Saturday 30 December 2023

The New EU Asylum Laws, part 1: the Qualification Regulation


Professor Steve Peers, Royal Holloway University of London*

Photo credit: Ggia, via Wikimedia Commons

*sentences with an asterisk have been corrected or updated since the original publication of this post. Most recently updated 12 April 2024.  

Just before Christmas, the European Parliament and the Council (the EU body consisting of Member States’ ministers) reached a deal on five key pieces of EU asylum legislation, concerning asylum procedures, the ‘Dublin’ system on responsibility for asylum applications, the ‘Eurodac’ database supporting the Dublin system, screening of migrants/asylum seekers, and derogations in the event of crises. I’ll be looking at these agreements for new legislation on this blog (see the agreed texts here), unless the deal somehow unravels.* But for now this series looks at the planned new legal framework for asylum in the EU by looking at the first three texts that were made available: agreements on revised laws on qualification of refugees and people with subsidiary protection, reception conditions for asylum-seekers, and resettlement of refugees from outside the EU - plus the new law on Eurodac, the EU asylum database.* Part 2 of this series, on reception conditions, is now also published, as is Part 3, on the resettlement Regulation, and Part 4, on Eurodac.* These laws, agreed earlier between the European Parliament and the Council, but not yet formally adopted, are intended to be part of a ‘package’ of new or revised EU asylum laws, along with the recently agreed measures. (Update: the European Parliament voted for the changes to EU asylum laws in April 2024) 

It should be noted that the body-positive lady has not yet sung: all of the measures in the asylum package could in principle be amended or blocked before they are adopted, except for the Regulation revising the powers of the EU asylum agency, which was separated from the package and adopted already in 2021. I will update this blog post as necessary in light of developments.

The qualification Regulation: background

There have been two previous ‘phases’ in development of the Common European Asylum System: a first phase of laws mainly adopted between 2003 and 2005, and a second phase of laws mainly adopted between 2011 and 2013. The 2024 package will, if adopted, in effect be a third phase, although for some reason the EU avoids calling it that.

In each phase, the law on qualification is central: defining what is necessary to obtain refugee status or subsidiary protection status (ie protection other than as a refugee), and setting out what rights people have if they obtain either status. The first phase Qualification Directive was adopted in 2004; the ‘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, and see also my asylum chapter in the latest edition of EU Justice and Home Affairs Law). The third phase, if finally adopted in 2024, will include a qualification Regulation.  

There is CJEU case law on both the first phase Directive and the second phase Directive. It might be argued that the case law is still relevant to the new Regulation, unless the relevant text has been amended; in some cases the Regulation (or the preamble to it) reflects some of that case law.

The UK and Ireland opted in to the first phase Directive, but not the second phase Directive or the proposal for the 2024 Regulation. Of course, the UK is no longer bound by EU law, but Ireland is still bound by the first phase Directive. Denmark opted out of both.

Of course, none of the measures in the package can be fully understood without the context of all the others – which I will be discussing over the course of this series of blog posts. For instance, it is possible that the effect of the other measures in the package will be to reduce the numbers of people who would otherwise apply for refugee or subsidiary protection status in the EU, or whose applications will be considered on the merits (the asylum procedures law provides that some applications can or must be considered inadmissible). The qualification law is only relevant to those who get to that stage. And for those who do obtain refugee or subsidiary protection status, they can eventually obtain EU long-term resident status, which inter alia provides for a limited prospect of movement between Member States – and that law is in turn being renegotiated too, separately from the asylum package (my comments on that renegotiation here).

The legislative process leading to the agreed text of the qualification Regulation started with the Commission proposal in 2016, as a response to the perceived refugee crisis, followed by EU governments agreeing their position on the proposal, which had to be negotiated with the European Parliament (its negotiating position was set out here). I compared the three institutions’ positions in a blog post here. But this blog post will compare the 2024 Regulation only to the current Directive, although I have updated some of the discussion in my previous blog post where relevant.

Basic issues

The first key issue is the type of law used, which is linked with the degree of harmonisation which the EU seeks in this field. The first and second phase qualification laws were Directives, which mean that Member States were bound to achieve the outcome required but had a choice of form and method. The 2024 law will be a Regulation, which is binding in and of itself, without national transposition.

As for the level of harmonisation, the Directives set a form of minimum standards: Member States could have higher standards, as long as those standards were compatible with the Directives. So they set not only a floor, but also a ceiling: the CJEU judgments in B and D, M’Bodj (discussed here), Ahmedbekova and LW discussed the limits of the power to set higher standards. But this will soon be history: the 2024 Regulation will remove the power to set higher standards even with a ceiling, providing instead for uniform standards in principle, although some national options will remain in the text. (The same two basic changes will also be made to the current asylum procedures Directive).

