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Fundamentals

Catherine Warin

Dr. Catherine Warin is a Lecturer in EU Law at the European Institute of Public Administration, a practicing lawyer, and the co-founder of Passerell, a Luxembourgish NGO. Her research, teaching, and practice cover European and Luxembourgish public law with an emphasis on fundamental and human rights.

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A caressing voice – a man’s voice – in the darkness.

‘It is 6:45… time to wake up. Last day of the week… you are now just twenty-four hours away from your long-awaited dream holiday.’

Images appear on the ceiling and the wall, they are pale and blurry at first, they become more precise as I fully open my eyes and take them in.

The North Sea under a radiant sun.

‘Our patented bubble houses will allow you to feel the cool marine air on your skin and enjoy the incomparable light of the seaside. At all times, thanks to our uniquely advanced technology, UVs will be filtered to a perfectly safe level.’

I wonder if they have an equivalent caressing woman’s voice for their male clients. In fact, I am sure they do.

An underwater landscape: what used to be the posh seaside resort of Knokke-le-Zout.

‘You will be just a few flipper strokes away from our very own Belgian Atlantis.’

I am so glad I got this job at the Court and so glad I got my law degree. I get paid a lot more than the translators – although, to be honest, this discrepancy between pay grades is a remnant from another time. Anyway, I can afford a nice vacation on what is left of the Belgian coast and enjoy the trendy diving spots.

The lighting slowly intensifies in the room. Still stretching in bed, I use my watch to activate the coffee machine, and the Thermomix that will warm up the overnight oats. Then I go knock on Luke’s door. He emerges from his bedroom, his hair an adorable mess.

Once we are done with breakfast, we have to hurry – we are not exactly early. While we put on our shoes, I unlock and open the door with voice command, that’s a few seconds gained so that Luke won’t be late. He is almost a teenager now, so I must leave him at a reasonable distance from the school gate. Of course, his friends cannot see him being walked to school by his mom. He is leaving tonight for a vacation with his father. I won’t see him again until next week when I will be back from my own vacation. I shake off the feeling that something in my chest is tearing up, I keep walking the dog around the neighborhood. Pluto is a whippet with short sandy hair, probably the best possible hair profile for a dog these days. Our previous dog Socrates was a Newfoundland – a huge teddy bear with fluffy black hair. He spent his last years miserable. By now Newfoundlands are probably going extinct. The fashionable breeds are those that can stand the heat.

Relieved to be back in the coolness of the apartment, I turn on the computer and log into the system in one single light stroke.

European Union Asylum Court

The words briefly dance in thirty-one languages on the burgundy screen as my session quickly loads.

Statera automatically launches and shows me the list of judgments that I am going to proof today. Just like the translators, we legal secretaries run a program and tick some boxes. It is very uncommon for software to require a human touch. I have a list of appeals that Statera has already processed. The case is marked with a blue flag when Statera confirms the rejection of the asylum application. A red flag signals when the software thinks a rejection decision should be annulled and asylum should be granted. This requires a human being actually to proofread the judgment. But it never happens.

Well, almost never. Today, there are almost as many red flags as there are blue ones.

I open the first red-flagged case on my list and start reading the file.

A woman and her two children – a four-year-old and a seven-year-old. They tried crossing into Bosnia on foot two weeks ago. Of course, they were spotted right there by Eurosur. They come from Afghanistan. Of course, their application was immediately rejected. All asylum cases from countries plagued with extreme heat are automatically rejected, in accordance with the European Regulation on Climate Migration. There is simply no point burdening our administrations to assess whether people from those regions are at risk of persecution: they are at higher risk of dying from the heat anyway.

But Statera apparently found a reason to annul the rejection. Very strange.

As per the standard procedure, the interview has been recorded. I play Statera’s translation of the recorded interview – it is the woman’s own voice but speaking standard Brussels English. The voice is firm and fragile at once. I feel a strange urge – I want to hear her own words. I switch to the audio file in the original language – Dari – and the English text flows on the screen, following the uneven and gracious pace of the woman’s monologue.

