Promoting Safe and Legal Avenues for Protection Seekers in Europe

On 3 October 2013, a boat carrying more than 500 migrants – men, women and children – sank before reaching the Italian island of Lampedusa. Over 300 people lost their lives. Almost everyone on board the vessel was from Eritrea and Somalia: two countries from which many of Europe’s refugees and asylum seekers originate.

This tragedy was particularly horrific given the large number of lives lost, and yet it was the third incident of this kind to occur within a two-week period. For decades, people have continued to risk their lives in attempting to reach Europe by sea. Over the past year, more than 30,000 migrants have taken this route to the small Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, which sees almost 2,000 new arrivals on its shores each week.

The 3 October incident provoked a strong reaction from civil society, politicians and media outlets across Europe. A common sentiment expressed by decision-makers at the time was that Europe must do more to prevent these accidents from happening again. There is, however, a need for more in the way of positive action from European governments and the broader international community than these words from policy-makers have offered thus far.

Over the past few decades, it has been increasingly difficult to seek protection in the European Union member states, with few options for legal immigration such as asylum and family reunification. Resettlement of refugees is only practiced by a few EU countries, and the numbers are small compared to other countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia. In addition, due to the restrictions posed by the Dublin regulation, many asylum seekers fall prey to smugglers, in order to reach their country of destination in Europe.

Policymakers and advocates for human rights have renewed their calls to create “safe and legal” avenues to Europe for people who seek refugee protection, and to this end, during my time at ISIM, I have explored the possibilities of offering such pathways to protection. In my internal research for Jesuit Refugee Service, I have examined the current legal framework of the European Union, exploring ways in which this could be amended in order to facilitate for external processing schemes commonly referred to as ‘protected entry procedures’. I have also analysed current practice in the United States and Canada, as well as some historic examples: namely, Haiti, Kosovo and the Orderly Departure Program from Vietnam.

Based on the experiences of other countries, I argue that external processing can be a useful tool in order to augment the protection of refugees. This allows people to submit an application for international protection outside the EU - either in their own country, or a host country close to their country of origin - reducing the need to resort to dangerous and/or illegal ways to reach their countries of destination. Currently, the EU legislation lacks a strong legal basis for external processing, since a variety of its provisions do not align well with external processing. There is, therefore, the need to amend the current EU laws. Among my observations and recommendations for implementation, I call for processing centres to be located in a country that is both safe and willing to act as host. Moreover, there must be adequate facilities and trained personnel available to staff and maintain the centres, as well as courts, legal aid offices and interpreting agencies providing high quality services that are also housed within these centres. There should also be as much UNHCR involvement as possible throughout the process. Finally, I advocate for solutions guided by humanitarian laws for those people who, in the course of processing procedures, are considered to be ineligible for international protection.

Christoph Hermann