The head of the United Nations refugee agency issued a stark warning today that a crucial piece of European Union (EU) asylum legislation risked resulting in a substantial deterioration in standards – to the point of being at variance with established international law.
"The Asylum Procedures Directive should aim at high standards of refugee protection and should strive for a truly meaningful level of harmonization," UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Ruud Lubbers said in a letter to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, current holder of the EU Presidency.
"I regret to say that ... there has been further substantial deterioration of the draft directive on both these counts." If this process continues, he added, "I fear that this directive will be reduced to a catalogue of optional provisions, including significant departures from accepted international refugee and human rights law and principles established over more than 50 years."
In the letter, sent ahead of a 27 November meeting of EU interior ministers in Brussels, Mr. Lubbers suggested that if the text of the directive were not significantly improved it might be better to take it off the table altogether, until "a more propitious moment."
UNHCR also criticized the draft directive for providing minimal harmonization of asylum procedures across the EU, despite this being its main aim, and in an Aide-Memoire attached to the letter, listed eight separate elements of the directive that are causing concern, focusing in depth on three – 'safe countries,' border procedures and the right to remain during an appeal.
The agency warned that according to the current text, asylum-seekers, including refugees, may be sent to countries with insufficient guarantees for their effective protection, and even to countries where they have never actually set foot. The Aide Memoire also pointed out that the directive defines no fewer than 15 categories of cases in which EU states may derogate from the right of applicants to remain in the country while an initial rejection of their case is being reviewed.
UNHCR noted that in several EU countries between 30 and 60 percent of refugees are only recognized after their initial rejection is overturned on appeal. The possible forced return of such a wide range of people before their appeal is heard "would mark a serious deterioration of standards in most EU states and greatly increase the probability of miscarriage of justice," it said.