Exhausted and uncertain about the future, a line of Syrian women and a young girl queue to register at an impromptu registration centre set up by UNHCR and partners just outside Arsal. 
UNHCR/ M. Hofer/ November 2013

In March this year the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that the European Union member states are not obliged, under EU law, to grant humanitarian visas to people who wish to enter their territory to apply for asylum. However, member states are free to do so on the basis of their national laws.

The background for the ruling was the case of a Syrian family challenging the refusal by Belgian authorities to grant them humanitarian visas at the Belgian embassy in Beirut, Lebanon.

Applications for humanitarian visas can indeed be made at an EU member state embassy in a non-EU country. These visas then allow asylum-seekers to legally access the state in question to lodge a formal asylum application.

The decision on the substance of the asylum application is made on that state’s territory. This practice enables asylum-seekers to reach the EU safely and legally without having to put their lives at risk by crossing the Mediterranean Sea in unseaworthy vessels and paying unscrupulous smugglers enormous amounts of money.

“Let’s face the facts: people will continue to come to Europe whether we try to shut them out or not”

There are currently no EU schemes for humanitarian visas per se. But under the EU Visa Code Regulation, which sets out the procedures for issuing short-stay and airport transit visas within the Schengen area, visas can be issued on “humanitarian grounds” at the discretion of individual states should the admissibility requirements for a visa application not be fulfilled.

Beyond the Visa Code provisions, member states can also issue national long-stay visas. But the concept of “humanitarian grounds” is undefined in the EU law and leaves it up to the individual member states to decide when ‒ or if ‒ they consider it necessary to issue a visa under such terms. In the majority of cases, as was the case with the Syrian family, this means that member states decide not to grant such a visa, neither under the Visa Code provisions nor under national schemes.

As the lead MEP (shadow rapporteur) on reform of the Visa Code Regulation for the Greens / European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament, I had hoped that the ECJ ruling would shed light on this issue, advancing the negotiations between the Parliament and national governments in the Council.

The process of reforming the Regulation has been going on for more than two years, but is now halted due to differing points of view on whether or not to include more specific provisions on humanitarian visas in the Visa Code. While the Council has argued that humanitarian visas have no place in the Visa Code due to the short-stay nature of visas, the European Parliament has tirelessly claimed the opposite.

“By securing safe and legal channels into the EU through humanitarian visas, we are saving lives that otherwise would be put at risk at sea”

I was disappointed but not surprised to learn that the court had kept status quo. The ruling does not encourage member states to take a bigger responsibility for people fleeing war and persecution, and it does not prevent refugees from taking lethal journeys to arrive on EU territory.

Let’s face the facts: people will continue to come to Europe whether we try to shut them out or not.

By securing safe and legal channels into the EU through humanitarian visas, as well as through labour migration, family reunification and academic programmes, we are saving lives that otherwise would be put at risk at sea. My conviction is that we need a fully-fledged EU humanitarian visa scheme and unified procedures for granting such visa applications. The ruling from the ECJ only confirms the need to quickly put in place common rules at the EU level.

In my own country, Sweden, politicians have realised the urgent need to create more and better legal avenues of entry into the country. That is why the government, with the Green Party as a coalition partner, has launched an inquiry into this issue. The result of the inquiry’s report is expected by the end of 2017, and I hope that the findings will not only help to improve the Swedish migration framework but provide inspiration for a reform of the EU-wide polices on legal immigration.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr – UNHCR Photo Unit