In the face of a political and economic crisis affecting the European Union and many of its member states, protection of human rights was rarely a priority in 2012, especially when those negatively affected were marginalized or unpopular groups, such as Roma, migrants, and asylum seekers.

Despite deteriorating rights in Hungary and elsewhere, EU institutions largely failed to live up to the promise of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, with the European Council particularly reluctant to hold member states to account for abuse.

EU Migration and Asylum Policy

Despite efforts towards establishing the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) by the end of 2012, migrants and asylum seekers continue to experience gaps in accessing asylum and poor reception and detention conditions, including for unaccompanied children. At this writing, the EU had not adopted a coordinated response to the Syrian refugee crisis, and Syrians had access to varying levels of access to protection in different member states.

In May, the EU adopted the Action on Migratory Pressures strategy detailing a broad range of steps, including strengthening the capacity of countries outside the EU to control their borders and the capacity for those countries to provide refugee or humanitarian protection to individuals who might otherwise seek to travel on to EU countries.

Boat migration across the Mediterranean decreased, although over 300 people died at sea between January and November. In April, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted a report documenting a "catalogue of failures" by EU member states, Libya, and NATO resulting in the deaths of 63 boat migrants in April 2011. Negotiations continued to create the European Border Surveillance System (EUROSUR) amid concerns that it lacked clear guidelines and mechanisms for ensuring rescue of migrants and asylum seekers at sea.

In September, the European Union Court of Justice (CJEU) annulled rules governing sea surveillance by the EU border agency Frontex, including where rescued boat migrants are to be disembarked, because the European Parliament had not approved them. The rules remain in effect until new ones are adopted. An inquiry that the European ombudsman launched in March into Frontex compliance with fundamental rights continued at this writing. Frontex appointed its new fundamental rights officer in September.

Efforts to revise common EU asylum rules progressed, with changes to the EU Qualification Directive agreed in December 2011 providing clearer recognition of gender-specific forms of persecution and gender identity as ground for protection. The European Parliament and the European Council were expected to give changes to the Reception Directive and Dublin II Regulation their final approval by the end of 2012. Changes on minimum reception conditions would improve access to employment and oblige states to identify vulnerable groups, but still allow detention of asylum seekers, including unaccompanied children.

Changes to Dublin II would block transfers to countries where an asylum seeker risks inhuman or degrading treatment, following a December 2011 ruling by the CJEU on Greece, and improve safeguards but leave intact the general rule that the first EU country of entry is responsible for claims. In September, the CJEU ruled that member states must provide minimum reception standards to all asylum seekers awaiting transfer under Dublin II.

In September, the European Commission released its mid-point assessment of the Action Plan for Unaccompanied Minors, noting improvements in coordination, dedicated European funding, and the European Asylum Support Office's positive role, but also problems with data collection. Discrepancies in age assessment procedures continued, with insufficient procedures in Greece, Italy, and Malta affecting access to appropriate services. Unaccompanied children faced detention in the EU, including Greece and Malta. In July, Malta initiated a review of immigration detention, including policies affecting children whose age is disputed.

In September, Denmark joined efforts by Norway, the UK, and Sweden – through the EU-funded European Return Platform for Unaccompanied Minors (ERPUM) – to initiate the return of unaccompanied Afghan children to Afghanistan, despite serious risks of violence, military recruitment, and destitution. At this writing none had been returned.

In March, the EU adopted a framework for facilitating refugee resettlement, including increased funds. Five EU countries formally announced national resettlement programs in 2012, but resettling refugees displaced by conflict in Libya the previous year progressed slowly. In September, Germany resettled 195 refugees who had taken shelter in Tunisia.

In June, EU interior ministers endorsed a proposal allowing member states to reinstate border controls within the Schengen area – a free movement zone comprising 25 EU and other countries – if a country fails to control external EU borders. There were enduring concerns that countries, including France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy, use ethnic profiling to conduct spot-checks at internal borders. In response to a 73 percent increase over last year in asylum applications from Balkan countries – primarily from Roma and ethnic Albanians from Serbia and Macedonia, the vast majority rejected – some member states including Germany and France pressed for renewed visa restrictions on Balkan citizens, and in October, the European Commission called on Balkan states to do more to arrest the trend.

Discrimination and Intolerance

A Fundamental Rights Agency survey published in May showed destitution and social exclusion among Roma in 11 EU countries, with high levels of unemployment (over 66 percent) and low levels of secondary school graduation (around 15 percent). In May, a European Commission assessment on progress by member states in integrating Roma found gaps in health care and housing. In August, the commission announced it was monitoring evictions and removals of Eastern European Roma from France, and in September wrote to Italy asking for information about discrimination against Roma.

The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) warned in May that economic downturn and austerity were feeding intolerance and anti-immigrant violence. Council of Europe (CoE) Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks called in July for a "European Spring" to counter anti-Muslim prejudice, citing bans on full-face veils and ethnic profiling by police as examples.

In October, the EU adopted a directive on minimum standards for victims, obliging states to ensure access to justice without discrimination, including for undocumented migrants.

At this writing, 14 EU member states had signed (but not ratified) the CoE Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, including the United Kingdom in June, and Belgium and Italy in September.


European parliamentarians and victims continued to demand accountability for complicity in counterterrorism abuses. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) heard arguments in May in its first case on European complicity in rendition to torture by the United States concerning German citizen Khaled al-Masri who was detained in Macedonia in 2003 before the US rendered him to torture in Afghanistan. At this writing, similar cases against Poland, Romania, and Lithuania remained pending before the court.

A European Parliament report and accompanying September resolution condemned the lack of transparency and use of state secrecy impeding public accountability for collusion in abuses. The report urged full inquiries in Romania, Lithuania, and Poland, and called on other EU countries to disclose information about secret CIA flights on their territory.

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