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Tragic case of Serbian Roma homeless asylum seekers in Belgium & France

Judgment delivered on 7 July 2015 by the ECtHR

The applicants are seven Serbian nationals, a father and mother and their five children. They were born in 1981, 1977, 2001, 2004, 2007 and 2011 respectively and live in Serbia. Their eldest daughter,
who was born in 2001 and was mentally and physically disabled from birth, died in December 2011.

The applicants are of Roma origin and were born in Serbia, where they have lived for most of their lives.

In March 2010 the applicants travelled to France, where they submitted an asylum application which was rejected. In March 2011 they travelled to Belgium and lodged an asylum application there. On
12 April 2011 the Belgian authorities submitted a request to the French authorities to take back the family. On 6 May 2011 France accepted the request under the Dublin II Regulation2. On 17 May 2011 the Aliens Office in Belgium issued the applicants with an order to leave Belgian territory for France, on the ground that Belgium was not responsible for considering the asylum application under the Dublin II Regulation. On 25 May 2011 the time-limit for enforcement of the order to leave the territory was extended until 25 September 2011 owing to the mother’s pregnancy and imminent
confinement.

On 16 June 2011 the applicants submitted to the Aliens Appeals Board a request for the suspension and setting-aside of the decision refusing them leave to remain and ordering them to leave the country. On 22 September 2011 the applicants applied for leave to remain on medical grounds on behalf of their disabled eldest daughter. The Aliens Office rejected their application. On 26
September 2011, on expiry of the time-limit for enforcement of the order to leave the country, the applicants were expelled from the Sint-Truiden reception centre where they had been staying, as
they were no longer eligible for the material support provided to refugees. They travelled to Brussels, where voluntary associations directed them to a public square in the Schaerbeek municipality in the centre of the Brussels-Capital district, together with other homeless Roma families. They remained there until 5 October 2011. On 7 October 2011 they were assigned to a new reception facility as a mandatory place of registration in the Province of Luxembourg, 160 km from Brussels. The applicants eventually took up residence in Brussels North railway station, where they remained for three weeks until their return to Serbia was arranged on 25 October 2011 by a charity under the return programme run by Fedasil, the federal agency for the reception of asylum seekers.

In a judgment of 29 November 2011 the Aliens Appeals Board set aside the impugned decisions (the refusal of leave to remain and the order to leave the country) on the grounds that the Aliens Office had not established on what legal basis it considered France to be the State responsible for the applicants’ asylum application. The Belgian State lodged an appeal on points of law with the
Conseil d’État against the judgment of the Aliens Appeals Board. In a judgment of 28 February 2013 the Conseil d’État declared the appeal inadmissible for lack of current interest, given that the
applicants had returned to Serbia and that the Belgian State had been released from its obligations under the procedure for determining the Member State responsible for their asylum application.

Complaints, procedure and composition of the Court:

Relying on Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment), the applicants complained that their exclusion from the reception facilities in Belgium from 26 September 2011 onwards had
exposed them to inhuman and degrading treatment. Under Article 2 (right to life), they alleged that the reception conditions in Belgium had caused the death of their eldest daughter. Lastly, under
Article 13 (right to an effective remedy), they complained that they had been unable to assert before the courts their claim that their removal to Serbia and the refusal to regularise their residence status had exposed them to a risk to their eldest daughter’s life (Article 2) and to a risk of suffering inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 3).

Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment):

The Court reiterated that neither the Convention nor its Protocols conferred the right to political asylum and that Contracting States had the right, subject to their international undertakings
including the Convention, to control the entry, residence and expulsion of non-nationals.

Nevertheless, the State’s responsibility could be engaged in relation to asylum seekers’ conditions of reception. The Court observed3 that, in order to determine whether the threshold of severity required under Article 3 was met in a given situation, particular importance should be attached to the person’s status as an asylum seeker and, as such, a member of a particularly underprivileged and vulnerable population group in need of special protection. Asylum seekers’ vulnerability was heightened in the case of families with children, and the requirement of special protection had been even more important in the applicants’ case in view of the presence of small children, including one infant, and of a disabled child.

The Court had to ascertain in this case whether the applicants’ living conditions in Belgium between 26 September and 25 October 2011 engaged the responsibility of the Belgian State under Article 3.

