Can Human Rights Activists Facing Trouble in their Countries Find Protection in the EU?

№1, December 2016

Alessio Scandurra (Observation Mission “Detention Conditions of Adults” at the Antigone Association, Italy) asks

We recently had a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on a pending bill on asylum/refugee status and procedures for human rights defenders coming from abroad. The issue regards the case in which a human rights defender needs to leave his country and  go abroad: is Italian legislation adequate to grant him entrance and protection in a reasonable time; is the procedure rational and efficient? Is Italy a welcoming country in case of need? What needs be changed in the legislation to make it better? We would like to know more about this.

Alexey Kozlov (EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, Germany) answers

First, if you are planning to proceed with human rights activism after moving to another country, you should avoid asking for asylum. In this case you would be prevented from working in a normal way for a long period of time – from six months, which is considered very fast, up to two years or  longer. If you cannot avoid applying for asylum ( if, say,  you are facing criminal charges), but have an opportunity to choose the country,  you would have the best chance in Finland, Sweden, Norway, Estonia, Lithuania  or Great Britain. Germany is a reasonable country too, though  because of large numbers  of refugees from the Middle East  it can take the authorities more than two years to process an application.

In fact, there is no special procedure for issuing residence permits to human rights activists. The German law allows for an application for a so called residence permit on humanitarian grounds, although  most  such applications  are rejected. The Swedish government is known for making exceptions.  This type of residence permits is being discussed in Brussels, but  talks are  in the initial stage and have so far  produced no results. Why is it important? In most  cases human rights activists have long-term C-type visas valid from six months to five years. This type of visa allows its carrier to stay in the Shengen countries for 90 days within each 180 days.  If you have to stay  longer,  a D-type visa is required  and cam normally  be applied for in the country of  permanent residence.

Harry Hummel (Netherlands Helsinki Committee) answers

Visa application procedures are a barrier to anybody wishing to seek asylum in countries of the Schengen zone (and other European countries  with similar policies, e.g. UK, Ireland). This also applies to human rights defenders . If someone applying for a visa at an embassy   indicates they will ask for asylum, this will complicate rather than facilitate the visa procedure because a requirement for  issuing a visa is that the person will go back to his/her country and not stay.This does not apply to many internationally active human rights defenders: they have a long-term multiple entry Schengen visa because they frequently attend events in Schengen countries. So  if they start  to fear repression they can quickly move to a Schengen country, and ask for asylum. Others who are less lucky usually will apply for a Schengen tourist visa (meaning they have to go through the ordinary application procedure) but this takes time, which is not always available. So  there are cases  of people moving first to a third  country which require no visa, with the intention of moving on later to the Schengen country where they want to seek asylum. This, however  creates new problems when that third country is deemed “safe” for people fleeing political repression; the country of final destination may not accept an asylum claim on that basis.

This document1 contains the European Union Guidelines for Human Rights Defenders and it talks about all kinds of support embassies can give but does not mention provision of a visa or other ways to help people in finding asylum.

The Swiss guidelines document2 does leave open that possibility but seems to prefer helping people to ) stay (temporarily) in neighbouring countries  rather than helping them to get to Switzerland.

The quick assistance programmes of organisations such as Frontline defenders 3  are aimed  mainly at  helping people to get  to a neighbouring country quickly, rather than to an EU member state (even though the money for the programme comes from the EU).

It is true that many human rights defenders are often not eager to apply for asylum as this normally entails  their not being able to travel to their own country for short work or family visits. They want to continue working, so often prefer temporary stay abroad to wait  in case the situation  improves. The temporary stay programmes have become quite popular in recent years in a number of countries, the Netherlands   has had such a programme   for several years which is run mainly by municipalities 4.

Such programmes exist in quite a lot of countries or cities (Hamburg is famous in Germany, also Graz in Austria, quite a lot of Norwegian cities; I know in Turin there was an NGO  which wanted to do something similar). There  are also separate schemes for writers, journalists, scholars.

Alternatively,  applicants can start working in  places with an ordinary residence permit for that particular place (a number of Russian activists have done this,  and now stay in places such as Bulgaria or Estonia), allowing them to visit their country of origin whenever they want to and find it safe to go there.

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