Wednesday 24 June 2015

What if a refugee allegedly supports terrorism? The CJEU judgment in T

Steve Peers

What happens if a refugee allegedly supports terrorism? The most obvious answer is that the person concerned might be excluded from getting refugee status in the first place, in accordance with Article 1.F of the Geneva (UN) Convention on Refugees, as reflected in the EU’s qualification Directive and interpreted in the CJEU’s B and D judgment of 2010. However, the situation is more complicated if the person already has refugee status, and his or her alleged support for terrorism begins or comes to light only later. This issue was addressed for the first time in today’s CJEU judgment in T.


The qualification Directive offers three possible responses to a situation like this. First of all, a Member State may revoke refugee status where there are ‘reasonable grounds for regarding [a refugee] as a danger to the security of the Member State in which he or she is present’, or where the refugee was ‘convicted by a final judgment of a particularly serious crime’ so ‘constitutes a danger to the community of that Member State’. Secondly, it is possible to refoule a refugee (ie return the refugee to an unsafe country) on the same two grounds (which are also the exceptions to non-refoulement set out in the Geneva Convention), if that is not ‘prohibited’ by Member States’ international obligations. In that case, Member States may revoke or refuse to renew the refugee’s residence permit. Finally, Member States must issue refugees with a residence permit and renew it, ‘unless compelling reasons of national security or public order otherwise require’.

Also, a Member State is obliged to revoke refugee status if the refugee ‘should have been’ excluded from refugee status in the first place, but presumably this only applies where the activity justifying exclusion took place before the refugee status was granted. All of the same rules apply to the parallel status of ‘subsidiary protection’, which exists for persons who don’t qualify for refugee status but who otherwise need international protection because they are fleeing torture, the death penalty or a civil war.


This case concerned a Turkish national who moved to Germany back in 1989 and obtained refugee status there in 1993, on the basis of his activities in support of the PKK, the Kurdish group which Turkey (and subsequently also the EU) regards as a terrorist organisation. However, those links later led to a conviction for supporting terrorism, due to his collection of money for the PKK and distribution of PKK literature. His residence permit was revoked but he retained refugee status, and he was not expelled from the country. Nevertheless, he still challenged the revocation of his residence permit.

The CJEU’s judgment considers the second and third of the two issues above: refoulement (which might lead to the loss of a residence permit) and the loss of the residence permit as such. First of all, the Court explains the relationship between these two overlapping rules. If the criteria to refoule a refugee are satisfied, a Member State can either (a) refoule the refugee; (b) expel the refugee to a safe country; or (c) allow the refugee to stay. In the event that Member States can refoule the refugee, then they can also revoke a residence permit. But conversely, if the criteria to refoule the refugee are not satisfied, then the Member State cannot withdraw a residence permit on this ground.

In that case, the Court ruled, the question arises whether the rules on granting residence permits apply. Those rules don’t expressly refer to revoking a permit which has already been issued, but the Court ruled that this possibility was implicit.

The Court then moved on to interpret the two sets of grounds for loss of a residence permit at issue in this case: the ‘reasonable grounds’ that the refugee is a security risk, and the ‘compelling reasons of national security or public order’. These concepts aren’t further defined in the Directive, and the language versions of the Directive differ. So the Court proceeded to interpret these rules in the overall context of the Directive – protecting human rights and developing a common policy. In the Court’s view, refoulement of a refugee is a ‘last resort’ in the event that there is no other option to protect national security or the public. Since it could have a ‘drastic’ impact on the refugee, it was subject to ‘rigorous conditions’.

In contract, the mere loss of a residence permit did not lead to refoulement, and so the threshold for the application of the relevant rules was lower. The rules on loss of a residence permit ‘only’ apply where the refugee’s actions ‘cannot justify loss of refugee status, let alone the refoulement of that refugee’, and so did not ‘presuppose the existence of a particularly serious crime’.

So does support for a terrorist group meet the threshold to be one of the ‘compelling reasons of national security or public order’? The Court ruled that the concept should be interpreted consistently with the public security exceptions in the EU’s citizens’ Directive, because ‘the extent of protection a company (sic) intends to afford to its fundamental interests cannot vary according to the legal status of the person that undermines those interests.’ So terrorism is covered by that concept, and there must be a ‘genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat affecting one of the fundamental interests of society’. Moreover, the EU has listed the PKK as a terrorist group, which is a ‘strong indication’ that must be ‘taken into account’. Since the CJEU had already ruled (in B and D) that terrorist acts could lead to exclusion from refugee status, it must follow that they could equally justify revocation of a residence permit.  

But that was not the end of the matter. The national court has to go on to a second step, to consider whether the specific actions of a refugee in fact constitute support for terrorism so as to justify revocation of a residence permit. Not all forms of support for an organisation which the EU considers to be terrorist can lead to revocation of a refugee’s residence permit. As with the exclusion clause (see B and D), it was necessary to look at the individual’s behaviour, examining ‘in particular whether he himself has committed terrorist acts, whether and to what extent he was involved in planning, decision-making or directing other persons with a view to committing acts of that nature, and whether and to what extent he financed such acts or procured for other persons the means to commit them’.

