By Nikolaos Sitaropoulos
In Osungu and Lokongo v. France (delivered on 8/9/2015), the European Court of Human Rights (“the Court”) rejected as “manifestly ill-founded” two applications submitted by Congolese regular migrants. The proceedings concerned the French authorities’ refusal to grant the migrants family allowances for their minor children who had entered and resided in France, in contravention of the family reunification rules (§§21-26).
The respondent state admitted that the refusal to grant family allowances affected the applicants’ right to respect for family life (Article 8 ECHR) and that this treatment was differential compared with that given to migrants from countries that have concluded special agreements with the European Union. However, the government argued primarily that this differential treatment was justified under Articles 8 and 14 (the non-discrimination clause in the ECHR) as “proportionate to the legitimate aims that it pursued, that is, the protection of public health, the protection of the child and immigration control” (§36). Additionally, the respondent state produced ten administrative court judgments to prove that regularisation of a de facto reunification is possible under domestic law and practice, and that the applicants could have made use of this avenue.
The Court did not really analyse the argument concerning nationality based differential treatment. It noted briefly (§44) that this treatment is not grounded exclusively in nationality and occurs in an “economic and social domain” where states enjoy a large margin of appreciation.
The largest part of the Court’s reasoning was centred on the argument advanced by France that regularisation was possible under domestic law (in order to receive the family allowances), and that the applicant parents did not make any serious efforts to that end (although the applicants had instituted a series of domestic court proceedings claiming discrimination). Based on this argument, the Court held that the non-allocation of family allowances was due to the applicants’ non-compliance with the family reunification rules. This, according to the Court, constituted an “objective and reasonable justification” for differential treatment (§48).
The Court’s decision raises questions of compatibility with previous case law. In the landmark Belgian Linguistics case (1968), the Court affirmed that the principle of equality of treatment is violated if the “distinction has no objective and reasonable justification”. Such a justification must be assessed “in relation to the aim and effects of the measure … regard being had to the principles which normally prevail in democratic societies”. There are two conditions that differential treatment must fulfill: firstly, it must pursue a legitimate aim; secondly, there must be a “reasonable relationship of proportionality between the means employed and the aim sought to be realised”. These principles have been applied by the Court in other cases concerning migrants’ family life (e.g. Hode and Abdi v. UK, 2012, Bah v. UK, 2011).
There is no doubt that the differential treatment in Osungu and Lokongo sought to pursue legitimate aims (“protection of public health, the protection of the child and immigration control”). Further, states are justified in restricting access to family allowances since this is a resource-intensive service. A large margin of appreciation certainly exists in this domain.
However, this does not entail the Court’s uncritical deference to a state’s decision, which should be explained and justified by the state concerned, and then analysed and judged by the Court. Deeper scrutiny of the respondent’s arguments would have revealed that the aims of immigration control, protection of public health, and protection of children, are not served by cutting off family benefits. In reality, even where such benefits are cut off, the migrant children concerned are allowed to remain in France and live “a normal life” with their parents who are regular residents. Thus, there is no link between the means adopted and the ends sought to be achieved. The question of necessity and proportionality does not even arise.
These cases raise important jurisprudential and practical issues. As also noted by an EU study published last year, provision of social security is of prime importance to efforts made to reduce poverty and inequality among migrants. Reports indicate there are currently around 9,000 migrant children in France in a situation similar to that of the applicants. It is thus hoped that the Court will be given another opportunity to revisit its case law in this domain in a more nuanced manner.