JOINT STATEMENT: INTERNATIONAL CIVIL SOCIETY ORGANISATIONS CALL FOR AN EFFECTIVE AND ENABLING EU VISA FRAMEWORK FOR AT-RISK HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS
An initiative of ProtectDefenders.eu, the EU Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society
Human rights defenders have the right to carry out their legitimate work safely and to access support and protection when they are at risk, especially those who operate in the most difficult contexts. Their right to defend rights has been systematically enshrined by the European Union in its political guidelines, and statements, as well as in its financial programming and external actions. In fact, the European Union is a leading actor in the promotion and protection of human rights in the world and it is regarded by the human rights defenders’ community as an invaluable source of empowerment and legitimacy.
Human rights defenders often carry out their work at great personal risk, and increasingly face killings, attacks, threats, and acts of intimidation because of their peaceful activities, in addition to being subjected to repression, restrictive legislation, and judicial harassment. For these at-risk human rights defenders, the possibility of accessing a visa to a European territory emerges as an essential security and protection tool, which empowers them to carry out their activities in their countries in a more secure and protected way. Visas and multiple-entry visas are widely regarded by the international human rights defenders community as a vital element of a comprehensive security strategy, one that enables defenders to consider the possibility to move in and out of their country in a way that allows them to manage the level of risk that they face as a result of their work, and to continue to work in their communities without forcing them to resort to permanent asylum paths when facing aggravated threats. However, despite political commitments and existing guidelines, the EU and its member states’ stated support for human rights defenders is not consistent with the current EU visa policies and practices, as human rights defenders at risk around the world lack consistent procedures to effectively and predictably access visas for the EU territory.
The community in support of human rights defenders, including the Consortium of organisations implementing the European Union Human Rights Defenders mechanism ProtectDefenders.eu, have systematically noted and documented with great concern the numerous, diverse, and blatant obstacles for defenders to access EU visas (see Annex 1). ProtectDefenders.eu - which has supported 45,000+ human rights defenders and civil society organisations to continue their work in the most difficult situations since 2015 - encounters these obstacles also in relation to its daily operations delivering EU-funded programmes of practical support for human rights defenders. Every day, human rights defenders face an array of impediments that hinder their access to this essential security and protection tool, preventing them from accessing safe haven when necessary, as well as from engaging in existing opportunities for rest and respite and temporary relocation programmes, or carrying out essential international advocacy, mobilisation, or networking activities in the EU territory.
This lack of reliable, predictable, and coherent access for human rights defenders to EU visas unnecessarily aggravates the risk, isolation, and vulnerability they face as a result of their work – which is exacerbated for those defenders belonging to particularly threatened groups - such as women human rights defenders, LGBTI rights defenders, or indigenous rights defenders; for those facing spurious criminalisation processes aimed at impeding their mobility, or for those without secure access to basic travel documents. Major crises affecting human rights defenders and massive backlash against civil society notoriously reveal the gap in the effective implementation of the EU political commitments and guidelines related to visas, as recently illustrated by the demand for support from those human rights defenders and civil society members in Afghanistan in need of urgent evacuation. A more predictable, coordinated, and consistent policy on visas for human rights defenders - allowing for flexible and reactive protocols in critical situations, would reportedly have avoided, or at least mitigated the deficiencies of the EU response, or lack thereof.
With the exception of the positive examples of current good practices and initiatives implemented by some Member States, European institutions, or political actors in the EU (see Annex 2), the EU as a whole has yet to make a serious effort to mainstream the access to at-risk human rights defenders in their visa policies. The current legislative instruments and established practices fail to comply with the consistency required for the Union’s actions enshrined in the EU Treaties and attest to a lack of harmonisation, effort-sharing, and coordination among both the Member States and the European institutions.
ProtectDefenders.eu and the undersigned organisations are convinced that with political will and clear guidelines, the EU can and should return to its political mandate in favour of human rights and human rights defenders, and lead on the implementation of concrete initiatives, good practises, and policy changes to ensure that at-risk human rights defenders can access European Union visas with guarantees, security, and predictability.
