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1 in 6: Mental Health in Europe

  • October 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

1 in 6: Mental Health in Europe

Source: Pixabay

European institutions and countries have to keep up the momentum on mental health

This post will discuss suicide prevention and mental health. There is help and support available for anyone who’s been affected by these issues, in Belgium and further afield:

Crisis centres in Europe

Helplines for young people

Community Help Service Belgium

 

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Don’t panic, and carry a towel: sustainable aviation

  • October 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Don’t panic, and carry a towel: sustainable aviation

Source: Pixabay

We don’t have to turn the clock back on flying – we have to move forward on innovation

In recent months, Greta Thunberg and schoolchildren across the world have led a striking – in both senses of the word – campaign to raise awareness and spark action on climate change. Her 14-day journey across the sea from England to New York to attend a UN climate summit was particularly impressive. Although she stated that it was not something everyone should do, it was hard not to be reminded of pre-aviation days where it took several days to cross the Atlantic and you could only go if you were wealthy.

What we have today are far shorter journey times and far more access to travel for less wealthy people. I got an email from Vueling yesterday offering me an €45 round trip from Bilbao to Seville, and I’m on their mailing lists because I was able to fly with them from Bilbao to Malaga back when I was earning €700 a month as an English Language Assistant. More recently, my friend and I once went from Paris Orly to Porto for €56 return: that was within our reach even as poor students. Beyond European internal flights, passenger numbers are also growing rapidly in Asia-Pacific, Africa, and the Middle East. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) figures also show that restrictive measures would slow, but not stop such growth in passenger numbers.

Having provided people with these opportunities, it would be unfair and unworkable to try to close them off again. Clearly, however, the climate impacts of business as usual are also unsustainable. What, then, can be done? A September event in Brussels set out to discuss a ‘Sustainable Pathway to Future Aviation.’ One of the keynote speakers, Professor Max Hirsh, set out the options for advancing sustainable aviation.

Part of his argument can be found on his personal website, but to summarise:

  • EU-wide aviation taxes would damage national carriers the most, displace traffic outside of the EU and enable populist parties to accuse the EU of taking summer holidays away from the poor.
  • We need to change how we design aircraft and how we design fuel, but the demand and the technology are not yet in place.
  • Airports need to be seamlessly connected to high speed rail so people can easily combine the two.
  • Airport terminals must be redesigned, possibly including complete refurbishment. Many of them were built with poor insulation and low quality materials, before energy efficiency was a priority. They also often rely on car parks to make money and need alternative revenue sources. He cited the example of Singapore Changi’s ‘Jewel’ which replaced its central car park with improved check-in services alongside additional retail and entertainment space.
  • How people get to airports is a huge contributor to emissions, and innovative urban planning and transport solutions can help fix that.
  • We need to have an honest public conversation about what practical changes can realistically be made, to convince airports and airlines to prioritise sustainability, and to make upfront public investments in projects that need coordinating across sectors.

From Brussels to Brussels – A Case Study

What particularly resonated with me was the issue of onward connections. Right now, in Europe, there are certain journeys where the economic incentive is to fly because the green option is eye-wateringly expensive. I recently booked my travel from Brussels back to the UK for Christmas. On my return, I’m planning to stop off and see my dad. There are two ways to do this: fly from Aberdeen to Birmingham and have someone collect me at the airport or get the train from Aberdeen to Peterborough and have someone collect me at the station.
The cost of the flight – plus the cost of a train to London and the Eurostar back to Brusselswas less than the cost of that one train from the north-east of Scotland to the south of England. Is it any wonder people continue to take internal flights?


