A set of legislative changes focused on the time limits of the asylum procedure. The complete legislative reform of the asylum system in Switzerland aims at making all types of procedures shorter and more effective overall, and the regular procedure at first instance in particular.398 National legislation has previously not explicitly stated a fixed maximum time limit for the procedure in Finland 399 and Slovakia.400 Both countries have now implemented the relevant provisions of Article 31(3)-(6) of the recast APD and clarified that the examination procedure should in principle be concluded within six months of lodging the application, which can be gradually extended under specific circumstances to 12, 15 and 21 months. An exceptional general extension to 15 months was in force in Austria until 31 May 2018: the BFA needs to decide on an application as a main rule again within six months since that date.401 The First Instance Administrative Court further clarified the rules governing the time limits in Luxembourg, and underlined that the 21-month time limit is established as an order of the deadline instead of a strict deadline and the mere fact that this time limit has elapsed does not lead to sanctions.402 Another judgement in the UK involved an Afghan minor and the Immigration and Asylum Chamber of the Upper Tribunal found that the total delay of 21 months is so excessive that, in the particular circumstances of the case, it can be considered as manifestly unreasonable and therefore, unlawful.403
Corresponding initiatives in policy and practice aimed at the shortening the length of the first instance procedure. The new government in Luxembourg included in the coalition agreement its commitment to intensify efforts to comply with the general timelines for assessing applications for international protection.404 Staffing numbers significantly increased in the national asylum authorities in Cyprus (including support staff co-financed through AMIF), Germany, Ireland and Spain with the aim to decrease processing times and backlog. National authorities requested staff increase in Belgium at the end of 2018 and the Minister in charge of asylum policy and migration made the corresponding decision to hire more personnel at the beginning of 2019. Civil society organisations from Greece and Spain noted instances when staff members were not sufficiently trained in general, and had not been prepared to conduct interviews with vulnerable applicants in particular.405 The amended legislative framework in Italy allows for the temporary establishment of additional sections for the Territorial Commissions with a Ministerial Decree, should the caseload require.406 Greek llegislation extended the support that Greek-speaking EASO personnel can provide for the Asylum Service and allows them to undertake administrative actions for processing asylum applications also within the regular procedure in case of urgent need.407 The Swedish Migration Agency launched the pilot project Asyl 360 with the ambition to manage within 30 days at least 50 % of the total asylum caseload.
The establishment of arrival centres and the efforts aiming to obtain reliable information on the nationality, identity and travel route of the applicant under Access to procedure were particularly relevant developments for making procedures at first instance more efficient and potentially shorter. These changes can ensure that national authorities have better information on the applicants to assess their cases: channel them through Special procedures, if necessary, be able to make a more rapid credibility and eligibility assessment based on a more complete and comprehensive set of information and ultimately deliver the decision in a quicker manner.
Some other initiatives built on new technologies to further enhance the efficiency of first instance procedures. All new applications are now handled electronically in Sweden. The BAMF in Germany conducted a pilot for a new search engine which finds more rapidly the applicants' files, decreasing the average search time. The Belgian InSite, the platform for communication, collaboration and knowledge sharing of the CGRS, was also further expanded. The authorities in France may now send electronically the notification of decisions and summons to the interview with OFPRA.408
The length of asylum procedures remained of concern for many of the civil society organisations providing input to the EASO Annual Report. NGOs from Croatia, 409 Cyprus,410 Greece, 411 Ireland,412 Spain,413 Sweden,414 Switzerland 415 all reported significant delays in delivering first instance decisions.
