Refugee country ‘safe lists’ complicated by European disunity

The European Commission wants to declare Turkey a "safe" country. Aftermath of a bombing in Antalya, Turkey, earlier this year. [YouTube/TomoNews]

The Geneva Convention clearly defines where can be considered a “safe country of origin”, but the refugee crisis has complicated the issue and thrust it back into the limelight. EURACTIV’s partner reports.

In addition to the thousands of refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria, refugees have been fleeing persecution in other countries such as Eritrea and Iraq, as well as less obvious places such as Kosovo, Turkey and Albania.

While people that flee brutal regimes or conflict are naturally entitled to asylum, some EU states closely scrutinise whether asylum seekers from other countries are actually entitled to safe refuge, based on whether their homeland is considered a “safe country of origin”. The German asylum law defines the latter terminology as a country wherein “neither political persecution nor inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment takes place”. If an asylum seeker’s homeland is on such a list then asylum is normally not granted, although individual assessment and burden of proof inevitably come into play.

Just how safe is the EU ‘safe list’?

The inclusion of countries that persecute homosexuals on the “safe list” has led the German Greens to ask for infringement proceedings to be launched. EURACTIV’s partner Tagesspiegel reports.

Which countries find themselves on this list are determined by the asylum-granting state itself. The Geneva Convention and European asylum procedures class a state as safe when there is a well-established democracy, there is no persecution and human rights are respected. The threat of violence and conflict also exclude a country from the safe list and refugees fleeing those countries are entitled to asylum

But in practice the rules are rather more vague, since it is up to individual member states whether they implement EU guidelines, meaning the defintion of “safe country of origin” is often different between countries.

This is particularly relevant in the current debate, where Germany wants to list Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia as safe, yet Bulgaria has long included Algeria on its own list. Morocco and Tunisia are currently not listed on any national lists as safe. The matter highlights in particular how flexible international law is and how much power individual countries have over determining where is safe and where is not.

Currently, 12 member states have compiled “safe lists”, yet there is not one single country that appears on all 12 lists, emphasising the bloc’s failures to coordinate on a common refugee policy.

However, the European Commission is seeking to put this right, by proposing a common safe list, on which Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, FYR Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey would be listed and which other countries would be free to adopt. About 17% of asylum applications lodged in the EU are made by nationals of these countries.

Development experts rile against threats to cut aid

Development experts and opposition politicians have criticised German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel’s threat to cut aid to North African states if they are not more cooperative in tackling the refugee crisis. EURACTIV Germany reports.

The Commission’s proposal is intended to return people to their countries of origin, speed up the efficiency of the asylum system and free up resources for vulnerable people who need it.

The idea of listing these countries as safe has a logical foundation, given that most of them are all EU candidate countries. Before a country is granted such official status, it must satisy the Copenhagen criteria, which include democratic governance, human rights and certain economic factors.

Therefore, establishing a list with those countries on it would have some sort of a legal foundation. But to what extent factors such as democracy and economic performance are relevant to an individual’s likelihood of being persecuted, is rather unclear in the real world.

This article was also published by EURACTIV Germany.

Subscribe to our newsletters