The Dublin Regulation, A Nightmare for Asylum Seekers

The European Union faces a political and humanitarian crisis of its own making. Challenged by a growing number of asylum requests, deterrence policies have been chosen over a commitment to protecting the same human rights the European Union prides itself to defend and has been founded upon. The immigration debate that took place this week at the French National Assembly and Senate, is a perfect example of that. Indeed, the French government seems more concerned about making France ‘less attractive’ and preventing irregular migrants to access basic healthcare, than to fix the serious issues posed by their inefficient and harmful policies. Believe it or not, no one flees their country to profit from the French welfare system. Asylum seekers, defined by the 1951 Geneva convention as human beings who are seeking protection in a country other than their own, are the first and foremost victims of those policies. In the midst of the ‘migration crisis’, the European Union, under political pressure of its most powerful member states, has made arrangements to close the legal routes that lead to the continent, and put in place a range of restrictive measures.

The Dublin regulation 

The Dublin regulation, originally the Dublin Convention (1990), followed by Dublin II (2003) and more recently Dublin III (2013), is the cornerstone of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS). It was implemented to guarantee a more harmonious distribution of asylum requests within the European Union. Well intentioned in its inception, it sought to put an end to multiple applications, known as ‘asylum shopping’, as well as the situation where an asylum seeker is present in Europe without any country taking responsibility for examining his application. In theory, the Dublin regulation ensures that there can only be one asylum claim per person, examined by one state, which is established by the criteria of the Dublin Convention, and often is the state of first entry on the continent. It also allows asylum seekers to be transferred by the authorities to the member state to which they have been assigned to. The Dublin regulation relies on the centralized European database (Eurodac) that handles and store the fingerprints of all asylum seekers. 

Problems with the Dublin regulation

The Dublin regulation poses fundamental issues: it is an unfair system that has been recognized as widely inefficient by the Member states. Most importantly, it endangers asylum seekers and facilitates infringement of their basic human rights. 

First of all, the Dublin regulation has been incredibly unfair to border countries, which are the first country of entry of most asylum seekers, such as Italy, Spain and Greece who have faltering economies and social systems. In 2014, 72% of asylum request were examined by five European countries. These already often struggling countries cannot provide an adequate management of arrivals or dignified reception conditions. The Dublin assumption that designating one member state to examine each application will uphold asylum seekers’ human rights seems out of touch with reality in this regard. In 2011, the case MSS v Belgium and Greece proved that the conditions of life in Greece were so poor that asylum seeker’s life and human rights would be endangered if they were to be sent back. The overcrowding of centers and hotspots in southern European countries have captured the attention of the medias and contributed to the creation of an invasion myth. This rhetoric has greatly aided the ascendance of far-right, populist and anti-immigration parties, such as the Northern League in Italy. These governments have introduced policies to restrict the flow of migrants, have threatened humanitarian ships and strengthened border control. This has allowed prolonged detentions and unlawful refoulement, such as the closure of Italian ports to rescue vessels that transport migrants. Another direct consequence of Dublin is that overburdened countries turn down most asylum requests: for example, between June and September 2018, Italy has turned down a record number of 24,800 applications. 

Secondly, the whole Dublin regulation is based on the core principle that asylum seekers cannot choose which country they want to live in and build their future. Policy makers hold on to the assumption that it does not matter to an asylum seeker, towards which country he flees to. However, it is absolutely not the case. The already mentioned the heterogeneous reception conditions encourage further the secondary movement by migrants that the Dublin regulation wished to prevent in the first place. Moreover, the choice of the country is highly personal and based on numerous factors, such as presence of family, community, access to labor market and social services. Consequently, most applicants seek asylum in a second European country, where they are automatically rejected under the Dublin regulation, and under threat of arbitrary transfer to their transit country. In practice, only 20% of the transfers actually happen, due to appeals, uncooperativeness of the applicant or unwillingness of the host country to take them back. The asylum seekers are then trapped in the Dublin cycle, where they have to wait a minimum of 18 months to have the possibility to apply in a second European country. During those 18 months, they are placed outside any legal, social or economic protection or assistance, accentuating opportunities for negligence of their human rights. In 2018, 36% of asylum seekers were considered as trapped in the Dublin cycle in France. Their status of illegal migrants often gives way to instances of police brutality, with cases of physical and psychological harassment, of systematic confiscation or destruction of their personal affects, and overall humiliation and abuse. Moreover, under the Dublin regulation, asylum seekers find themselves to be at risk of being put in detention centers, in unacceptable conditions and for an unknown period of time, before being expulsed out of the country.

