Opinion: European countries need to work together on asylum

The EU plans to reach an agreement over a Common European Asylum System by the end of this year, aiming to strengthen common standards on asylum, establish greater solidarity between member-states, and ensure fair and decent treatment of refugees. Currently countries on the EU’s periphery continue to shoulder the brunt of refugee flows relative to their capacity, burdening the already strained living conditions in immigration reception and detention centres.

Malta provides a case in point. During 2011 Malta received more asylum requests per-capita than any other EU country, with 4,500 applications per million inhabitants, ten times more than the UK. Meanwhile in one single incident last month 600 migrants were rescued and hosted by the Maltese government. Taking the tiny island’s population into account, that is the equivalent of 90,000 refugees arriving in the UK in one day. It is therefore no great surprise that conditions in Malta’s detention centres, where asylum seekers must wait for their application to be processed  for periods of up to 18 months, have been described as “unhealthy, unsuitable and dangerous“.

Cash-stricken Greece must also manage a disproportionate amount of Europe’s refugees, causing a humanitarian crisis as the creaking asylum system suffers under budget cuts and migrants continue to suffer appalling conditions in detention centres.

The European Commission has criticised Greece’s poor treatment of asylum seekers, and has pledged 90 million euros to help Greece with its migration management. In addition the Dublin II Regulation, which allows EU member-states to transfer asylum requests to the country of first entry, has recently been called into question, with the European Court of Justice ruling that asylum seekers may not be transferred to a member state where they risk being subjected to “inhuman treatment”.

However, despite the drive for greater solidarity and common European standards, wide disparities continue, as shown by the vast differences in the recognition of asylum claims. For Afghan asylum seekers, recognition rates ranged from 73% in Sweden to 11% in Greece, with the UK somewhere in-between with 32%. These divergences create a concern that with economic and political pressures growing, we may increasingly see a regulatory race to the bottom, with countries attempting to make their asylum policies more restrictive than their neighbours in a form of ‘burden shifting’.

Such  approach could also threaten the freedom of movement which underpins the single market and brings significant economic benefits to Europe, including the UK. For example, when last year the Italian government issued Tunisian migrants with temporary residence permits and tacitly encouraged them to go to France, the French government responded by temporarily blocking trains from Italy. Meanwhile just last week the European Council agreed to give national governments more freedom to impose border-controls within the Schengen zone, excluding the European Parliament from co-legislating in this area and potentially threatening labour mobility.

Ultimately though, it is refugees themselves who stand to suffer most from the lack of cooperation between European countries on asylum. To give these people the fair and dignified treatment they deserve, there needs to be more financial solidarity to allow countries like Malta and Greece to manage their refugee populations adequately. Moreover, there needs to be an independent EU body which oversees the processing of asylum applications, to prevent divergences and allow a fair process for all. More controversially, a system of internal redistribution of asylum seekers, as exists between the different states in Germany, could enable a more even distribution.

Finally, a Common European Asylum System can only truly be common if the UK, Ireland and Denmark fully partake, and stop opting out of many of the Directives regarding asylum policy simply because they are not part of the Schengen zone. Only by working together can we hope to overcome the complex issues asylum poses, and assume our responsibility to give international protection to those who need it.

* Paul Haydon has recently completed an MSc in European Public Policy at University College London.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Op-eds.
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