Heidi Hautala made a speech in a seminar on “Readmission and Return and the Right to Seek Asylum” (special focus on Belarus, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine) organized by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles on 9th of November.[:]
She focused in her speech on the human rights of the returned people. The key question is how the receiving country can safeguard the fundamental human rights of the readmitted person. It is clear, that people should not be returned to countries that can’t guarantee this.
The readmission policy is not transparent and therefore the Commission should report on monitoring and evaluate the functioning of the EU readmission agreements. The Commission is going to present an evaluation in 2010 of the readmission agreements. Hautala urged that the negotiations on readmission agreements should not continue before this evaluation.
Hautala also brought up the problematic EU practice of attaching readmission agreements to visa facilitation agreements, the need of the Parliament to be kept informed during negotiation processes and the need for binding criteria to identify third countries with which new EU readmission agreements can be negotiated.
Readmission and returns: A Human Rights Focus
Dear participants of the seminar “Readmission and Return and the Right to Seek Asylum”. I am very happy to be here with you as the topic is a very interesting and topical. As you have been discussing the issue for two days, I am also very keen to learn from you.
I will focus in my speech on the human rights of the returned people. The key question is how the receiving country can safeguard the fundamental human rights of the readmitted person. It is clear, that people should not be returned to countries that can’t guarantee this. EU has to follow the principle of non-refoulement. Now the European Charter of fundamental rights is legally binding for not only European citizens, but all people in Europe including third country nationals and undocumented individuals.
It was strange to hear Commissioner Cecilia Malmström stating in connection to readmission agreements, that so far, no major problems have been reported, not even by NGOs who are active in these fields, despite the fact that some of the countries where such agreements are fully operational have been very sensitive. I would like to hear your views on this considering your expertise on Russia, Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine.
Firstly, there is lack of transparency connected to the readmission policy. As the EU readmission agreements are implemented by Member States, we don’t have proper monitoring and evaluation. I hope that the Fundamental Rights Agency would go through, how the fundamental rights are safeguarded in the Implementation Protocols.
Secondly, the EU practice of attaching readmission agreements to visa facilitation agreements for some countries, but not others, is a political decision of COREPER 2005 with no legal basis. This practice is highly disputable.
For example the EU-Georgia readmission agreement will be voted tomorrow in the plenary session. It is clear, that the Georgians want the visa facilitation, so the two things are connected in decision making. The Greens oppose the readmission agreement, because it should not be concluded before a proper evaluation of the existing readmission agreements. According to UNHCR around 212 000 persons have been internally displaced in Georgia for more than 16 years. The agreement does not include strict safeguards concerning data protection, the violation of fundamental rights and high standards of reception.
It is sure, that Turkey also wants visa facilitation, which is connected to the negotiations on a readmission agreement. At the same time, I am aware how many North Caucasians are at the moment in Turkey and how the Finnish border guard service has sent officials to train Turkish Airlines staff in identifying and intercepting potential Chechen asylum seekers.
What solutions would we have in order to make the readmission policy more transparent and to respect human rights?
Since the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon, the European Parliament has acquired the power to give its consent to the EU readmission agreement (Art 218 TFEU). This means the MEPs can reject agreements with countries that can’t guarantee the safety of or basic rights for the returned. This could provide some progress, but parliament’s ability to perform this new task depends how well it is kept informed during the negotiation process. The NGOs should also have more transparently information of the readmission policy.
This new situation calls for an analysis of the whole system. The Stockholm program demands, that the Commission should present an evaluation during 2010 of the readmission agreements and propose a mechanism to monitor their implementation. On that basis the Council should define a renewed coherent strategy on readmission. The evaluation was promised by the end of the year in the form of a communication to Parliament and the Council by the Commissioner Cecilia Malmström on 20 September 2010. I think that we need this full evaluation before we can continue negotiating readmission agreements. The evaluation is a way to address all the problematic issues.
A recent European Parliament’s study (Policy department C: Readmission Policy in the European Union) has proposed many recommendations, that I find useful:
1) The Commission should carry out a regularly updated inventory of all the bilateral agreements linked to readmission concluded by each EU Member State. The Commission should also foresee the possibility of assessing a sample of bilateral readmission agreements.
2) The Commission should report precisely on the monitoring of EU readmission agreements, during the implementing phase.
3) Access to information: Representatives of the European Parliament could be involved in Joint Readmission Committees (JRCs).
4) European Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) should carry out a thorough study on the practice of “premature returns” and on its impact on the respect for fundamental rights and refugee protection standards
5) Given the full incorporation of the Charter in the Treaties, the European Parliament should call for an updated list of binding criteria that have to be respected to identify third countries with which new EU readmission agreements can be negotiated. The criteria could include the Geneva convention on Refugees (for example the Greens voted in the Parliament against the readmission agreement with Pakistan and one reason was that Pakistan is not a signatory of the Geneva Convention) and the newer body of human rights agreements, like on extrajudicial killings, prevention of torture and Rome statute of ICC. I would be happy to hear your thoughts on the criteria.
