[View without highlighting]
[Printable RTF version]
||Neutral Citation Number:  EWHC 857 (Admin)
||Case No: CO/2899/2015
IN THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE
QUEEN'S BENCH DIVISION
||Royal Courts of Justice
Strand, London, WC2A 2LL
B e f o r e :
MR JUSTICE GARNHAM
|| "KHALED v SSHD No 1" (1) CO/2899/2015 The Queen on the Application of Havel Khaled ("HK")
(2) CO/3267/2015 The Queen on the Application of Hadi Hemmati ("HH")
(3) CO/1367/2015 The Queen on the Application of SK
(4) CO/843/2015 The Queen on the Application of FK
(5) CO/6016/2015 The Queen on the Application of Hidayat Haji Dyar ("HD")
- and -
Secretary of State for the Home Department
Mark Symes, David Chirico and Raza Halim (instructed by Duncan Lewis) for the FK, SK, HK and HD; Raza Halim instructed by Fadiga & Co for HH
Julie Anderson and Belinda McRae (instructed by the Government Legal Department) for the Defendant
Hearing dates: 1st – 2nd March 2016
HTML VERSION OF JUDGMENT
Crown Copyright ©
Mr Justice Garnham :
- Since early 2014 many hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers and economic migrants have arrived in the European Union. A significant number have moved on from the first country in which they sought, or might have sought, sanctuary to the UK, arriving in this country irregularly or unlawfully. In a number of cases before this court the question has arisen as to whether the UK is entitled to return them to the country from which they arrived.
- The circumstances of each such EU country are different. A number of test cases, each relating to arrivals from a different EU country, have been considered by the court. In R (on the Application of Tabrizagh) v SSHD  EWHC 1914 (Admin), Elisabeth Laing J considered the lawfulness of return to Italy. In MS v SSHD  EWHC 1095 (Admin) Lewis J also considered return to Italy, but he did so in the light of the decision of the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ("ECtHR") in Tarakhel v Switzerland  60 EHRR 141, and new evidence about conditions in Italy. In Hamad v SSHD  EWHC 2511 (Admin), Kerr J considered the lawfulness of return to Malta. In Pour v SSHD  EWHC 401 (Admin), Ouseley J considered return to Cyprus. I am told that there are challenges to returns to Hungary currently being considered by the Court.
- The cases before me concern the lawfulness of return to Bulgaria. The cases of four of the five claimants, namely HK, HH, SK and FK, also raise questions as to the lawfulness of the detention, pending removal. (Initials have been used, for convenience, throughout the proceedings and I adopt the same shorthand. In respect of two claimants, SK and FK anonymity orders have been granted.) The Claimants' arguments on each of those two issues was presented by a different advocate; Mr Symes on safety of return and Mr Chirico on unlawful detention.
- It had been my intention to give a single judgment dealing with both issues. At about the time I completed the drafting of that judgment, however, both parties provided me with details of judgments from the Court of Justice of the European Union ("the CJEU") and opinions from the Advocate General which post-dated the hearing and which went to the unlawful detention issue. I indicated that I would welcome further oral submissions on the effect of those decisions and opinions. A date for the hearing of those further submissions is presently being fixed. Both parties confirmed, however, that their argument on those authorities would have no bearing on the safety of return cases. Accordingly, and with the approval of both parties, I have decided to produce a separate judgment on each of the two issues.
- This judgment, which I have called "Khaled v SSHD No 1", addresses the arguments about safety of return to Bulgaria.
The Procedure and the Evidence
Time Estimate and Material before the Court
- The time estimate for the hearing of this case, involving as it did both the propriety of returning Claimants to Bulgaria and the lawfulness of detention in the UK of four of them, was two days. The case raised matters of some importance both to the five claimants and to others awaiting possible return to Bulgaria. I understand that a number of cases are stayed behind this case.
- The volume of material produced by the parties was considerable. There were three bundles of authorities containing reports of some 70 cases. There were seven bundles of documents, both case specific and of general application. The Claimants had wisely organised themselves so that they acted as a single team; nonetheless the skeleton arguments produced by the two sides ran for more than 170 pages. I was also provided with other notes and submissions which ran to some 20 pages.
- Given the breadth of the issues to be covered the parties suggested, and I approved, a strict timetable for the making of submissions. As a result the hearing was completed in two days. That was achieved, however, only by the good sense and cooperation of the two competing legal teams and for that I am grateful. For future cases of this type, however, where generic challenges to the lawfulness of return to particular countries, and multiple unlawful detention claims are to be considered in a single hearing, a significantly more generous time estimate should be allowed.
- There were deficiencies on both sides in preparation for this hearing. Documents were disclosed late. Amendments to pleadings were sought and made late. My general approach was to permit all relevant material to be admitted and arguments deployed, although I made it clear that I would take into account the effect of delay in my assessment of the value of, and response to, such material.
The Admissibility of Expert Evidence: the Amnesty International Report
- One piece of evidence that caused particular difficulty was the expert report produced on behalf of the fifth Claimant, Hidyat Haji-Dyar. His solicitors had commissioned a report, dated 10 February 2016, from a Mr Tom Southerden of Amnesty International. This 42 page report was said to be "an independent expert opinion" in respect of the removal of Mr Dyar and "the general position regarding reception conditions and the operation of the Bulgarian asylum system in the context of the operation of Dublin returns to the country". The report makes clear that:
"Amnesty International cannot, and does not, field witnesses to provide evidence in the investigation of this kind. Our reports represent the considered opinion of a variety of specialist researchers from across our organisation and therefore it would not be appropriate for an individual to attend the proceedings to provide evidence orally."
- This report was not the subject of an application to adduce expert evidence pursuant to CPR 35 and it was not the subject of discussion or correspondence between the parties. The report was disclosed by the Claimant to the Defendant in the middle of February 2016 amongst a collection of material the Claimants proposed including in a court bundle.
- I agreed, with some reluctance, to permit the admission of this report into evidence. I did so because this case may be regarded as something of a test case for Bulgarian returns, and it would be unfortunate if what might be significant evidence from a respected Non-Governmental Organisation ("NGO") could not be considered. But I made it clear that the weight I would attach to the contents of this report would reflect the circumstances in which it was adduced. Particularly significant, it seems to me, was the fact that it was served late; that the Secretary of State had not had an adequate opportunity to respond to it; that it was the work of more than one individual, although only one was named; that its author had made clear that in no circumstances would he agree to be cross-examined on its contents; and that it was a private report from Amnesty International which had not been subject to public debate and consideration, as is commonly the case with publicly directed reports of NGO's like Amnesty International.
- It was suggested in argument that CPR 35 did not apply, that it was not necessary for the Claimant to seek permission to rely on this report, that it was "common practice" in tribunals to serve such reports as they became available. Reliance was placed in support of these propositions on the decision of the Supreme Court in MN (Somalia) v SSHD  UKSC 30.
- I reject all of those submissions. First, CPR 35 does apply to judicial reviews like the present. I see no possible grounds for disregarding it. (I note that Mr Southerden makes reference in paragraph 107 of his report to the need to comply with the CPR). The nature of JR challenges, and the need for them to be considered expeditiously, makes all the more important the consistent application of the discipline provided by the CPR. There is a real danger of injustice if the rules of court are disregarded. If expert evidence is to be adduced, it requires the leave of the court and it needs to be disclosed to the opposing side in sufficient time to make possible a considered response. If expert evidence is to be adduced, it is essential that the court controls the process to ensure the orderly management of the proceedings. If there is a failure to comply with an order or a rule of court, an application for relief from sanctions will be necessary.
- Second, the existence, if it be the case, of a common practice before tribunals to admit expert evidence without formal application and disclosure to the opposing party in good time, cannot, in my judgment, properly affect the approach to admissibility in this court. Mr Chirico, for the Claimant, argued that because the test I would have to apply was whether a hypothetical tribunal might conclude that there are substantial grounds for believing that there was a real risk of treatment contrary to Article 3 ECHR, I should admit the report because the tribunal would admit it. I reject that argument. This is not a tribunal hearing. It is a hearing before the Administrative Court and the nature of the test to be applied as a matter of public law does not alter the applicability of rules governing the admission of evidence in such cases.