ProtectDefenders.eu and the undersigned organisations are calling on all European Union actors to urgently implement all appropriate measures at all levels to develop and promote an enabling framework for human rights defenders to access visas for the EU (see Annex 3), one that guarantees predictability, consistency, and protection for those who are most at-risk HRDs.
More specifically, ProtectDefenders.eu and the undersigned organisations call on the EU stakeholders to i) propose a specific facilitated procedure for human rights defenders within the EU Visa Code, setting common criteria and defining the elements of a facilitated procedure; ii) include instructions in the EU Visa Handbook on granting facilitations to HRDs and their family members, iii) work towards amending the legal instruments on visas, particularly the Visa Code, and iv) introduce amendments to the Temporary Protection Directive that allow temporary protection status in the EU to be granted to defenders at risk.
Furthermore, ProtectDefenders.eu and the undersigned organisations call on the EU Member States to implement consistent policies and guidelines to recognise the right of human rights defenders to access visas; as well as to promote the exhaustive use of their current prerogatives to urgently guarantee access to visas for those facing severe threats and risks. In coordination with the international human rights defence community, ProtectDefenders.eu and the undersigned organisations look forward to collaborating with all EU public actors at all levels in the efforts to ensure the urgent implementation of an enabling framework for defenders to access visas in the EU.
ProtectDefenders.eu is the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism, led by a Consortium of 12 NGOs active in the field of human rights:
- Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
- DefendDefenders – East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders project
- Euro-Mediterranean Foundation of Support to Human Rights Defenders (EMHRF)
- Front Line Defenders
- ILGA World
- Peace Brigades International
- Protection International
- Reporters Without Borders
- The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
- The World Organisation against Torture (OMCT)
- Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights (UAF)
This initiative is supported by:
- Amnesty International
- Artist Protection Fund
- Artists at Risk (AR)
- Asociación Zehar-Errefuxiatuekin
- Brot für die Welt
- Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
- Center for Applied Human Rights (CAHR), University of York
- Civil Rights Defenders
- Comissió Catalana d’Ajuda al Refugiat (CCAR)
- Defenders in Dordrecht (DiD)
- Docip (Indigenous Peoples’ Center for Documentation, Research and Information),
- European Center for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
- Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
- Freedom House
- Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)
- Hamburg Foundation for politically persecuted persons
- Heinrich Böll Stiftung
- Human Rights House Foundation (HRHF)
- Human Rights House Tbilisi
- Humanists International
- Iniciativa Mesoamericana de Mujeres Defensoras de Derechos Humanos
- International Arts Rights Advisors (IARA)
- International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN)
- International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR)
- International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
- Justice & Peace
- Open Society Foundations (OSF)
- PEN America's Artists at Risk Connection (ARC)
- Pen International
- Réseau de Défenseurs des Droits Humains de l’Afrique Centrale (REDHAC)
- Scholars at Risk
- Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network
- Tbilisi Shelter City
- Un Ponte Per
- Unit for the protection of human rights defenders of Guatemala (UDEFEGUA)
ANNEX 1 |
Every day, at-risk human rights defenders are confronted with challenges, barriers, and obstacles when applying for a visa to the EU. A non-exhaustive list of these obstacles includes
- Difficulties meeting the requirements for the applications - also due to their work as human rights defenders.
◦ On numerous occasions, these difficulties are due to spurious and rigged court cases against defenders, preventing them from providing the due clear criminal record when requesting visas.
◦ In too many cases, it is virtually impossible and extremely burdensome for low-income grassroots activists to demonstrate the required economic solvency.
◦ Lack of access to online facilities to submit applications for visas, or lack of IT knowledge, or credit/debit cards to process online payments.
◦ Limited language options for HRDs to apply for visas.
◦ For HRDs in exile, it may be complicated to fill the requirements of their country of current residence.
◦ Defenders also meet difficulties in proving that they will return to their countries after the visa period expires.
