EU war on 'illegal immigration' puts human rights at risk
Amnesty International Appeal to the Sevilla Summit
Open Letter to Heads of State or Government of the European Union
- State of the Union
- exploding the myths
- sacrificing protection to control: some examples
- racism on the rise
- asylum: a continuing human rights crisis in the EU
- asylum and immigration: from Laeken to Sevilla
- root causes neglected
- a 'balanced approach'?
- restoring a rights perspective
Brussels, 12 June 2002
OPEN LETTER TO THE HEADS OF STATE OR GOVERNMENT OF THE EUROPEAN UNION
Fighting 'illegal immigration' must have a human rights perspective
The European Union seems bent on waging all out war against 'illegal immigration'. The Spanish presidency started by giving the highest priority to the fight against 'terrorism'. Now, in an attempt to stem the tide of anti-immigrant populism that is sweeping Europe, the fight against 'illegal immigration' is set to top the agenda of the Sevilla summit on 21/22 June.
Fear appears the driving force. Fear on the part of citizens about the effects of perceived abuse of the asylum system on their economic, social and security conditions. Fear on the part of governments that the extreme or even not so extreme right will cash in politically. Fear of the alien, fear of losing grip.
Fear is not a good basis for making policy. Facts dissolve, perceptions and simplifications reign, racist prejudice breeds. The issues are not new and the answers not so simple. Up until now, the EU asylum and immigration debate has walked a fine line between protection and repression. While the 1999 Tampere summit balanced the concern for control with an assurance of the “full and inclusive application of the Geneva Convention”, in practice, the overriding emphasis has been control, not protection.
In the current climate of fear and suspicion, the balance seems to be swinging even further to the point where human rights and in particular the right to asylum may be sacrificed for the sake of the further fortification of Europe.
Fear must not win. Fighting 'terrorism', fighting 'illegal immigration' both require a clear human rights perspective. In conveying the following appeal to you, Amnesty International asks your urgent attention for the arguments advanced in this document for such an approach. We hope that the Sevilla summit will seize the opportunity to restore a proper human rights balance.
State of the Union
So far, the debate on immigration and asylum has been characterized by:
Lack of balance:
- clamping down on all immigration deemed 'illegal' takes precedence over putting into practice adequate asylum policies;
- human rights obligations are absent from the argument.
- fear on the part of citizens for their security and the spectre of being overrun by illegal immigrants;
- fear on the part of governments that the extreme right will cash in on the political momentum that this creates.
Cliches and myths:
- illegal immigration is running out of control;
- the right to seek asylum is being abused on a massive scale;
- tough talk and measures will make a difference;
- but "the genuine refugee is always welcome".
A refusal to acknowledge the facts:
- numbers of asylum seekers entering the EU have decreased by almost one third in the first four months of 2002 compared to the same period last year, and have halved over the past decade;
- the vast majority flee countries of conflict and persecution;
- statistics are manipulated: while very few asylum seekers see their claims accepted in the first instance, many more receive protection status upon review or appeal;
- the EU's borders simply cannot be sealed off.
- governments swing towards increasingly restrictive laws and practices;
- the EU pursues control measures that in spite of protestations to the contrary do create a fortress Europe that denies access to many who need protection, and fosters the trafficking industry;
- the right to asylum, enshrined in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, is effectively undermined;
- the EU thus reneges on its fundamental human rights commitments, and compromises the integrity of the international protection system.
Total numbers of asylum applications lodged in the EU:
1992 - 675,460
1993 - 516,410
1994 - 309,710
1995 - 274,940
1996 - 233,460
1997 - 251,770
1998 - 311,420
1999 - 396,700
2000 - 391,460
2001 - 384,530
2002 (Jan-Apr) - 83,462*
* Italy not included
The statistics show the numbers of people lodging asylum claims in the EU is decreasing. The higher numbers in the early 90's reflect the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. The numbers dipped to a low in 1996, then rose again because of the Kosovo crisis. The 2002 figures show a downward trend.
The numbers are relatively modest compared to those of a number of developing countries, where the vast majority of the world's refugees find shelter.
The top ten countries of origin for asylum seekers in the EU from 1992-2001 are:
Former Republic of Yugoslavia
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Democratic Republic of Congo
Among these are countries which have experienced or are still experiencing internal conflict, or where human rights abuses have been documented or where people are fleeing repressive regimes or the effects of international sanctions.
Although verbally the proper references to the need to "protect those genuinely in need of international protection" are scrupulously observed, the reality is a different one as the following examples illustrate:
Since January 2002, Spain has applied a strict visa regime for Colombians, who consequently can no longer obtain a visa to come to Spain or other EU countries to apply for asylum. Human rights organizations receive many queries from people at risk or their relatives. The number of Colombian asylum seekers in Spain has dropped from 309 in January to 115 in April.
