EU moves toward harmonizing refugee policies

Posted by admin on Sep 10th, 2008

Reuters, September 9, 2008 at 11:13 AM EDT

PARIS — European Union ministers agreed on Tuesday to set up a bureau to share information about asylum seekers and lend each other experts and translators, moving a step closer to harmonizing asylum policies. EU countries have set themselves the goal of having a common asylum system by 2012 in the hope that if they all had the same procedures, applications would be better spread out around the 27-nation bloc and the system would be fairer.

“The most important thing … is to get away from the asylum lottery that we have today,” Tobias Billstrom, Sweden’s minister for migrations and asylum policy, told a news conference at the end of a two-day EU ministers’ meeting on asylum in Paris.

“At present the most important thing is deciding where to hand in your application rather than what actual reasons do you have for seeking asylum,” Mr. Billstrom said.

Europe is a major destination for asylum seekers. It received close to 200,000 applications in 2006 of which only about 7 per cent were granted, according to Eurostat.

Asylum seekers are supposed to hand in their applications in the first EU country they reach, but in practice many do not.

Disparities between asylum policies cause many would-be refugees to travel illegally through Europe to reach a country where they have a better chance of being granted residency.

Ministers cited the example of Iraqis who reach Cyprus, Malta or Greece and seek to travel to Sweden, where a much higher proportion of Iraqi asylum seekers are successful.

Improving co-operation between EU member states on immigration and asylum is one of the priorities of France’s six-month presidency of the bloc, which lasts until Dec. 31.

“We have taken an important step forward at this meeting,” said France’s Immigration Minister Brice Hortefeux.

He said Malta had proposed introducing a co-ordinated resettlement system within the EU which would allow countries to transfer refugees to another member state.

This would allow small countries like Malta or Cyprus, where many would-be refugees enter the bloc, to be more generous in granting asylum, safe in the knowledge that they would not have to host every single successful applicant in the long term.

The European Commission said it would also send a delegation to Syria and Jordan to assess the situation of Iraqi refugees under the temporary protection of the United Nations agency for refugees (UNHCR) and perhaps resettle some of them in Europe.

“We will look at the most painful cases, the most vulnerable people, to try and launch the first resettlement program in Europe,” said Jacques Barrot, the commission’s vice-president in charge of justice and home affairs.


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