◦ Family members are often unable to join easily, due to additional requirements required.
- The long and bureaucratic process constitutes an insurmountable obstacle on many occasions, particularly in cases of emergency. Lengthy waiting times to obtain an appointment, and lengthy assessment process, which in some cases aggravate the risk that defenders face, and in other cases, leads to the reason for the application to pass them by.
- Lengthy procedures are exacerbated by the use of third-party agencies to deal with the visa application process. The use of these agencies owned by local staff and not by diplomatic staff at times not only fails to recognize the needs of HRDs but also exacerbates the risks they face.
- Difficulties are aggravated for isolated defenders, those outside the capitals where the visa centers are located, or those without valid travel documents such as passports. LGTBIQ+ HRDs also face particular bureaucratic and administrative difficulties in relation to, for example, their marital status.
- Structural inequality and discrimination make these difficulties more frequent and intense for women human rights defenders.
- Information about currently-established visa pathways that are actively being used to support HRDs by some EU countries is not widely accessible to those seeking to apply.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has been adding an additional layer of challenges for visa applications, such as the impossibility of traveling to interviews.
- Consequently, human rights defenders report an increase in cases of Schengen visa decline, as well as orders to automatically decline any applications coming from specific countries, as any applicant is considered a potential asylum seeker. It increasingly appears that only HRDs with access to personal connections within European embassies or influential political figures can get visas. HRDs working with international civil society organisations report that the Schengen visa has become a matter of privilege that only some defenders have access to, and even the visa declines appear to be pervasive and systematic for HRDs from some countries, such as Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and Yemen.
ANNEX 2 | Nonetheless, some States and institutions worldwide are currently exercising a wide range of prerogatives to facilitate access to visas for human rights defenders. Some of these best practices are:
- Spain has a special one-year residential visa for HRDs (Residencia Temporal no Lucrativa), through the Spanish Program for Support and Protection of HRDs at risk aiming to provide HRDs with temporary shelter.
- Switzerland waives the visa fees for HRDs attending Human Rights Council events to mitigate the financial burden of visa applications for HRDs.
- In the Netherlands, there is an accelerated assessment of the visa application for at-risk HRDs accepted by Justice and Peace Netherlands for the Shelter City programme, who can have their visa issued in two or three days, even within 24 hours. This can administratively be done by close cooperation between Justice and Peace and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
- Thanks to the work of ICORN, there are distinct national entry regulations and long-stay visas for writers at risk in Norway (through the refugee resettlement scheme, in partnership with Norwegian PEN), Sweden (temporary residence permit), and Denmark (two-year residency permit for writers invited to cities members of an international organisation).
- A “Facilitated Visa Procedure for HRDs” programme - established with the government of Ireland, allows Front Line Defenders to obtain at short notice temporary visas for human rights defenders facing imminent dangers or in need of respite as a consequence of constant persecution.
- In Costa Rica there is a special immigration procedure for HRDs hosted by Shelter City Costa Rica, granting them the status of "Temporary Protection Mechanism" for a period of six months with the possibility of extending it up to one year. This special status as its extension can be requested only by Fundación Acceso, the NGO implementing “Shelter City Costa Rica”, and is based in an official resolution issued by the General Direction of Migration.
- The City of Berlin has a specific residence and work permit given to artists and journalists, which has been granted in some cases to HRDs with this profile.
- Canada’s dedicated refugee stream for human rights defenders allows ProtectDefenders.eu and Front Line Defenders, alongside other Canadian and international partners, including UNHCR, to contribute to identifying HRDs who are at risk and in need of permanent resettlement.
- The visa process for South Africa accommodates the peculiar challenges of HRDs. For example, HRDs in exile can submit and have visas granted even without long-term residency in the country.
- Furthermore, there are some good practices non-specific, but beneficial to HRDs. For instance, some local missions have an eased visa process - there are local visa handling partners who receive the applications and payments and render guidance in completing the forms. The visa offices are based in the country missions, and they handle the applications in a fast and efficient way.