From 2 to 6 October 2017, the Commissioner for Human Rights visited Sweden. In his end-of-visit statement, he welcomed Sweden’s efforts on relocation and resettlement and reiterated the urgent need for European solidarity and the provision of safe and legal routes to Europe. He expressed hope that temporary restrictions on the rights of asylum introduced in 2016 would be lifted before the 2019 deadline. In this context, he particularly noted the urgency of lifting limitations on the right to family reunification for persons with subsidiary protection, which impede integration. He further called on the authorities to ensure that rejected asylum seekers who cannot be returned have their basic needs, including shelter, clothes and food, met. He met with a number of unaccompanied minors of Afghan origin and called on the Swedish government to ensure the best interests of the child is always treated as a primary consideration in all decisions relating to asylum and migration. In the case of return, decisions should be taken on the basis of individual circumstances, including the demonstrable existence of a family network and a secure environment in the country of origin. The Commissioner further underlined that where it is unclear if a person is underage, the benefit of the doubt should be applied and the person treated as a minor.
On 11 October 2017, the Commissioner published his exchange of letters with the Italian Minister of Interior, Marco Minitti. The Commissioner expressed his appreciation for Italy’s efforts in saving lives at sea and receiving migrants in recent years. However, even when facing difficulties, Italy has a duty to protect and safeguard the human rights of migrants. In this regard, the Commissioner pointed to the relevance of the European Court of Human Rights’ case law on interceptions at sea for the recently instituted operations of the Italian navy in Libyan territorial waters. He noted the very serious human rights situation in Libya and urged the Italian government to clarify what kind of support they expected to provide to the Libyan authorities and what safeguards were in place to ensure that people intercepted or rescued by Italian ships would not be subjected to torture, or inhuman or degrading treatment. He also asked for information on measures to ensure search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, including those by NGOs, could continue to be carried out effectively and safely.
On 17 October 2017, the Commissioner published the report of his visit to Switzerland, which took place in May 2017. He welcomed the new law on asylum, which should result in faster and higher quality asylum procedures, in particular the provision of free legal aid. In relation to plans to revise rules on temporary admission, the Commissioner called on the Swiss authorities to establish a subsidiary protection status that would guarantee the same rights as those recognised as refugees under the 1951 Convention. He particularly noted that those with temporary protection often remained in a difficult and precarious situation that impedes their integration, and that legal restrictions with regard to geographical mobility, family reunification and social assistance should be lifted. He also called for the removal of the possibility in some cantons of detaining migrant children from the age of 15, and for an end of the detention of migrant children with or without their families, in transit zones of international airports. He recommended that separation of parents from their children in removal proceedings should be ended and noted the need to promote alternatives to immigration detention.
In an opinion editorial published on 24 October 2017 in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Commissioner called on the new German government to ease family reunification for beneficiaries of international protection. Recalling that the family is protected by national and international laws, the Commissioner argues that Germany has an obligation to protect the family life also of beneficiaries of international protection. Moreover, he underscores that allowing beneficiaries of international protection to reunify with their family members could be a powerful integration tool which will eventually benefit the society of the host country and save lives by providing safe and legal avenues to people to reach Europe to reunite with their family.
On 26 October 2017, the Commissioner published a Human Rights Comment on refugee family reunification. In the Comment, he draws attention to the legal obligations of member states to allow and facilitate family reunification of persons receiving international protection, and highlights the increasing restrictions imposed on family reunification over the last years. He emphasises the need for a long-term outlook on the impact on family separation, which has a severe impact on refugees themselves, but also hampers integration and the goal of achieving safe and legal migration to Europe.. The Commissioner particularly notes the need to address the different family reunification rights of refugees and persons with subsidiary protection, the definition of eligible family members, the position of children in the reunification process, waiting times and other barriers to quick and effective access to family reunification.
On 7 November 2017, the Commissioner published the report of his visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, which took place in June 2017. In the report, he addresses the situation of internally displaced persons, some 50 000 of whom still need sustained attention and targeted assistance. The Commissioner urged the authorities to continue in a determined and principled manner to remedy the effects of displacement, in particular by addressing IDPs’ access to economic and social rights, including adequate housing. He also drew attention to hate crimes, including against returnees. The Commissioner noted with satisfaction the progress made in the eradication of statelessness, and called on the authorities to continue and complete their work on this. He also called for the accession to the 2006 Council of Europe Convention for the Avoidance of Statelessness in relation to State Succession.
From 7 to 10 November 2017, the Commissioner visited Malta. In his end-of-visit statement, he welcomed positive steps taken as regards the end of the migrants’ automatic detention policy and Malta’s participation in the EU relocation programme. He visited the Hal Far reception centre, observing that conditions in family units were better than in the single men’s unit and noting that, despite ameliorations, further improvement with regards to the single men’s unit were necessary. The Commissioner also noted the problem of affordable housing for recognised refugees and persons with subsidiary protection, as well as for low-income Maltese household, and urged the government to address this urgently. Although Maltese asylum procedures yield high recognition rates, the Commissioner expressed concern about the frequent lack of legal motivation and of inconsistency of Refugee Appeals Boards’ decisions, and the fact that most successful asylum seekers were granted subsidiary protection rather than refugee status, leaving them without entitlement to family reunification, an essential factor for integration. The Commissioner welcomed the adoption of the first migrant integration strategy, and invited the government to systematise its implementation. In this context, he particularly encouraged the facilitation of access to citizenship for long-term residents.On 21 November 2017 in Bern, the Commissioner will deliver a speech at the conference ‘The Principle of Family Unity for Refugees in Switzerland – Are International Human Rights Standards Applied?’, hosted by UNHCR and the Centre Suisse pour la Défense des Droits des Migrants (CSDM).