Protecting human rights defenders at risk: EU entry, stay and support

Across the world, human rights defenders protect and uphold human rights in some of the most challenging situations. In some countries they face worrying levels of threats and attacks, intimidation and harassment. This report outlines how human rights defenders can enter and stay in the EU when they need protection. It suggests how EU institutions and Member States could use the flexibility in existing legal provisions and provide shelter for defenders who seek protection.

The EU and its Member States support human rights defenders and their human rights activities at home and abroad, in accordance with the EU’s policy priorities and with the United Nations (UN) and regional human rights commitments. Human rights defenders often face serious threats and attacks because of their work.

The European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of the EU (in dedicated guidance notes) as well as civil society organisations have repeatedly called for increased opportunities for human rights defenders from third countries to access the EU in case of risk and need. While there are legal avenues for entering and staying in the EU, defenders face many obstacles in accessing them. Several Member States have set up dedicated programmes for temporary relocation of human rights defenders from outside the EU to respond to some of their specific protection needs.

In its work, the EU applies the definition of human rights defenders used in the UN Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The key reference document guiding the EU’s work with defenders outside the EU is Ensuring Protection – European Union guidelines on human rights defenders. Approaches to human rights defenders in the EU have been set out in the recent Council Conclusions on the role of the civic space in protecting and promoting fundamental rights in the EU.

Regarding the entry and stay of human rights defenders from third countries, the general EU (Schengen) legal provisions apply. Different types of visas are currently used for this group of people, including short-term (Schengen) visas with or without limited territorial validity, various national long-stay visas such as study visas or national interest visa; and different types of residence permits.

The requirements of defenders in relocating to the EU are met by granting short-term visas under the existing rules in the EU Visa Code, often using the flexibility or facilitations that can be granted in line with this legislation, or by providing visas for longer stays under national law. The application processes, coverage of family members, length of stay and opportunity to renew such visas can vary considerably depending on the type of visa used.

Across the world threats and attacks against human rights defenders range from verbal to physical attacks. In several third countries, human rights defenders’ work is criminalised, and they can be subject to arbitrary arrest, torture, executions and assassinations. The human rights defenders facing particular challenges and risks are women human rights defenders, environmental human rights defenders and climate activists, indigenous and land rights defenders, LGBTIQ+ human rights defenders, and youth and child rights defenders.

Mobility needs of human rights defenders in relation to their work include:

the need to relocate to be protected from risks to life, physical integrity and liberty;

the need for rest and respite;

the need for exchange and participation in international activities;

the need for a ‘just-in-case’ safety net as part of broader protection plans.

Several EU Member States have implemented practices and initiatives to facilitate access to the EU specifically for human rights defenders under pressure and at risk.

This report identifies dedicated national initiatives for human rights defenders’ relocation in eight Member States – Czechia, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Sweden. It finds that human rights defenders at risk are accommodated to some extent in 18 Member States, including through city-led, academia-led or civil society-led initiatives.

Relocation practices vary across the EU and defenders may find it difficult to access relocation support. In combination these factors result in the demand for protection being greater than the protection offered. The diverse mobility needs of human rights defenders necessitate a variety of responses, including emergency evacuation, temporary stay for up to one-year, longer-term stay, mobility into and within the EU, and flexible (multiple-entry) visas. For most of these, there is a legal pathway; however, these are not usually readily accessible to human rights defenders and the procedures can be lengthy.

The EU visa acquis provides for the possibility, in exceptional circumstances, for Member States issuing Schengen visas on humanitarian grounds even when the applicant does not meet the usual conditions. This allows human rights defenders to enter and stay in EU territory. Multiple-entry visas with a long period of validity are only occasionally provided to human rights defenders. A few Member States have occasionally applied accelerated procedures to issue Schengen visas to human rights defenders for an emergency relocation to address an immediate risk.

There are many hurdles in obtaining a visa. They can be particularly difficult for human rights defenders to overcome in certain situations. These include the length of procedures, a particular challenge for human rights defenders in need of emergency relocation. Visa applications normally require a range of documents and evidence which can be hard for defenders to provide. The most essential document is the passport, which a defender may have been denied because of their human rights work, and only in highly exceptional cases can Member States issue a travel document for foreigners.

