The EU Continues To Fail Asylum Seekers and Violate Human Rights by Baiden Wright

Officers of the EU border security agency, Frontex, pull a dinghy with migrants to Skala Sikaminias village on the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, Oct. 21, 2015. – Copyright AP Photo/Santi Palacios

As the principal governing body in Europe, the EU has a unique obligation to protect asylum rights, which it is currently failing. 

EU asylum claims are currently the highest they have been since 2015. In addition to the streams of refugees fleeing war in Syria, EU states are also seeing large numbers of refugees fleeing conflicts in Ukraine and Afghanistan. Many of these refugees fail to successfully seek asylum in Europe because states are not fulfilling their obligations to asylum seekers. The EU has facilitated this process, and in doing so, violates human rights standards. 

Many EU member states, particularly those in the Mediterranean, are conducting illegal pushbacks of migrants. Greece is among the leading offenders. Between 2020 and May of 2022, the Greek authorities conducted just under 42,000 pushbacks, and hundreds more asylum seekers have been found in the following months. In some cases, asylum seekers are found stripped completely naked, other times their documents and personal belongings are stolen. Beyond sending refugees  –including women and children– back out to sea, Greek authorities have also pushed asylum seekers across the Turkish border. Theft of dignity is not the only consequence of asylum pushbacks – many asylum seekers die as a result of Greek policies. Despite mounting evidence, Greece repeatedly denies any violations of human rights. Greece is not the only Mediterranean state guilty of conducting such pushbacks. Italy, led by a far-right government, fails to allow asylum seekers onto their shores, leaving them stranded at sea

States have a number of legal mechanisms to avoid admitting refugees into their borders. Mediterranean states work with Libya, the origin of many sea-based refugee routes, to capture and return refugees to the inhumane conditions found in Libyan refugee camps before they reach European waters. If refugees never make it to European territory, they cannot claim asylum in Europe. The EU seemingly seeks to catalyze this process by placing rules on charity and NGO boats that rescue asylum seekers and bring them to European territory. This would follow Italian legislation that prevents entry of NGO boats into Italian waters. 

EU countries can also deny asylum claims on grounds of inadmissibility. States base these claim denials on the existence of “safe third countries”, a principle that allows governments to deny asylum claims so long as there is another safe state where a refugee can claim asylum. A notable example of this is Turkey. Turkey has “safe third country” designation, and hosts over 3.9 million refugees, largely motivated by the 6 billion euros the EU sent Turkey to accept the refugees they did not want to admit. However, Turkey has a notable lack of its own asylum procedures, in addition to its blatant disregard for nonrefoulment principles, evidenced by its forced return of many Afghan refugees

Most European states are guilty of adopting such policies. Aside from those states on the Mediterranean route, numerous states such as Poland, Spain, and Croatia are culpable for violent responses to refugees. As a union between countries and not its own sovereign state, the EU is in a unique position to influence the policies of its member states. Asylum is, one will note, a human right protected under the Geneva Convention. Under this principle, individual states throughout the EU have the obligation to ensure asylum for those who seek refuge. The obligation to ensure asylum is further enshrined under Article 18 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which directs member states to grant asylum per Geneva Convention criteria. This is a clear call to action for EU member states, which the EU has the responsibility to enforce and uphold. 

The EU has taken actions in the past to support the humanitarian rhetoric laid out in the Charter. In 1999, for example, the EU developed the Common European Asylum system to mitigate uneven flows of refugees into the EU, and supposedly, ensure the fair treatment of asylum seekers. However, this directly opposes the actions of Frontex, the EU’s border agency that acts as a mechanism to keep refugees out. Frontex has allegedly helped cover up the human rights violations originating from Greece’s pushbacks, and the European Commission, who oversees Frontex, has funded violent border practices in Croatia. Frontex has also framed the narrative that NGOs directly aid smugglers, before acknowledging that such collusion was unintentional – even with this acknowledgement, NGOs still suffer the fallout of Frontex’s initial accusation, facing legal battles and other obstacles to performing their work.

The EU has the power to make positive changes for refugees; the institution has already enacted pro-refugee policies, albeit ones that don’t seem to make much of a difference for asylum seekers today. However, the EU elects to support the human rights violations conducted by its member states instead of enforcing the humanitarian precedents laid out in official EU literature. The EU must reckon with the harm it has wrought through Frontex and the European Commission and adjust its policies to protect the human rights principles its member states have all agreed to uphold.