The new Regulation, reflecting that case law, will note that Member States are however 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. People with such national status will largely fall outside the scope of any EU law, although the equal treatment provisions in the recently agreed amendment of the EU single permit Directive (discussed here) will apply to them, and the resettlement Regulation will apply aspects of the qualification Regulation to those admitted on a humanitarian basis under the EU resettlement law (see Part 3 of this series).*

In practice the shift toward harmonisation may lead to some lowering of standards overall, due to the absence of the possibility to have higher standards generally (even subject to a ceiling) and the removal of some options, to the extent that Member States will now be obliged to (for instance) provide for an ‘internal flight alternative’ in their law, and to require two criteria (not just one criterion) to be satisfied to apply the ‘particular social group’ ground of refugee protection. But the effect of such changes is qualified: for example, the requirement to apply the ‘internal flight alternative’ rule comes with additional safeguards attached to that rule, and Member States may have had less enthusiasm to apply higher standards for refugees, as compared to the options in EU law to have higher standards for (say) employment and environmental law.

The 2024 qualification Regulation will be applicable two years after its adoption - so likely by spring 2026. 

The refugee parts of the Regulation (like the prior Directives) aim 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. The case law of the CJEU has often interpreted the Directive in light of the Convention, which seems likely to continue because the Regulation still makes many references to the Convention.

Turning to the details of the Regulation, there are five main elements to the law: common rules (applying to both refugee and subsidiary protection status); the definition of ‘refugee’; cessation, exclusion from and withdrawal of refugee status; the definition and cessation etc of subsidiary protection; and the content of status (ie the benefits people with status receive). This blog post mostly does not discuss the preamble, but keep in mind that the preamble adds some important detail to many of the points in the main text analysed here.

Common rules

Family members of refugees and people with subsidiary protection 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’. It is still necessary for the family members to be present on the territory in connection with the asylum application, though (as confirmed by the recent CJEU judgment in Afrin – although note that in such cases, the separate EU law on family reunion applies for refugees). 'Family members' will now include dependent adult children.* A minor must be considered unmarried if the marriage would not have been allowed under the Member State’s national law, especially on grounds of age.

The Regulation ‘should’ apply to those covered by the planned new EU law on resettlement of refugees from non-EU countries (according to the preamble); the rules on assessment of asylum applications will expressly apply to them. (In fact, as discussed in Part 3 of this series, the resettlement Regulation will be clearer on this point).* As with the previous Directives – and unlike other EU asylum law measures – there is no provision on the territorial scope of the Regulation.

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.  The importance of the asylum seeker applying at the ‘earliest possible time’ will be de-emphasised.

As before, the Regulation will retain the possibility of becoming a refugee or needing subsidiary protection ‘sur place’ – ie because of events which took place after the asylum seeker left his or her country of origin, or due to activities of the applicant since leaving that country. But the exception to this rule will remain optional (‘may’): where the applicant has created the circumstances for use of this provision, Member States may refuse protection. This exception will be widened in two ways (extending it to include subsidiary protection claims, and applying it to initial applications, not just repeat applications), but also subject to a new safeguard (the circumstances created by the applicant must be for the for the ‘sole or main purpose of creating the necessary conditions for applying for international protection’). (For the position under the 2011 Directive, see the recent judgment in Case C-222/22).*

On the other hand, 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 – will 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 the asylum procedures Regulation). However, there are new safeguards: a strong presumption that the concept cannot apply where the source of persecution is the State; applying the main rules on qualification first; shifting the burden of proof to the authorities, and obliging them to consider contrary arguments submitted by the applicant; more on the personal circumstances of the applicant; a requirement to consider whether the applicant could meet their basic needs; and a specific protection for unaccompanied minors. There is also a new requirement to consider the country of origin information supplied by the EU Asylum Agency. Note that although the CJEU has not yet interpreted the rules on the ‘internal flight alternative’ as such, it has recently ruled that differences in interpretation of the rule between Member States are not a good enough reason to refuse to transfer an asylum seeker to another Member State under the Dublin rules. In that context, it is possible that the additional provisions in the Regulation will lead to a more harmonised interpretation of the rule between Member States.

As for the sources of persecution or protection, the Regulation will retain the current rules in the Directive, replacing a reference to considering whether EU acts define a country as providing effective protection from persecution with a reference to considering country of origin information, including from the EU asylum agency where available.