According to Professor Hirsh, there are technological ways to keep flying, but these are just beginning to develop and face barriers such as insufficient demand, technical hurdles, and sunk investments in current aircraft.  Governments can assist by putting public funds into research on these fledgling technologies. The EU has recently released a proposal for a European Partnership for Clean Aviation, designed to create a pact between the EU institutions and all other public and private stakeholders. The reasoning is that at the EU level, far more resources are available for truly revolutionary investment in new green technologies than a single company or country could provide. Although it’s the weird and wonderful designs that go viral, the EU proposal mentions the kind of electric ‘air taxis’ that have been a staple of sci-fi for decades and are now finally on the verge of becoming reality.

That is the problem in a nutshell: passenger growth is an unavoidable reality, but as yet, technological improvements might not keep up. IATA figures show that fuel burn can only be reduced by around 30-35% on current aircraft models without becoming difficult, and that 2035-40 would be an optimistic time scale for fully electric passenger aircraft carrying 100-150 people.

Overall, therefore, it is optimistic to place our hopes on technology’s transformative power – but equally (if not more) optimistic to hope that taxation could place aviation back in its box. It is not enough simply to declare climate emergencies and rail against the current state of affairs. There are realistic ways to make the system work – the EU, as a huge market power, can make transformative investments and incentivise green behaviours. We cannot and should not go back to a time before aviation. However, we can and should move forward to a new kind of aviation.

Still fighting for equality: transgender recognition in Europe

  • October 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Still fighting for equality: transgender recognition in Europe

 

Source: Pixabay

Many European states still have processes and policies that violate transgender people’s fundamental rights

 

Imagine a couple in England: Ben, who is a transgender man, and James, his husband. Ben has been going through the gender recognition process: he has been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, and has lived as a man for at least two years. When he applies for his Gender Recognition Certificate, James has the power to agree or disagree with the issuing of a full certificate. He could end up delaying Ben’s full gender recognition for years of divorce proceedings. Instead of dropping marriage restrictions for transgender people when legalising same-sex marriage, the UK government introduced this ‘spousal veto’.
Finland, as part of its EU Presidency, recently held a conference in Brussels on LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Intersex) equality in the EU, with the participation of several ministers and state secretaries from the Member States, members of the European Parliament, and even Justice Commissioner Věra Jourová. According to the findings of the conference, some advances have been made in Europe, but there remains a lot to do.

The recent Eurobarometer survey on social acceptance of LGBTI+ (the plus symbol is an additional marker of inclusion) people, as discussed at the conference, paints a mixed picture. The headline figures for the EU28 suggest that a majority of EU citizens believe that gay, lesbian and bisexual people should have the same rights as heterosexual people, and that they also accept sexual relationships and marriages between two people of the same sex. However, opinions vary greatly between member states. For example, agreement with all three of those statements is over 90% in the Netherlands, but in Bulgaria only 39% of those surveyed agreed with equal LGB rights, 20% with the acceptability of same-sex sexual relationships and 16% with same-sex marriage being allowed across Europe.

 

There are also disparities in attitudes to different groups within the LGBTI+ umbrella. Although 59% agree that transgender people should be able to change their documents to reflect their gender identity and 46% agree with a third gender option on official documents, social acceptance is far lower. 64% of respondents would be comfortable with an LGB prime minister, but only 53% with a transgender prime minister. This gap of around 10% persists in relation to whether respondents would be comfortable for their child to be in a romantic relationship with a same sex partner or a transgender partner.

In Finland itself, the situation on transgender rights is poor. It is one of the European countries which still forces transgender people to be sterilised in order to get legal gender recognition. In other words, some governments make transgender people choose between having the correct gender on their ID cards or being able to have children. Sadly, it is not alone. As of April 2018, 16 countries in Europe and Central Asia required sterilisation of transgender people seeking basic legal recognition for who they are.

