Fresh attempt to secure humanitarian visas for asylum seekers

MEP relaunches proposal to allow asylum seekers to apply for humanitarian visa for legal pathway to request protection in the EU

Fresh attempt to secure humanitarian visas for asylum seekers
Fresh attempt to secure humanitarian visas for asylum seekers

MEP and former Spanish foreign minister Juan Fernando López Aguilar is calling on MEPs to push through legislation for humanitarian visas that will allow asylum seekers to apply for protection at an EU embassy in their country of origin.

Despite requests for safe legal pathways for persons seeking international protection, there are no European rules for humanitarian visas, which could be issued purposely so that asylum seekers can take a legal passage to the EU and then claim protection.

As a result, an estimated 90% of those granted international protection have reached the EU through irregular means, usually smuggled or trafficked by organised criminal gangs.

Lopéz Aguilar is arguing in an own-initiative report that in the face of the Commission’s inaction, MEPs should back a proposal for humanitarian visas to be included in its general budget.

The proposal was put forward this week to the Austrian presidency during a debate in the European Parliament’s civil liberties committee.

The former foreign minister – who had already attempted to push humanitarian visas into law –  said the high costs associated with asylum policy for both refugees and member states – “… smuggler fees, risk of trafficking, persecution, mortality and ill treatment [and] elevated costs for search and rescue, including for private shipping, border protection, cooperation with third countries, asylum procedures and possibly return” – necessitated a regular form of travel for asylum claimants.

MEP Juan Fernando López Aguilar says asylum seekers should be allowed to request a visa to fly to Europe and claim protection if they have a prima facie case
MEP Juan Fernando López Aguilar says asylum seekers should be allowed to request a visa to fly to Europe and claim protection if they have a prima facie case

Humanitarian visas could be applied for directly at member state consulates and embassies, which in turn can collect biometric identifiers, and allow for such applicants to be interviewed remotely to be assessed on whether they have “an arguable claim of exposure to a real risk of persecution or serious harm without conducting a full status determination process”.

All visa applicants would also be subject to a security screening across all Schengen and member state police
information systems.

“It is high time to find innovative solutions addressing both the needs of persons seeking protection and member states. The current thinking in silos on the visa acquis on one hand, and the asylum acquis on the other, is artificial and not adapted to today’s realities. A courageous step is necessary for the EU to life up to its values,” the socialist MEP said.

There is currently no EU process for humanitarian visas, but the Visa Code Regulation, which sets out the conditions for issuing short-stay visas in the Schengen area, includes a provision for visas to be issued “on humanitarian grounds”.

The Visa Code states that the admissibility requirements for a visa application can be waived on “humanitarian grounds”, and that “where a Member State considers it necessary on humanitarian grounds”, a visa with limited territorial validity (LTV) must be issued. An LTV visa issued on humanitarian grounds does not entitle the holder to free travel around the Schengen area, but rather places clear restrictions on that movement.

The total number of Schengen-type LTV visas issued has decreased substantially from 298,117 in 2012 to 109,505 in 2015.

In Malta, a number of LTV visas were issued on humanitarian grounds to persons who required evacuation from Libya due to the armed conflict in 2011. Although Maltese legislation does not clearly provide for visas to be issued for asylum purposes, LTV visas have been granted on humanitarian grounds in exceptional circumstances.

Over the past decade, the Commission has encouraged the Member States to develop common guidelines on humanitarian visas. Although some 16 EU member states either have or have previously had a national scheme for issuing some form of humanitarian visa, these have been deployed on an exceptional basis.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has been cautious about issuing humanitarian visas, citing Malta’s proximity to unstable countries such as Libya and the inability to properly assess documentation. “We are on the doorstep of a war-torn country, so we might first see our national interest while being certain that those seeking access to Europe are not part of some terrorist group… how possible will it be for us to process applications and ensure they are genuine applicants?” Muscat had said in a comment to the press in 2015.

In 2017, Malta received 1,616 claims for asylum, the majority of which were from Syrians (436), Libyans (409), and Somalis (332).