- Third, MN (Somalia) is a case on very different facts. The question that arose there was whether regard could be had, by the Secretary of State determining asylum applications and tribunals in asylum appeals, to language analysis reports provided by an organisation known as Sprakab. In my judgment it says nothing about the admissibility of evidence in cases such as the present. This Court will ordinarily only admit evidence adduced in accordance with CPR 35.
- I am reinforced in that conclusion by two decisions of this court. In Elayathamby v SSHD  EWHC 2182 (Admin), Sales J (as he then was) was concerned about the use by the claimant of "what purported to be an expert report from (an organisation called) KISA commissioned by the claimant's lawyers for the purposes of this case". Sales J said that the report was "an unsatisfactory document which should be given comparatively little weight". He observed:
"no order was obtained from the court for expert evidence to be adduced. Had an application been made for such an order it is very likely it would have been refused. At the very least, if the application was allowed, the defendant would have been on notice that expert evidence was to be received by the court and would have had a fair opportunity to seek to obtain an expert report of her own…."
- In his judgment in Pour Ouseley J observed that expert opinion evidence in that case too was put before the court without any application under CPR Part 35 (see paragraph 109). Ouseley J concluded that he would "admit all the evidence placed before me on all issues and judge it on its weight". Notwithstanding the observations I make above about the obligation to comply with CPR 35, and for the reasons set out at paragraph 12 above, I propose to do the same in the present case. It cannot be assumed that the same indulgent approach will be taken in other cases.
- The two primary questions that arise in the safety of return case are as follows:
i) Did the Secretary of State act unlawfully in certifying as clearly unfounded the Claimants' claims that their removal to Bulgaria would be contrary to their rights under the ECHR?
ii) Have the Claimants established that removal to Bulgaria is likely to result in their refoulement to their home countries?
- In respect of the first challenge the Claimants allege that return to Bulgaria would constitute a breach of Article 3 ECHR (and Article 4 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights) because of inadequacies in Bulgaria, in reception conditions and the status determination process, the treatment of the vulnerable, and also in the light of their own experiences in that country.
- On the second issue, both parties submit that the irrebuttable legal presumption that an EU member state would not refoul returned asylum seekers in breach of the Convention relating to the Geneva Convention or the ECHR, provided for in the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004 Schedule 3 Part 2 Paragraph 3(2), does not apply to any claim founded in EU law. The question therefore, which is one for me exercising an original rather than a supervisory jurisdiction, is whether the Claimants have shown a real risk that Bulgaria would refoul the Claimants to their home countries without properly determining their asylum status.
- The Claimants are nationals of Afghanistan, Iraq or Iran. They each made asylum claims in the UK. In each case, the SSHD discovered that they had earlier claimed asylum in Bulgaria. The SSHD refused to decide their claims substantively and Bulgaria either accepted, or was deemed to have accepted, responsibility for the Claimants under Council Regulation (EC) No 604/2013 of 26 June 2013 ("Dublin III").
- The SSHD gave detailed and lengthy consideration to each claim. She certified the asylum claims on safe third country grounds, under Paragraphs 4-5 of Part 2 of Schedule 3 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants etc.) Act 2004, ("the 2004 Act") and certified their human rights claims as clearly unfounded, under Paragraph 5(4) of Part 2 of the same Schedule.
- There is less than complete unanimity about the detailed factual background of each Claimant; what follows is a summary of the position as I understand it to be.
Haval Khaled ("HK")
- HK is a national of Iraq. He alleges that he was an Iraqi national of Kurdish ethnicity and that he fears persecution at the hands of ISIS, who consider Kurds to be infidels. His case is as follows: He said his brother was murdered by members of ISIS, and he himself was witness to that murder. He said he travelled overland, through Turkey, before setting out for the UK. En-route, however, he was stopped in Bulgaria. He was assaulted and treated violently and threateningly by Bulgarian officials on the road, and feared for his safety. He was then forcibly fingerprinted and detained for 20 days, first in a police cell, then in a larger prison or detention centre.
- During that period of detention, he was kept in degrading conditions, notwithstanding his own vulnerability. He was provided with negligible medical treatment (and that on only one occasion) and he was provided with no interpreter save at the time of his release. HK says he has flashbacks and nightmares as a result of having witnessed the murder of his brother and having been ill-treated himself in Bulgaria.
- On 20 January 2015, HK was apprehended by the police in Barking and admitted entering the UK illegally after having paid £4,000 to come to the UK. Either that day, or the following, he claimed asylum. He was interviewed, fingerprinted and was served with illegal entry papers. The fingerprints were matched with fingerprints taken on 16 December 2014 in Bulgaria.
Hadi Hemmati ("HH")
- HH is a national of Iran. He claims to have been born on 15 February 1977. His case is as follows: He claims asylum, which he said was based on his apostasy approximately seven years ago, triggered by witnessing a woman being stoned to death in Iran because of alleged adultery. Following an intervention by an Imam, he was referred to the judiciary's officials in Iran; he was consequently arrested on 30 April 2011 and initially detained for three days by police and interrogated. During the interrogation HH confessed to his apostasy and was tortured and beaten. He was then transferred to a prison where he remained for a month before being taken to court. He was told he would be sentenced to death before being returned to prison.
- One month later HH says he was taken to court again, whereupon, on 1 July 2011, the judge declared that he was not of sound mind and sentenced him to seven years imprisonment. He was tortured on many occasions while in prison. A year and three months into his custodial term he attempted to commit suicide; he cut blood vessels leaving scars on his body. He was imprisoned with political prisoners for the first year of his sentence and kept in solidarity confinement for six months. He was then detained with those who had drug addictions. Throughout that period HH was tortured and beaten; he was kept outside in cold weather and beaten with sticks, cables or batons and given electric shocks.
- HH said that during the latter period of his imprisonment he was permitted to leave the prison for three days, during which time he visited his brother and decided not to return to prison. HH left Iran and went to Turkey where he stayed for 22 days before moving to Bulgaria where he stayed for three weeks in a camp in poor conditions. HH then found an agent who helped him to leave Bulgaria.
- HH admits that he entered the UK illegally, circumventing immigration controls. HH attended Lewisham police station on 11 February 2015 and was arrested as an illegal entrant. He was interviewed, fingerprinted, served with illegal entry papers and detained. Eurodac evidence revealed that HH had been fingerprinted in Bulgaria on 12 November 2014. On 14 February 2015, HH was released. On 18 February 2015, a formal request was made to Bulgaria to take responsibility for HH's claim. On 17 April 2015, Bulgaria formally accepted responsibility for HH's asylum claim. On 27 April 2015, HH's claim was refused on safe third country grounds.
- SK is a national of Afghanistan. He says his date of birth is 4 May 1992; the Defendant says his claimed date of birth is 23 April 1994 (nothing turns on the precise date).
- He claims to have entered the UK illegally on 18 November 2014, circumventing UK immigration controls; there is no official record of date of entry. He made an in-country application for asylum in Croydon on 19 December 2014. He reported to Colindale Police Station on 2 January 2015. On 6 January 2015, SK was interviewed, fingerprinted, served with illegal entry papers and detained. A search of the Eurodac database of 6 January 2015 revealed that he had been fingerprinted in Bulgaria on 10 July 2014.
- At his screening interview, he did not reveal his time in Bulgaria until confronted with the Eurodac record, at which point he explained that he had spent some two months in the country. He said that his asylum claim was based on his family having fallen foul of a military commander following the death of a person who had bought medicine at their pharmacy. His brother had been taken from that shop and killed. He was also kidnapped and tortured for ransom as his family was rich. He said that he had come to the UK because his sister was here and she was the only person who could understand his pain and problems.
- On 8 January 2015, a formal request was made for Bulgaria to take responsibility for considering SK's asylum claim. On the same day, ECHR representations were made alleging there would be a breach of Article 3 if he was returned to Bulgaria. On 9 January 2015, a decision was made to release SK in the light of his allegations of torture.
- In the absence of a response from the Bulgarian authorities, the request was resent on 29 January 2015. The Bulgarian authorities accepted responsibility for SK's claim on 12 February 2015. On 5 March 2015, SK's ECHR claim was refused with an out of country appeal pursuant to certification. On 13 March 2015, removal directions were set. At the same time a notice that his asylum claim was refused was served on him. That took effect on 23 March 2015.
