Sunday 23 July 2017

The new EU law on refugees takes shape: More Harmonisation but Less Protection?

Professor Steve Peers

At the heart of the contested issue of asylum in the EU – including the current perceived ‘refugee/migrant crisis’ – is the definition of who is a ‘refugee’, or is at least entitled instead to a form of ‘subsidiary protection’ for those fleeing threats of ‘serious harm’. Refugees and people with subsidiary protection receive more legal protection and status than many other non-EU citizens, in particular irregular migrants.

Unsurprisingly then, the proposed revision of the EU legislation on this issue forms part of the broader overhaul of all EU asylum laws proposed in 2016, as a response to the perceived crisis. Recently the EU governments agreed their position on the proposal, which must now be negotiated with the European Parliament (its negotiating position is set out here).

Most of the other 2016 proposals are still under negotiation (I’ll discuss them as part of an update of recent EU immigration and asylum developments, coming soon). But since the ‘qualification’ rules are a cornerstone of EU asylum law, the latest development calls for a more in-depth analysis. In particular, will the new law meet the Commission’s objectives for dealing with the ‘crisis’: more harmonisation, an overall reduction in protection standards, and deterrents for ‘secondary’ movements between Member States?

The proposal aims to implement the UN Refugee Convention (which the EU refers to as the ‘Geneva Convention’) in more detail, as regards both the definition of ‘refugee’ and the rights which refugees receive. It also defines ‘subsidiary protection’ and sets out the rights which subsidiary protection beneficiaries are entitled to.

It will replace the existing EU law on the subject. As part of the ‘first phase’ of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), an initial Qualification Directive was adopted in 2004. A ‘second phase’ Qualification Directive replaced it in 2011. (I analysed the negotiation of the latter Directive here; there’s also a lengthy analysis of it by Madeline Garlick and Violeta Moreno Lax in EU Immigration and Asylum Law: Text and Commentary). The UK and Ireland opted in to (and are still bound by) the first phase Directive, but not the second phase Directive or the 2016 proposal; Denmark is not bound by any of them. After Brexit, UK citizens will be able to apply for asylum in the EU.

Basic legal framework

To give effect to the objective of further harmonisation, the 2016 proposal will replace the 2011 Directive with a Regulation, with the consequence that EU law on this subject will be directly applicable, rather than applying through the medium of national legislation giving effect to a Directive. To the same end, the Regulation will also eliminate Member States’ power in the current law to set more favourable standards as long as they are compatible with the Directive – although this power has already been curtailed by the ECJ’s judgments in B and D and M’Bodj (the latter ruling is discussed here). The new Regulation will reflect that case law, by noting that Member States are free to retain or establish a separate status of humanitarian protection, as long as there is no confusion with the (EU harmonised) notions of refugee or subsidiary protection status.

This shift toward harmonisation is also manifested by a removal of most options under the Directive, with the effect of lowering standards overall, since most of the options are possibilities for Member States to offer less protection than under the standard rules. On the other hand, the Commission’s desire to have the new law play a role in immediate ‘crisis management’ would be thwarted by Member States, who want the law to apply in two years’ time – rather than the six months desired by the Commission. (Note that the EP wants it to apply even more quickly than the Commission, though).

Turning to the details of the proposal, there are four main elements to the law: common rules (applying to both refugee and subsidiary protection status); the definition of ‘refugee’; the definition of subsidiary protection; and the content of status (ie the benefits people with status receive).

Common rules

Family members of refugees and people with subsidiary protection will be given extra rights in the new law (see below), and they will be defined slightly more broadly. A ‘family member’ will now include relationships formed outside the country of refuge, not just those formed inside the country or origin. This means, for instance, that the spouse of a Syrian refugee who married him while in Turkey or Lebanon, and the children of that couple born in such countries, would now be defined as ‘family members’.

The rules on assessment of asylum applications will be extended to include refugees resettled directly from non-EU countries, assuming that a separate proposal on resettlement is agreed. It will now be mandatory, not optional, for the main burden of proof to rest upon the applicant to show why the claim for refugee or subsidiary protection status is justified; and a new clause in the preamble will reflect the ECJ’s 2014 case law (discussed here) which limits the intrusiveness of Member States’ questioning of the credibility of LGBTI asylum-seekers.  

