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French court questions Finnish asylum policy

A French judge has blocked the transfer from France to Finland of an asylum seeker registered in Finland because he could be returned to Iraq, a move viewed by the court as a violation of human rights accords. Green MP Ville Niinistö has filed a formal parliamentary question to the government demanding an explanation of its asylum policy.

Turvallisuusviranomaisia Pelastakaa lapset -järjestön toimistoon tehdyn iskun tapahtumapaikalla Jalalabadissa 25. tammikuuta.
Security forces at the site of a January 25th attack on the offices of Save the Children in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Image: Ghulamullah Habibi / EPA

Decisions by French judges to block the transfer of asylum seekers have sparked a discussion of whether or not policies in the Nordic countries on returning rejected asylum seekers to their home countries are at odds with international law.

Administrative courts in Lyon and Toulouse decided last year not to return refugees to Finland, Sweden and Norway, where they had first filed for asylum. According to the courts, transferring them back, as mandated by the EU's Dublin Regulation, would put them in danger of being returned to the countries they had originally fled.

Three cases have come to the attention of NGOs. In all three, the individuals had asylum applications rejected in a Nordic country before going to France. Two were from Afghanistan and one from Iraq.

The Lyon Administrative Court took the position that the Iraqi asylum seeker will not be sent back to Finland. According to the court, if transferred back to Finland the asylum seeker would be under threat of being returned to Iraq because Finland returns more people there than does France.

Court documents in one of the cases seen by Yle make reference to non-refoulement - a fundamental principle of international law which forbids a country receiving asylum seekers from returning them to a country in which they would be in likely danger of persecution.

This is interpreted as outweighing the Dublin Regulation which requires that any asylum seeker in the EU must be returned to the country where the application process was first started.

Rare and exceptional

French human rights groups believe that these courts decisions represent rare, exceptional cases and not a broader change of policy in France.

David Rohi, a representative of La Cimade, a French organization that provides assistance to asylum seekers, told Yle that he sees no general move away from French compliance with the Dublin Regulation.

"The policy of the French government has not changed. This is more a matter of individual judges who may consider deportations, for example to Afghanistan, as unconstitutional," said Rohi.

According to Rohi, the decisions may reflect recent discussion in France about the security situation in Afghanistan. A number of NGOs, such as La Cimade and Amnesty International have been campaigning against repatriations to that country.

David Rohi says that the number of direct returns from France to Kabul seems to have fallen, even though no official policy adjustment has been made.

Niinistö: Finland's policy too stringent

Green MP Ville Niinistö has issued a demand for the government to reevaluate its asylum policy, and has filed a formal written question on the issue.

In a statement first reported by the Social Democratic paper Demokraatti, Niinistö says that he considers the decision by the court in Lyon as so significant that more general conclusions can be drawn.

Vihreiden puheenjohtaja Ville Niinistö Kultaranta-keskustelutilaisuudessa presidentin kesäasunnolla Naantalin Kultarannassa 11. kesäkuuta
Green MP Ville Niinistö. Image: Heikki Saukkomaa / Lehtikuva

"We have a notably more stringent policy than does Sweden, Germany or even France when it comes to the number of positive asylum decisions for Iraqis and Afghans," Niinistö told Yle.

Niinistö added that he thinks that forced returns to Iraq and Afghanistan should be suspended. He takes the view that Afghanistan and the Baghdad region of Iraq are too dangerous, especially for children.

"The biggest problem is that asylum seekers from Iraq and Afghanistan are treated too harshly and forced returns are made to [areas with] conditions lacking security where these people's lives may be endangered," Niinistö stated.

France rolling out tougher measures

Despite these cases from last year, French refugee policy is strict. For example, two weeks ago the French Senate approved a bill expanding powers to take refugees into custody while awaiting their return to another EU country under the terms of the Dublin Regulation.

President Emmanuel Macron is pushing for tougher immigration policies. He wants asylum seekers entitled to refugee status to get it faster, but also quicker deportation of those who don't qualify.

In 2016 France returned 1,046 asylum seekers to Afghanistan and by October of last year 1,614 were awaiting implementation of deportation orders.

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