The Court’s review related only to that period, between their eviction from the accommodation centre and their departure for Serbia, since the applicants’ reception and the fulfilment of their
needs prior to that period were not the subject of dispute. Between 26 September and 25 October 2011 their situation had been particularly serious as they had spent nine days on a public
square in Brussels and then, after two nights in a transit centre, a further three weeks in a Brussels train station. The Court noted that this situation could have been avoided or made shorter if the
proceedings brought by the applicants seeking the setting-aside and suspension of the decisions refusing them leave to remain and ordering them to leave the country, which had lasted for two
months, had been conducted more speedily.

However overstretched the reception network for asylum seekers in Belgium may have been at the time of the events5, the Court considered that the Belgian authorities had not given due
consideration to the applicants’ vulnerability and had failed in their obligation not to expose the applicants to conditions of extreme poverty for four weeks, leaving them living on the street,
without funds, with no access to sanitary facilities and no means of meeting their basic needs. The Court found that these living conditions, combined with the lack of any prospect of an improvement
in the applicants’ situation, had attained the level of severity required under Article 3. The applicants had therefore been subjected to degrading treatment, in breach of that provision.

Article 2 (right to life):

The Court noted that, although the Belgian authorities must have been aware that the applicants were living in poverty following their eviction from the centre, and must have known about their
eldest daughter’s medical conditions, the medical certificate had not mentioned the degree of severity of those conditions. It also noted, with regard to the timing of the events, that a number of
factors may have contributed to the child’s death, including having spent several weeks in insalubrious conditions after the family’s return to Serbia. Accordingly, the Court considered that the
applicants had not shown that their eldest daughter’s death had been caused by their living conditions in Belgium, or that the Belgian authorities had failed in their obligation to protect her life.

The Court therefore found no violation of Article 2.

Article 13 (right to an effective remedy) taken in conjunction with Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment):

On the basis of its analysis of the Belgian system as in force at the time of the events, the Court considered that the applicants had not had an effective remedy available to them, in the sense of
one that had automatic suspensive effect and enabled their allegations of a violation of Article 3 to be examined in a rapid and effective manner.

The order for the applicants to leave the country had been liable to be enforced at any time by the Belgian authorities, and the application to set aside and the request for suspension of the measure lodged by the applicants did not have suspensive effect. The Court observed in particular that the lack of suspensive effect had resulted in the material support granted to the applicants being
withdrawn and had forced them to return to their country of origin without their fears of a possible violation of Article 3 having been examined. The Court also noted that the length of the proceedings concerning the application to set aside had been unsatisfactory, given that the Aliens Appeals Board had not delivered its judgment until 29 November 2011, after the applicants had left for Serbia, thereby effectively depriving them of the opportunity to continue the proceedings in Belgium and France. Accordingly, since the applicants had not had an effective remedy, there had been a violation of Article 13 taken in conjunction with Article 3.

From Court’s press release: http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/webservices/content/pdf/003-5127554-6327501

Italy’s refugee family reception infrastructure considered untrustworthy

Tarakhel v. Switzerland, GC judgment of 4 November 2014

The Court considered it appropriate to examine the complaint concerning the applicants’ reception conditions in Italy solely from the standpoint of Article 3.

Concerning the overall situation of the reception arrangements for asylum seekers in Italy, the Court
had previously observed that the Recommendations of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (“UNHCR”) and the report of the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, both published in 2012, referred to a number of failings. Without entering into the debate as to the exact number of asylum seekers without accommodation in Italy, the Court noted the glaring discrepancy between the number of asylum applications made in 2013 (over 14,000) and the number of places available in the facilities belonging to the SPRAR network [Sistema di protezione per richiedenti asilo e rifugiati] (9,630 places).

With regard to living conditions in the available facilities, the Court noted that in its Recommendations for 2013 UNHCR had described a number of problems. However, UNHCR had not
reported situations of widespread violence or insalubrious conditions, and had stressed the efforts
undertaken by the Italian authorities to improve reception conditions for asylum seekers. The
Human Rights Commissioner, in his 2012 report, had noted the existence of some problems with
regard to legal aid, care and psychological assistance in the emergency reception centres, the time
taken to identify vulnerable persons and the preservation of family unity during transfers.

