Legal dispute over entry permit: from the embassy to europe?

The Human Rights Court is hearing whether a Syrian family can enter Europe with a visa. The ruling could be groundbreaking.

Aleppo in April 2019: The plaintiff family is still holding out here Photo: reuters

This decision could revolutionize European asylum law: A Syrian family is suing for humanitarian visas at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). This would allow them to legally travel to Europe and apply for asylum. The Court immediately assigned the case to the Grand Chamber in Strasbourg because of its fundamental importance.

The family is still holding out in Aleppo, in an apartment without water or electricity. "We dream that our daughter and son can grow up in safety," she wrote in a letter to the court. The daughter is now 11 years old, the son three years younger.

In August 2016, when besieged Aleppo was still being bombed by the Syrian army, the father of the family, a manager, traveled to Lebanon. At the Belgian Embassy in Beirut, he applied for humanitarian visas for his family. They had friends in Belgium who wanted to help them, he said. They did not want to put their children through a flight with smugglers. But the embassy refused. Asylum applications could only be made on Belgian soil or at the border.

The Syrians were initially successful in the Belgian courts. Through three instances, they were granted a claim for humanitarian visas. Only when the jurisdiction was changed at the Brussels Court of Appeal was the government’s negative stance confirmed. Therefore, the family and their Belgian lawyers took the case to Strasbourg. There they invoked the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). This grants protection against inhuman and degrading treatment. People in danger must be helped.

Valid or not?

But is the convention also applicable in the Belgian embassy in Lebanon? Belgian representative Isabelle Niedlispacher sharply rejected this: "The embassy is on Lebanese territory, and the ECHR does not apply in Lebanon. Belgian officials also did not exercise sovereignty in the case of the Syrian family. The applicant was free to come and go to the embassy as he wished." The family’s lawyers, on the other hand, believe the convention does apply at the embassy. "When Belgian officials deny a safe journey to Europe, that is sovereignty," said lawyer Olivier Stein.

Belgium was supported by 11 states before the Human Rights Court. Germany was also among them, but did not take the floor in the hearing. British lawyer Geoffrey Cox said: "The rejection of a visa application cannot be sufficient for the application of the ECHR. Otherwise, anyone anywhere in the world could walk into a British embassy and apply for asylum. That cannot be." His French colleague Florence Merloz warned of "millions of applicants." Moreover, she said, EU asylum law would be undermined if everyone could freely choose their country of asylum. Under the EU’s Dublin III regulation, the country of first contact is usually responsible.

Family denies significance

The family’s lawyers stressed that this was only about this individual case, not migration policy. "The Court should not be guided by fear of chaos," said lawyer Jacques Englebert. The assumption that there will be millions of asylum applications at European embassies abroad is "wrong," he said.

In 2017, the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg had to rule on a similar case. However, it then left the decision to the Belgian judiciary.

The Strasbourg ruling will not be announced for several months. The ECHR is an institution of the Council of Europe, to which 47 states including Russia and Turkey belong.

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