24th Oct 2016

EU lawmakers reinforce asylum seekers' rights

  • The European Parliament voted to prevent member states from transferring asylum seekers to countries unable to cope with human rights (Photo: Ikolas Kominis - Studio Kominis)

MEPs have voted to reinforce asylum seekers' rights in the EU after four years of talks with member states.

The decision, which came in the civil liberties' committee on Wednesday (19 September) and which will become EU law if passed by plenary in December, concerns changes to the so-called Dublin II agreement.

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"[It] will legally clarify member states' responsibility towards asylum seekers who relocate to Europe," said Swedish liberal Cecilia Wikstrom, who drafted the parliament's position.

Dublin II determines which member state is responsible for processing asylum claims and is meant to prevent asylum seekers from making multiple applications.

Under the current version, if an asylum seeker enters Europe through Italy but travels to the Netherlands and files for asylum, the Dutch authorities can send him back because Italy was his point of entry. Italy would then have to process his claim and provide for his care.

Last year, the EU registered 302,000 applications for international protection, an increase of 16.2 percent compared to 2010. More than 80,000 people, mostly from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, were granted protection.

But under Dublin II, refugees have found themselves shuffled off to locations where conditions are sometimes unsanitary, over-crowded and treatment by local authorities is harsh.

Meanwhile, processing the claims and deciding who should do it has left many asylum seekers floating in a legal limbo.

In one case, the European Court of Human Rights in January 2011 reprimanded Belgium for sending an Afghan asylum seeker to Greece where his rights risked being violated. Greece, ruled the court, cannot guarantee refugees' fundamental rights.

Meanwhile, Denmark and Finland suspended transfer of asylum seekers to Italy for the same reason.

The Strasbourg human rights watchdog, the Council of Europe, recently slammed Italy for its mistreatment of African refugees.

Under the parliament's compromise proposal, member states cannot transfer an asylum seeker if he risks "inhuman or degrading treatment" in the receiving state. If fundamental rights cannot be guaranteed, then the member state must halt the transfer and process the asylum claim and provide care.

Authorities would also be required to interview each asylum applicant, provide a response within three months on any transfer decision, and detain only those who pose a "severe" risk of absconding. Detention would also be limited to three months.

Each asylum seeker would be entitled to appeal any transfer decision and receive free-legal assistance upon request in a language they understand.

They would remain in the member state pending their transfer appeal and unaccompanied minors would have the right to reunite with relatives aside from their immediate family.

The text also introduced an "early warning mechanism" that would act to prevent problems experienced by member states from becoming unmanageable.

The Malta-based European Asylum Support Office (Easo) would be tasked to identify the problems. Should it find flaws, then the member state would have to come up with plans to address the issue within three months. The European Commission or the Easo would then monitor its implementation.

If the new-model Dublin II becomes EU law, then it would only apply to those requesting asylum six months after it comes into force and it will not be retroactive.

EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom welcomed the vote and said in a statement that it was "a big step towards a common asylum system, whereby all asylum seekers can get a fair and proper assessment of their case."

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