- On 17 March 2015 SK's advisers sent representations on his behalf setting out his objections to return to Bulgaria. They cited country evidence, by way of reports from Amnesty International, the Sofia Globe, ECRE, Border Monitoring EU and Pro Asyl, which suggested that asylum seekers who returned to Bulgaria faced overcrowding, inadequate nutrition, and violence and racism from the police. They summarised SK's own experiences there: he was detained for some 50 days in overcrowded conditions, before being relocated to a refugee camp where he experienced poor and overcrowded conditions. He witnessed other asylum seekers being mistreated and learned from his fellow residents that asylum claims would take years to process before inevitably being refused. He said he had anxiety attacks throughout his time in Bulgaria for which he received no medical attention.
Hidayat Haji Dyar ("HD")
- HD is a national of Iraq. He was apprehended in Dover, having entered the UK illegally on 23 October 2014. On 25 October 2014, HD was interviewed, fingerprinted and served with illegal entry papers. HD claimed to have left Iraq a month ago and travelled to the UK via Turkey, without being fingerprinted at any stage. Eurodac evidence indicated that HD had claimed asylum in Sweden on 10 December 2008 and more recently had been fingerprinted in Bulgaria on 14 September 2014.
- On 27 October 2014, Sweden was asked to take responsibility for HD's asylum claim but the Swedish authorities declined on 4 November 2014 on the basis that HD had absconded in Sweden in 2009 and avoided further contact. On 6 November 2014, the UK reiterated the request that Sweden take responsibility but it declined on 20 November 2014, on the basis that Bulgaria was responsible.
- On 3 December 2014, a formal request was made to Bulgaria to take responsibility for HD's asylum claim. On 19 December 2014, HD's asylum claim was formally refused on third country grounds as the Bulgarian authorities had accepted responsibility by default, having failed to respond within the required period. On 5 January 2015, HD made allegation of ill-treatment in Bulgaria. On 7 January 2015, the ECHR claim was refused, with an out of country appeal, on the basis of certification. On 6 February 2015 judicial review proceedings were lodged with the Upper Tribunal, challenging third country certification and removal directions set for 9 February 2015. On the same day removal directions were cancelled.
- FK is a national of Afghanistan. He says he was born on 23 April 1994. He claims to have a well-founded fear of persecution if returned to Afghanistan.
- His case is as follows: He says he left Afghanistan in 2014 and arrived in Bulgaria in June or July 2014. He was arrested in a small town in Bulgaria and taken to a police station where he was pushed and shouted at. He had no access to an interpreter. He was kept in the police station for three nights, and then taken to court, where a Farsi interpreter was provided who explained that he was an illegal immigrant. He says he was taken to prison, where he was detained in very poor conditions for 50 days. He was then relocated to a refugee camp far from the town centre, where he remained, again in overcrowded conditions. He says he was aware that one of his fellow asylum-seekers was inhumanely punished while he was in the refugee camp. Whilst in Bulgaria, he was informed that his asylum claim would not be processed for 3-4 years.
- FK states that he entered the UK illegally, circumventing UK immigration controls, on 18 November 2014. There is no official record of entry. He claimed asylum on 20 November 2014. He made an in-country claim for asylum on 6 January 2015.
- Enquiries revealed that he had been fingerprinted in Bulgaria on 10 July 2014 where he had claimed asylum. A formal request was made to Bulgaria to take back responsibility for FK's asylum claim on 8 January 2015, which was not rejected within the required period. On 26 January 2015, FK submitted representations seeking temporary admission and challenging the decision to make a request to the Bulgarian authorities. FK's asylum claim was certified on safe third country grounds on 28 January 2015.
- On 10 February 2015 the Defendant decided to remove FK to Bulgaria; and to set directions for his removal on 23 February 2015. The Dublin claim was formally accepted by Bulgaria on 12 February 2015.
The Legal Framework
- There is considerable agreement as to the relevant statutory provisions and their effect.
- In Hamad v SSHD Kerr J said that the legal framework relevant to his decision had been set out "in erudite and comprehensive detail in decisions of this court", namely by Elisabeth Laing J at paragraphs 100-164 of her judgment in Tabrizagh and by Lewis J at paragraphs 55-97 in his judgment in MS. I respectfully agree. I note that the Court of Appeal refused permission to appeal in Tabrizagh, see  EWCA Civ 1398. Since those decisions, Ouseley J has given judgment in Pour.
- Mr Chirico told me that an appeal was being pursued in MF, but there were no submissions before me that the analysis of the law in paragraphs 100-164 of Tabrizagh was erroneous. Pour was handed down on the day the hearing before me commenced, but again no submissions were made to me that Ouseley J's analysis of the underlying legal framework was in error.
- Rather than attempt to re-analyse what is a complicated, but for present purposes uncontentious, legal background, both under EU law and domestically, I adapt and apply in the discussion which follows the succinct summary of the law provided by Ouseley J at paragraphs 28 to 34 of his judgment.
- There are three elements to the legal framework: EU law, the ECHR and the caselaw of Strasburg, and domestic law.
- Article 4 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights ("CFR") provides for the same rights as in Articles 3 ECHR. Article 19(2) CFR forbids the removal of anyone to a State where there is a serious risk of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
- What is now called the Common European Asylum System ("CEAS") comprises, so far as it applies to the UK, the Reception Directive 2003/9/EC (minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers), the Qualification Directive 2004/83/EC (tests for qualifying for international protection), and the Procedures Directive 2005/85/EC (standards for the procedures for granting protection status). EU Regulation 604/2013 (Dublin III) came into force on 1 January 2014. Two of the Directives have been "recast", the Procedures Directive 2013/32/EC and the Reception Directive 2013/33EC, but the UK has opted into neither.
- As Ouseley J put it in Pour:
"The aim behind the CEAS was the establishment of a complete body of rules, founded on respect for international law, including the principle of non-refoulement. The examination of an asylum claim is restricted to one member state, and transfer of the asylum seeker to the state responsible for processing the claim, if asylum is sought elsewhere. Dublin II governed the mechanisms and provides the criteria for determining which Member State was responsible. There are common basic standards, and an important aim is to reduce secondary movements caused by disparities in standards."
- In NS v SSHD  QB 102, the CJEU accepted that, although it was to be assumed that the treatment of asylum seekers in Member States complied with the CFR, ECHR and the Geneva Convention, the system could, in practice, experience "major operational problems in a given Member State, creating a substantial risk that on transfer, asylum seekers might be treated in a manner incompatible with their fundamental rights", (see paragraph 81). But that did not mean that "any infringement of a fundamental right by the Member State responsible will affect the obligations of the other Member States to comply with Dublin II", (paragraph 82).
- What was at issue was the creation of the CEAS, and a presumption of compliance; treating the slightest infringement as a reason to prevent transfer would be incompatible with that. If the consequence of any infringement was that the claim could not be transferred to the country where the claim should be handled, that would create an additional criterion to those in the Regulation, exempting members from their obligation (paragraph 83–85). "By contrast, if there are substantial grounds for believing that there are systemic flaws" in the procedure and reception conditions, resulting in inhuman and degrading treatment, "within the meaning of Article 4 of the Charter", transfer to that territory "would be incompatible with that provision" (paragraph 86). In , the CJEU held that Article 4 CFR meant that Member States could not transfer asylum seekers to the Member State "responsible" under Dublin II, where they were aware that systemic deficiencies in the procedures and reception conditions gave rise to substantial grounds for believing that the asylum seeker would there face a real risk of inhuman or degrading treatment.
- The Supreme Court held in R (EM) (Eritrea) v SSHD  UKSC 12,  AC1321, discussing NS v SSHD above, that the presumption that an EU Member State would comply with its obligations was both principled and pragmatic, but the significant evidential presumption could be displaced by evidence which did not have to prove a systemic deficiency in the reception and procedural conditions provided by the receiving state. In the context of Article 3, or refoulement, a real risk in relation to the individual was still the test, and the absence of systemic deficiency did not prevent such a conclusion.