In this case, Mr. T had participated in legal meetings, celebrated the Kurdish New Year and collected money for the PKK. The Court asserted that this ‘does not necessarily mean that he supported the legitimacy of terrorist activities’. Indeed, such acts ‘do not constitute, in themselves, terrorist acts’. The national court also had to consider the ‘degree of seriousness of danger’ Mr. T posed. It could take into account his criminal conviction but also had to consider that he was only sentenced to a fine. Also, the principle of proportionality (which the Court stated was not relevant when applying the exclusion clause, in B and D) was relevant here: the national court had to consider if Mr. T was still a threat to public security at the time the decision to revoke the permit was taken.

Finally, the Court ruled on the consequences of the loss of a residence permit. The person concerned retained refugee status and so was still entitled to all of the rights granted to a refugee, including access to employment, education, welfare, healthcare and housing. Although a clause in the preamble to the Directive stated that a residence permit could be made a condition of obtaining such benefits, the Court said that this clause was irrelevant since it was not reflected in the main text. Those rights could ‘only’ be restricted in accordance with the conditions in the Directive, and Member States ‘are not entitled to add restrictions not already listed there’. This was directly relevant to Mr. T, since Germany had indeed restricted his access to all of those benefits. But this is ‘incompatible’ with the Directive.


This was the first chance for the Court to rule on the status of refugees, ie the various benefits attached to refugee status, since its previous judgments on the qualification Directive have essentially concerned the definition of refugee or subsidiary protection status (or the linked issues of exclusion from or cessation of that status). Broadly speaking, the judgment does a good job clarifying the points which the Court set out to tackle – but inevitably the Court could not deal with every possible issue, and some of its answers raise further questions of their own.

First of all, the Court provides a useful clarification of the distinction between the non-refoulement rules and the rules on residence permits as such. The crucial point here is that the latter rules apply only when the former do not. While this makes the residence permit rules sound as if they have secondary importance, in fact the reverse is true. In practice, the residence permit rules are more important, since it is rarely if ever possible to refoule a refugee consistently with international obligations. This is because the case law on Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) makes clear that even if a person has done things awful enough to justify refoulement under the Geneva Convention, he or she cannot be removed to face a real risk of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment in violation of Article 3 ECHR – since that provision is not subject to any exception relating to the behaviour of the person concerned (or any other exception either). It was not necessary for the CJEU to rule on this point in the T case, since Germany was not seeking to remove him, but it would surely be willing to do so if the case arose (see the judgment in Abdida, discussed here, where the CJEU relied upon another strand of the Article 3 case law).
In the unusual event that refoulement might be possible, the CJEU’s ruling leaves some questions to ponder. It refers to the possible removal of a refugee to a safe third country. Presumably the criteria to determine the meaning of that concept are those in the asylum procedures Directive. It is also possible that the Court would be willing to rule on the interpretation of Article 32 of the Geneva Convention – which regulates the substance and procedure of the expulsion of refugees to safe countries (if the refugees are legally resident) – in this context. The CJEU might also be called upon to elaborate further what it means by saying that refoulement is a ‘last resort’ in the event that no other alternatives are available.
As for the main thrust of the Court’s ruling, on the ‘compelling reasons’ exception to the grant of residence permits, it is striking that the Court continues its recent trend of applying its case law on the EU citizens’ Directive to the ‘public policy’ clauses in EU immigration and asylum law. It did the same thing just a few weeks ago as regards the voluntary departure rules in the EU Returns Directive (see the Zh and O judgment, discussed here), and the broad wording of its judgment in T on this point suggests that all public policy clauses (they appear in swathes of EU legislation in this area) should have the same meaning. Having said that, the Court clearly accepts that the threshold for refoulement of a refugee is higher than for the normal public policy exception.

The Court also borrows most of its prior reasoning on the exclusion clause (with the addition of a proportionality element) to make clear that broad support of a group which the EU considers to be terrorist is not enough: there must be an active participation in violent acts or the funding of those acts. Presumably there must be a direct link with the funding of those acts, since the Court finds that Mr. T’s participation in collecting money for the PKK generally is not enough. Implicitly the Court shows little sympathy with recent EU and national moves against ‘radicalisation’ of Islamic communities (as very broadly defined), and it makes no reference to the Council of Europe measure (reflected in EU legislation) which criminalises ‘public provocation’ of terrorism. But nor does it refer to the countervailing case law of the European Court of Human Rights on freedom of speech, which requires States to allow the free expression of radical political beliefs and allows limits on that expression only where there is a direct incitement to commit violent acts. Nevertheless, the Court’s approach fits squarely into that latter line of case law.

Finally, the Court’s ruling on the consequences of loss of a residence permit are highly relevant, especially in Germany and any other Member States which do indeed make the receipt of benefits, access to employment et al dependent upon holding a residence permit. In effect, the judgment means that for many refugees the loss of a residence permit, even if justified, will have no real impact on their day-to-day life. It will only have an impact as regards journeys within the Schengen area (since holding a residence permit or long-stay visa is a condition of freedom to travel), or travels to non-Schengen and non-EU countries (since the criteria to revoke a residence permit also apply to the travel documents which refugees obtain from their host States in lieu of passports). It would also have an impact upon those refugees who do not yet have family living with them, since the EU’s family reunion Directive requires a third-country national to have a residence permit as a condition for family reunion. But that doesn’t matter to Mr. T, since he is already surrounded by his very large family in Germany.  

Barnard & Peers: chapter 26

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