AMMAN ‒ On September 16, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, announced that the Dublin Regulation - the main agreement regulating the processing of asylum requests by European Union (EU) member states - would be revised as part of a broader shift in the EU asylum policy.

Adopted in in its current form in 2013, the Dublin Regulation has failed to provide a fair and efficient system to process asylum claims. Since the peak of arrivals of asylum seekers to the EU in 2015, a handful of countries have been managing most asylum applications, which has created a near-untenable situation in certain border countries, notably in Greece, which witnessed over 860,000 arrivals in 2015 and was still processing around 100,000 asylum applications as of August 2020. In parallel, the effects of the regulation on asylum seekers are routinely denounced by human rights organizations and aid groups. 

What is the Dublin Regulation?

The Dublin Regulation is an agreement between EU member states - in addition to a few European non-member states - that determines which country will examine asylum claims. Its purpose is to simplify the asylum process and ensure that only one state is responsible for an individual’s application.

Generally, asylum seekers should make their request in “country of first entry,” which is the first EU country they enter. For example, a family who moves out of a camp in Greece where they first applied for asylum (and where their fingerprints were taken in the process), cannot apply again for asylum in another EU country.

What are the challenges faced by the current Dublin system?

Over the years, the Dublin Regulation has been subject to criticism not only by refugee support groups, but also by EU member states.

  • From the perspective of the EU itself, the Dublin Regulation has been less efficient than expected for managing asylum procedures. Since 2016, the EU has relied on a deal with Turkey to deter arrivals to the EU. However, as relations deteriorate between the two parties, Turkey has used the deal as leverage, threatening to “release” new arrivals into Europe.
  • For many EU member states, the Dublin Regulation is unsatisfactory. A majority of arrivals are concentrated in Mediterranean states, which creates tensions between countries that are responsible for a high number of claims and those that are not. According to Eurostat, the statistical office of the EU, in 2018, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Belgium initiated the highest number of Dublin requests, asking to return asylum seekers to first-entry countries. That same year, Italy alone received around 42,000 requests to “take back” asylum seekers who first entered the EU there, while it was already receiving a large number of “first entries”. The Dublin system is failing for Greece, who no longer accepts Dublin-returned asylum seekers, due to the saturation of its processing and hosting capacities.  
  • The Dublin Regulation is criticized by refugee support groups as a system that feeds the refugee humanitarian crisis in Europe. Instead of being held in overcrowded camps, asylum seekers are better distributed across the EU from the start, these groups argue. 
  • For asylum seekers themselves, the psychological effects of the Dublin process can be devastating. Rather than starting life in an EU country following a difficult journey, some asylum seekers could spend months facing the possibility of deportation to their country of first entry. According to Eurostat, in 2018 there were over 646,000 applications for asylum in the EU. Of these, roughly one fourth (23%) resulted in a Dublin process - an EU member state requesting that another member state process the application.

What are the reforms proposed by the EU Commission?

The main changes proposed are:

  • Rather than being based on the first country of arrival, asylum applications will be allocated to EU member states based on other criteria, including existing ties of the asylum seekers with the EU countries (such as family connections, education, language spoken, etc). This is expected to alleviate some of the burden on “first entry” countries such as Malta, Italy, Spain and Greece, by better allocating responsibility for asylum seekers.
  • To support the countries that process the most applications, countries that do not process their share of the applications will need to pay financial compensation, with funds reallocated to support the EU’s asylum and migrant response. This measure may provide reassurance to states with populations hostile to refugees, as they can avoid accepting asylum seekers. At the same time, this financial opt-out could threaten a more balanced repartition of asylum seekers across the EU.

This proposed new Dublin process comes as part of a new “Pact on Migration and Asylum”, which contains some positive measures for refugees. For example, asylum seekers should get the right to work no later than six months after their application is registered. Refugees will only need to wait three years (previously five) in the country where they obtained asylum before being allowed to travel freely inside the EU. 

What to expect next?

There have been mixed reactions to this announcement from experts and refugee support groups: 

  • There is a long legal road ahead: the new “Pact on Migration and Asylum” will need to be approved by the European Parliament which includes members of political groups hostile to the proposition. The regulation will also need to be approved by every EU member state, through the European Council - and this could require long negotiations on the details of the agreement.
  • There are also practical challenges to implementing the proposed new Dublin process. Currently, a significant proportion of Dublin processes stall: in 2018 around 65% of Dublin transfers took place within six months of the decision to deport the applicant, but 21% were completed 7 to 12 months after the decision and 14% were completed 13 to 18 months after. There is also the possibility that countries will refuse to accept their allocated share of asylum seekers. In 2018, five EU countries accepted less than half of the Dublin requests to take back asylum seekers; Bulgaria accepted around 25% of these, and Greece, already saturated, only accepted 2.5%.

This article reflects minor modifications made on 07/10/2020 at 4:08 pm.