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Sharing the burden

October 21, 2009

The European Commission has unveiled new proposals to streamline the bloc's asylum policy. The measures are aimed at putting an end to the "asylum lottery" and offering a higher degree of protection to refugees.

Refugees crammed into a boat trying to reach Europe
Refugees often risk their lives in their bid to reach EuropeImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The Commission said on Wednesday that the new rules would standardize and speed up asylum procedures throughout the 27-member bloc, rendering each state equally attractive and spreading the burden more equally.

"Asylum seekers should have the same chance of being accepted and rejected in all EU countries," Security and Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot said in Brussels.

Under the proposals, asylum applications would be processed within six months. Currently, the processing of applications varies strongly within the EU, ranging from several weeks to around a year.

Different treatment

Rights groups criticize that even after asylum status has been granted, the refugees often receive different treatment, depending on the member state.

Jacques Barrot
Barrot is determined to push the proposals through by 2012Image: AP

"By bringing down internal borders, the EU has created a common immigration zone. So it makes sense that it should also regulate asylum policies," said Anneliese Baldaccini from Amnesty International.

According to Barrot, of the 65,596 refugees who were resettled worldwide in 2008, only 4,378 of these were relocated to the EU. Figures by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees show that more than 67,000 people crossed the Mediterranean in 2008.

Supporters of the Commission's planned measures also hope to iron out distinctions in the current EU rules between different sorts of refugees fleeing different situations, such as war and ethnic conflict, or violence and poverty.

Related proposals put forward in December were heavily criticized by member states, and the European Commission has come under significant pressure not to be too ambitious in these most recent measures.

The fear among Europe's mainly Southern sceptics is that improvements to current standards would attract more migrants arriving in increasing numbers to their shores.

The fate of the individual

Human rights groups criticized the Commission's proposals for failing to guarantee a just examination of claims. The legislation would continue to allow states to deny proper asylum procedures for people coming from a country that is considered safe, the groups said.

Refugees behind a fence in the Italian town of Lampedusa
Southern EU member states want a more equal distribution of refugeesImage: dpa

"Slamming the door on refugees without any consideration of their individual protection needs puts their lives in danger," said Bjarte Vandvik, chief of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, a network of 69 organisations assisting refugees in 30 countries.

The Commission tried to address concerns by rights groups that EU states, such as Italy, automatically send boat people back to countries like Libya without checking whether they may have a rightful claim to asylum.

"Those people who arrive on boats will be given information about their rights," Barrot said.

Barrot, who would like to see the proposals in place by 2012, still needs the backing of EU governments and the European Parliament.

Nina-Maria Potts, Brussels/nk/dpa/Reuters
Editor: Michael Lawton