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“Safe country of origin”: A term that can be used in a discriminatory way against migrants in the EU

Photo: Afroditi Konstantopoulou

Recently, the term “safe countries” has been used by the EU and the European Commission in order to communicate strategies that reject migrants who are coming from specific areas of the globe.

In fact, Europe puts pressure on countries in Africa and Asia, that it considers “safe”, to take migrants back. This happens also through the “voluntary return programs” that were created to support the return and reintegration of migrants to their countries of origin. FRONTEX is in the frontline for the return operations. This EU agency is well known for its violent practices against migrants and asylum seekers and the continuous violations of human rights in the EU borders, such as Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa, the Mediterranean Sea and the Greek-Turkish borders.

What does the International Law say about the SCO (safe country of origin):

“With regard to a legal basis, the application of the law within a democratic system and the general political circumstances, it can be shown that there is generally and consistently no persecution as defined in the Qualification Directive, no torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and no threat by reason of indiscriminate violence in situations of international or internal armed conflict”.

Regardless of what the law says, the term “safe countries” is used by the EU governments in a vague and simplistic way. In many cases migrants and asylum seekers were returned back without their status being examined by the EU authorities.

A new policy reducing the movements of asylum seekers in Malta coming from the so called “safe countries” was introduced in May 2021, an indication that the matter is taking shape.

There are a variety of aspects that must be taken into consideration in order to call a country of origin “safe”. Persecution because of political ideas or activism, homosexuality and gender expression are some of the reasons that can put a country in a category of not being “safe”, even if it is not going through an armed conflict. In recent years and especially under the excuse of the COVID-19 pandemic, many migrants have been forcibly returned to their countries of origin, named by the EU “safe”. They are among others, Mauritania, Tunisia and Ethiopia.

But what is considered a “safe country” for a specific group of people is not necessarily safe for others. Mauritania criminalizes homosexuality by imposing a penalty of death by public stoning to the offenders. Ethiopia and Tunisia have the same penal restrictions that can send LGBTQI people to jail for 1 to 3 years.

Child marriage is considered as an abuse of the child right by the United Nations, but in Ethiopia 4 to 10 women are married before becoming 18 years old, while in Mauritania the 37% of girls marry before turning 18 and the 14% before turning 15. Women victims of sexual abuse and harrassment who manage to flee their countries of origin and make it to Europe are asked to prove that they were persecuted, violated or tortured in order to receive a refugee status. This cannot always be proved as the asylum seeker might not have the necessary documents or because it was impossible to obtain them. They then risk deportation to a country that they left because it is unsafe for them.

All the above reflects how the definition of safety is vague and any kind of interpretation can be given according to the political interests of every country. An example is illustrated with Denmark which had considered Syria as a “safe enough country” in order to return refugees back.

The “safe country” policies can be inhumane and discriminatory against specific groups of third country nationals.


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