EU unveils plans to reform asylum rules to help frontline members


April 6, 2016

EU authorities in Brussels have called for a reform of European asylum rules to ease the strain on countries such as Greece and Italy that are struggling to cope with a large influx of people.

April 6, 2016

EU authorities in Brussels have called for a reform of European asylum rules to ease the strain on countries such as Greece and Italy that are struggling to cope with a large influx of people.

A migrant who is waiting to cross the Greek-Macedonian border, rests with her children at a makeshift camp near the village of Idomeni, Greece March 8, 2016. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

About 1.1 migrants and refugees arrived in the EU last year, bringing the bloc’s common asylum system to the brink of collapse. Amid the biggest movement of refugees since the end of the second world war, several countries have abandoned common EU rules or announced the unilateral closure of their borders.

The centerpiece of a wide-ranging reform plan unveiled by the European commission on Wednesday is a shakeup of the Dublin regulation. Drawn up in the 1990s, the regulation requires refugees to claim asylum in the first country they arrive in, but has in effect been defunct since the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, announced last August that any Syrian refugee in Germany was welcome to stay there.

The Dublin system was already under severe pressure before the migrant crisis began. EU member states have been forbidden from sending asylum seekers back to Greece since the European court of human rights ruled in 2011 that conditions for refugees in the country were so bad they were tantamount to “degrading treatment”.

Frans Timmermans, first vice-president of the European commission, said the current crisis showed the present system was not working. “[It] is neither fair nor sustainable given the reality of volumes of people that is putting a huge burden on a few member states.”

He set out two options for reforming Europe’s asylum policy. One option is the widely trailed idea of scrapping the Dublin system: the EU would have a mandatory redistribution system for asylum seekers based on a country’s wealth and ability to absorb newcomers.

A second option, known as “Dublin plus”, would preserve the existing rules, but would include a “corrective fairness mechanism” so refugees could be redistributed around the bloc in times of crisis to take the pressure off frontline arrival states.

This mechanism would be modeled on an existing scheme to redistribute 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy to other EU countries. But the precedent is not encouraging: only 937 people were resettled in the first six months of the scheme’s operation.

Dimitris Avramopoulos, the commissioner in charge of EU asylum rules, blamed member states for “a lack of political will”, as national governments again appear to have ignored his earlier calls to speed up resettlement.

Timmermans rejected suggestions that the Dublin plus idea lacked ambition. He said the commission had to come up with proposals that had “a chance of actually being adopted” by member states.

“We are putting forward these two options in an open way to launch a debate,” Timmermans said. Europe needed a more centralized asylum system in the long-term, he added, but “in political terms it is not realistic to talk about it today”.

Reform of EU asylum policy has also been firing up the UK’s EU referendum debate, with leave campaigners claiming that the Dublin rules are a bad deal for Britain.

Britain chooses whether to take part in EU asylum policy and successive governments have opted into the Dublin regime because it allows them to deport asylum seekers to the first country they arrived in. On Tuesday evening, Downing Street officials were briefing that “intense lobbying” from the government had stopped the commission from scrapping the Dublin rules outright.

The Refugee Council accused the British government of “cynical lobbying to try to main the unfair, obviously unworkable status quo”.

Lisa Doyle, its head of advocacy, said: “The Greeks and the Italians can’t be expected to deliver a continent’s worth of compassion alone. When people are escaping the jaws of death our government’s first instinct should be to help them; not to think that turning our backs and leaving the job of protecting refugees to others is something that should be celebrated. Britain’s better than that.”

The shakeup of the Dublin rules is only part of wider-ranging proposals that include a bigger role for the EU asylum agency, EASO, as well as the creation of an EU list of safe countries to increase the number of people returned after being refused asylum.

Under existing rules, individual member states decide which third countries are safe for people denied asylum to return to. For instance, last week Greece rushed through legislation designating Turkey as a safe country of origin, despite protests from human rights groups.

The European commission also wants to see more legal routes to allow migrants to come to Europe “in an orderly, managed, safe and dignified manner”. The rationale behind this is more than just about destroying the business of people smugglers. It is about filling shortages in Europe’s labour market. The Europe’s labour force is expected to shrink by 18 million in the next decade and EU officials believe that plans to increase the skills of local workers will not be enough to fill the gap.

“Migration will be one of the main challenges the European Union will have to face in the long term,” said Timmermans. “This issue is not going away. Globalization, climate change, war and instability, all mean that people will keep coming to Europe.”

Courtesy: Reuters