Push-back and detention of migrants at the border: judgment of the CJEU in the case of Valstybės sienos apsaugos tarnyba

In the case of Valstybės sienos apsaugos tarnyba (C-72/22 PPU, 30.06.2022), the CJEU ruled that a domestic regulation which, by reason of the state of emergency created by a mass influx of migrants, precludes a foreigner who unlawfully entered a Member State from lodging an application for international protection, is incompatible with Articles 6 and 7(1) of the Procedures Directive (2013/32). Moreover, the domestic regulation allowing in the same circumstances asylum seekers to be placed in detention for the sole reason that they are staying illegally on the territory of that Member State was declared incompatible with Article 8(2) and (§) of the Reception Directive (2013/33).

A comparison of this CJEU ruling with the relevant Strasbourg case-law reveals a number of striking similarities but also some particularities. Here is a short overview of them, concerning four different aspects. In view of the duty of domestic judges to apply EU law in conformity with the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights, which basically means that in case of divergencies they should apply the norm providing the higher protection, such considerations would not appear totally irrelevant. What is indeed required here is a wholistic approach which does no longer consider the Convention and EU law separately but rather as interacting with each other whenever EU law applies.

a. Unlawful stay on the territory of a State

A first striking element of the present CJEU ruling is its reliance on the need to interpret the relevant provisions of the Procedures Directive so as to ensure the effectiveness of the rights at stake, i.e. the right to access to the procedure in which applications for international protection are examined and the right to asylum enshrined in Article 18 of the EU-Charter (§§ 61-62).

Another remarkable element is the reminder by the CJEU, in light of the wording of the Directive, that the “making” of an application for international protection cannot be made dependent on the observance of administrative formalities, such formalities applying only at a later stage, when the application is “lodged”. Furthermore, a third-country national or stateless person is entitled to make such an application on the territory of a Member State even if that person is staying illegally on the said territory and irrespective of the prospects of success of such an application (§ 58).

On all these points, there is strong convergence with the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). It is indeed well-established Strasbourg case-law that the Convention is intended to guarantee not rights that are theoretical or illusory but rights that are practical and effective, a principle which the ECtHR frequently applies in migration cases, as in M.K. and Others v. Poland where it stated:

The Court’s main concern in cases concerning the expulsion of asylum‑seekers is whether effective guarantees exist that protect the applicant against arbitrary refoulement, be it direct or indirect, to the country from which he or she has fled (§ 167).

As regards the role played by formalities in applying for asylum, the ECtHR stated in N.D. and N.T. v. Spain:

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)

As the ECtHR put it in M.K. and Others v. Poland: Taking into account the absolute nature of the right guaranteed under Article 3, the scope of that obligation was not dependent on whether the applicants had been carrying documents authorising them to cross the Polish border or whether they had been legally admitted to Polish territory on other grounds. (§ 178)

b. Pushback at the State border

It is worth noting, however, that the ruling of the CJEU concerns the situation of a migrant who already found himself on the territory of Lithuania, though unlawfully, which is different from the situation occurring when migrants are not admitted to the territory of a State and face pushbacks at the border instead.

Regarding that kind of situation, the ECtHR, relying notably on the Schengen Borders Code and the Procedures Directive, ruled in N.D. and N.T. v. Spain that States should ensure effective access to means of legal entry:

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. … 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 (see also Article 6 of the EU Procedures Directive, …). Consequently, they may refuse entry to their territory to aliens, including potential asylum-seekers, who have failed, without cogent reasons … to comply with these arrangements by seeking to cross the border at a different location, especially … by taking advantage of their large numbers and using force. (§§ 209-210)

As regards asylum-seekers at the State border, there is again some convergence between the present CJEU ruling and the Strasbourg case-law on access to the territory of the State concerned. The ECtHR indeed stated in M.K. and Others v. Poland:

In order for the State’s obligation under Article 3 of the Convention to be effectively fulfilled, a person seeking international protection must be provided with safeguards against having to return to his or her country of origin before such time as his or her allegations are thoroughly examined. Therefore, the Court considers that, pending an application for international protection, a State cannot deny access to its territory to a person presenting himself or herself at a border checkpoint who alleges that he or she may be subjected to ill-treatment if he or she remains on the territory of the neighbouring State, unless adequate measures are taken to eliminate such a risk. (§ 179)

c. Derogations

A further interesting aspect of the present ruling is the denial by the CJEU of the possibility for the national authorities to rely on Article 72 TFEU in order to derogate from the prescriptions of the Procedures Directive by reason of the threat to public order or internal security flowing from the mass influx of migrants at the border. This approach would appear to be in line with the absolute nature of Article 3 of the Convention, the effect of which is to prohibit torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment even in the most difficult circumstances (Gäfgen v. Germany, § 87).

However, an element which would appear to raise some doubts is the reference by the CJEU to the possibility, provided for by Article 43 of the Directive, to establish special procedures, to be applied at the border, for assessing the admissibility of applications for international protection “where the conduct of the applicant suggests that his or her application is manifestly unfounded or abusive” (§ 74).

While the reference to the conduct of applicants bears some resemblance with the N.D. and N.T. jurisprudence concerning the conduct of migrants who lose the benefit of the protection against collective expulsions by crossing a State border in an unauthorised manner outside existing border checkpoints (§ 211), it must be noted that the eventuality being addressed by the CJEU in the present ruling potentially covers a much wider range of situations occurring at State borders. This might render the suggestion by the CJEU that the mere conduct of an applicant could indicate that his/her application is unfounded or abusive difficult to reconcile with the safeguards required by Article 4 of Protocol no. 4 to the Convention when no unlawful crossing of a State border has taken place. In such cases this provision indeed requires the State authorities to ensure that each of the aliens concerned has a genuine and effective possibility of submitting arguments against his or her expulsion (§ 198).

d. Detention

Finally, by not allowing asylum-seekers to be placed in detention for the sole purpose of the processing of their application, EU law applies a higher protection standard than the Convention, as demonstrated by the present CJEU ruling (compare with Z.A. and Others v. Russia, § 162).