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Finland suspends asylum seeker repatriations to Hungary

On the basis of an EU agreement, asylum seekers should be returned to the Member State country they first registered as an asylum seeker in. In a landmark decision, Finland’s courts nevertheless decided on Saturday that Finland would suspend asylum seeker returns to Hungary. The court’s justification cited the suspicion that the asylum seekers would not receive appropriate treatment in Hungary upon their return.

Turvapaikanhakijoita Budapestin länsipuolisella rataosuudella Unkarissa 4. syyskuuta 2015.
Asylum seekers west of the Budapest railway on September 2015. Image: Balazs Mohai / EPA

European Union rules state that if an asylum seeker applies for asylum in an EU country, he cannot apply for it again elsewhere. The purpose of the Dublin Regulation which contains this rule is to reduce asylum seekers travelling from country to country in search of asylum.

The exception to this rule at present is the Mediterranean country of Greece, which is filled to brim with asylum seekers and therefore doesn’t have the capacity or infrastructure to accept returnees.

But one country will now join Greece on the list in Finland: the central European country of Hungary. The Helsinki Administrative Court is in charge of all Dublin repatriation decisions and has decided to suspend all asylum seeker returns from Finland to Hungary if the asylum seeker files a complaint about their repatriation decision.

In practice, Finland has not returned anyone who has appealed their decision to Hungary since last September. The suspension applies to only a few dozen cases at present.

A precautionary measure

A ban on repatriation can be enacted if an authority has reason to believe that the asylum seeker will not be treated appropriately upon their return.

“The justification can be the risk that the insecure destination country presents to the asylum seekers in question, for example. But I must point out that I have not personally familiarized myself with the reasons for this particular decision,” says Lisa Heikkilä, a judge at the Helsinki Administrative Court.

Heikkilä says the court does not enforce a strict policy when it comes to Hungary, and that it considers each repatriation decision on an individual basis.

In addition, the judge says the ban should not be considered a final decision, but rather a precautionary measure. In other words, it is possible that few dozen persons in question will eventually be returned to Hungary.

“We just want to make sure that we have all the paperwork. That we don’t make the wrong decisions,” she says. 

Absolutely no returns to Greece

But what if the temporary suspension becomes permanent?

In practice this would mean that the Finnish Immigration Service would have to revisit its position on Hungary’s repatriation eligibility, as the Service is bound to follow the judgments of the Administrative Court. If not, the court would be forced to annul all of the Service’s decisions.

“We monitor all of the decisions being made, both in the Finnish Administrative Court and the in the European Court of Justice. They are all taken into consideration, and our decision-making process is adjusted to comply with them as needed,” says Juha Similä, Head of the Asylum Unit at the Finnish Immigration Service.

Similä is not aware of any other cases in which an EU country has taken a position on Hungary’s asylum seeker repatriation suitability. 

The Helsinki Administrative Court is expected to hand down a final decision on the fate of those asylum seekers who are waiting to hear whether they will be returned to Hungary in a few months.

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