By BROOKS TIGNER
BRUSSELS – The EU’s end-2012 deadline to agree on a package of rules for a new Common European Asylum System (CEAS) looks set to slip into the new year. While a general compromise among policymakers has coalesced around much of the package, two thorny issues remain up in the air. One concerns specific asylum procedures such as urgent cases or unaccompanied minors and the other revolves around the equally contentious issue of granting police authorities access to the EU’s fingerprint database of asylum-seekers known as Eurodac.
“We’ve had a difficult time in the last few months getting agreement on the new asylum package,” Eleni Mavrou told to a policy audience here on 7 December. Cypriot Minister of Interior, she spoke on behalf of her government, which holds the EU’s six-month revolving presidency until 31 December. “We cannot say that we have reached the end, but I expect to reach a solution soon or by early 2013.”
The CEAS will rest on a complex mix of new and amended EU laws. These cover the qualification rules for asylum seekers and the conditions of their reception on a member state’s territory, rules to prevent “asylum status” shopping between the member states (i.e., the Dublin Regulation) and the two problematic areas of Eurodac and how to prevent criminal groups from exploiting the EU’s modified Asylum Procedures Directive in their favour. Under the latter, for example, unaccompanied minors – those under 18 years old – will no longer be automatically detained. Releasing them to seek work, resettlement on their own or reunion with relatives carries the risk of human trafficking or abuse of the rules by those illegally seeking work in the EU.
How to crack down on false applicants or criminal activity without compromising the legitimate claims of other asylum-seekers is the quandary now facing the EU27.
Monika Hohlmeier, German Christian Democrat member of the European Parliament (MEP), told the group that “we don’t want human trafficking to increase, thus involving more children as a result of the new legislation. The unaccompanied rule is for 6–to-17 year olds, but what happens when a 21-year old claims he is 17? Then you have to do medical exams, interviews, find the proof and so on. Thus, we want the [CEAS] system to have an ‘individual view’ of each seeker without excluding accelerated procedures for those who need it.”
The 27 EU nations saw more than 300,000 asylum applications in 2011 – an increase of more than 16 percent compared to 2010. Moreover, the problem is hugely lopsided, with just 10 member states receiving 90 percent of all refugees.
Noting that EU countries have committed errors against legitimate asylum seekers, she also insisted that the EU has to create conditions that the nations can fulfil. “If we don’t do this, we will only have human trafficking. Organised criminals earn huge amounts of money without being annoyed by the police. We need to do much more against this. All the member states need to get in line with the CEAS and the [European] Commission needs to make them do this,” she said.
Indeed, Cecilia Malmström, European Commissioner for home affairs policy, has repeatedly warned of avoiding a “race to the bottom” of national approaches that are rife with exceptions and derogations from an EU approach.
As she told the 7 December gathering, “a refugee might have a 75 percent chance of getting into one member state, but only 1 percent in another. This is not acceptable across the EU. With this package, we are raising the standard to the same level.”
However, she also said that the three EU policymaking branches – Commission, EP and Council – “don’t agree on all issues, but we will find a compromise that is better than the system we have today. The main challenge is not only to agree on the laws, but to implement them. Under what conditions can we make sure that the most vulnerable are protected such as minors or refugees from torture? For the Commission, there should be exceptions for these people, but the member states of course want guarantees that this won’t be abused either.”
As for law enforcement access to Eurodac’s fingerprint database, the three EU institutions still do not see eye-to-eye on the conditions to allow this. While the Council and Commission want access for police authorities to check if asylum-seekers have a criminal link or background, the EU and other entities are worried about the possible repercussions.
“If law enforcement authorities get access to Eurodac, we are concerned that asylum seekers could be stigmatised only because their fingerprints are in the database,” Madeline Garlick, head of policy and legal support at the European office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told the conference. “There must be a mechanism in place that this data is not passed to the authorities of their original country, unless a real crime is involved.”
As for the EP itself, Hohlmeier admitted that “we are divided on the issue. But we have to find a solution for Eurodac or there will be a huge problem for all asylum legislation in Europe. We have to give the police – with safeguards – the same possibilities as the criminals now use to stop the latter from freely moving illegals across the border and other criminal activity.”
The committee expects safeguards in return for giving police access to Eurodac. For example, It wants any comparison of Eurodac’s fingerprints for police purposes linked only to matters of terrorism or other serious criminal offences and whose conditions of “overriding public security concern” makes the access proportionate. It also calls for the erasure of access data after a very limited period and calls for an independent national authority designated in each member state to handle and execute the access to Eurodac.
Though the Committee overwhelmingly adopted its position by 41 votes to 11, it sparked heavy criticism from opponents within the house. German MEP Ska Keller, shadow committee member and spokesperson on migration and civil liberties for the EP’s Green party, said the vote “throws basic rights out the window” by undermining the rights of asylum seekers. “The move raises major privacy and data protection concerns, with data protection authorities and the UNHCR having expressed their opposition to the proposals,” she said.
Expect more fireworks on this issue in 2013.