close them to asylum seekers from other countries.

When home affairs and justice ministers gather for an emergency summit on the refugee crisis in Brussels next Monday, one item on the agenda again (they’ve been mulling it for years) will be the drawing-up of a common list of “safe countries of origin” (SCO) that would be applied to asylum seekers across the EU.

According to the EU’s Asylum Procedures Directive, a member state can designate a country “safe” if it is generally free of persecution, indiscriminate violence and armed conflict (all EU states are automatically considered SCOs).

Many EU countries already have their own SCO lists, which are used to help officials decide which asylum claims are less likely to be genuine and can therefore be fast-tracked or processed at borders. But SCO lists currently vary from one member state to the next, with a country like Senegal, for example, featuring on lists used by France and Germany, but not on those used by Britain and Belgium. A number of countries don’t make use of SCO lists at all.
 
“The benefit of [a common] EU list would be to avoid one state being regarded as more attractive by asylum seekers, compared to other member states,” said Céline Bauloz, doctoral affiliate of the Refugee Law Initiative at London University.

But critics of the idea warn that it would disadvantage many genuine asylum seekers. 

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, stresses that applications from safe countries should still be examined “individually on their merits”. But Bauloz said the reality is that the speed at which claims from SCOs are handled makes it very difficult for asylum seekers to prove their need for protection. 

“In my view, an EU list will institutionalise further the practice of accelerated decisions which do not provide appropriate safeguards for asylum seekers to have their applications properly determined.”

Ukraine’s rejected asylum seekers

In the past year, violence in eastern Ukraine has claimed the lives of 7,000 people and left 16,000 more wounded, while five million are in need of humanitarian aid. 

See: The struggle for survival on Ukraine’s frontline

Yet Ukraine remains on SCO lists in Britain, Bulgaria and Luxembourg, despite the UN’s recommendations to remove it. Between April and June, out of the 76 Ukrainians who applied for asylum in Britain, only one was successful. 

Anton did not feel safe in Ukraine. In 2014, he left his home in the war-ravaged city of Donetsk for Belgium, where he is awaiting a decision on his refugee status. 

“Even though I think Ukraine is safe for most of the population, for some people it is definitely not safe,” Anton told IRIN. “I left because of threats and intimidation by pro-Russians because of my pro-Ukrainian active position. I was on many blacklists with all my information: my picture, my phone number, my address and links to my social media.” 

He is hopeful his application will be successful in Belgium, which does not include Ukraine on its SCO list.

Minorities persecuted in ‘safe’ countries 

Countries in the western Balkans, including Serbia and Kosovo, are expected to feature on any common EU list. In 2014, asylum applications from western Balkan nations were second only to applications from Syrians in the EU, but were rarely recognised. The Balkan countries could be joined by places such as India, Georgia, Haiti, Algeria and Mongolia – nations that also have very low refugee recognition rates in most member states. 

Germany, which receives by far the most asylum applications in the EU, is pushing for an EU-wide list of safe countries. Last year, it controversially added Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia to its own list of safe countries and German politicians are now keen to add three more – Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro.

Germany has been inundated by asylum applications from the Balkan states. The president of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, Manfred Schmidt, recently told Der Spiegel that 40 per cent of Germany’s current asylum claims are from the Balkans. He pointed out that they are rarely recognised as refugees. 

Most are fleeing hopelessness and poverty at home, but Marko Knudsen, a Roma activist based in Hamburg, said it is a mistake to assume all asylum applicants from those countries are economic migrants. Minorities such as the Roma community are often trying to escape systemic discrimination. 

“Safe states can be safe for the majority of the community, but not for the Roma community. The situation of the Roma in the Balkans is even worse than [elsewhere] in Europe,” he said.

The UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group represent another minority that is often penalised as a result of being from countries on SCO lists.

“Nigeria, South Africa, Sierra Leone and Ghana are all countries where we have clients fleeing persecution because of who they are and who they love, yet they are all countries that are on the UK’s list of safe countries,” explained the group’s executive director, Paul Dillane.

He believes an EU-wide SCO list would increase the risk of unfair refugee status decisions being made.

“Every individual person has to be assessed on their own merits. If somebody says their life is at risk, then their claim deserves very serious assessment. SCO lists encourage generalisations.”

 James Hathaway, a leading authority on international refugee law from the University of Michigan, argues that the whole concept of SCO lists is wrong-headed.

“Europe has been operating under a false impression that it is possible to designate an entire country as safe. There is no such thing as a safe country of origin. Every country in the world – Canada, the US, and the UK – has produced refugees.”

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