The United Nations’ refugee agency says it has concerns about new European Union plans for more unified asylum rules across the bloc.
The European Commission released proposals on Wednesday for common asylum procedures, including plans to standardize refugee reception facilities across the bloc and unify the level of state support they can get, setting common rules on residence permits, travel papers, access to jobs, schools, social welfare and healthcare.
EU member governments and the European Parliament will now review the proposals, which aim to stop people waiting for refugee status moving around the bloc and disrupting its passport-free zone.
An unprecedented 1.3 million refugees and migrants reached the EU last year, prompting some EU countries to suspend the Schengen Area system that allows free passage between most EU states.
But the UNHCR and human rights advocates expressed concerns that the proposals could undermine the protection of refugees.
The proposal would grant prospective refugees swifter rights to work, but also put more obligations on them, meaning that if they do not cooperate with the authorities or head to an EU state of their choice rather than staying put, their asylum application could be jeopardized.
The five-year waiting period after which refugees are eligible for long-term residence would be restarted if they move from their designated country, the Commission said.
The UNHCR said it had concerns about the new rules and said the new system must not lower standards of protection and asylum. UNHCR spokesman William Spindler said people should be dissuaded from such movements, not punished.
“The proposals the Commission published today are not about improving refugee protection globally, but about reducing irregular arrivals to Europe,” Amnesty International’s Iverna McGowan said in a statement. “They take good tools, like resettlement, and put them to bad ends; they use fine words, but these mask some pretty cynical intentions.”
The EU proposal also spells out more cases in which asylum seekers could be detained, something Jean Lambert, a British Green Party member of the European Parliament, said showed the EU was taking the wrong attitude to people seeking sanctuary.
“The EU has justifiably come under fire for its response to the refugee crisis but today’s proposals ... will do nothing to allay this,” she said Wednesday, accusing the Commission of seeking to curb the rights of asylum seekers and “an obsession with punitive measures”.
“People are fleeing because their lives are threatened and homes being destroyed, not because the EU’s asylum system is gold plated - it’s not!”
Last year’s record arrivals triggered bitter political disputes in the EU, where the wealthier states which ended up hosting most of the people accused the newer members in the east of showing no solidarity.
A deal with Turkey in March has since cut the arrivals to Greece to a trickle, but it has prompted concerns about human rights.
Unlike the Turkey route, however, which mainly brought Syrians and other people with a strong cases for asylum into Europe, the bloc is now worried over a rise in arrivals from Africa through Libya. Most people on that route do not qualify for asylum and, under the EU rules, should be sent back.
The Commission wants to draw up lists of “safe countries” outside the bloc, which would help EU states return people. It comes after Greece refused to recognize Turkey as a safe place, hindering deportations from the Greek islands back to Turkey.
This has raised concerns that the proposal will make it easier for member countries to expel refugees, by sending them back to areas erroneously deemed safe.
So-called safe countries should only be an option where “precise, impartial, and up-to-date information is available on the safety of a particular country,” the UNHCR’s Spindler said. “An applicant must have an effective opportunity to rebut the presumption of safety in light of their individual circumstances, and the safe country concepts should not apply to vulnerable applicants.”
“What the Commission is really trying to do with these proposals is resettle some refugees, so they can return more,” Amnesty’s McGowan said. “In the absence of any mention of the need to significantly increase resettlement numbers and heavily invest in conditions for refugees in third countries, the net impact of these proposals for refugee protection globally is very likely to be negative.”
The UNHCR wants the EU to drop the planned first country of arrival principle and distribute asylum seekers among European Union member states.
Brussels proposed a system for distributing asylum seekers in May, but Eastern EU states which refuse to accept refugees opposed the idea.
Only 3,056 people have so far been relocated under the scheme that was meant for 160,000 people. Hungary and Slovakia have challenged the system in the courts.
Asked whether Brussels would punish countries, including Poland and the Czech Republic, for not complying, EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulossaid: “We’re not here to punish, we are here to persuade. But if this persuasion doesn’t succeed, then yes, we’re thinking of doing that. But we’re not there yet.”
The Commission also proposed an EU-wide system for resettlement directly from refugee camps. It said Brussels would pay 10,000 euros for each person EU states bring in.
The new proposals have already faced pushback from EU countries. Austria’s conservative interior minister rejected the EU proposal on the grounds that it would grant asylum seekers the right to work, according to a newspaper interview published on Thursday.
Austria took in 90,000 asylum seekers during the influx of migrants to Europe last year, but has since capped its intake and imposed border controls and anti-immigration sentiment has risen as a result of the crisis. Currently asylum applicants are allowed to work in community jobs.
“I consider it unthinkable to issue working permits for asylum seekers,” Wolfgang Sobotka told German daily Die Welt. “It would be a call to people in crisis-ridden countries to come to Austria. Our job market would not be able to absorb that.”
Slovakia, the current holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, was skeptical on chances for unified asylum system.
“We can only talk about real burden-sharing when the quality of life is the same in all EU states,” said Bernard Priecel, head of Slovakia’s migration service. “Otherwise we will always have secondary movements. How can you force them to stay?”