The British government has promised to oppose a plan to scrap EU rules that oblige refugees in the first member state they reach, fearing that the change could make a vote to leave the EU more likely.
The European Commission on Wednesday confirmed that the so-called Dublin Regulation will be abolished as part of a new plan to manage unprecedented numbers of asylum seekers.
“As announced last September, the commission will set out a reform of the Dublin system, with proposals due by March. The revision will aim at ensuring a fairer distribution system,” a commission spokesperson said.
Britain has an opt-out from EU migration policy but it has chosen to opt in to the Dublin Regulation, not least because the rule allows the UK to send thousands of refugees back to other EU member states. International development secretary Justine Greening said London would resist any change that would shift responsibility away from the country asylum seekers first arrive in.
“We would be concerned and strongly against any change from that initial country status that we have got right now. It is important,” she said.
The regulation is the latest version of a system first approved at a summit in Dublin in 1990, which was designed to prevent asylum seekers making multiple applications in different countries and to expedite the processing of their cases.
If the authorities in one country discover that an asylum seeker has already been registered or fingerprinted in another, they can send that person back to the member state they arrived in.
Even before the massive influx of refugees last year, the regulation was honoured more in the breach than in the observance. Migrants arriving in southern European countries such as Greece and Italy avoided being fingerprinted because they knew it could ruin their chances of settling elsewhere.
For their part, authorities in Greece and Italy were often pleased to turn a blind eye, eager to ease the burden on their own system by allowing refugees to move northwards.
And their counterparts in other countries often gave up trying to deport asylum seekers who had already arrived elsewhere because the process was too expensive and time- consuming.
When 850,000 people arrived in Greece last year, and 200,000 in Italy, it was clear that neither country could be expected to accept such large numbers. German chancellor Angela Merkel then announced that her country would accept hundreds of thousands of refugees who had crossed through a number of other countries to get there.
The commission has yet to give details of its proposals for a new system but Dimitris Avramopoulos, the commissioner responsible for migration, told MEPs last week that it would have to include a mechanism to distribute asylum seekers fairly across the EU.
“Dublin should not be any more just a mechanism to allocate responsibility, but also a solidarity instrument among member states. In particular, they need to have distribution key system under which applicants would be quasi-automatically distributed to a member state. Dublin must be revised very deeply. When Dublin was adopted the situation and the landscape was very different, things have changed,” he said.
The headache for prime minister
is that, just as he is seeking to persuade British voters that he can curb migration from other EU countries, any change in the asylum rules is likely to involve Britain accepting more refugees.
A commission spokesperson said on Wednesday that Britain’s opt-out meant that, once a new system is adopted “the UK would then have to choose whether it would participate or not”.
Pro-EU campaigners have trumpeted the Dublin Regulation as one of the benefits to Britain of EU membership, because it means that so many asylum seekers can be deported from the country.
Opinion polls show that the issue of migration is the strongest card for the “leave” campaign, which argues that only by leaving the EU can Britain regain control of its borders.
Former Conservative cabinet minister John Redwood, who wants Britain to leave the EU, seized on the commission's announcement.
"The UK cannot possibly live with a change in these rules. It will be a good test of how much influence Mr Cameron has in the negotiations. It is a good reason to leave to control our borders. Anyone might think Brussels is backing the leave side," he said.