Wednesday 5 November 2014

Tarakhel v Switzerland: Another nail in the coffin of the Dublin system?

Professor Steve Peers, University of Essex


Despite the EU’s purported adherence to high standards of human rights protection, the EU’s Dublin system, which allocates responsibility for each asylum-seeker’s application to a single Member State, has repeatedly run foul of human rights standards. Yesterday’s judgment of the European Court of Human Rights (‘ECtHR’, or ‘Strasbourg Court’) in Tarakhel v Switzerland, and the recent judgment of the same court in Sharifi v Italy and Greece, have further confirmed the problems in making this system compatible with ECHR obligations.

In fact, the Tarakhel judgment goes further than the prior judgments, which had merely exposed the lack of sufficient human rights protection in the EU legislation, as applied by Member States. Rather, it is now clear that the approach of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in interpreting the Dublin rules is also incompatible with the ECHR.


The Dublin rules initially appeared as part of the Schengen Convention, which bound only certain Member States. They were then set out in the form of the Dublin Convention, signed in 1990. This Convention was replaced by an EC Regulation (known as the ‘Dublin II Regulation’) from 2003. That Regulation was in turn replaced by the Dublin III Regulation, adopted in 2013, which applies to all applications made after 1 January 2014. Furthermore, the Dublin rules have been extended to the non-EU countries associated with the Schengen system, by means of treaties with Norway and Iceland on the one hand, and Switzerland and Liechtenstein on the other.

The previous leading cases on the compatibility of the Dublin regime with human rights were (for the Strasbourg court) the 2011 judgment in MSS v Belgium and Greece, and (for the CJEU) the judgment in NS, delivered later that same year. In MSS, the ECtHR ruled that Greece had violated Article 3 ECHR (the ban on torture or other inhuman or degrading treatment) in three ways: its treatment of the Afghan asylum-seeker in question in detention; its failure to secure adequate living conditions for him after release from detention; and its highly deficient asylum procedure. The evidence of these violations was found in numerous reports by NGOs and international bodies. The Court also ruled that Belgium had violated Article 3 ECHR because it had returned the same asylum-seeker to Greece (in accordance with the Dublin rules), even though it must have known of the situation there. For good measure, the Court also ruled that Belgium had violated Article 13 ECHR (the right to an effective remedy), since Belgium did not provide for sufficient reviews of the merits in cases such as this one.

Subsequently, the CJEU ruled in NS that asylum-seekers could not be returned to Greece, pursuant to the Dublin rules, because of systematic deficiencies in the asylum system in that country. Removals in such cases would constitute a breach of Article 4 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (the equivalent of Article 3 ECHR). However, the Court distinguished such major breaches of fundamental rights from minor violations of EU or international rules relating to refugees, which would not require Member States to refrain from applying the Dublin rules.

Before the ECtHR could rule in Tarakhel, the CJEU clarified its position in its judgment in Abdullahi, delivered late in 2013. The Court started out by emphasising the presumption that all EU Member States protected human rights, noting that there was now second-phase legislation establishing the Common European Asylum System. It then characterised the Dublin rules as essentially regulating the relationship between Member States, referring in particular to the optional ‘sovereignty’ and ‘humanitarian’ clauses in the Dublin II Regulation, as well as the possibility of conciliation or separate arrangements between Member States. It followed that when two Member States agreed which of them was the Member State of first authorised entry (triggering responsibility under the Dublin rules), an asylum-seeker could ‘only’ challenge that decision by ‘pleading systemic deficiencies in the asylum procedure and in the conditions for the reception of applicants for asylum’ in the Member State which was deemed responsible for the asylum application.

Finally, the recent Sharifi judgment of the Strasbourg Court established that Italy’s interception of asylum-seekers from Greece in the Adriatic, and their forced return to Greece, violated Article 3 ECHR as well as the ban on collective expulsions in the Fourth Protocol to the ECHR. In doing so, it confirmed a key corollary of the MSS ruling: Member States breach the ECHR if they stop asylum-seekers fleeing an unsafe country directly from crossing their borders. Although the rules on freedom to travel for third-country nationals in the Schengen Convention do not give asylum-seekers the right to move between Schengen States (unless, improbably, they have a visa or residence permit, or the visa requirement is waived for their country of origin), the ECHR nevertheless gives asylum-seekers the freedom to travel between Schengen countries (or any States) in such circumstances. Also, the right to move to another country extends beyond the three-month time limit on intra-Schengen travel, since asylum-seekers can in principle stay until their claim is finally rejected.