Another group of legislative changes focused on the personal scope of the asylum applications. The legal amendments in France made clear that applicants with minor children introduce the application in their name and also on behalf of their minor children.416 Accompanied minors in Belgium now explicitly have the right to lodge a separate asylum application in their own name or to request to be separately interviewed from their parents.417 Minors’ entitlement for a separate interview was reported to be a sensitive issue in Sweden, where the Swedish Migration Agency seems to have missed to interview some children, resulting in insufficient best interest assessments for the purposes of the first instance procedure and insufficient attention to child specific reasons for flight.418
Some legislative amendments concerned the availability of legal assistance during the procedures at first instance. Free legal aid was extended in the Czechia to citizens and foreign nationals with insufficient income prior to and during the administrative procedures.419 The amendment of the Asylum Act in Slovakia enabled non-governmental organisations to represent applicants also during the first instance procedure as legal entities.420 Changes pointed towards the opposite direction in Hungary and the European Commission sent a letter of formal notice in July 2018 followed by a reasoned opinion in January 2019 concerning a new law that criminalises assistance provided to applicants for international protection who entered the country in an irregular manner. UNHCR expressed its dismay and called on the government to withdraw the bill.421 Several civil society organisations underlined as well that the law criminalises lawful actions.422
The Law of 10 September 2010 in France allows now applicants with disabilities to request OFPRA's permission to be accompanied by a health professional or a representative of an NGO for their personal interview.423
The legislative amendments that entered into force in Belgium shaped some further aspects of the first instance procedure. Fedasil now assesses applicants’ special procedural needs and can make recommendations to the CGRS on the modalities of the assessment process, with consent of the applicant.424 Applicants or their lawyer became entitled to ask for a copy of the personal interview report within two working days from the interview and send their observations to the CGRS within eight days from the report’s reception. The legal articulation of this entitlement gains even more importance in the framework of some concerns reported around the personal interview report in Spain and Switzerland: a civil society organisation from Spain reported some instances when the applicants did not receive the copy of the personal interview425 , and to an event lesser extent, but similar situation was noted in Switzerland as well.426 Both Spanish civil society contributors mentioned that in any case personal interviews are frequently held in facilities lacking privacy.427
The amendment of the Asylum Act in Slovakia requires the Ministry of the Interior to request an opinion on the asylum application of all applicants above 14 years also from the Military Intelligence, and not only from the Slovak Information Service. The time limit to reply to this request was extended from 10 days to 20 days.428
The legislative changes that entered into force in Hungary and in Italy extended the scope of exclusion grounds from the international protection status. Applicants in Hungary are excluded from protection when they had been convicted for at least five years for an intentional crime, convicted for at least three years for certain types of crime or when they are repeated offenders.429 The Security Decree in Italy extended the list of crimes resulting in exclusion from the international protection status: resistance to public officials, serious personal injuries, serious or very serious personal injuries to a public official performing their duties, female genital mutilation, theft aggravated with the use of weapons or in possession of narcotics, burglary.430
Many policy and practice initiatives provided further support and guidance for the staff members involved in the first instance decision-making process. EASO published a new Practical Guide on who qualifies for international protection.431 The legal section of CGRS in Belgium elaborated new guidelines and provided training for protection officers on the major legislative changes that came into force in 2018, Fedasil legal department did, too, namely regarding the reception aspects.TThe CGRS staff continued to follow EASO training modules. Protection officers could obtain extra training from Senior Protection Officers and COI experts based on national training materials, when they were requested to handle cases from countries of origin outside of their initial competencies. The OAR in Spain drafted new general internal guidelines for assessing applications, while the Migration Department of the Ministry of the Interior in Lithuania and the Migration Office of the Ministry of the Interior in Slovakia both developed new guidelines and instructions on some specific aspects of the first instance procedure, such as the personal interview in Lithuania or the assessment of country of origin information in Slovakia. The UK Home Office also further developed its asylum policy guidance and letter templates. The Police and Border Guard Board in Estonia has started to develop new training materials for its staff, suiting better the officials' specific roles within the asylum procedure. The State Secretary for Justice and Security in the Netherlands announced that The internal information notice concerning convert cases was going to be made publicly available as a working instruction.432 The working instructions for assessing LGBTI cases were going to be adapted and less emphasis will be place on the awareness process and self-acceptance and more emphasis is put on the authentic story.433 The ECtHR deliberated on concerns around the assessment of LGBTI cases in its judgement I.K v Switzerland, but found no violation of Article 3 ECHR in that particular case.434 AAn academic monograph focusing on the organisation of status determination in Austria provides - among other issues - an insight about the impact of these guidance materials on caseworker’s assessment process when faced with the inherent uncertainty of the applications.435
Two countries reported changes in their assessment policy towards specific countries. The Danish Immigration Service was about to change its practice concerning applicants from Syria following a statement from the Danish Refugee Board.436 Based on changes in the general situation in Syria, a residence permit cannot be granted anymore by merely referencing to the general circumstances in the country. The Danish Immigration Service was in the process of selecting trial cases and is has started initially refusing to grant residence permit for applicants from the Damascus Governorate.437 The Dutch State Secretary decided to modify its policy on internal flight alternative for families with minor children in Afghanistan,438 to extend the list of profiles included under risk groups in China439 and Somalia 440 and declared that the situation in some provinces in Iraq has changed to the extent that they would no longer be considered falling under Article 15(c) of the recast QD.441 The definition of the term ‘single’ was also slightly modified for the purposes of country-policy towards Somalia, the bring it in line with the policies already in place for Afghanistan and Iraq. EASO has also been continuing its work on country guidance in order to support Member States in the formulation of country-specific assessment policies: the pilot country guidance process was concluded with the publication of Country Guidance: Afghanistan in June 2018, which was followed by the Country Guidance: Nigeria, while the country guidance on Iraq is expected to be published later in 2019.
