The European Commission plans to establish a common list of ‘safe countries of origin’ (SCO) across EU Member States in a bid to deal more efficiently with asylum claims from nationals of countries where persecution is deemed unlikely.
Commission officials claim that harmonising SCO lists will deter ‘abuse’ of EU asylum systems and fast-track claims that are likely to be unfounded, freeing up resources for more ‘deserving’ asylum seekers. I argue, however, that in targeting Western Balkan countries, this list will disproportionately affect the admissibility of asylum claims from Europe’s most persecuted minority, the Roma, and will add institutional legitimacy to widely-held beliefs that Roma are ‘false’ asylum seekers underserving of international protection.
The ‘safe countries of origin’ concept has been a controversial feature of the EU common asylum system since its adoption under the Asylum Procedures Directive in 2005. The practice of using accelerated procedures to assess claims from ‘safe’ countries has generated several legal debates, recently coming under renewed scrutiny from the International Federation of Human Rights (among many others) for lowering the procedural guarantees in individual cases and placing an excessive burden of proof on the applicant’s claim.
There are, however, currently twelve EU Member States using these SCO lists, and if all goes as planned the European Commission will have replaced these with a common list in three years’ time. The countries proposed for this list are Turkey and the six Western Balkan states (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, FYR Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia), whose nationals collectively made up 17% of the asylum applications lodged in the EU in 2016.
What these statistics hide is the fact that the overwhelming majority of asylum claims from the Western Balkans are made by Roma. Deutsche Welle estimates that upwards of 90% of asylum applications lodged by Serbian nationals in Germany are by Roma, for instance, and similar numbers apply to asylum seekers from across the Western Balkans. The German Government responded to this in late 2015 by extending its SCO list to include Albania and Kosovo (both ranking in the top five countries of origin for asylum claims in the EU in 2015), as well as Macedonia. This change to national legislation was controversially used as grounds for the repatriation of thousands of Roma to Kosovo who had sought refuge in Germany during the Yugoslav Wars of the early 1990s, leading to accusations that Roma have been targeted to ‘make room’ for Syrian refugees.
The European Commission now risks making Germany’s crisis management strategy a permanent feature of the EU common asylum policy. Its SCO list institutionally legitimises widely-held beliefs that Roma migrations to EU Member States from the Western Balkans are opportunistic and fraudulent, rather than based on potentially legitimate grounds for asylum. For the EU to collectively adopt the Western Balkan states as ‘safe countries of origin’ would be to turn a blind eye to the structural nature of Roma people’s social exclusion and discrimination in the Western Balkan region. Indeed, by the standards of the UN’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the ‘cumulative’ counts of discrimination Roma face can amount to such extreme situations as to be considered a form of ‘persecution’, thus constituting legitimate grounds for claiming asylum.
What is at stake, then, is institutionally reinforcing a hierarchy between ‘deserving’ refugees from the Middle East and ‘undeserving’ Roma from the fringes of the European Union. In recent years, the European Commission has repeatedly stated its commitment to fostering the social inclusion and protecting the rights of Roma EU citizens. I believe, however, that the Commission has a responsibility to extend this commitment to the Roma living in Western Balkan countries, all of which are currently either potential or official candidate countries for EU membership. At the very least, it should ensure that it meets its obligations towards them as enshrined in international law.
Even if the European Commission and Member States respect the European Parliament’s insistence that ‘minorities’ from these ‘safe countries’ be exempted from accelerated processing of their claims, the common SCO list would continue to circulate prejudices that Roma asylum seekers are fraudulent – prejudices that have underpinned appeals from some Member States to reintroduce visa controls for Western Balkan nationals in a desperate attempt to keep asylum seekers off EU territory. The Commission’s SCO list proposal, unsurprisingly backed by EU Member States, is evidence of a similar practice in a different form.
To assume that any country is ‘safe’ and free of persecution is a questionable policy. The fact that Roma EU citizens from Central and Eastern Europe continue to be granted asylum in Canada and elsewhere (even if in low numbers) shows that even EU Member States produce their own refugees. As pressures mount on EU officials to reform asylum and migration policies and legislation, supporting national efforts to shut out the most vulnerable minority in the EU’s neighbourhood will only serve to further undermine the EU’s self-image as a protector of human rights.