The long-debated reform of EU asylum procedures has finally arrived. The procedures should be shorter and more uniform. Ireland, Denmark and Great Britain, however, have not adopted them.
After 14 years of negotiation, interior ministers of the European Union and the European Parliament have agreed to a bundle of new and revised rules to unify and accelerate asylum procedures in the EU.
In the future, for instance, officials must decide on asylum applications within six months, compared with 24 months today.
For the first time in the EU, transsexuals, homosexuals, lesbians and people facing the threat of genital mutilation can also receive asylum.
Standards for housing accomodations
But the new rules specifically exclude people leaving their country for economic reasons.
Every year, around 330,000 people apply for asylum, according to the European Commission, but only those able to convince authorities of being politically or religiously prosecuted are granted asylum. About 70,000 people are granted asylum annually in the EU.
"Everyone who enters the EU, no matter where, has the right to apply for asylum and is entitled to be treated humanely," said Michele Cercone, a Commission spokesman for internal affairs.
EU member states must meet minimum standards for housing accommodations for asylum seekers.
In many member states, applicants are arrested and detained in special camps. The new rules extend the reasons for detention. If, for instance, an asylum seeker's identity or country of origin can't be determined, the person can be detained - minors included.
The so-called "Dublin III" rule on point of entry remains unchanged: Asylum seekers must apply for asylum in the EU member state they first enter. But under the new rules, applicants can take legal action to prevent them from being relocated, say, from Germany to Greece. Nor do they have to return to the member state of entry if that country is overburdened with asylum seekers or is unable to provide humane treatment.
Currently, Germany, France, Sweden, Great Britain and Belgium have the highest number of applicants in absolute numbers, according to the Eurostat statistics office. But the number of refugees needs to be viewed in relation to the size of a country, its population and economic performance, according to Birgit Sippel, a member of the European Parliament.
In the future, asylum seekers will be allowed to work after nine months of entry in the country that has granted them asylum, compared with 12 months under previous rules. They are also entitled to the same benefits as EU citizens, including health care. To pay for food and clothing, however, they can expect vouchers only, no cash.
More support for authorities
Since 2000, the fingerprints of all asylum seekers have been registered in a special database to avoid dual applications or the re-entry of rejected asylum seekers.
The EU also aims to further help authorities granting handling asylum applications. The European Asylum Support Office, for instance, already creates reports to help assess reasons for asylum, such as political prosecution or being a member of a minority.
Although the reform package goes a long way in unifying asylum procedures, not all member states are on board. Denmark, Ireland and Great Britain have reserved the right not to apply EU rules domestically.
The other EU member states have until mid-2015 to implement the uniform asylum procedures.