This is a violation of Council of Europe standards, which require its Member States to review such requirements and remove abusive ones as well as to ensure that name and gender changes can be quickly and easily carried out and are reflected in state and non-state documents. If this is not the case, it deters transgender people from attempting to be legally recognised. The Belgian experience is a good example of this: until 1 January 2018, sterilisation was mandatory for gender recognition in Belgium. 10 years after the initial law was put in place, respondents to a government survey were asked whether they would still have had sterilisation surgery if it was not legally mandated at the time of their registration change. 28% of those assigned female at birth said they would not have had it, while 26.6% would have. Among those assigned male at birth, 48.1% would have had it while 24% would not. The remainder did not know. A sizeable fraction of the transgender community in Belgium, for seeking basic legal recognition, then, were forced into surgery they would not otherwise have had.

What is worse, some countries lack any kind of name change and gender recognition  process at all. As can be seen on the map linked above, their list includes some of the enlargement countries: Kosovo, Albania and North Macedonia. They are not the only culprits, though. Even within the EU and EEA, as noted in the European network of legal experts’ report, uncertain legal frameworks in some countries risk preventing transgender people from having their gender legally recognised. This is the case in Cyprus, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Liechtenstein: they either lack dedicated, specific gender recognition laws or have not put the necessary regulations in place to allow applicants to fulfil the criteria.

Even where European countries have removed sterilisation requirements and enacted legal recognition measures, these remain an infringement of fundamental rights. It is still  common in Europe to force transgender people to get divorced in order to have their gender legally recognised. This is a legacy from a time where marriage was limited to only opposite-sex couples and is based in both anti-gay and anti-trans prejudice. That much is clear if we examine the UK’s same-sex marriage laws. In making a step forward for equality, it took a step back at the same time. The aforementioned ‘spousal veto’ enshrined homophobic and transphobic ideas in law. The civil service prioritised shielding James from a gay marriage over Ben’s human rights.
It is not all doom and gloom across Europe, however. Malta was held up as a model of best practices at the conference. Malta, alongside Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Luxembourg, Norway, and Portugal, allows transgender people to gain legal gender recognition on the basis of statutory declaration, without having surgery, sterilisation or waiting periods forced on them.  Malta also allows for a non-binary ‘X’ marker on its passports and official documents.

This is the only solution that respects the fundamental rights of transgender people. In 2019, on our continent, forced sterilisation and surgery persist. People are forced to prove something as fundamental and as personal as their gender identity to the satisfaction of their state. Their partners are permitted to prevent them from accessing their fundamental legal rights.

We cannot move forward as a continent on LGBTI+ rights until there are simple, easy, and quick recognition procedures for transgender people in every European country. A large part of the backlash against equality has targeted transgender people. All those who support LGBTI+ rights need to stand with our trans friends, colleagues, neighbours and family members to ensure we keep moving forward together.

A Zombie Proposal: the Recast Return Directive

  • September 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

A Zombie Proposal: the Recast Return Directive

This Directive would fast-track asylum cases at the expense of fundamental rights. The EU should not resurrect it.

Source: Pixabay

The previous Italian government blocked migration cooperation completely, out of a desire to block migration itself. It not only refused to take search and rescue ships into Italian ports, it sought to criminalise anyone who organised such rescue efforts.
With a new government in Italy, the Member States have sought to take the opportunity to deal with migration while it lasts. They formed a temporary agreement on disembarkations at a rotating series of EU ports.

 

The Finnish Presidency has also included migration in its programme, albeit not as a headline issue. They hint at resurrection of individual elements of the failed Common European Asylum System package.

 

That raises the spectre of the Recast Return Directive, a Commission proposal to reform the processes through which third country nationals who lack approval to stay are sent to other countries. Its reasoning was that the EU must act on migrant returns to maintain public confidence, and to reduce irregular migration. In 2018, of those ordered to leave the EU, 41.49% were physically returned (most of whom, but not all, were sent back to a third country.)

 

The Commission, therefore, decided they needed to change the law to improve the return rate. They, however, failed to carry out an impact assessment. The European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) requested a substitute impact assessment from the European Parliamentary Research Service. This found that there was no clear evidence that the proposal would lead to more effective returns, while it would likely breach migrants’ fundamental rights. They highlight its effects on the right to liberty (through increasing use and length of detention) and the non-refoulement principle. The latter issue arises in cases where the reforms allow Member States to continue with deportations while appeals are in progress, leading to a clear risk of returning someone to face persecution.

