European Union unveils major overhaul of asylum policy

Peter Sutherland welcomes pledge to reform Dublin rule for ‘catastrophic situation’

The Greek coast guard rescues 173 migrants off the coast of Lesbos island as Greece begins to return people to Turkey under an EU-Ankara deal. Video: Reuters

 

The European Commission has unveiled an overhaul of the European Union’s asylum policy, in an attempt to share the burden of hosting refugees more evenly among member states.

Among the main initiatives announced on Wednesday was a planned reform of the Dublin regulation, a key strand of EU asylum policy, which allows EU countries to send back refugees to the EU country where they first arrived.

While the law was initially introduced in the early 1990s to stop the practice of migrants applying for asylum in multiple member states, it has long been criticised by southern European member states such as Greece, Italy and Malta for placing too much burden on front-line countries.

The system has buckled under the strain of the refugee crisis over the last year, as countries such as Germany have opened their borders to refugees, regardless of whether they have applied for asylum in the first country of arrival.

A legislative proposal for a reformed system is due before the summer, with the European Commission commencing negotiations with EU member states and the European Parliament in the meantime.

Sutherland welcome

Peter Sutherland

“I very much welcome the proposal as another attempt to bring about rationality and fairness in dealing with the current catastrophic situation. The Dublin system is unsustainable, with massively unfair burdens being imposed on the frontline EU states.”

He added that “one can only hope that the disappointing reaction of some member states to earlier proposals will not be repeated”.

Among the changes being considered to reform the Dublin system is the introduction of a quota system based on a distribution key. But such a move is likely to be opposed by eastern European countries which have strongly resisted previous EU proposals advocating quota systems.

In an early indication of the opposition likely to be faced by the commission, Czech interior minister Milan Chovanec tweeted on Wednesday: “the proposal for reform of the European migration policy is based again on implementing compulsory quotas. We have repeatedly said NO to that.”

A less radical option is to redistribute migrants from a member state if that country is under exceptional strain.

Also included in the package is a plan to streamline asylum rules across EU member states in a bid to move towards a more cohesive EU-wide asylum system.

Push and pull factors

European Union

The union has been struggling to cope with an unprecedented refugee crisis that saw more than 1.1 million migrants enter the EU last year.

On Monday, the first deportations under a controversial EU-Turkey refugee plan commenced, despite continuing concerns about the legality of the agreement.

Greek authorities warned on Tuesday that about 3,000 migrants in deportation camps on Greek islands were waiting to have their asylum applications processed.

Speaking in Brussels on Wednesday, EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said that the new EU-Turkey deal was beginning to have an effect, despite the fact that the numbers were low.

The Greek commissioner visited Ankara earlier this week, where he pressed Turkey to move ahead with planned changes to its domestic law, which would give temporary protection to Syrians returned to Turkey.