Events of 2011

Even as the EU and member states proclaimed the importance of human rights in the pro-democracy Arab Spring movements, they remained unwilling to prioritize human rights at home. Policy responses to migration from North Africa – including calls to limit free movement inside EU internal borders, disputes over rescuing boat migrants in peril, and reluctance to resettle refugees from Libya – exemplified this negative approach.

The European Commission failed to pursue vigorously its duty to enforce fundamental rights, dropping proceedings against Hungary over its media law and France over Roma expulsions, and suspending proceedings against Greece on its dysfunctional asylum and migration system despite continuing problems. The commission's first annual report on rights inside the EU shied away from criticizing members states, with Fundamental Rights Commissioner Viviane Reding emphasizing that the Charter for Fundamental Rights was a "compass" rather than a "stick."

Populist extremist parties remained strong across the EU, corroding mainstream politics especially on issues related to Roma, Muslims, and migrants. Governments frequently responded by echoing these parties' criticism of minorities and pursuing policies that infringed human rights.

Common EU Asylum and Migration Policy

Upheaval in North Africa brought thousands of migrants and asylum seekers to European shores. The United Nations estimated that at least 1,400 people died crossing the Mediterranean in the first seven months of 2011, most as they tried to flee Libya. While rescue efforts – particularly by Italy and Malta – saved countless lives, poor coordination and disputes over where to disembark rescued migrants endangered others.

The Council of Europe (CoE) Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) initiated an inquiry in June into the deaths of boat migrants in the Mediterranean since January, following allegations that European and NATO warships ignored the plight of a boat in distress in late March or early April, leading to 63 deaths.

One hundred migrants rescued by a Spanish NATO warship spent five days at sea in July as Spain, Italy, and Malta refused to take them (Tunisia agreed). The dispute prompted concerns that NATO ships would be more reluctant to rescue migrants in the future. In August Italy accused NATO of forcing Italian coast guards to assist a boat in distress despite a NATO ship's greater proximity.

With Tunisia and Egypt hosting hundreds of thousands displaced by the Libyan conflict, EU countries remained reluctant to help. As of September eight EU states had agreed to resettle fewer than 700 UN-recognized refugees from North Africa.

In June the European Commission presented proposals to revise the Reception Directive, which covers assistance to asylum seekers, and the Procedures Directive, which deals with asylum procedures. The proposals – which include broad grounds for detention, low standards on access to social assistance and healthcare, and expanded use of fast-track asylum procedures – remained subject to negotiation with the EU's council and parliament at this writing. Amendments to the Qualification Directive, approved by the European Parliament in October, improved protection for victims of gender-related persecution and children. At this writing the council had yet to adopt the modified directive.

Legal proceedings in 2011 highlighted structural defects with the Dublin II Regulation, which generally requires that asylum claims be heard in the first EU state entered. Opposition from a majority of EU states blocked efforts to reform the regulation, which places a disproportionate burden on countries at the EU's external borders.

In January the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) Grand Chamber ruled in MSS v. Belgium and Greece that Belgium's transfer of an Afghan asylum seeker to Greece under the regulation exposed him to abusive detention conditions in Greece and denied him the chance to seek asylum. An advocate general of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) said in September, in another case involving a transfer to Greece, that an EU country must examine an asylum claim if return to the first country of entry would expose the individual to rights violations. The CJEU had not ruled on the case at this writing.

Also at this writing at least eight EU states were processing claims from asylum seekers who passed through Greece and a larger number had suspended returns to Greece.

The debate about whether to reinstitute internal border controls in the Schengen area – a free movement zone comprising 25 EU and other countries – sparked in part by a dispute between France and Italy over Tunisian migrants, raised concerns that EU member states might restore checks in a discriminatory way. France intensified document checks at and around the border with Italy in an apparent effort to identify Tunisian migrants coming from Italy. A police union revealed that an official notice in the Cannes central police station in February calling on officers to target Tunisians for such checks had been removed following protests.

Changes to the regulations governing Frontex, the EU's external border agency, adopted in September and October made more explicit its duty to respect human rights in its operations, and established a rights officer post and a forum to consult civil society, but failed to create a mechanism to hold Frontex accountable for rights violations. Frontex border guards on the Greece-Turkey border were complicit in exposing migrants to abusive conditions in Greek detention centers.

The CJEU ruled in March that undocumented parents of children who themselves are EU citizens are entitled to reside and work in the EU. The court ruled in April that member states cannot impose prison terms on undocumented migrants for failing to leave the country when ordered.

Discrimination and Intolerance

The horrific terrorist attacks in Norway (not an EU state) in July underscored growing intolerance in Europe. One man killed 77 people – almost half of them children – and injured over 150 in two separate attacks on the same day. His writings betrayed extremist, xenophobic, and anti-Muslim views, echoing what has increasingly become mainstream debate in Europe.

In February United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy separately declared multiculturalism a failed policy. The CoE's European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) warned in June against rising racism with hateful discourse, discrimination against Muslims, and violence targeting migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, calling anti-Roma sentiment one of the most acute problems in many European societies.

Laws banning women and girls from wearing full-face veils entered into force in France (April) and Belgium (July) amid criticism from Thomas Hammarberg, the CoE Commissioner for Human Rights, and human rights groups that these bans violate women's rights, non-discrimination, personal autonomy, and freedom of religion and expression. The first two women to receive fines, in September, for violating the ban in France announced they would appeal. Italy moved closer to adopting similar nationwide legislation when a parliamentary committee endorsed a bill in August, while the Netherlands's government proposed to adopt a ban on face-covering veils by 2013.

A June report by Hammarberg's office found that homophobic and transphobic biases persist in public opinion, policies, and laws. The UK announced it would lift its lifetime ban on gay men donating blood. Only three other EU member states allow gay men to donate (Italy, Portugal, and Sweden). Germany's Constitutional Court ruled in January that requiring transgender people to undergo sex reassignment surgery and irreversible sterilization to legally change their gender was unconstitutional. At least sixteen EU countries, including the Netherlands, have such requirements. The Dutch government submitted draft legislation in September to eliminate the requirement.

Eleven EU countries were among the first to sign a CoE convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence adopted in May. The convention requires measures to prevent violence, protect victims regardless of legal status in the country, and prosecute perpetrators.

In June the CoE Venice Commission rejected proposals to amend its official position on the political participation of persons with intellectual or mental disabilities by removing undue restrictions on their right to vote. This position violates the binding UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which has been ratified by 17 EU member states and the EU itself.

Counterterrorism Measures and Human Rights

Accountability remained elusive for complicity by EU countries in CIA rendition and secret prison programs. In January Lithuania's prosecutor general closed the investigation into secret CIA prisons in that country, one year after it began. In September Hammarberg criticized continuing failure to determine responsibilities in Romania, Poland, and Lithuania. In a resolution adopted in October PACE expressed concern about the use of state secrecy doctrine to undermine or impede appropriate parliamentary oversight of intelligence services and investigations into unlawful acts.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.