Today, the EU leaders meet to discuss their approach to the current refugee crisis, one of the biggest humanitarian emergencies in Europe since WWII. The European deal yesterday, in which the majority of EU countries agreed to the principle of burden sharing was a positive first step. However, the numbers are given the scale of the crisis.
674 international legal scholars and experts in the field, among them academics from all top universities in the world as well as Glasgow’s Sarah Craig, Claire La Hovary and Anni Pues, reminded the European Leaders today, in an open letter, of their international legal obligations.
They urge European states and the EU to:
– meet their obligations of international responsibility-sharing, to resettle significant numbers of refugees and provide aid to countries hosting large numbers of refugees.
– as regards those seeking protection in Europe, abandon those policies which prevent safe and legal access to protection. The UNHCR estimates 2,860 people have died at sea trying to get to Europe this year alone. Suspending carrier sanctions and issuing humanitarian visas would largely prevent the need for those seeking refuge to make dangerous journeys.
– respect and protect the human rights of those seeking refuge once they are in Europe, including by enabling them to access asylum procedures or ensuring safe passage to countries where they wish to seek international protection.
– immediately suspend Dublin returns of asylum-seekers to their first point of entry, but ensure that its rules on family reunification are implemented fully and swiftly.
– relocate asylum-seekers and refugees in a manner that respects the dignity and agency of those relocated, and increases Europe’s capacity to offer protection.
– replace the Dublin System with one which accords with international human rights law and respects the dignity and autonomy of asylum-seekers, and supports international and intra-European responsibility-sharing.
– implement fair and swift procedures to recognize all those in need of international protection.
– while claims are being examined, afford those in need of international protection, at a minimum, the reception conditions to which they are entitled in international human rights and EU law.
– respect the right to family life, including positive obligations with regard to family unity, facilitation of swift family reunification and family tracing.
– treat all refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants with dignity and respect, respecting and protecting their human rights, irrespective of status.
Read the full letter.
International refugee law in context
In the aftermath of WWI and WWII, a body of International Law evolved around the protection of migrants and refugees. The 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol are key instruments and by 2015 148 states are party to one or both of these instruments. Additionally, the principle of non-refoulement is part of customary law and prohibits the return of a person to a country where her or his life or freedom is threatened.
In the EU, these international legal obligations have over time been severely undermined with a border regime that is designed to deter entry into the European Union and forces many onto a perilous and often deadly journey over the Mediterranean Sea.
The Open Letter started at the annual conference of the European Society of International Law in a session about the refugee crisis at 8 am on Saturday morning. Given that the conference dinner had taken place the night before, the attendance was amazing. I have personally been very moved by the current crisis and very angry by its handling by some countries. As someone who has represented refugees from Syria, Iraq and Turkey throughout my entire career as a legal practitioner in Germany, I have had moving insights into the personal hardship of many refugees.
Driven by the strong feeling that it is time for international lawyers to speak up and remind Europe of its binding international legal obligations – albeit being a little nervous given that I attended the conference as a PhD student rather than a practicing lawyer – I stood up and called for action. In less than 48 hours, the letter received worldwide and overwhelming support from some of the world’s leading international lawyers. International law does not have the mechanisms to enforce compliance by states so such initiatives can have an important moral force. Let us not forget the legacy of two world wars and our common humanity.