The Tarakhel judgment

Yesterday’s judgment concerned a family of eight Afghans, who entered the EU by crossing the Italian border first. This made Italy responsible for their applications under the Dublin rules. However, the family soon left the asylum-seekers’ reception centre which they were assigned to in Italy, on the grounds that conditions there were inadequate for families. They moved to Austria, which triggered the Dublin rules, asking Italy to take charge of them. Italy agreed, but before their transfer to Italy could be carried out, they moved on to Switzerland. That country in turn asked Italy to take charge of the family; Italy tacitly accepted.

However, they challenged their removal to Italy on the grounds that their treatment in that country, if they were removed there, would violate Article 3 ECHR. They lost their case in the Swiss courts, so asked the ECtHR to rule that their removal to Italy would constitute a breach of Article 3, as well as Article 8 ECHR (the right to family life). They also alleged a breach of Article 13.

The ECtHR rejected the Article 13 claim on the merits, since the Swiss courts had examined the merits of their legal arguments and they were allowed to stay on Swiss territory in the meantime. It held that it was not necessary to examine the Article 8 argument. Most importantly, by a majority of 14-3, it found that there was a breach of Article 3 ECHR.

Yet there are important differences between the MSS judgment and the Tarakhel judgment. Yesterday’s judgment does not state that Italy’s asylum system has effectively collapsed, as was the case in Greece. In particular, there were no allegations in Tarakhel relating to flaws in Italy’s asylum procedures, or as regards detention. The argument instead was solely about living conditions in Italian detention centres.

The ECtHR began by reiterating its case law from MSS about reception conditions for asylum-seekers. While Article 3 ECHR did not guarantee a home or financial assistance, in cases involving EU Member States the Court took account of their specific obligations in that respect under the EU’s reception conditions Directive. Also asylum-seekers were an ‘underprivileged and vulnerable group’, and it was possible that extreme poverty could raise issues under Article 3. The Court also referred to other prior case law on the need to ensure that child asylum-seekers, who were in a position of ‘extreme vulnerability’, enjoyed ‘protection and humanitarian assistance’.

Next, the Court reiterated the usual rule that Article 3 prevents removal if ‘substantial grounds have been shown for believing’ that there is a ‘real risk’ of treatment contrary to Article 3 in the state of destination. The same rule could be used to rebut the assumption that countries applying the Dublin system were all safe. In this context, the ECtHR referred to the CJEU’s ‘systemic deficiencies’ test set out in the judgment in NS, but made no reference to the ruling in Abdullahi that this was the ‘only’ ground for challenging the application of the Dublin rules. However, the ECtHR also ‘notes’ the recent EM judgment of the UK Supreme Court, which expressly stated that ‘systemic deficiencies’ were not the only ground for such challenges. Overall, the Court stated that these tests had to be applied by examining ‘the applicant’s individual situation in light of the overall situation prevailing’ in the state of destination.

Applying these rules to this case, the applicants had made three complaints about the situation of the Italian reception system. The first complaint, about the slowness of identification procedures, was dismissed out of hand, since the applicants had in fact been identified quickly. As for the second complaint, the Court accepted the evidence that there were not enough places for all asylum applicants. Thirdly, as for the reception conditions within the available facilities, a number of problems had been identified by the UNHCR and the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner.

Taken as a whole, then, the Court ruled that the ‘current situation in Italy can in no way be compared to the situation in Greece at the time of the MSS judgment’, where only a small fraction of asylum-seekers could be accommodated and ‘the conditions of the most extreme poverty…existed on a large scale’. So there could not be ‘a bar to all removals of asylum seekers to that country’. Having said that, the Court accepted that there was some risk that asylum-seekers might not get accommodation, or that the accommodation would be inadequate.

As for the individual position of the applicants, that was not comparable to the facts of the MSS case either.  The family in this case were taken care of immediately by the Italian government, rather than detained and then left to fend for themselves. But again, having said that, the Court was concerned that, in light of the vulnerability of asylum-seekers, and children in particular, there was no guarantee of (adequate) accommodation for families seeking asylum in Italy. So Switzerland could not send the family to Italy unless they obtained sufficient assurances on this point. This alone constituted a breach of Article 3 ECHR.

