Ministers Reach Breakthrough on EU Asylum Policy | Current Affairs | DW | 31.03.2004
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Current Affairs

Ministers Reach Breakthrough on EU Asylum Policy

EU interior ministers have acheived partial success on controversial plans to create a Europe-wide asylum policy. Human rights groups however remain troubled over the unresolved elements.


Knocking on the doors.

EU interior ministers met in Brussels on Tuesday to make yet another effort to hammer out a Europe-wide asylum policy. The meeting took on an added sense of urgency with the ministers struggling to comply with a self-imposed May 1 deadline, the date on which ten new countries join the EU.

Ending almost six years of acrimonious negotiations, they reached a partial breakthrough on key aspects of the legislation. The ministers agreed on a set of criteria establishing who can apply for asylum. However, they could not agree on some procedural points determining how such requests should be handled. Certain aspects of the latter, including a proposed plan to allow for the deportation of asylum seekers to "safe" third countries, have come under heavy fire from human rights organizations.

The ministers will meet again at the end of April to take up the issue again, but according to the German Interior Minister Otto Schily, "it could be close".

Germany drops opposition to asylum criteria

The breakthrough came after the German government dropped its long-standing opposition to a policy determining who is eligible to apply for asylum, specifically the recognition of asylum seekers who are fleeing non-state persecution , like men who are being pursued by drug cartels or women who face female genital mutilation.

The expected approval of a sweeping new immigration law in Germany, which has led to a compromise on key issues between the ruling coalition of Social Democrats and Greens and the conservative Christian Democratic opposition, cleared the way for Schily to adopt a more conciliatory tone.

Under the rules agreed on Tuesday, the EU will not only offer protection to people who are refugees according to the 1951 Geneva Convention, they will also offer so-called subsidiary protection to victims of non-state persecution.

Human rights groups protest key points

Not good enough, say some human rights groups. Following the recent election of anti-immigration parties in several European countries, asylum policy remains a politically loaded and divisive issue. Human rights groups -- citing the increasingly restrictive nature of the EU policies -- have publicly objected to key aspects of the draft, namely the still unresolved questions over how asylum requests will be handled.

In an unprecedented move, several groups, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the European Council for Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), jointly called on the EU to scrap the agreement, claiming it violates international law.

At issue are two aspects of the proposed agreement. The first deals with a suggestion in the directive on the use of a "safe country of origin" concept, which means the EU would compile a list of "safe countries" and asylum requests from persons originating from these countries would be considered illegitimate. The second issue is a so-called "safe third county" concept, which means asylum seekers can be deported to a third country deemed safe. Neither was resolved at the meeting on Tuesday and has been put off until the end of April.

"These proposals would deny some asylum seekers access to full and fair procedures, and it would transfer them to countries outside Europe," said Ben Ward of Human Rights Watch. "We're deeply concerned that the EU is trying to get other countries to shoulder its responsibilities."

Asylsuchende in der Ausländerbehörde in Hamburg

Asylum-seekers in Hamburg

Daphne Bouteillet Paquet said the ministers should forget the proposals and start again. "We feel we have no option but to call on the EU to scrap this proposal on asylum procedures, which has been shaped in reaction to populist pressures and fears whipped up about a non-existent flood of refugees into the EU," she said.

Schily rebuffs criticism

Schily responded to the human rights organization's criticism, saying that the creation of a safe third country concept would allow the EU to avoid the processing costs associated with questionable claims, while those who are truly victims of oppression would be offered asylum.

The ministers will meet again on April 29 to resolve remaining concerns.

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