European Parliament stands up for asylum seekers

The European Parliament and Commission are set on a collision course with the Council of Europe, the organisation of Member States, over asylum policy after the Parliament adopted a report that condemned draconian practices by European countries.
December 2004

The report, authored by Green MEP for London Jean Lambert and approved by 321 votes to 246 on 15 December 2004, called on EU states to develop a uniform process for assessing asylum applications and strongly rejected the idea of refugee camps in North Africa.

The vote comes against a background of increasingly tough rhetoric from European states towards asylum seekers. In October the German and Italian governments floated a plan to create large holding camps in North Africa to process would-be migrants to Europe. This idea has been condemned by human rights organisations and refugees' groups like ECRE and UNHCR and was firmly voted down by the European Parliament.

The Lambert report welcomed two recent communications by the European Commission, one calling for the 'enhancement of the protection capacity of the regions of origin' and the other focused on creating a 'more efficient common European asylum system'. The latter is an attempt to end the situation in which European Member States have wildly divergent criteria and procedures for assessing asylum claims. The likelihood of a Chechen refugee receiving asylum in the Slovak Republic, for example, is thin, but should that person manage to cross the border to Austria the chances improve greatly. The report called for standards to be levelled up and deplored the tendency for Member States to harmonise their practices to the lowest common denominator.

Currently assessment procedures are often complicated and lengthy. The report recommended that asylum seekers be subject to one process, with a right of appeal, determining whether an applicant is eligible for asylum status or, if not, to subsidiary protection (a guarantee that they will not be sent back to a country in the grip of a crisis).

The European Parliament also backed a plan to 'front-load' the decision making process, meaning investing in better-trained immigration officials and more reliable information gathering. This includes a new initiative to monitor failed applicants who are returned to their country of origin, a controversial measure which countries like Britain are not likely to embrace. When asylum seekers are deported states make no subsequent attempt to check that the judgement was correct, a situation which some see as convenient for states keen to 'clear the backlog' of asylum applications. But Jean Lambert told MEPs that 'it is appalling that someone's life should depend on an opinion which was never tested for its veracity'. She used the example of Ramzi Isalaam, a homosexual Algerian who is facing the prospect of deportation from the UK on the basis of outdated and sketchy information.

The other main thrust of the report stressed the need to greatly increase support to asylum seekers in their region of origin, both for humanitarian reasons and to try to prevent the desperate scenes of people risking their lives to reach the territory of the EU.

There is enthusiasm in European circles for 'resettlement' programmes whereby vulnerable refugees in dangerous areas are identified and offered sanctuary without having previously applied for it. These programmes are common in Australia, the US and Canada but are relatively new to Europe. Some fear that states could use this initiative to further create a false distinction between 'genuine' and 'bogus' asylum seekers, emphasising compassion in resettling vulnerable refugees while clamping down on asylum applicants. But the European Parliament was explicit that neither resettlement nor greater protection in the regions of origin could exempt states from their obligations to asylum seekers, and that any expense should not be taken out of existing development budgets.

The Lambert report was passed with the support of Lambert's Green/European Free Alliance group, the Socialists, the Liberals, some of the conservative EPP and the left GUE group. The GUE, made up of parties such as Sinn Fein and Italy's Rifondazione Comunista, has 41 seats in the Parliament, compared to 42 Greens/EFA, 88 Liberals, 202 Socialists and 268 conservatives. Lambert calculated that gaining the backing of the GUE was more important than attempting to secure the complete support of the conservatives and accepted five GUE amendments that made the report rhetorically more radical.

The whole package sees Parliament in alliance with the European Commission against the Council of Europe. 'It is fair to see this vote as the Parliament standing up for the rights of asylum seekers in the face of the Council', Jean Lambert said. 'Parliament's emphatic vote against the idea of refugee camps in North Africa sends a strong message that should kill off the idea, at least at the European level, although it will still be possible for states to establish bilateral programs'.

The vote came ahead of European Council discussions on asylum policy, and International Migrants Day on December 18. The timing was intended to exert maximum pressure on the Council. Although a European Parliament vote to adopt a report has no binding legislative effect, it does hold a moral force as the expressed view of the only democratically elected European body.



Alex Nunns is Red Pepper's political correspondent. He tweets at @alexnunns


 

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