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UNHCR makes unprecedented appearance before European Court

Setting the Agenda, 2 September 2010

© UNHCR/J.Björgvinsson
Asylum-seekers line up to submit their applications and seek interviews with Greek authorities.

BRUSSELS, Belgium, September 2 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency has for the first time taken part in an oral hearing before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights. Director of International Protection Volker Türk spoke on behalf of UNHCR, which made a third-party intervention in the case of M.S.S. v. Belgium and Greece.

The case concerns the compatibility with the European Human Rights Convention of transfers of asylum-seekers to Greece under the Dublin II Regulation, which identifies the state responsible for examining an asylum claim. Greece and Belgium are among the 30 European countries participating in the Dublin II mechanism. UNHCR had earlier made written submissions to the Court in this case.

The Court is being asked to assess whether transfers of asylum-seekers to Greece violate specific provisions of the European Human Rights Convention, to which all of the Dublin II participating states are also parties. At issue is the risk of contravening Article 2 (right to life), Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment) and/or Article 13 (right to an effective remedy).

The case is important because the question of sending asylum-seekers back from other EU countries to Greece for examination of their claims has been raised in hundreds of cases before courts in Europe in recent years. This is the first case to be referred to the European Court of Human Rights' Grand Chamber since the 2008 decision in K.R.S. v. UK (which found that such transfers did not violate rights guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights).

In addition to the parties to the case (the applicant M.S.S., who is an asylum-seeker from Afghanistan, as well as the respondent states Greece and Belgium), there were third-party interventions at the oral hearing by the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, as well as UNHCR.

While noting with appreciation that Greece is working on a comprehensive reform of its asylum system, UNHCR's Türk expressed concern that the Greek asylum system, as it presently operates, fails to provide protection against the risk of refoulement, or forced return, and that reception and detention conditions, among other things, are gravely inadequate.

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