Human rights defenders’ activities may also be considered criminal and their names may be entered in International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) databases, which may render their travel impossible. Sharing data with third-party service providers may present a security risk for defenders in some countries. Available legal avenues and support may be difficult to access for human rights defenders who live in remote areas and/or do not speak an EU language.

Only a few EU Member States issue residence permits to human rights defenders. In cases in which there is a need for longer-term stay, often the only avenue open to defenders is to apply for international protection. This can have the adverse effect of rendering their human rights work impossible because of their asylum seeker status. As an asylum seeker, they would not be allowed to travel to their country of origin, nor would they be allowed to carry out remunerated work, including human rights work, in the receiving country during the often lengthy asylum application process.

Some Member States provide additional support to human rights defenders to enable them to continue their human rights work during their stay in the EU. Such support includes access to a work permit, education, healthcare, banking services, capacity building, trauma relief and psychological support.

The EU’s commitment to protect human rights defenders globally can be operationalised by enhancing their mobility into and within the EU, and by establishing measures that address their specific needs. Existing provisions in law, policies, practices and programmes at EU and national levels demonstrate that it is, in principle, possible to grant entry and stay to human rights defenders and for them to obtain funding for their human rights work. But at present there is no common, consistent EU approach.

Any support and protection instrument for human rights defenders should serve two main goals:

  1. ensuring the safety, integrity and dignity of human rights defenders and their family members and community; and
  2. supporting their ability to continue their human rights work.

To step up such support, the EU and its Member States could consider the following six points:

  1. Making better and more frequent use of existing flexibility in EU law

Access to short-stay visas could be facilitated by applying the existing exceptions and derogations in the EU Visa Code. The EU Visa Code Handbook I – the Visa Code’s implementation guidance – could provide more information about this. The EU guidelines for visa issuance in relation to Russian applicants of September 2022 could serve as inspiration.

Consideration should be given to providing human rights defenders more often with multiple-entry Schengen visas with a long period of validity. That could be an important safety net for defenders at risk.

To facilitate greater use of the flexibility offered under existing EU law, the European Commission could compile a dedicated catalogue of the various options available to human rights defenders to come and stay lawfully in the EU, translate it into the relevant languages and make it available online, for example on the https://protectdefenders.eu/ platform.

  1. Introducing and broadening existing programmes

EU Member States that do not yet have a relocation programme in place could consider introducing practices building on lessons learned from existing programmes.

Where relocation programmes establish specific requirements regarding the ‘type’ of human rights defender (such as journalist, artist), their language knowledge or the region or country they come from, consideration could be given to expanding the scope of these programmes. The inclusion of family members can be an important element in protecting human rights defenders.

  1. Improving awareness about human rights defenders

Improve awareness about who human rights defenders are, what they do and how they could best be supported to continue their human rights work, both in their home countries and while in relocation.

This includes raising awareness among visa officers and border guards of the specifics of human rights defenders’ challenges and support needs. It also includes raising awareness of the role, advantages and potential risks of the future digitalisation of the visa process and of EU large-scale IT systems in the areas of migration and security, including on how alerts in Interpol databases can affect human rights defenders.

A better understanding needs to be developed concerning the risks faced by family members of human rights defenders (including those in LGBTIQ+ partnerships).

  1. Considering the benefits and risks of digitalisation of and technology use in border crossing procedures

It is important to take into account the benefits and risks of digitalisation and the use of technology impacting on human rights defenders’ opportunities to come to the EU. This includes for instance automated checks against databases as part of the processing of the visa application, and the requirement to submit applications online, or through an intermediary (external service provider).

  1. Providing more adequate support during stay

Support for relocated human rights defenders in the EU beyond the provision of visa and residence permits should be provided, with the overall aim of enabling them to effectively continue their human rights work. Such support measures require sustainable funding. They include provision of housing and access to healthcare, employment, capacity building and advocacy assistance, the possibility to set up a non-governmental organisation (NGO) and to receive funding for their activities, and measures for rest and respite, including trauma relief and psychological support. Vulnerable individuals should be informed of the resources available to them and those facing transnational repression should receive targeted support.

  1. Reviewing the adequacy of legal tools for supporting human rights defenders

The EU could review the adequacy of its legal tools for supporting human rights defenders, especially the Visa Code, the Visa information system (VIS) Regulation, and the European travel information and authorisation system (ETIAS) Regulation, and if necessary suggest possible amendments.