Refugees Protected by UN Not Automatically Barred From Asylum in EU

Member states must weigh every factor that led someone to leave U.N. refugee protection before denying them asylum, the EU’s top court ruled.

Syrian refugees talk outside Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Sarajevo train station in 2018 about abuse they say they suffered at the hands of Croatian police during an attempt to enter Europe. (Courthouse News photo/Cain Burdeau)

LUXEMBOURG (CN) — The EU’s highest court ruled Wednesday that Germany must consider all factors that led a Palestinian refugee to seek asylum in the bloc, despite being eligible for United Nations protections, before turning him away.  

The European Court of Justice held that stateless Palestinians are not automatically disqualified for asylum in the EU simply because they qualify for refugee protection via a U.N. agency, and that the German asylum agency is obligated to weigh all relevant information when considering someone for asylum. 

The person at the center of the case, identified in court documents as X.T., was born in Syria in 1991 to Palestinian parents who lived in the Yarmouk Camp, a Palestinian refugee camp south of Damascus. X.T. was born without any citizenship, or stateless, but holds a registration card from the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA. 

The German Federal Administrative Court, the Bundesverwaltungsgericht, asked the Luxembourg-based Court of Justice to determine whether leaving UNRWA protection rendered X.T ineligible for asylum in Europe. 

X.T. arrived in Germany in 2016 and applied for refugee status, which was initially rejected, but he was eventually granted asylum later that year following an appeal. The German government opposed the asylum claim because EU legislation on refugees excludes anyone who is already protected by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. 

The UNRWA was established in 1949 to provide relief to Palestinian refugees following the 1948 Palestine War. That conflict between Arabs and Jews led to Israeli independence from the United Kingdom and an exodus of Palestinian Arabs from territory now held by Jews.

More than 5.6 million people are now registered with the organization as refugees. The UNRWA operates in five fields: the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. 

Answering the German court’s question, the Court of Justice ruled Wednesday that such refugees are not automatically barred from being granted asylum in EU member states.

“The question [of] whether a stateless person of Palestinian origin is able to receive protection or assistance of UNRWA depends not only on that agency’s ability to provide that protection or assistance to that stateless person in a given field of its area of operations, but also on whether that stateless person has the practical possibility of accessing the territory falling within that field, or of returning to that field if he or she has left it,” the five-judge panel found. 

From 2013 until 2015, X.T. lived illegally in Lebanon, following the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. Fearing deportation from Lebanon, he returned to Syria before ultimately deciding to travel to Europe.

By then, both Jordan and Lebanon had closed their borders to Palestinian refugees in Syria. The Yarmouk Camp was overrun by Islamic State forces in 2015 and, when Syrian forces gained control of the area in 2018, only around 150 people remained, down from around 100,000 before the war broke out. 

The court left it to the German court to determine if X.T. traveled voluntarily and if he “could not reasonably expect…to receive protection or assistance from UNRWA in the field to which he or she travelled or to be able to return at short notice to the field from which he or she came.”

“It is necessary to take into account, as part of an individual assessment of all the relevant factors of the situation in question, all the fields of UNRWA’s area of operations which a stateless person of Palestinian origin who has left that area has a concrete possibility of accessing and safely remaining therein,” the ruling states.

The case now returns to the German court for a final decision. 

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