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Europe

EU seeks to improve rights of asylum seekers

The European Union is set to reform the bloc's asylum laws to strengthen the rights of the applicants. But refugee rights groups criticize that the new rules still leave a lot to be desired.

Trying somehow to kill time - for years already; that is the everyday reality for Festus Tanwi from Cameroon. In a home for asylum seekers on the outskirts of Berlin, he is waiting for the authorities to decide on his application for asylum. So far, in his first year since applying for asylum, he has not been allowed to work in Germany.

Early warning system

Asylum seekers in Malta (picture: Laurens Cerulus/DW)

Children and teenagers arriving without parents can be deported

In future, however, asylum seekers will be allowed to work nine months after filing their applications. That's what new EU asylum guidelines now propose, as initiated by the EU parliament's committee on internal affairs earlier this week. In addition, asylum seekers may only be taken into custody for specific reasons; for instance, to check identities. Currently, authorities are permitted to hold asylum seekers without giving a reason.

The new EU policy also seeks to reform the so-called Dublin-II-regulations. According to these 2003 guidelines, the applicant has to seek asylum in the country of entry into the EU. The committee has suggested suspending this in cases where one EU country finds itself faced with an unusually high number of applicants. EU member states have now agreed to introduce an early warning system which allows the European Commission to step in with proposals should it feel that one country is lacking in its dealings with asylum-seekers. This move has been especially designed to protect children and teenage applicants. These changes have been agreed on by the member states and the enactment of the new plans by the EU parliament is seen as a mere formality.

Arbitrary arrests

Child refugees (picture: OLORplus)

Children require special protection, critics warn

The situation of Festus Tanwi, however, will hardly be affected by the new laws. He will only be permitted to take a job if there is no applicant for that job who is an EU citizen. "There are only very few situations where this is the case," says Birgit Naujoks from the North Rhine-Westphalia Refugee Council, a regional refugee rights group.

Marei Pelzer, a legal expert with the NGO, Pro Asyl, says that making it easier for asylum seekers to get work permits earlier is still an improvement. What she is worried about, though, is that the reasons for arrest are far too vague. "There are six reasons that are to cover all kinds of cases," she told DW. "We see this as a big problem because it basically legitimizes the arbitrary arrests in many countries, like Hungary, or Greece."

"No progress"

Refugees in Italy (picture: AP Photo/Donato Fasano) Für projekt Destination Europe Leben im Auffanglager Mangelnde Perspektiven und große Träume

Conditions for asylums seekers are drastically different across the EU

Also the rights of children and teenagers are still not sufficiently protected, says Pro Asyl. Even with the planned reform of the Dublin-II-regulations, children and teenagers who are in Europe without their parents, can still be returned to countries with poorly functioning asylum systems, like Italy. "There, many refugees, among them children, are homeless," says Pelzer and criticizes that the early warning system doesn't grant any rights to the commission to intervene. "I cannot see progress compared to the status quo. The idea to protect children is being utterly ignored here," Pelzer says.

Festus Tanwi, at least, has the protection, not to be deported to another country. It is unlikely, however, that this will be much of a consolation for the man from Cameroon. What he wants to know is if he will be permitted to stay in Germany and when he finally will be allowed to work. Just how long he will have to wait for that, is difficult to say. "There are people who, after six years or even ten years, are still waiting for their application to be decided," says Birgit Naujoks. After such a long time, many are not qualified enough to compete in the job market. "You waste a lot of time, which could be better used to prepare people for a future job," notes Pelzer.

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