Definition of ‘refugee’

The Regulation retains the basic idea from the previous Directives – and the UN Refugee 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 definition of ‘persecution’ will not change, but there are some changes to the text on ‘particular social group’: adding a reference to how the group is perceived, dropping a reference to criminal law, and adding a reference to ‘gender expression’. Furthermore, there are some new elaborations of the concept in the preamble, including a reference to the possibility of persecution on grounds of disability. As noted above, all Member States will also now have to require that asylum-seekers show that they both perceive themselves as part of a distinct group and are perceived as different by the rest of society, due to the loss of the capacity to set higher standards. (In the meantime, the CJEU has ruled for the first time on the position of women as part of a particular social group, with a judgment in January on domestic violence – see earlier discussion here – and also a pending case on Afghan women, discussed here).*

More generally, a new clause will provide that asylum seekers cannot be expected to hide their identity or beliefs, confirming case law as regards sexuality and religion.

Exclusion, cessation and withdrawal of status

The current Directive elaborates on the Refugee Convention on exclusion, but the Regulation will elaborate further. First, the preamble to the new Regulation will enshrine the basic elements of CJEU case law on the special status of some Palestinians (case law starting with Bolbol and El Kott; note also the recent Advocate-General’s opinion relating specifically to Gaza).* Secondly, a new provision on exclusion on grounds of terrorism states that no proportionality test is required in such cases, confirming the judgment in B and D; the preamble also takes account of the judgment in Lounani on the exclusion of foreign fighters, discussed here). Finally, another new provision will require consideration of whether a minor would be considered criminally responsible for acts under the law of a Member State, when considering if a minor would be excluded on grounds of war crimes, terrorism et al.

On cessation – loss of refugee status because, inter alia, the situation has improved significantly in the country of origin – the Regulation will provide again that account must be taken of country of origin information supplied by the EU asylum agency, or other sources.

As for the withdrawal of refugee status, withdrawal will be mandatory in more cases, now including where ‘there are reasonable grounds for regarding him or her as a danger to the security of the Member State in which he or she is present’ and where ‘he or she, having been convicted by a final judgment of a particularly serious crime, constitutes a danger to the community of the Member State in which he or she is present’. Previously withdrawal of refugee status was only optional in some cases. The CJEU has recently interpreted the latter of the two newly mandatory exceptions (see the trilogy of judgments here, here and here). Also, the Court has more broadly ruled that even if refugee status is withdrawn, the person concerned remains a refugee, still benefiting from non-refoulement and the rights which the Refugee Convention sets out for refugees who are unlawfully resident.

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) will not be affected by the Regulation – although the preamble will entrench some of the relevant CJEU case law on how much violence against civilians, and what types of conflict, trigger the ‘armed conflict’ ground of subsidiary protection (Elgafaji and Diakité). The provision on cessation of subsidiary protection will refer to country of origin information, including from the EU Asylum Agency.

There will be some changes to the rules on exclusion from subsidiary protection (it will be necessary to show that there was a conviction for a ‘serious crime’, if committed after admission to the territory; the person concerned must be a danger to national security, not security generally); and the prospect of exclusion from subsidiary protection due to commission of less serious crimes will remain optional. As with refugee status, the rules on exclusion will now specify that no proportionality test is required, along with special provision for minors.

Rights of refugees and persons with subsidiary protection

The Regulation will change the provisions on the rights of those with refugee status or subsidiary protection in several ways. First, if a Member State has not issued a residence permit within 15 days, it must at least issue some provisional documentation so that access to rights is more effective. Secondly, the list of vulnerable people now includes parents of adult dependent children. Thirdly, there will be a common template for information to be given to people with refugee status or subsidiary protection, which will emphasise the limits on their movement to other Member States.

Fourthly, due to the abolition of the right for Member States to set higher standards where compatible with the qualification law, it will no longer be possible for them to give refugee or subsidiary protection status automatically to family members who do not qualify separately for refugee or subsidiary protection status in their own right (see Ahmedbekova). On the other hand, there is still an obligation to extend the same rights in the law to family members covered by it, even if they will not have refugee or subsidiary protection status as such. This will include having a residence permit with the same date of expiry as the person with refugee or subsidiary protection status, which is an improvement on the current Directive. But the Regulation precludes a residence permit being issued to a spouse or unmarried partner ‘where there are strong indications that the marriage or partnership was contracted for the sole purpose of enabling the person concerned to enter or reside in the Member State’.

