European Union’s top court gives member-states the right to grant or deny asylum

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Recently, the European Court of Justice ruled that Belgium was within its rights to refuse visas to a family of potential Syrian asylum seekers who said that they were at risk of torture and inhumane treatment.

In the ruling, the court said that allowing third-country nationals to lodge applications for visas on this basis would de facto allow potential asylum seekers to apply for shelter at European embassies across the globe. This would “undermine the general structure of the [EU’s asylum] system”, according to the court.

Thus, the Court laid down the principle that EU member states are not obliged to give visas to those people intending to seek asylum in their country.

What are the likely outcomes of the verdict?
  • The European Court of Justice has effectively overturned the obligations under the European Charter on Human Rights which says that governments should issue humanitarian visas to people at risk of torture and degrading treatment.
  • A consequence of the verdict is that the mass of migrants will find no realistic alternative in their attempt to flee conflict zones.
  • The ruling has come as welcome news for populist hardliners hostile to the surge of refugees. It will strengthen such political forces in Europe.
  • Given the appeal of anti-immigration political parties in three of the founder-member states of the EU that go to general elections this year, the Netherlands, France and Germany, the setback for a more orderly and legal immigration system will be pronounced. Mainstream liberal political forces across the bloc face the biggest challenge in decades to their conception of an open and humane society.
  • Nothing stops individual countries granting such visas themselves, on a national basis. But with many countries facing populist anti-immigrant insurgencies, governments have been reluctant to open themselves to more refugees.
Related information: The genesis and current status of refugee crisis in Europe

What is the difference between refugee and migrant?

The U.N. defines an international migrant as “any person who changes his or her country of usual residence.” Migrants can move for a variety of reasons and the term ‘migrant’ is an umbrella one, encompassing both asylum-seekers and economic migrants – people moving specifically to improve their living conditions or job opportunities.

Refugees, by contrast, are guaranteed a particular protection under international law. A refugee is recognized as a person fleeing conflict or persecution on the basis on race, religion, national, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. Under the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, a country is legally obliged to shelter a refugee and is not allowed to expel or return a refugee to somewhere where their life or freedom would be threatened.

An asylum-seeker refers to a person who has applied for asylum but whose refugee status has not yet been determined.

  1. Where are the migrants and refugees coming from?

A number of spiraling crises in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Ukraine and Iraq have partly driven the crisis, but more than half of all refugees worldwide in 2014 came from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.

Since Syria’s civil war began in 2011, more than 4 million Syrians have sought shelter in neighboring countries and another 7.6 million have been forced from their homes but remain displaced within Syria. An increase in attacks by President Bashar Assad’s forces and the growth of ISIS are fueling the movement, but people are partly fleeing now because it has become clear that the conflict is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. The same is true for other modern conflicts that have been dragging on – over half of the world’s refugees have been in exile for more than five years.

  1. How is the crisis hitting Europe now?

The developing countries who are currently hosting the vast majority of refugees from Syria are reaching breaking point. Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, sheltering 3.6 million Syrian refugees between them, are overwhelmed, and international humanitarian funding is falling far short of the need.

Many asylum seekers a rather attempt the dangerous journey to Europe than subsist in impoverished, overcrowded refugee camps.

The increased numbers have also been encouraged by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s pledge to Syrians that if they could manage to reach Germany, they could apply for asylum there – effectively suspending an E.U. law that requires the first country an asylum seeker arrives in to be responsible for documenting and processing his or her application, and resettling them. The rule has placed a disproportionate burden on the southern countries of Italy, Greece and Malta, who see the most arrivals from the Mediterranean.

There is also a self-perpetuating element to the crisis; people who reach Europe successfully encourage friends and families to join them.

  1. How are European countries responding to the crisis?

With tensions running high, Europe’s leaders remain divided on how best to respond to the crisis.

Germany has so far been most accommodating with the migrants and refugees. The country had already accepted 1,50,000 plus migrants and refugees  by December 2016.

The European Commission proposed national quotas to relocate asylum-seekers across Europe, on top of previous plans. However, not everyone has welcomed the plans, with Poland, Hungary and Romania opposing the idea. The UK has opted out of any plans for a quota system. Hungary is also focusing on building a barbed-wire fence along its border with Serbia.