Government’s use of rules to send highly vulnerable people back to first EU country they entered is being challenged in courts
The British government is fighting in several court cases for the right to use European asylum law to deport refugees and asylum seekers back to countries including Italy, which have taken in far more refugees than the UK.
In a series of test cases, lawyers are challenging the government over its use of what is known as the Dublin regulation, which states that asylum seekers must apply for asylum in the first EU country they enter.
In one case being heard by the court of appeal, the Home Office is defending the right to remove an Eritrean woman to Italy, even though she says she was raped several times while sleeping on the streets there. Being heard alongside that appeal is the case of an Afghan man who tried to kill himself in Italy after ending up homeless. Both were left destitute despite being given refugee protection in Italy.
Greg Ó Ceallaigh, a barrister from Garden Court chambers, who is challenging removals to Italy, France and Austria, said the pressure on reception facilities caused by the refugee crisis has a disproportionately damaging effect on vulnerable people.
“It’s become catastrophic, the system is under too much pressure,” he said. “The places they are being sent back to don’t have enough security, there is not enough access to mental health facilities. Inevitably some people are more seriously affected by inadequate reception facilities.”
Ó Ceallaigh said: “The government position is that if you have been fingerprinted somewhere else they will send you there, whereas actually the Dublin regulation is more nuanced than that. The government is not interested in that, they are just interested in where people can be put.”
Judgments from senior European courts have led to restrictions on the ability of governments to remove children and families under the Dublin regulations and have stopped removals to Greece entirely, but the British government is fighting at the highest level within the EU to hold on to the Dublin law.
Ahmed (not his real name), from Daraa in Syria, travelled to the UK last year to join his younger brother and cousin who live here. When British police matched his fingerprints to those taken in Italy he was detained and told he would be sent back there. He told the Guardian he refused to return voluntarily because of his experience in Italy.
“I pleaded with them to send me back to Syria, I told them I would rather die than go back to Italy,” he said. “In Rome, the police held me down and beat me to get my fingerprints and I slept on the street. But they say this is the European law, you must go to Italy.”
He said he was forced on to a plane at Heathrow. “They tied me up with straps and four men took me on to the plane crying and screaming, including a doctor because I said I was going to kill myself.”
He said when he got to Italy the police sent him on to the streets again without offering any support or the chance to claim asylum. “I said I was hungry. They said just go and find food for yourself. I had some money so I went out on my own and went straight back to France.”
He made his way to Ireland where he has a new asylum claim pending, hoping to eventually be reunited with his family in the UK.
A Home Office spokesperson said the government does not remove people to another country unless it is satisfied it is safe and reasonable. “The UK has a proud history of offering protection to those who need it,” the spokesperson said. “Each case is considered on its individual merits and in line with the rules, but we will not shoulder the burden of asylum claims which should rightly be processed by other countries.”
Campaigners say the ongoing removals to Italy and other countries on Europe’s borders are undermining attempts to relieve pressure on these countries.
Between January and September last year, the UK made just over 2,000 requests to transfer asylum seekers to another EU country under the Dublin regulations, although only about a quarter of those requests ended in a removal within that time period. Italy was the main recipient, with 779 “take back” requests and 174 transfers.
In total, from all European countries Italy received more than 14,000 requests to take back asylum seekers under the Dublin law between January and September last year. In contrast, 598 people had been relocated from Italy and Greece (pdf)under the European relocation programme as of 24 February 2016.
The Refugee Council’s chief executive, Maurice Wren, said: “It’s wholly inappropriate that at a time when the rest of the EU is working together to relocate arrivals away from the countries on Europe’s borders whose asylum systems appear to be dysfunctional, Britain is trying to send asylum seekers back there.”
Lawyers say vulnerable young people are also being adversely affected by the ongoing use of the Dublin law.
Stuart Luke, a solicitor at Bhatia Best in Nottingham, says the Dublin law creates an incentive for the Home Office to decide that a young person is over 18 and can therefore be removed.
“I am working with an Eritrean boy, Abel [not his real name], who was originally judged by a senior immigration officer to be over 18 and placed in adult detention. We got him out and when he was properly assessed it was accepted he was 16. The Home Office assessed the boy as significantly over 19 because he was in a holding room with adults and ‘didn’t stick out’. That is very subjective.”
Source: The Guardian