Migrants at the border: fundamental rights at stake or just another breach of secondary law? Comparing “European Commission v. Hungary” with “N.D. and N.T. v. Spain”

In the case of European Commission v. Hungary (Déclaration d’intention préalable à une demande d’asile) (C-823/21, 22.6.2023), the CJEU applied Article 6 of Directive 2013/32 (the Procedures Directive), which regulates access to the procedure for international protection, to the situation of migrants at the State border.

The CJEU ruled that Hungary had failed to fulfil its obligations under Article 6 of Directive 2013/32 because it had made the possibility, for certain third-country nationals or stateless persons present in the territory of Hungary or at its borders, of making an application for international protection subject to the prior lodging of a declaration of intent at a Hungarian embassy located in a third country and to the granting of a travel document enabling them to enter Hungarian territory. Thus, these people have to leave Hungary and come back with papers delivered by a Hungarian embassy abroad before being able to apply for international protection.

In essence, the CJEU’s ruling is based on the following five considerations.

1. Article 6 of Directive 2013/32 allows any third-country national or stateless person to make an application for international protection, including at the borders of a Member State (Art. 3(1)), by expressing his or her wish to benefit from international protection to one of the authorities referred to in that article, without the expression of that wish being subject to any administrative formality. That right must be recognised even if that person is staying illegally on the territory of the Member State concerned and irrespective of the prospects of success of such a claim (§ 43).

2. The obligation imposed on migrants at the border by the impugned Hungarian legislation is not provided for by Article 6 of the Directive and runs counter to the objective pursued by it, which is to ensure effective, easy and rapid access to the procedure for granting international protection (§ 51).

3. This obligation also deprives migrants of their right, under Article 18 of the EU-Charter, to effectively seek asylum (§ 52).

4. A Member State cannot unjustifiably delay the time at which the person concerned is given the opportunity to make his or her application for international protection (§ 47).

5. The public health and public policy and security grounds invoked by the Hungarian government as justification for this scheme are ill-founded (§§ 54-69). 

Interestingly, , in the landmark case of N.D. and N.T. v. Spain a unanimous Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights recently dealt with the same topic, i.e. the forcible return of migrants from the Spanish border surrounding the enclave of Melilla. It did so under Articles 4 of Protocol No. 4 (prohibition of collective expulsion) and 3 of the Convention (prohibition of ill-treatment, including refoulement). In that same judgment, the ECtHR set out its doctrine about the rights and duties of migrants at the border of Contracting States. It is based on the following five principles, listed hereinafter with relevant excerpts from the judgment.

1. No formalities are required for a valid application for asylum

In the specific context of migratory flows at borders, the wish to apply for asylum does not have to be expressed in a particular form. It may be expressed by means of a formal application, but also by means of any conduct which signals clearly the wish of the person concerned to submit an application for protection. (N.D. and N.T., § 180)

2. The non-admission of a refugee is to be equated with refoulement

The “non-admission” of a refugee is to be equated in substance with his or her “return (refoulement)”. Consequently, the sole fact that a State refuses to admit to its territory an alien who is within its jurisdiction does not release that State from its obligations towards the person concerned arising out of the prohibition of refoulement of refugees. (§ 181)

3. The protection of the Convention is not subject to formal considerations

The protection of the Convention cannot be dependent on formal considerations such as whether the persons to be protected were admitted to the territory of a Contracting State in conformity with a particular provision of national or European law applicable to the situation in question. The opposite approach would entail serious risks of arbitrariness, in so far as persons entitled to protection under the Convention could be deprived of such protection on the basis of purely formal considerations, for instance on the grounds that, not having crossed the State’s border lawfully, they could not make a valid claim for protection under the Convention. States’ legitimate concern to foil the increasingly frequent attempts to circumvent immigration restrictions cannot go so far as to render ineffective the protection afforded by the Convention, and in particular by Article 3. (§ 184)

4. Expulsion is to be understood as any forcible removal of an alien from a State’s territory

The term “expulsion” is to be interpreted in the generic meaning in current use (“to drive away from a place”), as referring to any forcible removal of an alien from a State’s territory, irrespective of the lawfulness of the person’s stay, the length of time he or she has spent in the territory, the location in which he or she was apprehended, his or her status as a migrant or an asylum-seeker and his or her conduct when crossing the border. (§ 185)

5. States must make available genuine and effective access to means of legal entry, in particular border procedures

With regard to Contracting States like Spain whose borders coincide, at least partly, with external borders of the Schengen Area, the effectiveness of Convention rights requires that these States make available genuine and effective access to means of legal entry, in particular border procedures for those who have arrived at the border. Those means should allow all persons who face persecution to submit an application for protection, based in particular on Article 3 of the Convention, under conditions which ensure that the application is processed in a manner consistent with the international norms, including the Convention. In the context of the present case, the Court also refers to the approach reflected in the Schengen Borders Code. The implementation of Article 4 § 1 of the Code, which provides that external borders may be crossed only at border crossing points and during the fixed opening hours, presupposes the existence of a sufficient number of such crossing points. In the absence of appropriate arrangements, the resulting possibility for States to refuse entry to their territory is liable to render ineffective all the Convention provisions designed to protect individuals who face a genuine risk of persecution. (§ 209)

However, where such arrangements exist and secure the right to request protection under the Convention, and in particular Article 3, in a genuine and effective manner, the Convention does not prevent States, in the fulfilment of their obligation to control borders, from requiring applications for such protection to be submitted at the existing border crossing points (§ 210)

What conclusions can be drawn from a comparison of these two rulings?

The good news is that in terms of their outcome, i.e. the obligations of States regarding the treatment of migrants at the border, the two rulings appear to be very similar in that in essence, they both require the effective possibility for migrants at the border to make an application for international protection.

A striking difference, though, lies in the approach followed by each of the two European Courts. Whereas the CJEU adopted a rather textual approach based on the wording of Articles 6 and 3(1) of Directive 2013/32 and previous case-law, the ECtHR adopted a more principled approach, thereby going to great lengths, notably with a thorough analysis of the current state of international law, to explain that what is at stake in such cases are two basic fundamental rights of migrants, i.e. the right not to be subject to refoulement or collective expulsion. By contrast, nothing is said about these fundamental rights in Commission v. Hungary, despite the suggestion by the Commission that this case is in fact about refoulement (§ 23). The resulting impossibility for migrants at the Hungarian border to seek asylum is mentioned only incidentally by the CJEU (§ 52).

This is indeed the paradox of Commission v. Hungary and several other similar rulings: it is ultimately about basic fundamental rights, but nothing is said about them. Instead, the matter is addressed on the basis of a textual interpretation of “ordinary” provisions of secondary law of a rather technical nature. These provisions may perhaps have the same concrete impact in practice, but they also have the effect of trivialising the issues at stake and ignoring what is their very essence.

While the main issue characterising the situation of migrants at the Hungarian and other State borders is ultimately one of basic fundamental rights, i.e. one of refoulement and collective expulsion, as recently confirmed in S.S. and Others v. Hungary, this issue is being ignored in European Commission v. Hungary and treated as just another breach of an ordinary provision of EU law. The Strasbourg case-law therefore seems a good reminder of the deeper issues behind these ordinary provisions.

The practical relevance of this distinction is that, being of a higher rank and less easily modifiable, fundamental rights can be expected to provide a better protection in the long run. Moreover, they raise the importance of the issues involved, preventing them from being considered as purely technical matters.