The State Secretary in the Netherlands issued a decision clarifying the policy when Article 1F of the Refugee Convention applies. The IND is not obliged to organise a personal interview with the applicant prior to issuing an intended decision, when public sources, case law of international courts of appeal or tribunals, national case law or official reports of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs make it evident that the applicant committed the relevant crime or crimes.442
New policies and practices emerged with the objective to enhance the quality of asylum decisions at first instance. EASO launched its quality assurance tool on two modules focusing on the substantive personal interview and first-instance decisions443 and created a Quality Assurance Tool application.444 The Finnish established a separate judicial review team within the legal and support services of the Asylum Unit, which uses a standardised form (created as one of the outcomes of the previous LAAVA project on asylum decision-making) to identify the main challenges concerning the quality of the asylum-decisions and match relevant training to these aspects. The BAMF in Germany iintroduced a multi-level, continuous quality assurance system for asylum decisions. The system includes quality assurers in the branch offices, checking all asylum decisions, quality assures of the quality unit in the BAMF headquarters, checking approximately 1 000 decisions a month, and the internal audit unit in the BAMF headquarters, carrying out annual audits of decisions. The Legal Affairs Department of the Swedish Migration Agency is already well-established and conducted several audits throughout 2018: quality of asylum decisions in general (annual audit), thematic audit of conversion cases and a closer audit of the decisions handed down within the framework of the Asyl 360 pilot project. The quality of asylum decisions raised issues in Greece.445 The French civil society contributor made reference to the third evaluation round carried out by UNHCR and OFPRA focusing on decisions taken in 2016, with the results having been published at the end of 2018: the evaluation was overall positive, but it identified a number of shortcomings, which OFPRA has addressed with further trainings for its employees.446
398 CH LEG 01: AsylA.
399 FI LEG 01: Act amending the Aliens Act, 501/2016.
400 SK LEG 02: Act No 198/2018 Coll.
401 AT LEG 03: Amendments to the Asylum Act 2005, the Aliens Police Act 2005 and the BFA Procedural Law.
402 LU Administrative Tribunal, N° 41205.
403 UK Upper Tribunal,  UKUT 00299 (IAC).
404 DP, LSAP and déi gréng, Accord de coalition 2018-2023 (in French), p. 230.
405 DRC in Greece, Input to the EASO Annual Report 2018; Fundación Cepaim, Input to the EASO Annual Report 2018; Ombudsman of Spain, Input to the EASO Annual Report 2018. AIDA, Country Report Greece, 2018 Update, pp. 25, 95.
406 IT LEG 01: Immigration and Security Decree.
407 EL LEG 01: L 4375/2016, Asylum Act, Article 36(11), as amended by EL LEG 02: L 4540/2018, Reception Act..
408 FR LEG 01: Law of 10 September 2018.
409 AIDA, Country Report Croatia, 2018 Update, p. 30. The Croatian Ministry of the Interior noted that these cases were exceptional and concerned applications where further information or security checks were required.
