Why are we not reforming the Dublin Regulation yet?

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Refugees holding their children as they arrive with the 'Blue Star 2' passenger ship from the island of Samos, at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, 21 October 2017. [Yannis Kolesidis/EPA/EFE]

In view of the long-blocked negotiations about the reform of the EU’s Dublin asylum system, Luigi Achilli argues that it is not migration but the lack of a common European response that is putting the EU’s future at risk.

Luigi Achilli is a Marie Curie Fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre of the European University Institute in Florence. 

The reform of the Dublin system has long been demanded by Southern European countries and the core of such reform is the introduction of migrants’ relocation quotas for each EU country. However, as of today, the European Council has not yet found a common agreement on the long-needed reform of the Dublin Regulation.

Under the current legislative framework, the first EU country that asylum seekers enter is responsible for examining their asylum claim. Countries such as Italy, Greece and to a lesser extent Malta and Spain, which are the frontline of migrants’ routes to Europe, have repeatedly protested against the disproportionate responsibilities that Dublin imposes on them.

In truth, many asylum seekers often opt to continue their journey to richer countries in the North, and loopholes in the system have allowed migrants to apply for asylum in states other than those of first arrival.

Nevertheless, the scale of the migration phenomenon has become a heavy burden on the asylum system of frontline countries and in September 2015 it prompted the European Commission to adopt temporary relocation schemes to alleviate the pressure faced by these countries.

Although only a minority of an already negligible amount of asylum seekers was eventually relocated, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia fiercely opposed the compulsory quotas and denounced these as a clear infringement of national sovereignty.

In September 2017, the programme abruptly stopped with the relocation of less than 30% of what was originally pledged, amounting to only 2% of unauthorized arrivals to Italy and Greece over the past two years.

A road fraught with peril

To date, the Dublin system still functions under the same first-country-of-arrival rule. The incapacity to reform the Regulation is puzzling. With an overall unauthorised crossing of about 100,000 migrants annually, the number of migrants is eminently negligible within the 500 million EU population.

Hence, not only there are clear diverging interests among the member states; more importantly, the populist and right-wing wind blowing over Europe in recent years has contributed to foster the belief that migration flows are massive and inherently corrosive of the national tissue.

The original divide between the friendlier approach of Western countries and the less welcoming attitudes of Eastern countries has resolved in favour of a more generalised hostility toward migrants across the whole EU.

Consequently, EU member states are pursuing further tightening of border controls and the progressive externalisation of asylum responsibilities to third countries. These measures have knocked Dublin off the top priorities in the ongoing reform of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS).

The underlying logic is that there is not really a need for a permanent distribution model of asylum responsibility if the number of asylum claims is kept outside of Europe. The apparent success of the EU-Turkey Agreement has persuaded the EU that it might just be on the right path; the current transferring of funds to the government of Libya moves precisely into this direction.

The reform of Dublin against all odds

The externalisation of border control has raised fierce criticism by humanitarian organizations and experts who believe that this measure would infringe upon the international and human rights standards set out for the protection of migrants.

In addition, numerous studies have demonstrated how the offshore model generally increases migrants’ reliance on smugglers since, as the European border agency FRONTEX itself admits, “migrants can no longer rely on the transportation services provided by the authorities and need to bypass reinforced border-control measures”.

There might not be a silver bullet to address both the reality of migratory pressures to Europe and satisfy populist demands. Yet, more human and effective proposals to reform the Regulation are at arm’s reach.

In November 2017, for example, the European Parliament approved a proposal that neither encourages migration toward the richer countries nor disregards migrants’ choice of the destination country.

The proposal establishes that asylum applicants that do not have genuine links with a particular country will be able to “choose between the four-member states which have received the lowest amount of applicants”. The fair relocation share of each Member State is calculated so that “larger and wealthier countries will have a larger share than smaller and less wealthy countries.”

This and other sound and more bold proposals have been ignored under the current political climate. The failure to reform the Regulation is an obvious indication of the disaggregating and nationalistic pulsion running across the EU.

However, we should be wary not to be lured by a preposterous ‘real politique’ that trades off what is best for Europe for what is politically convenient and palatable in the short-term.

If studies have warned that the decrease in the number of asylum applications might be more short-lived than expected, the violation of international rules on asylum is certainly leaving an enduring memory of EU incapacity to embrace the very principles upon which it is founded.

Let’s not be mistaken: it is not migration that is putting at risk the future of the European Union, it is rather the incapacity of developing a common political answer to migration based on solidarity principles and balanced responsibilities.

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