Next, the new law will harmonise the use of an exception to the rules – and lower the standards of protection. While the Regulation will retain the notion of an application for refugee or subsidiary protection status ‘sur place’ – meaning the asylum seeker left the allegedly unsafe country of origin before it became unsafe – the exception to this rule will become mandatory. At present, this exception gives Member States an option to ‘normally’ refuse refugee status to an asylum seeker who has made a repeat application for asylum and created her own risk of persecution due to her activities after leaving the country of origin. The Commission proposal would extend this to subsidiary protection applications, and Member States want to go further – extending the (now mandatory) exception to initial applications as well, subject to a new threshold (the asylum-seeker’s activities were for the ‘sole or main purpose’ of making a claim for protection). For its part, the EP would keep the exception optional and limited to repeat applications, while also adding a safeguard for those asylum-seekers who (for example) ‘come out’ after arriving in the EU, having been previously afraid to express their sexuality.

Similarly, the option to refuse claims because the asylum seeker had an ‘internal flight alternative’ – ie he could have fled to a safe part of the country of origin, like a supposed ‘safe zone’ in Syria – would become mandatory. (The possibility of rejecting a claim because an asylum seeker would arguably have been safe in a different country is the subject of other proposals). The proposal makes this subject to safeguards: more elaborate explanation of the substance of the idea; applying the main rules on qualification first; shifting the burden of proof to the authorities; and not requiring the asylum seeker to show that he exhausted all possibilities to move within the country of origin. However, the Member States’ position would drop the latter two safeguards. For its part, the EP would keep this clause optional, drop the ‘sequencing’ rule, but add further safeguards.

Definition of ‘refugee’

The EU is bound by the Treaties to follow the UN Refugee Convention, so the proposed law retains the basic idea from that Convention that a ‘refugee’ is someone persecuted because of their race, religion, political opinion, nationality or particular social group, elaborating upon each of these concepts. The Commission proposal would clarify in the preamble that LGBT people can form part of a ‘particular social group’ (confirming ECJ case law), while the main text would confirm case law that asylum seekers can’t be expected to hide (for instance) their sexuality or religion in their countries of origin. The proposal would also tighten the definition of ‘particular social group’ in that asylum-seekers would have to show in all Member States that they both perceived themselves as part of a distinct group and were perceived as different by the rest of society. This would quash the discretion that Member States now have to set higher standards, so that only one of those elements is necessary to prove refugee status. Member States agree with this latter change, but the EP is resisting it.

As for exclusion from refugee status, where the current Directive elaborates a little on the relevant provisions of the Refugee Convention, the new Regulation would enshrine the basic elements of ECJ case law on the special status of some Palestinians (Bolbol and El Kott), and on the exclusion of persons strongly linked to terrorism (B and D; the preamble Member States’ version also takes account of the recent ECJ judgment in Lounani on the exclusion of foreign fighters, discussed here).

In contrast, the proposals on withdrawal of refugee status would tighten the existing law, making withdrawal mandatory in more cases and clarifying the link with similar provisions in the rest of the law (on that point, see the ECJ’s T judgment, discussed here). There would be a grace period to apply for another legal status and a mandatory review of status at least the first time a refugee’s residence permit came up for renewal. However, Member States reject the latter ideas (and the EP also rejects the review clause).

Definition of subsidiary protection

The core definition of subsidiary protection (a threat of serious harm deriving from the death penalty, torture or similar treatment, or facing a specified threat from armed conflict) would not be affected by the 2016 proposal – although the preamble would entrench the relevant ECJ case law (Elgafaji and Diakité). However, the rules on exclusion from and withdrawal of subsidiary protection status would be amended to (for the most part) match the parallel changes related to refugee status; and the Council and EP take a comparable view of these proposals. On one distinct point – withdrawing subsidiary protection status due to less serious crimes – the Member States reject the Commission’s proposal to make this ground mandatory, preferring to leave it optional for Member States.

Content of status

The 2016 proposal would make a number of interesting changes in this area. First of all, the Commission’s ambitious attempt to overturn the ECJ judgment in T, and make all benefits for refugees and persons with subsidiary protection contingent upon getting a residence permit, has been rejected by Member States and the EP.