A November 2001 'Protocol on Readmission of Illegal Immigrants' between Greece and Turkey provides for the quick handover of immigrants of whatever nature entering Greece. The National Commission for Human Rights, a consultative body to the Prime Minister, has expressed concern that the protocol does not make mention of the Geneva Convention and its obligations, that its aim is to prevent entry into Greek territory and that "everyone is de facto considered to be an illegal immigrant and that they have no access to asylum procedures. (…. ) In practice, people coming in boats from Turkey do not have a chance to express the reasons why they might want to seek asylum in Greece. (… ) The way readmission takes place raises concerns about the basic human rights of immigrants".
Contrary to assurances by the Greek authorities that the right to asylum would be respected, the UNHCR in Athens expressed similar concerns and reported recently it knew of at least three instances of mass repatriations from Greek islands to Turkey without the people concerned having been allowed to apply for asylum in Greece.
France and the UK continue their protracted battle over the Sangatte refugee camp near the Channel Tunnel over the heads of the refugees (many Kurds and Afghans among them) housed there by France. Most of them want to go to the UK but are not allowed to travel there. They are not entering the procedure in France but the French authorities recognize they cannot be deported back to their countries of origin, so they are being tolerated. France so far refused to close the center. Considerable numbers defy the odds to the point of risking their lives, and some manage to reach the UK.
Persistent problems are reported from Germany with regard to the situation of Chechnyan refugees. German authorities consider there is an 'internal flight alternative' in the Russian Federation. Many claims are rejected as 'manifestly unfounded', followed by attempts to deport the people concerned. Only Berlin has suspended deportations if Chechens have no relatives in other parts of Russia.
Amnesty International takes the position that there is no effective security for Chechens in the Russian Federation. It has reports of them being subjected to ill-treatment and torture by security services, while difficulties related to registration may result in them being sent back to Chechnya. Refugees returned to Russia are likely to be forcibly returned to Chechnya where they would be at risk of serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.
There are numerous reports of manifestations of racism and race-related torture and ill-treatment of foreign nationals in European countries. On 24 May, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia in Vienna reported a rise in hostility and attacks against Muslims in the EU, and announced a report shortly about the rise in anti-semitism in Europe. The EUMC called for more inter-cultural dialogue in Europe, and noted some encouraging responses from religious leaders and politicians.
No commitment has as yet been shown by the EU with regard to racism by the state. On 16 April 2002, Amnesty International published a 100-page report on race-related torture and ill-treatment of minorities and immigrants (including refugees) by state agents in Spain. Here, refugee protection, protection against discrimination and racism, and protection against state abuse all come together. Clearly, this is not just a matter for the country in question to address, but it must be a concern for the EU as a whole. Spain effectively dismissed the report, the EU remained silent.
On 25 September 2001 Amnesty International launched a strong critique of the EU's asylum policies in its report "The Asylum Crisis: a Human Rights Challenge for the European Union". It argued that the process of European integration in the field of asylum is shaping a system that may in a number of respects be in breach of international human rights and refugee law:
· Refugees are prevented from reaching EU territory through immigration control measures which may not take into account international obligations towards refugees;
· If they reach the EU, refugees may be unlawfully detained, and access to fair and satisfactory asylum procedures denied;
· If they gain access to procedures, these may be accelerated in ways that do not fulfil the minimum requirements of fair and satisfactory asylum procedures;
· Even if they are afforded access to a fair and satisfactory asylum procedure, effective and durable protection may not be ensured.
Since then, nothing has changed in the duplicity of an approach that asserts that 'genuine' refugees will be protected, but that at the same time raises all kinds of obstacles for them not only to get a fair hearing of their application, but to gain access to Europe at all. If anything, the asylum crisis is deepening.
The Laeken summit in December 2001 was strongly dissatisfied with the lack of progress towards the Tampere goal of a common asylum and immigration system, and expressed renewed resolve to carry out the Tampere agenda. The overall goal of a "true common asylum and immigration policy" was to "maintain the necessary balance between protection of refugees, in accordance with the principles of the 1951 Geneva Convention, the legitimate aspirations to a better life and the reception capacities of the Union and its Member States" (conclusion 39).
While the Laeken summit thus maintained the semblance of a balanced approach to immigration, it also showed forebodings of how the knives were to be sharpened:
· more stringent control of external borders to prohibit people from coming in, not only through measures such as visa restrictions and carriers sanctions, but also by strengthening cooperation and examining possible common services;
· extending borders and 'outsourcing' control by engaging with countries of origin and transit to curb migration and facilitate repatriation and readmission;
· stepping up police and judicial cooperation and improved information exchange to help counter 'terrorism', illegal immigration networks and human trafficking.
There was no acknowledgement of any tension on account of the EU's human rights obligations. And there was no sign of any reflection on the question of how to establish and maintain a proper human rights perspective in the pursuit of security and immigration control.