- In Dudaev v SSHD  EWHC 1641 (Admin), Burnett LJ pointed out, at paragraph 19, that the 2004 Act and Schedule 3 made no mention of the CFR or of claims under EU law. "[To] the extent that an individual seeks to rely upon the Charter to resist removal to a 'safe third country' the irrebuttable presumption [that a Scheduled country would not refoul a person] does not apply". Schedule 3 did not apply to a claim based on the CFR, and so the Schedule was compatible with the CFR. Part 2 of Schedule 3 to the 2004 Act did not apply to reliance on CFR rights, even if they duplicated ECHR rights. There are no appeal rights in respect of alleged breaches of the CFR either, so the claim that action by the SSHD would breach such rights can only be brought by judicial review.
- Dublin III makes a number of substantive changes to the pre-existing criteria and mechanism for determining the Member State responsible for examining an asylum application lodged by a third country national. It will be necessary for me to consider the provisions of Dublin III in some detail when I return to consider the unlawful detention claims advanced in these cases, but it is not directly material for the present.
The Approach of the ECHR
- Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides as follows:
"No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."
- This provision corresponds to Article 4 of the EU Charter which has substantially the same wording.
- The approach of the ECtHR in this area is set out in MSS v Belgium (30696/09 (2011) 53 ECHRR 2). The applicant had claimed asylum in Greece and then Belgium. The Belgian authorities returned him to Greece. The ECtHR examined his claims that his Article 3 rights had been breached, both by Greece, and by Belgium. The effect of the ECHR decision was neatly summarised by Elisabeth Laing J in her judgment in Tabrizagh;
"103. The applicant had an arguable claim that to return him to Afghanistan would breach his article 2 and 3 rights. The ECtHR then went on to consider whether Belgium "should have rebutted the presumption that the Greek authorities would respect their international obligations in asylum matters" (judgment, paragraph 344). The ECtHR referred to a number of reports which showed that there were practical difficulties in the application of the Dublin system in Greece, deficiencies in the asylum procedure and a practice of direct or indirect refoulement. The ECtHR also attached "critical importance" to a letter sent by the UNHCR to the relevant Belgian minister, asking him to suspend transfers to Greece (judgment, paragraph 349)...
104. The ECtHR held that 'the general situation was known to the Belgium authorities' (judgment, paragraph 352). As for assurances given by Greece to Belgium, the mere existence of domestic laws and international obligations were not of themselves an adequate protection against the risk of ill treatment where 'reliable sources have reported practices resorted to or tolerated by the authorities which are manifestly contrary to the principles of the Convention'. Diplomatic assurances were not enough (judgment, paragraphs 353 and 354). While the normal course of action might be for applicants to be required to issue applications only against Greece, applications lodged there were 'illusory'. The ECtHR concluded, on this limb of the case, that 'the Belgian authorities knew, or ought to have known, that [the applicant] had no guarantee that his asylum application would be seriously examined by the Greek authorities. They also had the means of refusing to transfer him' (judgment, paragraph 358). In that situation, it was for the Belgian authorities not to assume that Greece would comply with its obligations, but 'on the contrary, to verify how the Greek authorities applied their legislation on asylum in practice'. If they had done so, they would have seen that the risks faced by the applicant were 'real and individual enough to fall within the scope of article 3' (judgment, paragraph 359)...
105. The ECtHR then dealt with the article 3 risks arising from conditions of detention and living conditions. The ECtHR dealt shortly with this head of claim. It said that the test was whether 'substantial grounds have been shown for believing that the person concerned faces a real risk of being subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in the receiving country'. It referred to the fact that it had already found (when considering one of the applicant's article 3 claims against Greece) that the applicant's detention and living conditions in Greece were 'degrading'. These facts were 'well known… and freely ascertainable from a wide number of sources'. By transferring the applicant to Greece, the Belgian authorities 'knowingly exposed him to conditions of detention and living conditions that amounted to degrading treatment' (judgment, paragraphs 365 and 366). At that stage, there were 1000 reception places for 'tens of thousands' of asylum seekers, as I have already mentioned.
106. It is necessary to consider how the Court approached the article 3 claim against Greece based on living conditions. It said that article 3 cannot be interpreted as obliging the Contracting Parties to provide everyone with a home; nor does it entail a general obligation to give refugees help in order to enable them to maintain a particular standard of living (judgment, paragraph 249). However, 'the obligation to provide accommodation and decent material conditions to impoverished asylum seekers has now entered positive law'. The Greek authorities were bound by their own law which transposes obligations imposed by EU law. The applicant's case was that because of Greece's 'deliberate acts or omissions' he had not in practice enjoyed those rights, nor had he had provided for him his essential needs. The Court attached great importance to the applicant's status as an asylum seeker and 'as such, a member of a particularly underprivileged and vulnerable population group in need of special protection'. It noted the broad consensus at the international level about the need for this (judgment, paragraph 250 and 251).
107. The Court had to consider whether 'a situation of extreme material poverty can raise an issue under article 3'. It said that for a number of months, the applicant's situation had been 'particularly serious'. He 'allegedly spent months living in a state of the most extreme poverty, unable to cater for his most basic needs: food, hygiene, and a place to live. Added to that was the ever-present fear of being attacked and robbed, and the total lack of any likelihood of his situation improving' (judgment, paragraphs 252-254). The Court said that according to the Council for Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, the UNCHR, and reports of NGOs, this situation 'exists on a large scale and is the everyday lot of a large number of asylum seekers with the same profile'. There was therefore no reason to question the truth of his account (judgment, paragraph 255).
108. There were only 1000 places in reception centres for tens of thousands of asylum seekers. During February to March 2010, all Dublin returnees questioned by the UNHCR were homeless. A large number lived in parks and disused buildings (judgment, paragraph 258). The Court also rejected an argument that access to a 'pink card', which in theory enabled the applicant to work made a difference, as the reports revealed that in practice access to the job market was 'riddled with administrative obstacles'. The applicant had other problems: he could not speak Greek, had no support network and the economic climate was unfavourable. His asylum application had still not been considered by the Greek authorities (judgment, paragraphs 261-2).
109. In the light of this, and of the Greek Government's obligations under the Reception Directive, the Court considered that Greece had not had due regard to the applicant's vulnerability as an asylum seeker, and must be held responsible for the fact that he was living in the street for several months, with no resources and no access to sanitary facilities, and with no means of providing for his essential living needs. He had been the victim of 'humiliating treatment showing a lack of respect for his dignity'. That would have aroused in him 'feelings of fear, anguish, or inferiority, capable of inducing desperation'. It held that 'such living conditions, combined with… prolonged uncertainty… and the total lack of any prospects of his situation improving' attained the 'level of severity required to fall within article 3 of the Convention' (judgment, paragraph 263)."
- Bulgaria is listed as a safe country in Paragraph 2 of Part 2 of Schedule 3 to the 2004 Act. Paragraph 3(2) of that Part provides that in deciding whether a person who has made a human rights claim or an asylum claim may be removed from the UK, Bulgaria and the other countries listed in Paragraph 2 shall be treated as places where his life and liberty will not be threatened in a manner which would breach the Refugee Convention, and from which he would not be sent to another State in breach of his ECHR rights or of the Refugee Convention.
- The SSHD's certificate under Paragraphs 4 and 5 of Part 2 means that, as here, those who are not nationals of Bulgaria have no in-country right of appeal against removal to Bulgaria in so far as that appeal relies on onward removal by Bulgaria, under either convention. Nor can the absence of a substantive decision on the asylum claim prevent removal. Where the claim is that there is a real risk of refoulement, and there is, as here, no in-country right of appeal, the question for this court is whether it judges that there is a real risk of refoulement, unaffected by a judgment about how the tribunal might resolve that issue.
- Paragraph 5(4) deals with the further certification of other human rights claims, where the SSHD proposes to remove a person to a safe country of which he is not a national. The SSHD is obliged to certify such a claim as "clearly unfounded" unless she is satisfied that it is not clearly unfounded. There is an out of country appeal for those other human rights claims.
- Where a challenge is brought to a decision to certify a claim as clearly unfounded, the question for the court on judicial review is whether it is so clearly without substance that the appeal to the Tribunal would be bound to fail. If the court considers that, on one legitimate view, a Tribunal directing itself properly could conclude that there were substantial grounds for believing that the return of the claimant to Bulgaria would involve a real risk of a breach of Article 3, the claim should not have been certified as clearly unfounded; see paragraphs 95-97 of the judgment of Lewis J in MS, NA and SG v SSHD  EWHC 1095 (Admin).
