The Commissioner's Human Rights Comments

Back The right to leave one’s country should be applied without discrimination

Human Rights Comment
Strasbourg 22/11/2011
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The right to leave one’s country should be applied without discrimination

Strong measures have been taken by the Macedonian authorities to prevent citizens from travelling to EU countries - and seeking asylum there. The numbers doing so have gone up considerably since the EU agreed that people in Balkan countries would no longer require visas to enter EU territory. Governments within the EU have reacted and warned that the entire process of visa liberalisation might now be in jeopardy.

In response the government in “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” has decided to criminalise “abuse of the European Union visa-free regime and of the Schengen agreement”. It has also determined that those who have been forcibly returned as failed asylum seekers could have their passports temporarily confiscated.

Other countries in the region have also taken steps to prevent certain people from travelling to EU countries. Those who seek to leave for the EU area are asked to justify the purpose of their intended travel and to prove that they can finance their stay there as well as their return. If the answers are deemed unsatisfactory the travel may not be allowed.

In the present anti-migrant climate, it should not come as a surprise that EU countries have reacted to the increase in asylum requests. In 2010 – the first year after the visa liberalisation - Sweden received 7,900 applications from persons coming from Serbia while Germany and France received 6,500 and 5,800 respectively. So far this year the numbers are lower. Almost all decisions on these applications have been negative.

This is the background to the pressure exerted on the countries of origin – and to their response. However, the concrete measures taken do raise some serious problems.

Right to leave

Though states have a legitimate authority to regulate immigration, the right of the individual to leave his or her country is an established human right. This right was guaranteed already in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “Everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own”, is the formulation used in the European Convention on Human Rights (Protocol 4, Article 2). This right is also protected in the constitutions of states in the Balkans.

Even if no formal ban on leaving has been decided, the exit procedures now being introduced and the risk of penalties on return may in reality have such an effect.

Significantly, it is the minorities, and in particular the Roma, who have become targeted. Everyone cannot be checked on exit and the selection is being done on the basis of “profiling”. The result is another layer of discrimination against this minority.

This is further amplified by the notion in public discourse that the visa-exempt status may be withdrawn because of the movement of Roma people. In other words, they are scapegoated again.

The pressure from the European Union has been justified by references to the need to stop networks of organised migrant smuggling. It is certainly important to put an end to exploitation and manipulation by smugglers. However, such practices appear not to be the typical pattern in this case.

Tackle the root causes – not only the symptoms

Many of those who have moved and sought asylum within the EU have done so on their own initiative and because of a genuine experience of physical and/or economic insecurity. They have wanted to get away from injustices and/or poverty and abject misery. The fact that the Roma are overrepresented in this category only reflects their real situation in the region.

The increase in asylum applications in some countries is a symptom rather than the core problem. It represents another sign that Europe has failed to break the cycle of anti-Gypsyism, discrimination and marginalisation of Roma populations. It should be seen as a reminder that serious action is overdue.

It is obvious that even if and when the necessary political will for effective action for minority rights is mobilised, it will take considerable time before the root causes of these problems are eradicated and Roma families no longer feel the urge to seek a future abroad.

In the meantime, any discriminatory treatment of the Roma must be avoided by the destination countries. Seeking asylum is a human right and those who have grounds for protection status should be granted such status. Others will have to accept a negative decision.

Measures such as improved dissemination of information about the asylum rules in the Schengen area would be constructive. However, pressure on Balkan governments to undermine the human right of their citizens to leave their country is not.

Thomas Hammarberg