410 AIDA, Country Report Cyprus, 2018 Update, p. 23.
411 DRC in Greece, Input to the EASO Annual Report 2018.
412 AIDA, Country Report Ireland, 2018 Update.
413 Fundación Cepaim, Input to the EASO Annual Report 2018; Ombudsman of Spain, Input to the EASO Annual Report 2018.
414 Save the Children (Sweden Office), Input to the EASO Annual Report 2018.
415 Asylex, Switzerland, Input to the EASO Annual Report 2018.
416 L.741-1 of CESEDA, as amended by FR LEG 01: Law of 10 September 2018.
417 BE LEG 02: Law of 21 November 2017, amending the Asylum Act and the Reception Act.
418 Save the Children (Sweden Office), Input to the EASO Annual Report 2018.
419 CZ LEG 01: Act No 258/2017 Coll.
420 SK LEG 02: Act No. 198/2018 Coll.
421 UNHCR, UNHCR Observations on the Legislative Amendments Adopted in Hungary in June & July 2018; UNHCR, Hungary: UNHCR Dismayed over Further Border Restrictions and Draft Law Targeting NGOs Working with Asylum-Seekers and Refugees; UNHCR, UNHCR Calls on Hungary to Withdraw the Draft Law on Refugees (in Hungarian).
422 For example: Amnesty International, Hungary: New laws that violate human rights, threaten civil society and undermine the rule of law should be shelved; Open Society Justice Initiative, Legal Analysis of Hungary’s Anti-NGO Bill; ECRE, Hungarian Parliament adopts bills to criminalize assistance of migrants.
423 FR LEG 01: Law of 10 September 2018.
424 BE LEG 02: Law of 21 November 2017, amending the Asylum Act and the Reception Act.
425 Fundación Cepaim, Input to the EASO Annual Report 2018.
426 Asylex, Switzerland, Input to the EASO Annual Report 2018.
427 Fundación Cepaim, Input to the EASO Annual Report 2018; Ombudsman of Spain, Input to the EASO Annual Report 2018.
428 SK LEG 02: Act No 198/2018 Coll.
429 HU LEG 03: Act CXLIII of 2017, amending articles 8(5) and 15 (ab) of the Asylum Act.
430 IT LEG 01: Immigration and Security Decree, Article 7
431 EASO, EASO Practical Guide: Qualification for international protection.
432 Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal, Parliamentary Papers (Kamerstukken) II, 2017-2018, 19637, nr. 2416 (in Dutch).
433 Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal, Parliamentary Papers (Kamerstukken) II, 2017-2018, 19637, nr. 2416 (in Dutch).
434 ECtHR, IK vs Switzerland, ECLI:CE:ECHR:2017:1219DEC002141717.
435 IMISCOE, IMISCOE Research Series, Inside Asylum Bureaucracy: Organizing Refugee Status Determination in Austria.
436 Danish Refugee Board, Refugee Board believes that general conditions in Syria have changed (in Danish).
437 Ny i Danmark, Udlændingestyrelsen ændrer praksis i sager vedrørende de generelle forhold i Syrien.
438 Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal, Parliamentary Papers (Kamerstukken) II, 2017-2018, 19637, nr. 2416 (in Dutch).
439 Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal, Parliamentary Papers (Kamerstukken) II, 2017-2018, 19637, nr. 2418, Vreemdelingenbeleid, Brief van de Staatssecretaris van Justitie en Veiligheid (in Dutch).
440 Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal, Parliamentary Papers (Kamerstukken) II, 2016-2017, 19637, nr. 2305 (in Dutch).
441 Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal, Parliamentary Papers (Kamerstukken) II, 2016-2017, 19637, nr. 2305 (in Dutch).
442 Staatssecretaris van Justitie en Veiligheid, Decision of the State Secretary for Justice and Security of 20 September 2018, number WBV 2018/10, containing amendment of the Aliens Regulations 2000, Edition 2018, No. 52887, 20 Sep 2018 (in Dutch).
443 EASO, EASO Quality Assurance Tool. Examining the application for international protection. Module 1: Personal interview. Module 2: First instance decisions.
444 EASO, Quality Assurance Tool.
445 DRC in Greece, Input to the EASO Annual Report 2018; Fundación Cepaim, Input to the EASO Annual Report 2018; AIDA, Country Report Greece, 2018 Update, p. 25; FRA, Update of the 2016 FRA Opinion on fundamental rights in the hotspots set up in Greece and Italy, p. 26.
446 Forum Réfugiés-Cosi, input to the EASO Annual Report 2018, contribution not disclosed; AIDA, Country Report France, 2018 Update, p. 30.