- The effect of the domestic statutory provisions relating to appeals and certification contained in the 2002 Act and Schedule 3 to the 2004 Act was substantially agreed between the parties before me as follows:
i. Where an immigration decision was made (such as a decision to remove an illegal entrant, as was the case in respect of the present Claimants) there was a right of appeal to the tribunal (Section 82 NIAA 2002).
ii. Such an appeal will be in-country if certain preconditions apply, including if a Human Rights Act claim has been made (see Section 92 NIAA). Otherwise, the appeal has to be brought from abroad.
iii. Where the decision is made in the context of a removal to an EEA member state, the provisions set out in Schedule 3 to the 2004 Act apply.
iv. The protection against removal provided by Section 77 of the 2002 Act is suspended where the Secretary of State certifies that the individual is not a national or citizen of the member state in question (Schedule 3 paragraph 4).
v. Whether the relevant decision maker is the executive, or a court or tribunal, these states are to be treated as ones where a person's life or liberty would not be threatened for a "convention reason", and which would not send a person onwards in breach of either of the Refugee Convention or the ECHR.
vi. Where that certificate proposes removal to one of these states, the asylum seeker may not bring an appeal from within the UK based on an allegation that removal there would contravene the Refugee Convention or the ECHR (Schedule 3 Paragraph 5(3)).
vii. Where the allegation, on the other hand, is based on a ECHR challenge which is not about refoulement (e.g. conditions on reception or in detention in the destination Member State), then an in-country appeal might be brought unless the Secretary of State exercises her discretion to certify as clearly unfounded (Schedule 3 Paragraph 54).
- The power so to certify arises only in respect of this type of claim; it does not arise in respect of a refoulement claim. The non-availability of an in-country appeal is the reason why claims of this nature proceed by way of judicial review. I accept that an out-of-country appeal would be ineffective because the Appellants would already be present in the very place where their fundamental rights might be breached.
- Finally, Elisabeth Laing J provided a summary, with which I agree, of the role of the Secretary of State in making, and of the court in reviewing, a certificate. She said at paragraph 159:
"159. The nature of the Secretary of State's role when issuing a certificate similar to a certificate under paragraph 5(4) of the 2004 Act was considered by the House of Lords in R (Yogathas and Thangarasa) v Secretary of State for the Home Department  UKHL 36;  1 AC 920 These appeals concerned the removal of asylum seekers to Germany under the Dublin Convention. The certificate at issue in that case was a certificate under section 72(2)(a) of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 that an applicant's human rights claim was manifestly unfounded. That test of course, and significantly, is very similar to the ECtHR's 'manifestly ill-founded' test.
160. The House of Lords held that the Secretary of State has to give careful consideration to the allegations, the grounds on which they are made, and any material adduced in support of them. The question for the Secretary of State is whether the allegation is so clearly without substance that it must clearly, or is bound to, fail. This is a screening process rather than a full merits review, and its extent depended on the nature and detail of the case presented by the applicant.
161. The court's role on a challenge to such a certificate was also considered. The court should subject the Secretary of State's decision to the most anxious scrutiny. This issue was revisited by the House of Lords in ZT (Kosovo) v Secretary of State for the Home Department. This appeal concerned a certificate under Section 94(2)(a) of the 2002 Act that asylum and human rights claims were 'clearly unfounded'. Again this test is very similar to that applied by the ECtHR.
162. Lord Phillips concluded that 'In this context there was some debate as to the approach that should be adopted by the court when reviewing the Secretary of State's decision. Must the court substitute its own view of whether the claim is clearly unfounded, or has no realistic prospect of success, for that of the Secretary of State or is the approach the now familiar one of judicial review that involves the anxious scrutiny that is required where human rights are in issue. ZT is seeking judicial review and thus I would accept that, as a matter of principle the latter is the correct approach'.
How does a claimant show that there is a real risk of a breach of article 3?
163. An allegation that a claimant will suffer a breach of his article 3 rights if returned to a second state is an allegation which requires him to show that there are substantial grounds for believing that his removal would expose him to a real risk of being subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The assessment must focus on the foreseeable consequences of removal in the light of the circumstances of the country to which removal will take place, and of the applicant's personal circumstances.
164. There is a difference between an article 3 claim made ex post facto, on the basis of events which have already happened, and an article 3 claim based on future risk. In the former case, the fact of the breach is enough, and whether it is the result of wider problems may not matter at all. In the latter case, it is by definition easier to show a risk the more widespread a problem can be shown to be in the receiving country; compare the approach of the ECtHR in MSS to the article 3 claims against Greece and against Belgium. It can be seen that the presumption of compliance was not considered relevant to the assessment of those claims against Greece, which depended only on an evaluation of what had happened to the applicant in fact."
Threatened Breach of Article 3 ECHR and Article 4 of the Charter
- The Claimants allege a breach of Article 3 ECHR and Article 4 of the Charter as a result of their likely treatment if returned to Bulgaria. Their complaints fall into three categories:
i. They point to NGO reports in 2014 recommending that returns to Bulgaria be suspended.
ii. They make complaint about the limited reception capacity available in Bulgaria. They assert that the increased number of asylum seekers in Bulgaria raises questions as to whether asylum claimants will be effectively registered, managed and accommodated on return.
iii. They complain about conditions in reception camps and in Bulgaria generally; about overcrowding in reception centres and lack of food; about a climate of endemic racism both in officialdom and society; about a lack of language classes and a lack of accessible healthcare.
- I do not propose to address every one of the scores of complaints made, some of which are based on a single sentence of an NGO report. It is not necessary to do so to determine the strength of the Claimants' case. Instead I concentrate on what seems to me the most potentially powerful. Nonetheless, to do justice to a well-argued and well-presented case on behalf of the Claimants it will be necessary to consider most of the allegations and review the relevant evidence at a little length.
- I consider each category of complaint in turn, applying the test "could a tribunal properly directing itself conclude that there were substantial grounds for believing that there was a real risk of the person facing treatment contrary to Article 3 ECHR?". If I answer that question in the affirmative on any substantive issue, then the Defendant could not lawfully certify that the claim was clearly unfounded and the certificate should be quashed. In addition to reviewing the current evidential position, with a view to deciding whether return at the time of the hearing would be lawful, I look at evidence at the time of the decisions under challenge, with a view to deciding whether that evidence would lead to a different answer.
- In applying that test I bear in mind two powerful considerations: First, as set out above, the authorities establish that there is a significant evidential presumption that listed states will comply with their Convention obligations in relation to asylum procedures and reception conditions for asylum seekers within their territory.
- Second, I also have to take account of the significance of the evidence from the UNHCR. The position adopted by the UNHCR is of considerable importance. In MSS, the ECtHR had treated the UNHCR's judgment as "pre-eminent and possibly decisive". In EM (Eritrea) Lord Kerr indicated that "The UNHCR material should form part of the overall examination of the particular circumstances of each of the appellants' cases, no more and no less". But he also cited with approval what Sir Stephen Sedley had said in the Court of Appeal:
"It seems to us that there was a reason for according the UNHCR a special status in this context. The finding of facts by a court of law on the scale involved here is necessarily a problematical exercise, prone to influence by accidental factors such as the date of a report, or its sources, or the quality of its authorship, and conducted in a single intensive session. The High Commissioner for Refugees, by contrast, is today the holder of an internationally respected office with an expert staff (numbering 7,190 in 120 different states, according to its website), able to assemble and monitor information from year to year and to apply to it standards of knowledge and judgment which are ordinarily beyond the reach of a court. In doing this, and in reaching his conclusions, he has the authority of the General Assembly of the United Nations, by whom he is appointed and to whom he reports. It is intelligible in this situation that a supranational court should pay special regard both to the facts which the High Commissioner reports and to the value judgments he arrives at within his remit."
- The parties provided schedules summarising the documentation that went to these allegations. These were singularly helpful in enabling me to identify the salient evidence in an enormous quantity of material. I have read carefully both the schedules and the documents to which they refer. I make it clear now that, having done so, I have no hesitation in preferring the Defendant's analysis of this material.