Secondly, an amendment in the opposite direction: the family members of refugees or persons with subsidiary protection who don’t qualify themselves for international protection would be entitled to a residence permit. This would replace an ambiguous reference in the current law to preserving ‘family unity’. However, there are already special rules concerning the admission of family members of refugees set out in the EU’s family reunion Directive. So do two new sets of rules conflict? No, because a clause in the preamble to the agreed Qualification Regulation says that the family reunion Directive applies in the event of overlap (ie if the family member is ‘within the scope’ of the Directive).

Usually, the two laws will not overlap, for several reasons. A) the family reunion Directive does not apply to family reunion with sponsors with subsidiary protection, at least if that protection was granted on the basis of national or international law (sponsors with subsidiary protection on the basis of EU law are not expressly excluded, however). B) that Directive in principle only applies to family members who are outside the territory, whereas the Regulation conversely will only apply to family members who are present on the territory. However, Member States have an option to apply the Directive where family members are already present; only in that case would there be an overlap, decided in favour of the Directive where the family members are within the scope of it.

Thirdly, the Commission aimed for more harmonisation of the rules on renewal of residence permits, although the Member States prefer to leave themselves with more flexibility. It will be expressly mandatory to use the EU’s standard residence permit format for refugees and others covered by the Regulation though.

Fourthly, there will also be more harmonisation of the rules related to travel documents, which are issued by Member States to beneficiaries of international protection in place of passports, given that it would probably be unsafe for them to contact officials from their country of origin. They will be valid for at least one year and will be expressly subject to the EU’s passport security rules.

Fifthly, the provisions on movement within the territory and benefits would be redrafted, to take account of the ECJ case law in Alo and Osso (discussed here), which permits a link between limiting movements and the grant of benefits in some cases.

Sixthly, the rules on access to employment are strengthened by an obligation to ensure equal treatment as regards work-related matters, including taking account of experience in an occupation obtained outside the country of refuge.

Finally, there are further changes designed to entrench control over beneficiaries of international protection: Member States may make integration measures compulsory, and any unauthorised movement between Member States can be punished by ‘resetting the clock’ on acquisition of long-term residence status under the relevant EU law. Both Member States and the EP aim to soften these proposals by ensuring that integration courses are accessible and by allowing Member States to make exceptions from the changes to the long-term residence rule.


What impact will the agreed proposal (still subject to further negotiation) have on the perceived ‘refugee crisis’? Will it meet the objectives of deterring protection-related migration as well as secondary movements, while harmonising national law further?

Certainly there are significant steps towards harmonisation: the use of a Regulation; the removal of the right to set more favourable standards; the disappearance of many options; and the integration of relevant ECJ case law into the legislative text (making it more visible for national authorities, courts, and legal advisers). However, the European Parliament is still battling to keep some key rules optional, rather than mandatory.

This goes to the second point: will the new Regulation reduce standards as much as the Commission had hoped? Here, the result is a mixed bag: some of the changes in the definition of refugee will have that effect – unless the European Parliament successfully resists them. However, the idea of mandatory reviews of status has been dropped.

As for sanctioning secondary movements, the reset of the clock as regards obtaining long-term residence status might have some impact, although the main thrust of the planned sanctions against secondary movement are found in separate proposals for amendment of other asylum laws.

The deferral (at least by Member States) of the impact of the new law for two years means that the new law would (if this delay is accepted) have no immediate impact on the current perceived crisis. However, the changes it would make to the definition of refugee status may lead to fewer refugees being recognised – although again this is subject to the success or failure of the EP’s attempts to resist such changes. In any event, since many of the plans to deter both the initial and secondary movement of people arguably needing international protection appear in other 2016 proposals (on reception conditions, the Dublin system and procedural rules), the overall assessment of whether the EU is moving in a dramatically more restrictive direction as regards asylum law depends more upon what happens with those proposals over the months to come.

Barnard & Peers: chapter 26
JHA4: chapter I:5
Photo credit: Pinterest

*Disclaimer: I was an independent adviser for a consultancy advising the European Commission on the implementation of and possible amendment of the current Directive.

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