The EU should uphold its values at its borders: a few words on World Refugee Day

Wojciech Wiewiórowski

Today marks World Refugee Day. Since 2001, we pay respect to the courage of refugees from all around the world that have had to flee their countries to escape war, persecutions and other disasters. I would therefore like to share a few observations on the EU’s obligation to ensure that fundamental rights are upheld for those reaching the borders of the EU.

The EDPS’ experience, especially in past years, has shown recurring problems with the legal framework regulating the roles and obligations of EU Member States and EU authorities, especially from a data protection perspective, where it is often unclear where the responsibilities lie. This creates fertile ground for legal misinterpretations, and it does not make it easier for those working on the ground and applying the law. This applies not only to relations between EU authorities, but also between the EU and EU Member States’ or non-EU countries’ authorities. Whilst the New Pact on Migration tries to address this to a certain extent, I believe a new opening is necessary to address migration challenges in their broader context of global reality, such as climate change, poverty, conflicts. Clear roles to ensure an EU-wide common approach that is efficient and respects the EU’s primary law should also be tackled on this occasion.

This will equally apply to the collection, processing and exchange of migrants’ personal data using the EU’s large-scale IT-systems. Strong mechanisms for independent review and supervision of these systems are crucial in order to ensure a coherent and uniformed application of data protection principles and equal protection of individuals.

This common approach is necessary, given how migration has become instrumentalised; hostage to political interests. Border management differs across the EU: there are better and worse borders in the EU, with different standards, where the EU’s role differs, with different readings of the law. The response of EU Member States to the influx of Ukrainian citizens seeking shelter from the Russian invasion has shown that we can; but it has also shown that it depends. Effectiveness of EU law requires that irrespective of the examples of the instrumentalisation or unfavourable political realities, the EU should continuously strive to uphold its values and principles at its borders. It is not a question of generosity, but a legal obligation - the EU law is applicable in the same way in Brussels as it is in the furthest corners of the EU. Refugees do have fundamental rights provided by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

A few months ago, on the eve of the European Council Summit dedicated to migration, Dunja Mijatović, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, issued a statement addressed to the leaders of the 27 EU Member States. In this statement, she warned against a steady decline in the respect for the human rights of those attempting to reach Europe and called leaders to express a clear commitment to putting an end to human rights violations occurring as a result of jointly agreed migration management measures. Today, on World Refugee Day, the statement remains poignantly valid.

I would therefore like to seize this moment today as an opportunity to look at the functioning of the existing EU policies and their respect to the Charter of Fundamental Rights and to reflect on a strategy for years to come that would take into account the complexity of underlying migratory phenomenon and the EU’s commitment to lead by example when respecting fundamental rights.

As the European Data Protection Supervisor, I am responsible for monitoring and enforcing EU institutions, bodies, offices and agencies’ compliance with the right to privacy and the right to data protection. These rights are fundamental rights to which the EU commits under the Charter and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. They are refugees’ rights as much as EU citizens’ rights.