Over one million people sought refuge in the EU in 2015, a fivefold increase from the year before. In its Fundamental Rights Report 2016, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) examines the scale and nature of the challenge and proposes measures to ensure fundamental rights are respected across the EU.
“Last year, the EU’s fundamental rights resolve was sorely tested, with assaults on many of the freedoms, rights and values on which Europe is founded,” says FRA Director Michael O’Flaherty. “The EU and its Member States must stand firm in defending the rights to which everyone is legally entitled, whether they have lived in the EU for generations or have just arrived on Europe’s shores.”
This annual Fundamental Rights Report highlights challenges and achievements across a broad spectrum of fundamental rights issues across the EU. Many of the issues covered by this year’s report will be discussed in more detail during the Fundamental Rights Forum 2016, which will take place on 20-23 June in Vienna.
The arrival of over one million refugees and migrants strained domestic asylum systems and risked triggering rights violations, including by fuelling xenophobic reactions. But it also prompted considerable support from citizens and EU-level initiatives, including relocation and resettlement measures. The year’s developments were also marked by a string of terrorist attacks across the EU. Some legislators sought to extend the powers of intelligence services, and concerns about further attacks put data collection and retention back on the agenda. Many discussions of such proposals, however, acknowledged the importance of safeguarding rights, and an agreement on a reformed EU data protection package showed promise.
Some challenges proved particularly persistent. Five years before the deadline set for the EU 2020 goals, the proportion of children at risk of poverty or social exclusion remained high. Discussions on the Equal Treatment Directive entered their seventh year – without successful conclusion in sight. Although insights about the importance of local action began shaping Roma integration efforts, these continued to face serious hurdles.
But 2015 also brought positive news. Measures to make the judicial process more child-friendly yielded clear progress, and a variety of initiatives strengthened the procedural rights of individuals involved in criminal proceedings. It was also a milestone year for the rights of crime victims, with the November deadline for transposing the Victims’ Rights Directive triggering an array of legislative changes. Another milestone was the completion of the first review of the EU’s implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) by the United Nations CRPD Committee – the first time an international body examined how the EU is fulfilling its human rights obligations. These obligations include raising awareness of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. As the report’s chapter on the Member States’ use of the Charter underscores, further efforts are necessary to better familiarise EU citizens and relevant professional groups with this important instrument.
This year’s Focus section takes a closer look at asylum and migration issues in the EU. It explores the risks refugees and migrants face to reach safety; addresses challenges with regard to non-refoulement and the prohibition of collective expulsion; outlines developments and possible solutions in the field of asylum; and discusses developments on the issue of returns.
In section 3.3 ’Tackling discrimination by strengthening the implementation of the Racial Equality Directive’, equality bodies’ and Equinet’s work is highlighted.
(Page 85) The European Commission very closely monitors the setting up of equality bodies in EU Member States. Pursuant to Article 13(2) of the Racial Equality Directive, these bodies should be able to provide independent assistance to victims of discrimination. In that respect, the Commission has launched infringement proceedings against Slovenia for failing to set up an independent equality body able to provide efficient assistance to victims of discrimination and against Belgium for failing to set up at all political levels an equality body competent for gender matters.
Meanwhile, the Commission discontinued infringement proceedings against Finland in May, following adoption of the new Non-Discrimination Act. The new law, which entered into force in early 2015, replaced the former equality body – the Ombudsman for Minorities – with the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman. The law entrusts the new equality body with relevant tasks in the field of employment, in compliance with Article 13 of the Racial Equality Directive.
Strengthening the powers of equality bodies contributes to more effective implementation of the Racial Equality Directive. A number of Member States took action in this regard. For example, in December, the Danish parliament amended the Act on the Board of Equal Treatment, allowing the equality body (the Danish Institute of Human Rights) to bring cases before the Equality Board if they are of general public interest. In Estonia, the Office of the Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner amended its procedural rules to prioritise cases of victims who claim discrimination on grounds of racial, xenophobic or related intolerance. Finland’s new Non-Discrimination Act also puts the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman in charge of a wider range of discrimination grounds, including age, origin, nationality, language, religion, belief, opinion, political activity, trade union activity, family relationships, state of health, disability, sexual orientation, and other personal characteristics.
(Page 86) Research conducted by the European Network of Equality Bodies (Equinet) (Sanction Regime in Discrimination Cases and its Effects) stresses the key role of equality bodies in making sure that sanctions and remedies in discrimination cases are effective, dissuasive, and proportional. The Equinet analysis shows that equality bodies are competent to issue sanctions and recommendations in several Member States, including Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Portugal and Romania. The report also shows that the judiciary in some Member States could apply a wide set of sanctioning options, but that these remain unused or underused because judges lack knowledge or are reluctant to apply sanctions that are not common in their national legal systems. Equinet therefore calls on the equality bodies “to motivate judges to apply those sanctions, which are available in law, also in practice.
To address the persisting low levels of awareness about equality bodies and relevant legislation, it is FRA’s opinion that EU Member States could intensify awareness-raising activities about EU and national legislation tackling racism and ethnic discrimination. Such activities should involve statutory and non-statutory bodies such as equality bodies, national human rights institutions, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), trade unions, employers and other groups of professionals.
Equality bodies in several EU Member States developed information and guidance documents in 2015 to raise awareness of legislation relevant to countering ethnic discrimination. Evidence shows that, despite the legal obligation to disseminate information under Article 10 of the Racial Equality Directive, public awareness remains too low for legislation addressing ethnic discrimination to be invoked often enough.
To improve access to justice, it is FRA’s opinion that EU Member States should provide for effective, proportionate and dissuasive sanctions in case of breaches of national provisions transposing the Racial Equality Directive and the Framework Decision on Racism and Xenophobia. Member States could also consider broadening the mandate of equality bodies, which are currently not competent to act in a quasi-judicial capacity, by empowering them to issue binding decisions. Furthermore, equality bodies could monitor the enforcement of sanctions issued by courts and specialised tribunals.
Evidence from 2015 shows that remedies are insufficiently available in practice and that sanctions in cases of discrimination and hate crime are often too weak to be effective and dissuasive. They thus fall short of the requirements of both the Racial Equality Directive and the Framework Decision on Racism and Xenophobia, as underpinned by Article 6 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Furthermore, in only a few Member States are equality bodies competent to issue sanctions and recommendations in cases of ethnic discrimination. How far complaint procedures fulfil their role of repairing damage done and acting as a deterrent for perpetrators depends on whether dispute settlement bodies are able to issue effective, proportionate and dissuasive sanctions.