EU asylum law ‘may lower standards’ in Greece, UNHCR

A European Union draft directive aimed at harmonizing asylum procedures in member states, due to be discussed today during a meeting of European interior ministers in Brussels, could provoke a substantial deterioration in existing refugee protection standards in Greece and other EU countries, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) deputy representative in Athens, Bart Leerschool, told Kathimerini English Edition yesterday. «Existing legislation in Greece is relatively liberal and generous to asylum seekers – for example, refugees can stay in the country while their appeals are being processed – and it could be negatively affected if the EU’s asylum procedures directive is applied in its current form,» Leerschool said. Earlier this week, UNCHR High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Luubers wrote a letter to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi – current holder of the EU presidency – asking for the directive to be taken off the table until «a more propitious moment.» «The Asylum Procedures directive should aim for high standards of refugee protection and should strive for a truly meaningful level of harmonization,» Luubers said in his letter to Berlusconi. «I regret to say that… there has been further substantial deterioration of the draft directive on both these counts.» If this process continues, Luubers added, «I fear that this directive will be reduced to a catalog of optional provisions, including significant departures from accepted international refugee and human rights law and principles, established for more than 50 years.» The UNHCR’s concern focuses on three key elements of the directive regarding the «safe third country» concept, border procedures and the refugee’s right to remain during an appeal. According to the current text, asylum seekers may be sent to countries with insufficient guarantees for their effective protection, Leerschool noted. Indeed, the directive defines at least 15 categories of cases in which EU states may dishonor the right of applicants to remain in the country while an initial rejection of their case is being reviewed. »In many EU states, between 30 and 60 percent of refugees are only recognized after their initial rejection is overturned on appeal,» Leerschool said. He added that the section of the directive dealing with border procedures suggests that asylum seekers arriving from supposedly safe countries may be denied access to an official asylum procedure and the territory altogether, without verification that they would indeed be safe and that their claim would be heard. «This would be at variance with international refugee law and, as such, unacceptable to the UNHCR,» Leerschool said. Luuber’s letter to Berlusconi warned that such a lowering of standards would most likely have repercussions beyond the EU, undermining efforts to improve protection standards in the regions refugees originate from. «The ‘safe third country’ concept and the border procedures as outlined in the draft directive will serve to shift the burden from EU member states to countries further afield,» Luubers wrote. «This will do little to convince states in regions of origin and transit that Europe is serious about establishing global burden- and responsibility-sharing arrangements,» he added. «The European Commission has said that it would not endorse a directive that goes against the Geneva Convention,» Leerschool said. «In view of this, we still have hopes that the directive – as it stands – will not be approved at today’s summit in Brussels.» «In any case, the likelihood is that member states will raise objections on various aspects of the legislation,» he added. «Greece, for example, has reservations about the provision of free legal aid to asylum seekers for which it is currently drafting its own legislation.» «The process is likely to take some time. There is no point in keeping to the proposed timetable (of approving EU directives) if by doing so we compromise the quality of the legislation,» Leerschool noted.