- The Claimants' approach was to "cherry pick" the more critical of the extracts without properly considering the context or the material which pointed the other way. By contrast, the Defendant's analysis recognised the points that needed to be addressed and did so. The Defendant's task was made much harder by the breadth of the attack – there was hardly an aspect of an asylum seeker's life in Bulgaria that was not the subject of criticism – but made rather easier by the largely (although not exclusively) helpful conclusions of the UNHCR.
Suspension and Evidence of Improvement
- In January 2014 the UNHCR recommended the suspension of all returns to Bulgaria because of the conditions likely to face returning asylum seekers. That was plainly a profoundly important development. The UNHCR was not alone in calling for suspension; there were similar calls from Amnesty International in March 2014, from Human Rights Watch in April 2014, from ECRE on 7 April 2014 and from a Bordermonitoring.eu Report also in 2014.
- According to the Amnesty International report written by Mr Southerden, there were 11,080 initial claims in 2014 and 20,935 in 2015; the Defendant's figures (11081 and 20391) are very similar. These represent a significant increase on previous years. The impression left by the January 2014 report is that the Bulgarian authorities were overwhelmed by the numbers. However, subsequent reports suggest that, with assistance, particularly of EU authorities, Bulgaria rapidly began to make the necessary adjustments and improvements.
- The UNHCR recommendation was withdrawn in April 2014, save in respect of vulnerable groups. Its April 2014 report stated that in the light of "the numerous improvements that have been made to reception conditions and the asylum procedure in Bulgaria… the UNHCR now concludes that a general suspension of all Dublin transfers to Bulgaria is no longer justified". That would plainly be a highly significant consideration in any case before the Tribunal.
- The improvements noted by the UNHCR included the following:
i. "Asylum claims are being processed in a timely manner";
ii. "Bulgaria's law providing for mandatory legal aid for asylum-seekers";
iii. "The Bulgarian authorities' work towards the establishment of a new integration programme… [and] the commitment of the Bulgarian authorities to provide access to family reunification";
iv. "The efforts of the Bulgarian authorities to counter xenophobic incidents";
v. "The significant improvements in Bulgaria with regard to registration, the processing of request for international protection and the overall reception conditions for asylum-seekers in the reception centres";
vi. "Conditions observed in the centres have improved significantly in comparison with the situation observed in December 2013".
- As regards to vulnerable Dublin returnees, the UNHCR stated that:
"there may… be reasons precluding transfers under Dublin for certain groups or individuals" and recommended that States "conduct an individual assessment… in particular with regard to asylum-seekers who have specific needs or vulnerabilities."
- The UNHCR expressed concern about the lack of systematic identification of persons with specific needs and the lack of any system to respond to any such needs once identified. Accordingly the UNHCR recommendation was that States should conduct an individual assessment, "particularly regarding asylum seekers who have specific needs or vulnerabilities". The Cordelia Foundation also drew attention to the lack of a procedure to assess vulnerability.
- In my judgment, however, individual consideration by the returning State of the particular vulnerabilities of individual asylum seekers is what English domestic law requires in any event. The UNHCR report simply underlines the importance of those steps. I turn to consider the individual circumstances of these Claimants below.
- The UNHCR did not walk away from Bulgaria after April 2014. The UNHCR has an office in Bulgaria and it undertook to "continue to closely monitor developments in Bulgaria". It has not since issued any recommendation to the effect of that issued in January 2014. In my judgment that is highly significant. This is an organisation of the highest international standing that was obliged to recommend suspension of returns at the beginning of 2014, that substantially withdrew that recommendation in April 2014, that has continued to monitor and that has not since had cause to reinstate its recommendation to suspend. Given the expertise of the organisation and its presence in the country, that is powerful evidence that the Bulgarian asylum system is functioning.
- Furthermore, there is evidence from other sources of the improvement. As the Defendant observes, Bulgaria and the European Asylum Support Office ("EASO"), a body established by EU Regulation No 439/2010, entered into several agreements to facilitate the provision of assistance from EASO. That assistance is set out in EASO's Operating Plan to Bulgaria dated 17 October 2013 and the EASO Special Support Plan to Bulgaria dated 5 December 2014. The support was significant. The European Migration Network's Annual Report on Migration and Asylum Policy in Bulgaria in 2014 states: "Throughout the year 17 support measures and more than 50 activities were performed".
- Support was provided in implementing EU legislation in the field of international protection; identifying and guiding vulnerable groups in entering Bulgarian territory and in the registration process; ensuring reception and social activities; providing procedural guarantees and better conditions for the reception of children and unaccompanied minors; developing and implementing an appropriate methodology and training with regard to assessing the age of the persons seeking protection; capacity building on country of origin information; developing tools for the training of interpreters engaged in status determination procedures; practical application of tools for quality of procedure; planning to deal with emergencies; and professional development at first and second instance in the judicial system. EASO's support is continuing until at least June 2016.
- The UNHCR was not alone in noting evidence of improvement. Amnesty International noted "improvements in the reception conditions and the increase number of staff of the State Agency for Refugees to ensure quicker access to asylum procedures" and "observed improvements in the three reception centres" and "improvements in the reception conditions". Human Rights Watch said it "welcomes significant improvements in registration and reception conditions for asylum seekers in the reception centres since our visit to Bulgaria in December 2013".
- According to European Migration Network's Annual Report on Migration and Asylum Policy in Bulgaria in 2014:
"At the end of January 2015 SAR signed a co-operation agreement to the benefit of protection seekers with 12 NGOs. Among those, there were legal aid providers (Centre for Legal Aid Voice in Bulgaria and the re- instated Legal Clinic for Refugees and Migrants), some grassroots organisations of Syrians and Palestinians, as well as newer associations for protection of refugees and other vulnerable groups. SAR committed to facilitate the access of representatives of the organisations to the persons, seeking protection while the NGSs reiterated their commitment to support and protection of foreigners, residing in SAR centres."
- EASO's "Stocktaking Report" on the asylum situation in Bulgaria, which measured Bulgaria's improvements since 2013, on the basis of a mission on 17-21 February 2014, noted that:
"With the support of EASO and other stakeholders involved, the report shows that Bulgaria has taken concrete steps to improve its asylum and reception system for offering protection to those in need."
- In his report, the European Commissioner for Human Rights refers to "efforts made by the Bulgarian authorities to assist the high numbers of people arriving" and noted that "the Bulgarian authorities, with the help of the UNHCR, NGOs, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and the EU Refugee Fund managed to improve the living conditions and functioning of the asylum system as of March 2014". The Commission "welcomes the measures the Bulgarian authorities have taken with the assistance of several stakeholders from the end of 2013 to help Syrian refugees to face the humanitarian crisis".
- In my judgment, there is no basis on which it could properly be concluded that the wholesale suspension of returns was now required.
- The Claimants make complaint about reception capacity. They explain that there are seven reception centres operated by SAR (Reception and Registration Centres): Banya, Sofia and Harmanli, Transit Centre Pastrogor, Accommodation Centres of Voenna Rampa, Vrazdebhna and Kovachevtsi; and three Special Centres for Temporary Accommodation of Foreigners ("SCTAFs"): Busmantsi, Lyubimets and Elhovo.
- They allege, referring to a 2014 report, that the registration period for asylum seekers is arbitrary. But that report flies in the face of the UNHCR report of April 2014 which noted:
"Following EASO's extensive training of, and other support to, SAR staff, the registration process has been streamlined and takes place within 48 hours of the arrival of an asylum-seeker at the reception centres of Sofia, Banya and Harmanli and in the Transit Centre Pastrogor. According to SAR, there is no longer a backlog for the registration of applications for international protection for persons accommodated within SAR facilities, nor is there a backlog for those who have opted to live at external addresses. All those who have applied for international protection have been issued registration cards. In cases of individuals requesting asylum at the border, during the 3-5 day waiting period for full registration, the Bulgarian authorities have given assurances that they are protected against refoulement pending complete registration and the issuance of a registration card."
- It is also inconsistent with the EASO stocktaking report on the situation in 2014 which states that the registration cards are usually issued within one day after the arrival of asylum seekers in the centres and the interview dates are fixed immediately at the registration.