 

It also explains the main changes to the Directive which can be found in the proposal. Primarily, it would create a wide-ranging, extensive list of factors that could determine the risk that an applicant will seek to evade the return process  – known as the ‘risk of absconding’. It would force third-country nationals to cooperate with the Member State authorities. Member States would have to issue a return decision right after rejecting or ending someone’s legal stay, losing their discretion. It seeks to remove the minimum 7-day grace period for voluntary departure, and cap it at 30 days with the potential for extension.
Where a risk of absconding is present, the application deemed as ‘manifestly unfounded‘ or fraudulent, or the applicant is deemed to be ‘a risk to public policy, public security or national security’, Member States would have to refuse a voluntary departure period. The proposal also allows handing out entry bans to irregular stayers discovered when they travel from their EU country of residence to a non-EU country. Member States would have to set up a national return management system linked to European Border and Coast Guard systems. They would also have to set up voluntary return programmes that could include support for reintegration in the return country.

 

The proposal also reduces the time limits for appeals against return decisions. It falls to 5 days in the case of a final rejection of an application for international protection. A rejected applicant at the border with a final decision would have a mere 48 hours. It also severely restricts the circumstances when return is suspended pending appeal. Finally, it establishes posing ”a risk to public policy, public security or national security’ as grounds for detention.

 

There are numerous potential human rights abuses which could arise from this Directive. The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) explain this in detail. To take just one issue, both groups call for the deletion of Article 22 on the Border Procedure.

 

This procedure would permit Member States to enact speedy returns after a fast-tracked analysis of the person’s case at the border. In a fast-track process, vulnerable people may be unable to build an effective enough case for asylum or international protection. Their case will no longer always automatically be suspended pending appeal, unless they introduce new, significant, situation-changing material since the first assessment, or the asylum decision did not receive effective legal scrutiny. Such people face a serious risk of wrongful removal. If they can access legal help, that service will have only 48 hours to travel to the border and produce a case.

 

According to the ECRE, reports from “hotspots in Greece illustrate that such an approach is unworkable in practice and results in massive human rights violations”. The FRA adds “it is not possible to suggest solutions that would re-design the proposed border procedure in the Return Directive to ensure its fundamental rights compliance.”

 

Worryingly, the FRA also states that “[I]t is not yet known whether it will apply only to persons apprehended directly at the border or if it will be possible, for example, to channel into the border procedure also persons apprehended elsewhere in the territory of a Member State, or if it can apply to all categories of applicants for international protection, including vulnerable persons.” In other words, an exceptional procedure could become the standard assessment mechanism. It has already happened in Hungary, where those caught elsewhere are taken to border detention.

 

Migrants from particular, disadvantaged, backgrounds stand to be the worst hit by this proposal. It would particularly harm women who have experienced Gender Based Violence (GBV) and LGBT+ people. Asylum-seeking and refugee women may not recognise GBV as GBV at first, for a variety of different reasons: including, but not limited to fear of deportation or of ostracisation from their communities. They may not want to share their experiences with interviewers or other professionals such as lawyers and interpreters. LGBT+ African asylum seekers in the UK reported disbelief and accusations of lying when telling Home Office decision makers about their sexuality. Some of them struggled to come out as LGBT+ out of fear or did not know it was a basis for claiming asylum. Both groups need time and assistance to handle their situation and produce as effective a case as they can.

 

Fast-tracked decision-making and return procedures, by definition, seek to deprive applicants of that time and space. Such reforms should be left in the past with the last mandate. The European Union should refocus on ensuring that all arrivals on its territory are met with dignity and the utmost respect for their rights and humanity. Such respect must be upheld at every stage of the international protection process from application through to acceptance or return. The recast Return Directive, in its current form, fails that test.

 

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