She talks of her ten-year-old daughter who died of a melanoma. Of her fourteen-year-old boy who was forcibly enrolled by the Taliban, lost his arm during training, bled out to death. Of her husband, who died of exhaustion on their way out of the country. For four days in the merciless heat, he drank almost nothing so that their two surviving children could have more water. They had to leave his body to dry on the plain.

On the left side of the screen, an alert signaling a new email slides by. I only half notice it, I am so caught up in the story.

She explains how her third child was soon to reach the age where she would be forced to marry – that is, eight years old. How she doesn’t want to raise her youngest son in a place where he will become a soldier or die before he even becomes a man.

I have to pause at this point because I am so puzzled. This is really weird – it is such a classic story. Last time I had to deal with a case like that was when I was still a law student at the university. It is exactly the textbook scenario for which the software does not need our help. The climate exception applies: someone who comes from a country devastated by the heat cannot claim asylum, even if they are genuinely fleeing persecution.

How on Earth does this story lead Statera to annul the rejection and grant asylum? Why am I reviewing this case?

Another alert on my screen, this time not an email but a call from my colleague Chris. Chris is one of the IT guys; he has a deep voice and a strong Greek accent – although actually, he is not Greek, he is from Cyprus.

‘Hey, I don’t know if you read your emails yet, but we’re going to have to re-run all of today’s cases. It shows you are still reviewing one of those red-flagged cases? We have some work to do over here, I would rather you close the file and log off Statera.

– ‘Oh, sorry, I will close everything. What was the issue?

– There was a bug with Statera.

– What kind of a bug?

– Well,’ he hesitated. ‘OK, I guess it will be in internal reports at the very least, so I suppose I can tell you. It was this terrorist group, surely you have heard of them, the Lisbonists. They hacked into the system used a door open while we were updating the software.’

I like that he doesn’t talk like a computer guy and that he explains things to me in plain language. Also, I really like his voice.

‘They uploaded an old human rights treaty into Statera’s normset. A lot of outdated case law too.

– Oh. That’s quite big.

– Oh yes. I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes when they get caught. Anyway, it’s going to take at least the whole day to sort it out. Basically, all of you lawyers are off the hook for today.’

I close the file, log off. Chris and his team will clean up the mess, and I will proofread it when I get back from the Belgian coast.

Bright green, light blue, deep blue waves on the flanks of the Frontex shuttle landing delicately on a sandy track. The European Border and Coast Guard Agency runs a weekly flight to each of the Union’s partner countries – the buffer zones, as per the European Climate Migration Regulation.

Passengers are promptly escorted out of the plane. A camp made up of endless rows of beige tents awaits them under the scorching sun. The stench of something decomposing becomes stronger as they approach the tents.

A woman holds the hands of her two children. Drops of precious water run down her sunken cheeks. Her voice sounds coarse to her own ears. ‘Come on, my babies, let’s get ourselves settled.’

The brand new high-speed train enters the Schuman station. It is its only halt between Luxembourg and the coast. I awaken, startled either by the deceleration or the memory.

This human rights treaty that Chris mentioned was the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

I recall it from a class with an old law professor. We were her last year, her last students before she went into retirement. I remember her raging about the Warsaw Treaty, the one that replaced the Lisbon Treaty and drastically reformed the functioning of the European Union three decades ago. The one that paved the way for the Regulation on Climate Migration, for the climate-filtering of asylum claims.

I remember the tears of frustration in her eyes. The useless indignation.

There were other provisions, a pretty list of fifty fundamental rights. Including some provisions on children’s rights, but I can’t remember what they said anymore. I do remember Article 1, though. The old professor repeated it like a mantra.

What was it again?

Human dignity is inviolable. It must be protected at all times.

[citationic]
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