Fifthly, there will be more harmonisation of the rules on residence permits, as regards fees, an explicit requirement to use the EU uniform format, an obligation to issue a permit within 90 days, and a requirement not to leave people with gaps between permits when they are renewed. The prospect for non-renewal of permits will now be linked to withdrawal of status (compare with the T judgment on the current law, discussed here).

Sixthly, there will be parallel 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. (In the case of refugees, this supplements the rules already set out in the Refugee Convention). They will be valid for more than one year and will be expressly subject to the EU’s passport security rules.

Seventh, the provisions on movement within the territory will be redrafted to add the proviso that equal treatment with other non-EU citizens applies where they are ‘generally in the same circumstances’. This may be an attempt to confirm the case law in Alo and Osso (discussed here), which permits a link between limiting movements and the grant of benefits in some cases.

Eighth, there will be a new rule emphasising that refugees and people with subsidiary protection do not have the right to move between Member States – unless they are allowed to stay on the basis of national or other EU law, and subject to the right to make short-term visits under the Schengen rules. As noted already, the EU rules in question include a limited right to move between Member States under the EU long-term residence Directive, which is also being renegotiated. Any unauthorised movement between Member States can be punished by ‘resetting the clock’ on acquisition of long-term residence status under that law. However, Member States will have to fully count the time spent as an asylum-seeker when determining if a refugee or person with subsidiary protection has spent five years’ legal residence in order to qualify as an EU long-term resident under that Directive.

Ninth, the rules on integration will be amended 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. The rules on education will provide for equal treatment for adults (subject to an optional exception for loans and grants) and an express right to finish secondary school after the age of majority. Social assistance benefits can be linked to compulsory integration courses, and it will still be possible for Member States to limit beneficiaries of subsidiary protection to ‘core benefits’, which will now be listed in the main text instead of the preamble (adding housing benefits, which takes account of analogous case law). It will also now be explicit that Member States may make integration measures compulsory, subject to provisions on fees and accessibility. Finally, there will be new provisions on the guardians of unaccompanied minors.


To what extent will the Regulation achieve the objectives which it sets out in its preamble?

To ensure harmonisation and more convergence in asylum decisions and as regards the content of international protection in order to reduce incentives to move within the […] Union, encourage beneficiaries of international protection to remain in the Member State that granted them protection and ensure an equality of treatment of beneficiaries of international protection

The assumption that harmonisation of refugee decisions deters movements within the EU is often questioned, but in any event the Regulation should in principle increase harmonisation of decision-making somewhat. This stems not only from converting a Directive into a Regulation and removing the qualified option to have higher standards, but also from removing some of the options in the main part of the law, and providing more details of how the common rules must be interpreted – for instance, as regards sur place applications, the internal protection alternative, and the definition of ‘particular social group’.* Note that in some cases this takes the form of integrating the case law into the main text or preamble, thereby making it more visible – and this blog post only mentions some of the new details which will be added to the preamble.

On discouraging movements between Member States, the sanction of restarting the clock on EU long-term residence status for those who move without authorisation, plus allowing easier access to that status for those who stay put, aims to provide a simultaneous carrot and stick. Awkwardly the Regulation does not provide for the situation, recognised by the case law (albeit subject to a very high threshold), when it is legitimate for a refugee or person with subsidiary protection to move to another Member State because the conditions in the Member State which extended them protection have deteriorated to the point where they breach the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

As for equality of treatment of those with international protection, the changes in the rules on the rights after obtaining refugee or subsidiary protection status appear liable to reduce differences between Member States – if that is the issue of equal treatment being referred to. On the other hand, some differences between refugees and people with subsidiary protection (as regards social assistance, and being covered or not by the family reunion Directive, which will be particularly relevant where family members are not already present) will remain.  

More fundamentally, as noted already this Regulation will form part of a broader package aiming at the same objectives; in particular the new Regulation on asylum procedures will in parallel harmonise the law on the procedural side, and changes to the law on reception conditions will also aim to discourage movements between Member States. And going beyond this, the bigger impact of the asylum package may come not from this Regulation, but from the new constraints planned on asylum seekers’ applications being considered on the merits in the first place – potentially leaving the EU law on qualification for refugee and subsidiary protection status, whatever its form or legal content, as a form of Potemkin village less frequently accessible in practice. Some of the other blog posts in this series will examine the extent to which the new asylum package could lead to this result.


Barnard & Peers: chapter 26

JHA5: chapter I:5

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


No comments:

Post a Comment