- Referring to the AIDA report of September 2015, they allege that registration arrangements are deteriorating, and are no longer taking place within the 3-6 day deadline. But if, as I have found to be the case, the UNHCR have continued monitoring and if this deficiency were to affect asylum seekers' rights under Article 3, or their right not to be refouled, I have no doubt that it would be the subject of comment from the UNHCR. It also seems to me surprising given the EASO stocktaking report referred to in the preceding paragraph.
- The Claimants point to the UNHCR April 2014 report which suggests that there are over 1,400 pending Dublin return requests as at March 2014 and that they would only be accommodated if the planned capacity for SAR had reached 6,000 by April 2014. It was said that by 30 September 2015 there were 6,932 requests pending (AIDA September 2015).
- The Defendant's reponse to this is entirely convincing. First, they point to the European Migration Network's Annual Report on Migration and Asylum Policy in Bulgaria in 2014, which states that the capacity for reception of persons seeking international protection was raised by approximately 6,000 places:
"As a result of the implementation of these plans, the capacity for reception of persons seeking international protection was raised by approximately 6,000 places. All utility services are provided in accordance with international and European standards. Harmanli Reception Centre was upgraded to receive 4000 more people with a full reconstruction of five buildings. The two reception centres in Sofia (Vrazhdebna and Voenna Rampa) were also upgraded to receive an additional 400 and 800 persons respectively. The centre in Banya was upgraded with the construction of ten additional small houses able to host 40 persons."
- Second, as they point out, the number of actual Dublin transfers was "relatively low" (178 out of 6,963 take back or take charge requests, as at 30 September 2015).
- The Claimants suggest that the large number of pending Dublin transfers means the improvements noted in the UNHCR report may not prove sustainable. However, as the Defendant submits,
"Under the Dublin III Regulation framework, if the transfer is not made within 6 months then the individual falls out of the Dublin system despite acceptance of responsibility and is non-returnable (save where there is some legal obstacle to transfer which can 'stop the clock'). Therefore, any past figure of potentially returnable Dublin transfers is not a guide to the current number still within the 6-month window."
- It also seems to me significant that on 29 May 2015, the European Commission signed an Urgent Measures Agreement, allocating €4.1 million to Bulgaria to improve asylum procedures and reception conditions. Doubtless that development indicates that improvements are required; it also demonstrates that improvements are in hand.
- As to conditions in reception centres, the Claimants point to the UNHCR report to the effect that the UNHCR remains concerned about the accommodation and sanitary conditions in Vrazdebhna and Voenna Rampa centres. It was said that sanitary facilities are very limited, with an inadequate number of toilets, bathrooms with limited access to hot water, and sewage systems with persistent blockages. Two cases of Hepatitis A have been confirmed. As the Secretary of State submits, however, reports suggest that conditions observed in the centres have improved significantly in comparison with the situation observed in December 2013 and the UNHCR's "concern" did not affect its decision to recommend that its recommendation to suspend be reversed.
- The Bordermonitoring.eu Report 2014 suggests that there is a lack of space, missing window panes, a lack of privacy and unhygienic living conditions. ECRE reports that scabies, lice and bedbugs are widespread. I note, however, that the ESAO stocktaking report records that "Reception facilities are largely in a reasonable state and have motivated and determined staff". It also says the following: "There has been a lot of progress in a short span of time. Motivation and determination to get the job done is quite remarkable". I note that AI also "observed certain improvements in the three reception centres".
- The Claimants refer to an Amnesty International report that such medical arrangements, as were in place in early 2014, were set to end by May 2014. But that view is inconsistent with observations in the AIDA report of October 2015, the EASO report on the position in 2014 and the 2014 European Migration Network's Annual Report on Migration and Asylum Policy in Bulgaria: that Asylum seekers are entitled to the same health care as nationals. Under the law, the SAR has the obligation to cover the health insurance of asylum seekers; "All centres provide medical care, either through own medical staff or MSF"; "The health and social security of accommodated foreigners has been improved over the course of the year. Health checks and treatment of newly accommodated persons are carried out, as well as weekly health control".
- The UNHCR report provides powerful evidence on this issue:
"SAR has recruited doctors and nurses for three of its centres (So a, Banya and Pastrogor) while the centres of Harmanli, Voenna Rampa and Vrazdebhna rely on the medical assistance temporarily provided by the Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) team through weekly consultations. MSF is preparing to phase out in Harmanli, Voenna Rampa and Vrazdebhna by the end of May 2014 and is working in cooperation with SAR to designate general practitioners who can cover the medical needs of the residents of these centres. One Arabic-speaking doctor has already been selected and is working alongside MSF in Vrazdebhna during this period of transition. In Kovachevtsi, SAR has arranged a periodic consultation by a doctor from the local hospital pending a longer- term arrangement, and there is also an Arabic-speaking nurse in the facility."
- The Claimants complain about the quantity and quality of food available for residents at reception centres. But in my judgment that complaint cannot survive the evidence referred to by the Defendant: the ECRI Report of 16 September 2014, states the "ECRI is pleased to note improvements recently brought to its attention by the authorities; medical care, legal assistance and warm food are now provided in all accommodation centres". The UNHCR report in April 2014 observes:
"Regular visits and monitoring carried out in the different centres by UNHCR have indicated that asylum-seekers find the quality and quantity of the food satisfactory. Communal kitchens, where asylum-seekers can prepare their own food, are available in Banya, Pastrogor and Kovachevtsi. UNHCR is planning to start the construction of communal cooking facilities in Harmanli, Vrazdebhna and Voenna Rampa in April 2014."
- The EASO Stocktaking Report in 2014, states that "Some standards/conditions set out by the RCD have been already reflected in the Bulgarian law (e.g. Art. 29.2 - the asylum seeker shall have the right to shelter and food). A major progress was made from 1 February 2014 in provision of food, minimum one hot meal prepared in all reception centres in cooperation with the Ministry of Defence".
- I see no prospect of a tribunal upholding an appeal on these grounds.
Conditions Outside Reception Centres
- Criticism is made of likely conditions in detention. According to the AIDA report of September 2015, detention typically lasts 12-14 days subject to a maximum period of 18 months, (extensions after 6 months having to be court-authorised). It is said that detention facilities are frequently overcrowded due to rising numbers of asylum claims and to delayed releases whilst asylum seekers are awaiting registration of their claims. It is said that there is inadequate hygiene, toilet and shower facilities, cleaning must be done with materials purchased at the detainee's own expense, nutrition is poor with no provision for special diets, language barriers and lack of proper medication, making access to healthcare a virtual formality and of no practical use.
- There is said to be limited access to the open air, and that for no more than two one-hour sessions. Following his February 2015 visit, the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner reported that there were seriously substandard material conditions in detention; numerous reports of abusive and violent treatment by guards, overcrowding and noise, inter-nationality tension, insufficient toilets, ventilation and poor quality food. Mr Symes referred me to the ECtHR report of Neshkov v Bulgaria, a case concerning general prison conditions in Bulgaria.
- Those accounts conflict with that of the UNHCR in respect of migrants; "In all detention centres managed by the Directorate of Migration, detainees receive food regularly, have access to medical care when needed, have access to basic recreational activities which includes television, and have access to outdoor recreation areas. UNHCR provided some books in Arabic, Dari, Farsi and French in Bustmansi". AIDA observes that "the spaces in all detention centres are of an adequate size". The UNHCR's April 2014 report: "In all detention centres managed by the Directorate of Migration, detainees… have access to outdoor recreation areas". Given the ECHR decision in Nashkov however, I would have little difficulty in holding that the Claimants had met the test for the quashing of the certification if it were the case that they were likely to be held long term in detention, rather than reception facilities in Bulgaria.
- However, the evidence suggests that asylum seekers are not routinely held in detention. According to the January 2014 UNHCR report, it was a failure to register asylum claims which could then leave asylum seekers in detention. But by April 2014, the UNHCR were satisfied with the improvements to the registration process and no suggestion has been made that asylum seekers are routinely held in detention for any significant length of time.