6) A comprehensive assessment on the safety of all “voluntary returnees” in third countries of return should be undertaken by the European Commission. I have for example heard from a case of a Chechen family, where one of the family member had to return to Ukraine, because of the lack of possibility in Finland for a treatment of heart problems. Is this a voluntary return?
Readmission agreements with Belarus, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine
Russia has committed itself to the protection and promotion of human rights. Despite this, pervasive violence continues to cripple the Northern Caucasus and impunity for torture and disappearances reign throughout the Federation. Freedom of speech remains feeble and tens of journalists have paid the prize for speaking up with their lives. Vulnerable people should be not returned to these conditions.
It is very difficult to get a refugee status in Russia. Yesterday Svetlana Gannushkina, Head of Memorial Human Rights Centre Migrants’ Rights Network, pointed out, that there are only around 800 recognized refugees in Russia. In such a huge country! According to the information provided by the ECRE project, the decisions are arbitrary and appeals do not overturn decisions. Moreover, the refugee or temporary asylum status does not grant social rights. We have also heard that the detention conditions can be appalling.
Afghan refugees constitute the largest refugee group, but they are increasingly refused of refugee status. Another problem is the situation for refugees from Central Asian totalitarian regimes, like Uzbeks. The Uzbek special security services operate freely in Russia and an agreement between Russia and Uzbekistan prevent Uzbeks from leaving Russia to seek protection.
I would like to stress the very bad situation in Chechnya, also referred yesterday by Svetlana Gannushkina, the head of Memorial HR Centre Migrants’ Rights Network. From the 580 000 people who fled Chechnya during the second war, only 12 500 were granted a forced migrant status, which means protection. Many of the IDPs are pushed to return to Chechnya, although they could be at risk at their return. I have visited refugee camps in Ingushetia, where people are living in miserable conditions. I remain very doubtful of returning any Chechens to Russia.
A recent decision of European Court of Human Rights to not see any obstacles to return two Chechens, Chentiev and Ibragimov, to Russia is very worrying. The court has been considered as a last hope in this kind of cases. The extradiction orders are well connected to our topic.
Despite progress, grave problems persist in Ukraine. Most disturbing of these are the numerous reports over torture and ill-treatment in detention. There are allegations of admitting regularly of confessions extracted under duress as evidence to trials. Arbitrary detentions are another alarming element in this field of dysfunctional and corrupted criminal justice system. This is coupled with an ill-functioning and weak judiciary.
According ECRE there is a risk for Uzbeks to get unlawfully deported by the Uzbek authorities. There are also problems with short limits of appealing against court decision, with detentions in investigation and pre-trial detention facilities (for example detainees have limited access to telephones, so also to lawyers) and with access of NGOs to detention facilities. I’ve learned also that Ukraine refuses to grant refugee status to Chechens and Somalis.
The recent activities of the Ukrainian law enforcement authorities preventing the Vinnitsya Human Rights Group from performing their work, is a classical case of harassment and shows that the human rights situation is worrying in Ukraine.
I welcome the fact that Moldova has just ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. However, apprehension remains as to the human rights situation in the country. Reports over torture and other ill-treatment persist and are routinely met with blanket impunity. Freedom of assembly remains unsteady in practice despite new law that is meant to strengthen it. As in Ukraine and Russia, discrimination and racism remain at worrying level. Also, I am most concerned of the criminal case against an independent Moldovan journalist Ernest Vardanean on espionage charges and that OSCE has been barred access to monitor the trial.
Moldova is a transit country. Some NGOs are concerned, that if Moldova signs agreements with Uzbekistan, Iran, Iraq and Russia, it will cause a chain refoulement.
Although the situation maybe not be as bad as in the following cases, there are problems with housing for refugees, with naturalization and with the State not being able to give legal aid to asylum seekers.
The human rights situation took a turn for the worse in 2009. The civil society and media continue to suffer of severe restrictions through heavy administrative requirements and the criminal justice system. Simultaneously human rights activists and journalists face harassment. Four more political prisoners are known to have been detained in 2009. Two NGOs and three newspapers have also shut down last year. Most concerning is that Belarus continues to impose death sentences and execute prisoners.
Because of the grim situation I am not surprised, that Vasily Zorin, from the Belarus State Border Committee said that Belarus is also a country of origin of asylum seekers. Due to the human rights situation I wouldn’t support a readmission agreement with Belarus.
There is a new law on granting refugee status, but the deadline for appeals against refusals is too short. According ECRE, there are also concerns on housing of the refugees and the need for better information on their rights. I am also concerned of the confidentiality of the interviews with those detained at the border as the border guards are present.
I was very pleased to hear from Vera Nikanchyk, Belarusian Movement for Medical Workers, that they have provided an information leaflet to asylum seekers. Access to information is really important.
I repeat that there are huge problems of transparency. We need binding criteria for the countries with which to sign readmission agreements in order to fulfil EU’s commitments to its values.
It is clear, that people should not be returned to countries that can’t guarantee human rights. The applications for asylum requested must be received and assessed in EU, regardless of any readmission agreement.
One possibility in our work in the Subcommittee of Human Rights is to take up the readmission issue in the coming review of the EU human rights strategy.