Interestingly, the majority judgment makes no reference to the alternative possibility of asylum-seekers obtaining private family housing at the expense of the State, which the CJEU developed in its recent Saciri judgment on the reception conditions Directive.


With great respect, there are many flaws with the CJEU’s judgment in Abdullahi. That judgment confuses Regulations (directly applicable in national legal systems) with Conventions (essentially governing relations between States). It places undue reliance on provisions of the Dublin II Regulation which were never applied in practice (conciliation) or were irrelevant to the case at hand (separate arrangements between Member States). It ignores the CJEU’s own case law on the ability to challenge Member States’ application of the Dublin II rules as regards unaccompanied minors (MA), humanitarian situations (K) or withdrawn applications (Kastrati). Its scope is unclear: does it only apply when Member States agree that the criterion regarding irregular entry is applicable, or in other cases as well? In any event, the judgment needs to be rethought in light of the Dublin III Regulation, which considerably expanded the procedural rights of asylum-seekers in the Dublin context. Why do that, if they can only challenge their transfer if there is a complete breakdown in the asylum system of the State responsible for their application?

But the most fundamental flaw in the Abdullahi judgment is exactly that: the CJEU’s statement that at least in some cases, the determination of the responsible Member State can ‘only’ be challenged if there are ‘systemic deficiencies’ in the asylum system of that State. Is that statement still correct after Tarakhel?

Certainly the statement is wrong if the CJEU meant (as it appeared to say) that both the asylum procedure and the reception conditions systems have to have failed in the responsible Member State, before a transfer to that State can be challenged. In Tarakhel, there is no issue raised regarding the asylum procedure in Italy. More generally, the Italian reception system is not in complete breakdown: the Tarakhel family faces neither extreme poverty nor vile detention conditions, but merely some risk that accommodation will either not be available or that it will be somewhat unpleasant. Accordingly, the Swiss obligations are nuanced: there is no ban on transfers, merely a procedural obligation to make arrangements with the Italian authorities.

It isn’t clear whether Tarakhel abandons the CJEU’s assumption that only ‘systemic deficiencies’ in the asylum system of a responsible State can justify a challenge to a Dublin transfer, or whether the judgment merely modifies the notion of ‘systemic deficiencies’ considerably, lowering the threshold for its application. On the first hypothesis, ‘systemic deficiencies’ are just one example of a situation that could lead to rebuttal of the assumption that another Dublin State is safe. Uncertainty about adequate reception conditions for families is another. But surely this cannot be an exhaustive list.

On the second hypothesis, a ‘systemic deficiency’ would not exist only where an asylum system had entirely collapsed, but where some particular aspect of the system was malfunctioning regularly to some extent. By analogy, a car needs to be fixed not only when the brakes entirely fail to work, but also when the windshield wipers occasionally malfunction. The risk is far greater in the first case, but the second case shouldn’t be ignored either. Again, the problems in Tarakhel cannot be the only example of a flaw in the asylum system of a responsible Member State that needs to be fixed before asylum-seekers can be transferred there.

There isn’t much difference between these two possible interpretations of Tarakhel. Although the first interpretation is in principle more open-ended than the second one, it shouldn’t take too much imagination to argue that any particular problem an asylum-seeker might face in the responsible Member State is ‘systematic’ in this very broad sense. The second interpretation does give the CJEU more leeway to back down from its head-banging judgment in Abdullahi, and explain that this was also what it had meant by ‘systemic deficiencies’ all along.

Of course, given the strong insistence on the efficiency of the Dublin system in the Abdullahi judgment, this is obviously not what the Court had meant at the time. Yet the clear message from the Tarakhel case is that there is not a simple binary distinction between cases when all Dublin transfers should stop, on the one hand, and cases when all Dublin transfers should go ahead at full speed, on the other. Instead, like a traffic light, yesterday’s judgment creates an intermediate category of cases in which national administrations must proceed with caution. This will undoubtedly make the Dublin system more costly and complex to administer, but that is often the only way to ensure that human rights are protected effectively.  

Barnard & Peers:  chapter 9, chapter 26

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