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A humane blanket approach to asylum seekers - 03/12/2008

Polish, Slovakian and Ukrainian border guards checking documents © EC

Amended asylum laws to end detention and improve conditions.

Tens of thousands of people flee to the EU every year to escape persecution in their home country because of their ethnicity, religion, political opinion or affiliation with a social group. Some have already suffered serious ill-treatment.

Under international law they have a right to protection, even if they enter the EU illegally. In 2003, the EU adopted minimum standards for the treatment of asylum seekers, but the law allows member countries considerable latitude. The result is that asylum seekers are still treated very differently from country to country.

The commission is now proposing that those standards be revised to improve living conditions for asylum seekers and ensure they are treated the same in all EU countries. Asylum seekers could then be detained only in exceptional circumstances, such as when they pose a threat to law and order. Unaccompanied children could not be detained, and accompanied children could be detained only if it is in their best interest.

Governments would also have to do a better job of providing decent housing, food and clothing for asylum seekers, and access to healthcare and jobs. Those with special needs – torture victims for example – would be entitled to legal and medical assistance.

Two other proposals aim to ease the burden on countries like Greece – a major point of entry for asylum seekers – and to give national authorities access to data to help them identify refugees and prevent multiple requests for asylum, or ‘asylum shopping’.

Asylum seekers are supposed to hand in their applications in the first EU country they reach, but many travel illegally through Europe to reach a country where they have a better chance of being granted residency.

The Dublin regulation allows EU countries to return refugees to the country of entry. Now the commission is proposing to set up a mechanism for suspending transfers to countries struggling with large influxes of refugees.

The EU is a major destination for asylum seekers, receiving 103 500 new applications during the first six months of 2008. Most are from Iraq.

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