Another consequence of the Dublin regulation is that it makes the asylum process, as complicated as it is, a highly toxic environment. It has been denounced that Dublin handles applicants solely as ‘subjects of state acts’ rather than rights holders. Indeed, asylum seekers suffer from bad mental health, due legal status anxiety, fear of deportation, forced unemployment, financial strain, loneliness, and discrimination that entails a high rate of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) amongst these communities. Regarding detentions centres, there have been reports allegations of abuse, violent behaviour, medical and psychiatric illnesses that remain untreated, as well as violent and suicidal behaviour. Dublin has become a curse, a feared, a dirty word for asylum seekers, synonym of interminable procedures and transfers. As a direct result of this procedure, asylum seekers avoid coming to Europe through ‘Dublin countries’ and choose other paths, notably Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia, where police brutality and impunity is the norm. Those who have been forced to give their fingerprints often submit themselves to mutilation of their fingers, hoping to erase all trace of their passage, in order to move on to their country of choice. Dublin, therefore, contribute to making the asylum seeking process a highly insecure one.

Need of reforms

There is a pressing need to reform the Dublin procedure at its core that starts with rethinking how to build a genuine and fair common asylum policy. First of all, it is imperative to make the asylum procedure a fair and efficient one. That means finding a way to harmonize the standards on asylum procedures and the overly heterogeneous reception conditions. Second of all, an imperative step in the right direction would be to take into account the applicant’s preference. Pro-Asyl, a German pro-migration organization, has suggested to replace the country of first arrival by the applicant’s first choice. It has been proven that punitive policies are not the answer, and that asylum seekers are willing to wait out the 18 months, without any economic, legal or material aid in a second European country, just to be able to choose their country of protection. Thirdly, the European Union has a responsibility to control the xenophobic and anti-immigration rhetoric, exploited by populist and far right parties, that it has single-handedly created with its inefficient migration policies. Finally, an interesting recommendation would be to have more down to earth policies. Perhaps if policy makers would witness the realities on the ground and take a strong look at the ‘Europe of jungles’, they could realize the inefficiency of the policies they have implemented and question the overall incompetence of the European Union. 

Overall, it is absolutely essential to act upon the widely recognized fact that Dublin is an ill-suited system and to remind ourselves that the EU member states have committed themselves, under the 1951 Geneva Convention, to offer protection to those who are fleeing persecution in their country of origin. Amongst other issues, the opposing interests of member states and the tendency to follow public opinion rather than lead it, are making European humanitarian ideals out of reach. The continent suffers from a strong lack of vision and solidarity which is embodied in its ethically and morally reprehensible system that proves to be inefficient. The insistence on continuing to invest in the Dublin system, as it is, has allowed a severe breach of human rights and dignity on European soil, and it seems that policy makers have forgotten that there are actual lives and people on the line. One can only hope that a fair dialogue will drive sounder policy decisions on the distribution of asylum responsibility in the European Union and remind member states that asylum seekers entrapped in the Dublin procedure, regardless of their status, have inalienable human rights. 

Mathilde Schmitt

Mathilde is a 3rd year International Relations student at King’s College London, writing as a contributor for Sensus. Her particular interests of study and research include migration, identity politics and development.


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