Until now, the country in the European Union where an asylum seeker first sets foot has been responsible for examining an application for asylum. Should the refugee move to another EU country, that nation can send him or her back to the original country of arrival. Politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels call it the Dublin II Regulation - named after the city in which the law was adopted by EU nations 10 years ago.
But what happens when the country of arrival treats the asylum seeker poorly - or even inhumanely? Can the refugee be transferred anyway? The European Union's Court of Justice in Luxembourg has now ruled on the matter.
The ruling comes in response to an Iranian asylum seeker's contention of the Dublin Regulation. In 2007, he entered the EU via Greece, then traveled on to Germany where his family lived. German authorities said they were not responsible for his asylum application, citing the Dublin regulation, and sent him back to Greece, where he was temporarily incarcerated and then lived on the streets for months.
While the European Court of Justice did not repeal the EU regulation, the court did qualify it. If an asylum seeker is treated in an inhumane or degrading manner in an EU country, the country the refugee would be forced to leave under the Dublin regulation may be obliged to review the asylum claim.
No chance of a fair trial
When the courts originally looked at the Iranian man's case and it made the rounds in the press, people began viewing Greek and EU asylum policy in a new light. The treatment of asylum seekers in Greece and other European countries was put under review and has since been considered unacceptable. For some time, Germany has refused to deport refugees to Greece.
Rebecca Harms, a German Green Member of the European Parliament, said she traveled to Greece because she wanted to see the conditions there for herself. "My impression was that right now in Greece, almost no refugee, even the ones with the best reasons, can get a fair asylum hearing and have their asylum application recognized," she told DW.
She said that even those able to show evidence of torture barely had a chance to receive asylum, and were systematically denied access to lawyers and authorities. The refugees' hopeless situation led them to stay in a country illegally rather than return to the homes they fled, Harms said.
Discussions about the Dublin rule, however, deal with the EU's way of handling asylum seekers in general - not only where a refugee's application is processed. Countries in southern Europe have long complained that they carry a heavier burden, as refugees crossing the Mediterranean most often land on their shores. Meanwhile countries in northern Europe, including Germany, have defended the Dublin rule. German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich has also said that Germany accepts more refugees than any Mediterranean country - both in absolute terms and in relation to the population.
Harms, however, said the southern countries' complaints were justified. "The countries in the north hide behind the Dublin II regulations and try not to take on a fair number of asylum seekers," she said. But she also accused southern European countries of abandoning attempts to implement an orderly system of dealing with refugees and asylum seekers.
Harms said a common, high standard needed to be set across the 28-member bloc when it comes to refugee and asylum issues. The Dublin process needs to be replaced with a national quota system that spreads refugees across the EU.
Anti-refugee parties advance
Karl Kopp of the refugee rights' group Pro Asyl, who supported the Iranian man's legal case, said he felt vindicated by the European court's ruling, which he said would cripple the Dublin II rules.
"The quick Dublin process and its blind trust in other EU states, which Germany always wanted and practised, will come to an end," he told DW.
He said EU states are guilty of "very serious human rights violations against people looking for refuge." Germany and other Dublin II supporters will not be able to maintain the current system much longer. "No one will just be an intermediary and be able to hand over responsibility to others," he added. "Germany will have to accept more refugees and will not be able to deport them as often" - because courts won't allow it.
Despite courts forcing countries to treat refugees in a more humanitarian way, they will not be able to solve domestic issues in EU member states. Far-right political parties like the Front National in France and Golden Dawn in Greece differ on many issues, but they are all united by their desire to block immigrants from entering Europe.