In the months to follow the emphasis was on immigration control. The Spanish presidency presented an action plan in February 2002 that elaborated on the elements listed at Laeken. The Commission continued producing proposals. However, little progress was, again, being made with the politically most difficult asylum dossiers, and the balance has shifted inexorably towards making Europe as inaccessible as possible.
This left the asylum field to the member states, who have been trying to outdo each other yet again with the toughest measures against asylum seekers at national level. Accelerated procedures, cutting appeal rights, instant deportation, curbing family reunification, economic restrictions were put forward in several countries. The wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that caught Europe in April and May promises more of the same.
The decisive moment has been the call to arms in May by the leaders of the largest member states to make the fight against illegal immigration the highest priority for the Sevilla summit. Talk of sending warships into the Mediterranean, and threats of cutting aid to countries found uncooperative in taking people back, unrealistic or unlawful as such moves may be, set a climate in which people's fears are confirmed. Any sense of balancing objectives of security and immigration control with human rights and protection obligations appears to have been lost altogether.
Root causes neglected
Little is heard these days of the need to tackle the root causes that force people to leave their countries: the denial of human rights through persecution and violent conflict, through inequality and deprivation. The High Level Working Group on Asylum and Migration set up in 1998 was to do precisely that. However, it has focused on control and repatriation rather than on prevention and protection. There is a glaring contradiction between the EU’s concerted effort to close its borders, keep people out and engage with countries of origin to send them back, and the lack of a comparable effort to press these same countries to deal with the root causes and improve the human rights situation.
Another contrast is that between the obstacles that refugees have to overcome to find refuge and protection in Europe, and the ease with which arms continue to find their way from Europe to fuel violent conflict.
France: Provision of military and other security equipment an training to most francophone countries in Africa, often regardless of their human rights record.
Germany: Export licenses for small arms and light weapons were authorized in 1999 and 2000 for countries in Africa including Egypt, Kenya, Namibia, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Italy: In the first 10 months of 2001 more than 16 million euros worth of Italian small arms arrived in Africa. Among major recipients were Nigeria and Kenya, both countries where security forces have persistently committed gun-related human rights violations.
United Kingdom: British pilots and air cargo companies have been allowed by the UK government to supply weapons to armed forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo responsible for mass human rights abuses.
The inadequacies of controls over arms transfers to countries that violate human rights continue to testify to the difficulty Europe has to translate its human rights intentions into consistent action.
A 'balanced approach'?
The current debate does not reflect earlier discussions about the logic of an immigration policy that takes account of the realities of globalization, of the demographic needs of the EU, of providing an alternative mechanism to asylum, of the need for 'managed migration'. The practical impossibility of controlling let alone closing extended borders is downplayed, as is the effect of the ever more restrictive policies to drive people into the claws of the traffickers and so boost their profits.
Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Vitorino's plea for a "balanced approach to immigration" on 28 May before the European Parliament's Citizens' Rights Committee, calling such an approach "the only way to address asylum and immigration problems and the fears of EU citizens", appears little more than a rearguard action. As does Commission President Prodi's letter to Council President Aznar on 4 June arguing the importance of the debate on "how to manage legal migration and the proper respect of our obligations under the Geneva Convention" - a day after Aznar had described 'illegal immigration' as "the most important question in European politics at the moment".
When the Council decided within days after 11 September to examine urgently "the relationship between safeguarding internal security and complying with international protection obligations and instruments", this was meant to identify whether and how protection systems might actually be an obstacle to security. The message was clear: when security is at stake, human rights considerations take second place.
Now, with illegal immigration the top issue, the same human rights imbalance manifests itself in an unprecedented anti-immigration drive that threatens to sacrifice the rights of those who seek and need protection. To be clear, states have a right to control entry into their territory, and a duty to provide for the security of its citizens and all others on their territory. That includes combating human trafficking and other crimes associated with illegal immigration. However, human rights standards must always govern the way states treat people under their jurisdiction or asking their protection.
The current wave of unchecked anti-immigrant sentiment cannot have anything but a negative influence on attitudes towards 'foreigners' – be they asylum seekers, economic migrants or simply members of certain minorities (who may be EU citizens). The term “illegal immigrant” will too easily be seen to fit everyone, and create the risk of criminalization and discrimination. The Laeken summit declared the need for "specific programmes to combat discrimination and racism", and the Council is considering a proposal for a framework decision on combating racism and xenophobia. However, in the present context and climate there is every reason to be concerned that stronger and more concerted action is required.
Amnesty International is deeply concerned that the European Union's overriding goals of security and immigration control may undermine the very rights it seeks to safeguard. It believes that human rights must be at the heart of any strategy to fight 'terrorism' and to fight 'illegal immigration'. It is time for the balance to be restored, in order to ensure that the principles and values on which the Union is founded are not compromised.
Amnesty International therefore calls for the debate on asylum and immigration to be placed in a proper human rights perspective.