- The Claimants complain of a gap in healthcare as their status alters. They refer to reports from the UNHCR in April 2014, from Bordermonitoring.eu in 2014, and from Amnesty International in February 2016 that for a period of some two months after a decision on their claim, asylum seekers would be recorded as uninsured and would have to pay for medical treatment. The Secretary of State refers to the National Strategy for Integration of Persons with International Protection Status in the Republic of Bulgaria 2014-2020 (the "NSIPIPS"), which describes the health care available to BIPs, including the health care to which they are entitled when they are uninsured. That includes medical care in emergency situations and inpatient psychiatric care. Even if the Bulgarian report is more aspirational than descriptive, a general description of a possible short term gap in healthcare funding does not get close to establishing an arguable breach of Article 3.
- The same can be said of generalised complaints in the NGO reports of difficulties in securing stable employment and adequate housing, lack of language support, and the absence of a support network. In that regard the Defendant refers to the NSIPIPS which describes the housing available to BIPs, which is equivalent to that available to other third-country nationals residing in Bulgaria.
- The Claimants point to reports of racially abusive and discriminatory language amongst administrators and staff (Bordermonitoring.eu Report 2014). It is said that "Guards and social workers have… made overtly degrading comments about detainees in the presence of the monitoring team", (Cordelia Foundation Report, published 2016). They also point to anecdotal reports of hate crimes and abusive behaviour by border guards and others. As the Defendant submits, however, that sits uneasily with EASO's stocktaking report on the asylum situation in Bulgaria in 2014, from which I quote at paragraph 109 (and following) above. I note also the comment in the UNHCR report, "UNHCR welcomes and encourages the efforts of the Bulgarian authorities to counter xenophobic incidents".
- Furthermore, Bulgaria has adopted a National Strategy on Migration, Asylum and Integration (2011-2020). This strategy:
"considers the integration of migrants as a focused, continuous, dynamic and multifaceted process that requires efforts from all stakeholders involved in it: willingness of migrants to adapt to the host society, without having to give up their cultural identity, and readiness of the host community and public institutions to accept refugees as equal. This approach is underlying also the policy field in the light of the latest influx of asylum and humanitarian protection seekers in Bulgaria."
- It has also adopted a National Strategy for Integration of Persons with International Protection Status in the Republic of Bulgaria 2014-2020 which notes:
"The integration process of TCNs with humanitarian or refugee status starts with entering into a voluntary Integration Agreement. Through it, individuals are granted access to a wide range of services and financial incentives to support the initial integration period. The services provided are within the competences of the respective institutions, which should take into account the specifics of the target group, additional policies and services are planned."
- The limited social security and the difficulty in finding work is a further subject of criticism. But Article 3 ECHR does not oblige contracting parties to provide refugees with help to maintain a particular standard of living (see, for example, Muslim v Turkey application no 53566/99 at paragraph 85), and, in my judgment, this issue only becomes of significance as grounding a breach of Article 3 if asylum seekers are left without any form of support. Thus, in MSS v Belgium, the ECHR indicated it would consider whether "a situation of extreme poverty" could give rise to an issue under Article 3. Given the numbers potentially affected and how serious it would be for each individual affected, it is inconceivable that this would not have been the subject at least of comment by the UNHCR if it were a real problem.
- Concerns are raised about conditions facing those who choose to live in the community rather than in reception centres; but it is to be noted that the UNHCR offers no criticism as to the treatment of asylum seekers living at external addresses.
- It follows that I see no prospect of a successful appeal before a tribunal on these grounds.
Individual Consideration and the Date of Consideration
- Thus far, I have considered what the evidence says about the position facing returning asylum seekers in general and that is plainly an important part of my task. But I also have to consider whether the individual circumstances of any of these five Claimants threatens to put them significantly more at risk. Perhaps the most important of those individual considerations is the fact that three of them allege that they have been the victims of torture.
- As the Defendant points out, publicly available materials (including the Bulgarian Strategy Plans) makes it clear that the Bulgarian authorities take the orthodox approach to the type of individuals who may be considered vulnerable. Bulgaria's asylum law provides a definition of vulnerability which extends to: "children; pregnant women; the elderly; single parents, if accompanied by their children; people with disabilities; and those who have suffered severe forms of physical or psychological harm or sexual abuse".
- The AIDA report states in terms that in practice the status of a vulnerable applicant is not limited to families with small children. The EASO stocktaking report in 2014 notes that: "EASO offered operational support for the referral of UAM and vulnerable persons starting on 5 February 2014. A mapping out of existing referral procedures for UAM, vulnerable persons and persons with special procedural and reception needs took place and a manual for the identification of vulnerable groups, as well as addressing further needs for reception facilities was drafted. The support will be continued in March/April 2014". The identification of vulnerable persons is also the subject of the EASO special support plan.
- Referring to the Amnesty International report of February 2016 and the AIDA report of September 2015, complaint is made that there is a failure to provide specialised care, treatment and medication for individuals with complex care needs and that there are no dedicated facilities for treating torture victims and mental health problems. Given the complaints from a number of the Claimants to the effect that they had been victims of torture this latter allegation is of some weight. However, I note that the AIDA report of October 2015 states that: "Asylum seekers are entitled to the same health care as nationals and that Bulgarian law requires the asylum reception centres to cover the health insurance of asylum seekers". The European Migration Network's Annual Report on Migration and Asylum Policy in Bulgaria in 2014 states: "Referral to specialists is available for all persons, including vulnerable groups".
- In my judgment, viewing the matter as of today, none of these Claimants get close to establishing that a return to Bulgaria would risk exposing them to a breach of Article 3. I see no prospect that a tribunal, properly directing itself and considering the evidence made available to me, would decide otherwise.
- That is the conclusion I reach viewing matters as of today's date. If anything, the position was even stronger when the Secretary of State made her decisions in these cases. Those decisions pre-dated the February 2016 report from Amnesty International which provided a modest degree of support for the Claimants' case.
Risk of Refoulment
- The Claimants argue that there is a real chance of refoulement without due consideration of their need for international protection. They argue this claim on the basis of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, rather than the ECHR.
- As both parties accept, the certification powers arise only in relation to the ECHR; they do not bite on claims made under the Charter. Given that Article 3 ECHR and Article 4 CFR both prohibit torture, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment, this makes it possible that a claim could be certified in relation to the Human Rights Convention but not as regards to the Charter despite the fact that the two cover exactly the same terrain.
- It is agreed between counsel that "it had previously been thought that any judicial review claim contesting removal to another Member State and raising refoulement risks would have to be accompanied by an application for a declaration of incompatibility under Section 4 of the Human Rights Act". It is argued, and I accept, that no such declaration is now required, provided that the arguments are advanced under the Charter, as they are here.
- The Claimants suggest that the flaws in the status determination procedures in Bulgaria create a risk that those whose circumstances warrant international protection are not detected. I have addressed some of the suggested flaws in the processing of claims above. For the reasons given above, I see nothing of substance in them.
- It is said that access to legal assistance is inadequate. The AIDA report of September 2015 suggests there is a lack of information provided as to the asylum processes and Human Rights Watch suggested in its April 2014 report that some detainees did not know whether they had submitted asylum applications or not. However the AIDA report notes that "Legal counselling and information by leaflets… is usually provided from the initial application (e.g. at the border) until the registration process is finished". It makes the finding that "information on the access to the asylum procedure is provided". The UNHCR report in April 2014 notes that in practice the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee provides legal assistance to asylum seekers. The EASO report notes the same. The UNHCR points out that the National Bureau for Legal Aid would be able to provide services from April 2014 onwards as a result of ERF funding.
- The Claimants allege that the difficulty in obtaining interpreter facilities adversely affects their ability to make a claim. But, as the Defendant submits, "the UNHCR refers to a number of organisations that are providing interpretation support, including Frontex… Interpretation is also the subject of the EASO special support plan".
- There has been no evidence adduced before me to support a case that the Bulgarian authorities are likely to fail, whether deliberately or as a result of inefficiency, properly to process asylum claims.
- In my judgment it cannot fairly be said that there is any significant risk of refoulement from Bulgaria.
- In those circumstances, my conclusions are as follows:
(i) Each of the challenges to the certification in respect of each Claimant fails;
(ii) The Claimants' return to Bulgaria would not constitute a breach of Article 3 ECHR or Article 4 of the Charter;
(iii) None of the Claimants has shown a real risk that Bulgaria would refoul them to their home countries without properly determining their asylum status.
- I will hear counsel on the appropriate order.
Copyright Policy |
Donate to BAILII