EU struggling to deal with Iraq refugee problem
With almost 4 million people displaced due to daily bloodshed in Iraq, the European Commission is ready to open up its coffers to those EU states willing to host Iraqi refugees.
At the same time, Brussels said that in June, it would kick off legislative efforts aimed at having common asylum rules across the bloc.
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The thorny asylum issue is to be discussed at a two-day meeting of EU justice and interior ministers in Luxembourg, starting on Thursday (19 April), as some member states, particularly Sweden, are struggling with an increasing influx of refugees from war-torn Iraq.
"The commission is willing to use new financial instruments…[as well as] the European refugee fund for 2008," a commission spokesperson said on Wednesday (18 April).
Sweden's reception facilities have been under pressure, as the Scandinavian country is the only one within the 27-nation bloc granting refugee status or other protection to almost all Iraqi asylum seekers. A total of 9,065 Iraqis applied for refugee status there in 2006, compared to 2,330 the previous year.
On the other hand, the list of least-welcoming EU states is led by the UK, which has rejected 91 percent out of all the Iraqi requests (1,835) it had received.
However, Brussels said the overall number of Iraqis seeking refuge in the EU was too small to invoke the so-called "temporary protection mechanism" under which all refugees would have to be accepted temporarily, without going through lengthy asylum procedures.
The legal tool – designed in response to the 1990 war in the former Yugoslavia - but never used – would force member states to share the burden of refugees, as well as to reduce disparities between their asylum policies.
"For the time being, the situation can be addressed by individual member states," the commission spokesperson explained, while adding that the possible use of an exceptional measure "cannot be ruled out" and would be discussed in a June meeting of EU interior ministers.
New asylum rules
At the same meeting in June, EU home affairs commissioner Franco Frattini is set to kick off the lengthy legislative process aimed at setting-up EU-wide asylum rules.
According to EU officials, Mr Frattini's aim is to harmonise minimum standards in the treatment of asylum requests, to introduce a fair burden-sharing mechanism, as well as an EU legislative tool enabling Brussels to trigger resettlement of asylum seekers to EU territory.
The United Nations as well as international human rights groups have been urging the EU to help Iraq's neighbouring countries, particularly Jordan, Lebanon and Syria by opening up EU territory to Iraqi women, disabled people and children who have fled to the Middle East states but require further help.
"In order for these countries to continue to protect refugees, Europe has to be more generous when it comes to resettlement and show that it is also ready to share the responsibility for protecting Iraqis," Amnesty International's EU office said in a statement on Wednesday (18 April), while warning of a humanitarian crisis, fuelling further instability in the region.
According to the latest UNHCR estimates, there are at least 1.8 million Iraqis displaced internally and up to 2 million in neighbouring countries.
The EU executive body said it has already allocated approximately €10 million to assist those countries facing the mass influx of Iraqi refugees. But when it comes to their resettlement "it is up to member states to decide," the commission spokesperson stressed.