The Court reiterated that, as a “particularly underprivileged and vulnerable” population group,
asylum seekers required “special protection” under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human
Rights. This requirement of “special protection” of asylum seekers was particularly important when
the persons concerned were children, even when they were accompanied by their parents

In view of the current situation of the reception system in Italy, the possibility that a significant
number of asylum seekers removed to that country might be left without accommodation or might
be accommodated in overcrowded facilities, in insalubrious and violent conditions, was not
unfounded. The Swiss authorities were obliged to obtain assurances from their Italian counterparts
that on their arrival in Italy the applicants would be received in facilities and in conditions adapted to the age of the children, and that the family would be kept together.

The Court noted that, according to the Italian Government, families with children were regarded as a
particularly vulnerable category and were normally taken charge of within the SPRAR network.
However, the Italian Government had not provided any further details on the specific conditions in
which the authorities would take charge of the applicants.

Without detailed and reliable information about the specific reception facility to which the
applicants would be sent, the physical conditions of their accommodation, and the question of
whether the family would be kept together, the Court considered that the Swiss authorities did not
have sufficient assurances that, if returned to Italy, the applicants would be taken charge of in a
manner adapted to the age of the children.

Were the Swiss authorities to send the applicants back to Italy without having first obtained
individual guarantees from the Italian authorities that they would be taken charge of in a manner
adapted to the age of the children and that the family would be kept together, there would
accordingly be a violation of Article 3 of the Convention.

Court’s press release: http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/webservices/content/pdf/003-4923136-6025044

Strasbourg Court confirms inadequacy of Greek asylum system and condemns collective expulsions from Italy

The European Court of Human Rights delivered today its Chamber judgment in the case of
Sharifi and Others v. Italy and Greece (application no. 16643/09).

The case concerned 32 Afghan nationals, two Sudanese nationals and one Eritrean national, who alleged, in particular that they had entered Italy illegally from Greece and been returned to that country immediately, with the fear of subsequent deportation to their respective countries of origin, where they faced the risk of death, torture or inhuman or degrading treatment.

The Court held, by a majority, concerning four of the applicants, Reza Karimi, Yasir Zaidi, Mozamil
Azimi and Najeeb Heideri (also known as Nagib Haidari), who had maintained regular contact with their lawyer in the proceedings before this Court, that there had been:

a violation by Greece of Article 13 (right to an effective remedy) combined with Article 3
(prohibition of inhuman or regarding treatment) of the European Convention on Human Rights on
account of the lack of access to the asylum procedure for the above-named applicants and the risk
of deportation to Afghanistan, where they were likely to be subjected to ill-treatment;
a violation by Italy of Article 4 of Protocol No. 4 (prohibition of collective expulsion of aliens);
a violation by Italy of Article 3, as the Italian authorities, by returning these applicants to Greece,
had exposed them to the risks arising from the shortcomings in that country’s asylum procedure;
and,
a violation by Italy of Article 13 combined with Article 3 of the Convention and Article 4 of Protocol
No. 4 on account of the lack of access to the asylum procedure or to any other remedy in the port of Ancona.

The Court held, in particular, that it shared the concerns of several observers with regard to the
automatic return, implemented by the Italian border authorities in the ports of the Adriatic Sea, of
persons who, in the majority of cases, were handed over to ferry captains with a view to being removed to Greece, thus depriving them of any procedural and substantive rights.

In addition, it reiterated that the Dublin system – which serves to determine which European Union
Member State is responsible for examining an asylum application lodged in one of the Member States by a third-country national – must be applied in a manner compatible with the Convention: no form of collective and indiscriminate returns could be justified by reference to that system, and it was for the State carrying out the return to ensure that the destination country offered sufficient guarantees in the application of its asylum policy to prevent the person concerned being removed to his country of origin without an assessment of the risks faced.

Link to press release:

http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/webservices/content/pdf/003-4910702-6007035

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Völkerrechtsblog

Der Blog des Arbeitskreises junger Völkerrechtswissenschaftler*innen

blogdroiteuropéen

blogguer différemment sur le droit européen

All for National Archaeological Museum Athens

The official blog of the museum with snapshots from its daily life

East Ethnia

Balkan politics and academics

Inforrm's Blog

The International Forum for Responsible Media Blog

ΣΥΓΧΡΟΝΑ ΘΕΜΑΤΑ

Τριμηνιαία Έκδοση Επιστημονικού Προβληματισμού και Παιδείας

UK Constitutional Law Association

affiliated to the International Association of Constitutional Law

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The most influential portal on European integration in the Western Balkans

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... news, history and much more ...