28 February 2012 – The European Commission has put forward procedural arguments in order not to address human rights concerns in relation with the measures imposed on the countries of the Western Balkans in order to curb the number of asylum seekers in the EU. In its reply to the questions raised by NGOs, the European Commission stated that “all relevant issues at this stage have been considered” and announced that it would discontinue correspondence.
The NGOs addressed a first letter to Commissioner Cecilia Malmström in charge of Home affairs, in October 2010, following media announcements according to which the Commissioner had written to the governments of the countries of the Western Balkans requesting them to reduce the number of asylum seekers in order to avoid a reintroduction of visa requirements. The NGOs objected that this request was contrary to basic principles of international human rights principles such as freedom of movement and the right to asylum protected and asked the Commissioner to recall her letter.
The NGOs resumed correspondence following the publication, by the Commission, in May, of a proposal aiming to introduce a “safeguard clause” into the visa-free regime with third countries. If adopted by the European Parliament, which has to vote on it in April, this clause will enable the EU to temporary reintroduce visa requirements for citizens of third countries, which have been previously granted a visa waiver, in case of a major affluence of asylum seekers or an increase of undocumented immigrants.
The NGOs provided a detailed account of the measures, which had been taken by the countries of the Western Balkans in order to diffuse pressures by the EU Commission and individual member states regarding a possible reintroduction of visa requirements. They argued that some of these measures such as the temporary revocation of passports and other forms of travel bans result in an infringement of European and international human rights standards. The NGOs pointed out the discriminatory character of these measures which target essentially members of ethnic minorities and criticized the stigmatization of Roma as bogus asylum seekers.
Their position was supported by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, who, underlined in a human rights comment, that the right to leave one’s country was universally protected and expressed concern about the scape-goating of Roma over the pressures on the visa regime. In an opinion to the European Parliament, the Meijers Committee, a committee of independent legal experts specializing in the field of migration and international criminal law, likewise concluded “that EU pressure on third countries to prevent Roma from entering the EU in order to claim asylum (…) interferes with the human rights to leave one’s country and to seek asylum” and showed concern that it may lead to discriminatory border controls, which would “contribute to a climate of stigmatisation and repression of ethnic minorities in Balkan countries.”
The European Commission has persistently refused to comment on these concerns. In her reply to the questions raised by the NGOs, the Head of cabinet of Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, Maria Ǻsenius, denied that the travel restrictions were particularly targeting Roma and members of other ethnic minorities. She argued that “the only measures targeting minority communities are those aiming at their better integration, e.g. measures to increase employment and schooling, as well as measures to provide better opportunities for housing, medical care, etc.” adding that “[t]he fact that the majority of the asylum applicants from the Western Balkan countries are from Roma origin does not prove that the measures to tackle abuse of the visa free regime are discriminatory.”
Similar answers were also given to MEPs asking the European Commission to justify its “undue pressure on the Balkan countries” compelling these countries “to violate the human rights and fundamental freedoms of a particularly vulnerable social group” and to comment on the compatibility of the travel restrictions with the relevant EU acquis and, more generally, international human rights standards. “The Commission is not competent to decide on individual cases, as referred in the question.” the Commission said laconically in its answer to a question by MEP Barbara Lochbihler, specifying however, that the Commission paid particular attention to the existence of legal remedies.
With its decision to discontinue communication with the NGOs, the European Commission has also deprived the NGOs from relevant information at the very moment, where the visa liberalization is debated in the European Parliament. Chachipe as the initiator of the correspondence considers this as unacceptable. The organization has filed a complaint with the Secretariat General of the European Commission arguing that the attitude of the European Commission of not answering legitimate concerns raised by NGOs was against the principle of good administrative behaviour.