After five years of EU negotiations, the European Parliament tmorrow is expected to adopt the remaining pieces of legislation making up the Common European Asylum System.
This policy which is of great relevance to Malta, lays down common procedures and deadlines for handling applications while ensuing a basic set of rights for asylum seekers. The new rules, already agreed by Parliament and national governments, were debated the EP’s plenary session in Strasbourg held yesterday and will put to the vote today.
This new system will come into force in the second half of 2015, whilst the Dublin rules on transfers of asylum seekers will be phased out at the start of 2014.
PN MEPs David Casa and Roberta Metsola remarked that the CEAS will be of little help to Malta in coping with irregular migration.
Both MEPs acknowledged that the package as a whole contains a number of long awaited improvements, but at the same time pointed out that there are still a number of issues that need to be urgently addressed within the revised Dublin Regulation to address Malta’s particular situation.
Speaking about the proposed changes to the EU’s Dublin Regulation, Dr Metsola said that high standards are necessary and respect for human rights and human dignity is essential but action must be taken on solidarity, saying that “we need to take action now to make effective solidarity a European reality. The people of Malta and Gozo, expect more. They deserve better.”
She added that the re-cast of the Dublin Regulation is one “where the spirit of solidarity and sharing of responsibility is ignored and as a representative of the Maltese people, I cannot allow this package to go through without emphasising again in the strongest possible terms that the immigration pressures Malta faces persist and remain acute.”
Dr Metsola said more work is needed to address the disproportionate pressure faced by Malta, saying that “the re-cast of the Dublin Regulation as proposed by the Commission did not even touch upon the criterion that imposes the requirement that asylum-seekers arriving to a Member State must remain the responsibility of that Member State. Rather than see this for what it is – a European issue – countries at the periphery of Europe like Malta are left to bear the brunt alone. The time for baby steps is over and concrete action to alleviate the current situation in Malta is urgently needed.”
On his part Mr Casa who did not take part in the debate but issued a joint statement with his PN colleague, said that “from the very beginning of our mandate at the European Parliament, PN MEPs have been vociferous in their lack of satisfaction with Dublin II, as the current re-cast remains highly inadequate,".
Highlights of the CEAS
Under the agreed text, an asylum seeker may be detained for a limited number of reasons, namely to check his identity, to verify the elements of his application, to decide on his right to enter the member state's territory, to protect national security and public order, to prepare for return to his home country or for the purpose of transferring him to another EU country.
In general this is a watered-down version of the initial proposals, which would have raised serious questions about the legality of Malta’s detention policy.
As a general rule, the new common rules state that if asylum seekers are detained, they will have to be placed in specialised detention facilities. However, if an EU country cannot provide accommodation in such facilities and is obliged to place the asylum seeker in a prison instead, the asylum seeker will have to be kept separate from ordinary prisoners and given access to open-air spaces.
Detained asylum seekers will also have to be given information explaining their rights and obligations in a language that they understand "or are reasonably supposed to understand".
Minors may be detained only as a last resort, for the shortest possible time. Every effort must be made to release them and place them in more suitable centres. Unaccompanied minors may be detained only "in exceptional circumstances" and must not be held in prisons. They must be placed in centres with staff and facilities suited to their needs and also kept separate from adults.
The asylum system bans transfers of asylum applicants to member states unable to ensure decent living conditions for them.
Some 330,000 asylum applicants were registered in EU countries in 2012.
ECRE accuses EU of ‘double standards’ on detention policy
In a statement the European Council on Refugees and Exiles said that the final compromise constitutes progress on a number of procedural guarantees but at the same time criticised the EU for double standards on detention policy.
The European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) is a pan-European Alliance of refugee-assisting non-governmental organisations whose members included the Jesuit Refugee Service and Aditus – two local NGOs actively involved in promoting and defending human rights.
ECRE welcomed the right for asylum seekers to be heard in an interview and to submit comments and clarifications after and before a decision is taken on their claim. In case their application is turned down, asylum seekers must be handed the opportunity to file an appeal in court.
On the other hand ECRE criticised the asylum package especially on the issue of detention. It said that the broad definition risks encouraging the systematic detention of asylum seekers instead of making the practice truly exceptional.
It said that this “a blatant example of the double standards applied to refugees” as “European governments who publicly deplore the suffering inflicted on victims of violence and oppressive regimes often do not hesitate to detain them when they manage to reach Europe’s borders, disregarding the devastating effects on those detained”.
Furthermore, it said that vulnerable groups, such as unaccompanied children and victims of torture, will not be exempt from accelerated and border procedures, making it more difficult for them to access asylum procedures and substantiate their application.
ECRE said that establishing stronger guarantees for vulnerable asylum seekers was one of the key objectives of the asylum package, but standards have been severely watered down throughout the process.