A leadership test for the EU
Our leaders are facing a historic opportunity to improve the lives of people who have fled their homes and are seeking protection in Europe.
When the European Council meets at the end of June, it has the chance to show real leadership and fix an unfair asylum system that doesn’t work for refugees or for member states.
The system, known as the Dublin III regulation, was meant to help people seeking asylum by making sure that their applications were processed by one of the member states.
It was intended that all EU countries would have equivalent standards of protection thus making it irrelevant where people seek asylum.
Unfortunately, over 20 years on from the rolling out of the system, this is far from the case. The system is failing everyone involved.
How the asylum system should work
The Dublin Regulation is used to identify the EU country responsible for examining an asylum application.
In theory, a number of criteria are supposed to determine which country. These include: family unity, possession of residence documents or visas, irregular entry or stay, and visa-waived entry. However, this is not how it works in reality.
How the asylum system is failing
In practice, the most frequently applied criterion is irregular entry, meaning that the country through which the asylum-seeker first entered the EU is responsible for examining their asylum claim.
This forces a few countries to process the majority of the applications, while others get away with next to none. For example, in recent years, Greece and Italy have shouldered more than their fair share of responsibility, as they are the first countries where people arrive after fleeing war in Syria or torture in Libya.
The system is failing frontline EU states that are unable to offer protection to all the people arriving at their borders. At the same time, governments ignore their calls for assistance in hosting asylum seekers.
The Dublin regulation is also used by governments to return people to the first country of arrival, even though these frontline countries might already deal with a disproportionate number of asylum requests, and/or have highly inadequate asylum systems.
This way, the system is failing people seeking asylum, who are languishing in EU countries with inefficient asylum procedures or who find themselves unable to be reunited with their family in Europe.
The system has also failed the people of Europe more broadly, who have lost confidence in the EU's ability to oversee a system that protects the rights of refugees and is fair to all member states.
Dublin System in urgent need of reform
The refugee situation in 2015-16 exposed the abysmal failings of the Dublin system, and in May 2016, the European Commission proposed a reform.
In November 2017, the European Parliament took this forward, and proposed a radical change to the Dublin regulation, which was supported by a broad majority across all political groups. They suggested introducing a binding mechanism to ensure that all EU countries welcome their fair share of people fleeing violence and persecution.
Such changes would both benefit the people seeking protection and EU countries, by offering more stable, safe and predictable arrangements.
It is also consistent with EU values such as respect for human dignity, human rights, and solidarity.
Change is possible now
The ball is now in the court of the European Council, which is comprised of EU heads of states and governments. In order for the EU legislative process to move forward, the Council must decide on its position.
They are extremely divided on the issue. Governments in the south are demanding a fair system to which everyone contributes. But some other countries don’t want to accept different and fairer rules. When they meet by the end of June, EU states must set their differences aside, and agree on a real fix to the Dublin system, not a quick fix.
They need to establish a system based on mandatory shares or quotas for the allocation of responsibility for anyone seeking asylum in the Union, and they need to make it easier for people to be reunited with their families.
Everyone has the right to a home and a life in safety with their loved ones. Our EU leaders can now create a fair system to make sure ALL countries contribute in offering people protection.
They cannot and must not miss this precious opportunity for positive change.