Last Friday 23 of March the Belgian government adopted a list of seven safe countries of origin, which included Albania and Kosovo. Asylum seekers from those countries will now have their applications examined in an accelerated procedure in a bid to counter “abuse of the asylum procedure”, on the assumption that in these countries persecution is unlikely to occur. This Monday, exactly three days later, the French Conseil d’Etat annulled the decision of the French administration to add Albania and Kosovo to the French list of safe countries of origin.

As a result, whereas in Belgium asylum seekers from Albania and Kosovo will have to overcome an additional procedural hurdle and demonstrate that the presumption of safety does not apply in their individual case, in neighbouring France they can no longer be considered as originating from a safe country.

Meanwhile the EU is trying to establish a Common European Asylum System (CEAS) by the end of 2012 which according to the Stockholm Programme should guarantee every applicant the same chance of success regardless of the Member State in which he or she lodges an application. The opposite approaches in France and Belgium with regard to Albania and Kosovo as safe countries of origin are clearly incompatible with the objective of a harmonised system as envisaged under the Lisbon Treaty.

Past experience also raises questions as to the feasibility of a common approach to safe countries of origin within a CEAS. Attempts in the past to establish a common minimum list of safe countries of origin in the Council have failed also because EU Member States designate different countries in such lists in their national practice, as is illustrated once again.

Moreover, if EU Member States cannot agree which countries to consider safe, while having signed the same Human Rights and Refugee conventions, surely there must be something wrong with the very concept of a safe country of origin. While being questionable under international refugee law, it also risks undermining access to a fair and efficient procedure, in particular when the designation of safe countries of origin is rigid and lacks sufficient flexibility to adjust to changing circumstances in those countries. One example: despite the recent coup d’etat in Mali, the country is still formally on the list of safe countries of origin in France for male asylum seekers.

As the EU institutions are discussing important amendments to the EU Asylum Procedures Directive maybe it is about time that they accept the inconvenient truth, namely that there is no such thing as a safe country of origin. The case law of the European Court of Human Rights and the work of human rights organisations in documenting human rights abuses across the globe remind us of this on a daily basis.

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This article originally appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 30 March 2012
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