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The European Union’s Dublin Conundrum

Despite a sharp decline in the number of asylum seekers reaching Europe, politicians continue to exploit the issue. But the real question that needs to be answered is not how to keep migrants away from Europe's borders, but rather which country should be responsible for those who have already entered EU territory.

BRUSSELS – Tensions over immigration continue to dominate European politics. In Italy, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, a populist firebrand, is monopolizing the public’s attention with almost daily outbursts against immigrants. Likewise, Salvini’s German counterpart, Horst Seehofer, created a crisis in the governing coalition in order to secure new measures against asylum seekers trying to enter Germany from Austria. With their countries having been left to fight illegal immigration on their own, Salvini and Seehofer claim, they must focus on national, not European, solutions. They are wrong.

The truth is that the European Union has been instrumental in reducing the flows of irregular arrivals, which have declined considerably since the massive influx of Syrian refugees, via Greece and Hungary, in 2015. Thanks to the agreement that the EU reached with Turkey in March 2016, very few people are now crossing into Greece. Likewise, the number of arrivals in Italy is a mere fraction of the total just last year. Overall, illegal crossings into the EU have been reduced to about 100,000 annually, compared to the estimated more than one million who arrived in 2015.

Given the EU’s population of over 500 million, that number is eminently manageable. Nonetheless, politicians continue to exploit the migration issue, with some highly visible arrivals – in particular, the large number of migrants who have been rescued off the coast of Libya – keeping the issue in the news.

The real issue that needs to be resolved, however, is which country should be responsible for those who have already entered EU territory. The EU’s failure to answer this question in a way that satisfies all sides is now threatening the survival of the Schengen Area of border-free travel.

On paper, the EU has clear rules on the matter: under the so-called Dublin Regulation, the first EU country that asylum seekers enter is responsible for examining their applications. But countries with external borders, such as Greece and Italy, naturally complain that this puts an unfair burden on them.

Asylum seekers themselves also resist this rule. Given unfavorable labor-market conditions in southern border countries, many make a beeline for northern Europe to apply for asylum. That is why Germany, which has no external border, receives more asylum applications than Italy. Many such cases have already been registered on the EU asylum database EURODAC.

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According to the Dublin Regulation, Germany has the right to ask other member states to “take charge” (the legal term) of these cases. But there are many exceptions to the first-country-of-arrival rule. For example, if an asylum seeker already has family in a different country (in this case, Germany), that country may be responsible for processing the application. Or if an asylum seeker manages to leave the country of arrival for three months, the initial application can be withdrawn and a new one submitted in a different EU member state.

These exceptions give asylum seekers ample room to contest Dublin transfers in court. Moreover, national authorities have a strong incentive to object to incoming transfer requests on formal or substantive grounds, while trying to send abroad as many as possible. About 160,000 “take charge” requests were lodged in 2017, though only about 20,000 were actually implemented. These factors, together with discrepancies among EU member states’ legal systems and administrative procedures, have largely nullified the Dublin Regulation.

It was this reality that lay at the root of recent tensions within Germany’s coalition government. Of more than 60,000 take-charge requests lodged by German authorities in 2017 under the Dublin Regulation, fewer than 15% were actually implemented, resulting in just 7,100 transfers to other member states.

Yet in 2016, Germany implemented close to 30% of the 27,000 incoming requests it received, meaning that it took charge of about 8,700 people. Germany has thus become a net recipient of Dublin transfers, despite lacking an external border.

Given this, Seehofer wants to prevent asylum seekers who have been registered elsewhere on EURODAC from ever entering Germany. But he is far from alone in his frustration: the upshot of the gulf between legal principles and reality is that no member state is satisfied with the current system. While border countries continue to insist that the Dublin Regulation is unfair to them, northern countries complain that it is not being implemented properly.

An asylum system in which more than a dozen national bureaucracies try to pass applicants around like hot potatoes cannot work. The European Asylum Support Office (EASO) should be made responsible for interpreting the rules for assigning refugees – deciding, for example, which country is responsible when member states disagree in individual cases. Providing financial incentives for accepting refugees – say, a lump sum for each one – would also help.

These two measures will not satisfy the populists. Opposition to refugees and migrants – and even demonization of them and their supporters – is their political bread and butter. But strengthening EASO and boosting financial support should go some way toward alleviating today’s tensions, at least until a radical reform of Europe’s asylum system can be contemplated.

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