An in-depth report issued on Thursday 1 April by the UN refugee agency highlights numerous differences in the way 12 European Union (EU) member states assess asylum applications.
The hefty study, "Improving Asylum Procedures," is the result of a year of intensive investigation into how the EU's Asylum Procedures Directive has been applied in Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Spain and the United Kingdom.
Researchers studied more than 1,000 individual case files and asylum decisions, observed hundreds of interviews of applicants and interviewed asylum officials, judges, lawyers and other stakeholders.
In many parts of the world, refugee protection is accorded on a group or prima facie basis. In Europe and the rest of the industrialized world, asylum decisions are based on individual assessments. The Asylum Procedures Directive governs this process in the EU. The way in which this directive is applied affects thousands of people seeking international protection in the EU, which registered 246,200 asylum claims last year.
Adopted in 2005, the Asylum Procedures Directive aims at ensuring consistency in refugee status determination procedures across the 27-member European Union. It sets out procedural guarantees for asylum procedures, including for instance the rights to a personal interview, to appeal a decision and to receive information on the outcome of an asylum claim.
"Asylum decision-making is one of the most difficult administrative or judicial tasks,"said UNHCR Director for Europe Judith Kumin. "It involves an assessment of facts, subjective fear, credibility and future risk – and it can be a matter of life or death for the asylum-seeker."
EU member states have committed to work toward a Common Asylum System. It was clear from the start of this process that one of the biggest challenges would be to ensure that refugee status determinations are done in a consistent way across the EU.
"Asylum-seekers must have the same chances, no matter where in the EU they lodge their claims," said Kumin. "This is currently not the case."
The study found not only that member states are applying the Asylum Procedures Directive in diverging ways, but, in some cases, in ways that may breach international refugee law.
Researchers reported that applicants were not always afforded personal interviews, or were not given enough time to prepare for interviews or to explain their claims. Interpreters were not always available or qualified.
Reasons for decisions in individual cases were not always given, while many categories of claims were channelled into accelerated processes with reduced safeguards. Lists of so-called safe countries of origin varied widely and the process for this designation was not always transparent. These and other practices, the study concludes, create the risk that protection needs are not properly identified and people may be sent back to countries where they face persecution or grave personal harm.
At the same time, the research identified many good practices, including the provision of clear information on how to appeal negative decisions, codes of conduct for interviewers and interpreters, careful recording of interviews and of decisions, and good cross-cultural communication skills on the part of interviewers.
Based on the study, UNHCR proposes practical measures to help EU countries improve their practices, including training of officials in charge of examining asylum claims, and guidelines and codes of conduct for interviewers and interpreters. Some of these initiatives could be undertaken by the European Asylum Support Office, which is due to open later this year in Malta. UNHCR will sit on the board of this new EU agency.
The UNHCR research project received financial support from the European Commission's European Refugee Fund as well as from the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund and UNHCR's German partner, UNO-Flüchtlingshilfe.