A court in the German federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia has ruled in favour of two asylum seekers, one from Somalia and the other Mali, whose asylum applications had been rejected because they came into the EU via Italy. The court has decided that, because they could expect inhumane or degrading treatement if sent back to Italy, their asylum claims should be heard in Germany.
The ruling is significant, as it shakes up some of how asylum processing happens in the EU.
Under perhaps one of the more well-known EU migration laws, the Dublin regulation, member states are allowed to send people back to the first EU country they were registered in. It’s a complicated process, and not without criticism. Asylum seekers and their advocates don’t like it because it denies agency to an asylum seeker who in theory has the right to claim asylum in the country of their choice (or, more specifically, is not obliged to do so in the first “safe” country they land in). “Frontline” states on the EU border such as Italy, Greece and Hungary don’t like the regulation either, because it unfairly places the burden for humanitarian accomodation on them, while Northern member states can admit people as and when they want to.
Germany previously suspended its participation in the process during the political crisis around migration to Europe in 2015 and 2016, at a time when around a million refugees made their way to Germany. The regulation has since come back however, and continues to cause confusion and misery for many refugees.
Now, with this ruling, the North Rhine-Westphalia court has thrown an obstacle in the way of this process. Both men had had their asylum applications rejected by regional courts because they were already registered in Italy (technically speaking, the Somali man had already been recognised as a refugee in Italy, while the Malian man had yet to receive any protection). For both men, however, a removal back to Italy would have meant likely destitution, as neither had much prospect of finding housing, support or employment. Their asylum claims, therefore, should be heard in Germany.
The ruling acknowledges something many refugee advocates have been saying for a long time. Just because an asylum seeker or refugee finds herself in a country that is relatively safer than the region they came from, that does not mean they are in fact free from danger, poverty or desitution just because they are in any given EU state.
This is a relevant issue in a number of countries, not just Italy and Germany. Greece, for instance, is considered by many people to be an unsafe country for some refugees, as the Greek authorities have been observed abusing refugees as well as forcing them further back into dangerous regions, violating the international principle of non-refoulement.
The conversation is salient in the U.K. as well, at a time when prominent anti-immigrant voices are decrying people crossing the English channel from “safe” France in order to claim asylum. The U.K. human rights advocate Daniel Sohege has repeatedly pointed out all the reasons a refugee may not feel safe in France, even though the avergae Brit might:
The U.K. has in any case withdrawn from the Dublin system, but the government is actively pursuing measures to prevent more people arriving in the U.K., including a controversial bill to make it illegal to seek asylum when arriving by “irregular” means (ie, arriving without already having an entry permit).
The court in the German case has ruled out a further appeal, though the government could still lodge a complaint against the ruling to be heard at the federal level.