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Human Rights

Criticism of EU asylum policy grows

Civil wars, such as the one in Syria, force millions to seek refuge abroad. Some of them land in the EU and end up being deported across the continent. A human rights group is calling for major asylum policy changes.

Even experienced politicians such as Ruprecht Polenz, head of the German parliament's foreign affairs committee, are sometimes staggered by the type of obstacles war refugees have to overcome on their way to a better life. During a human rights conference, the politician said he had been asked by Syrians whether their families could seek refuge in Germany. Polenz said that, at first, he thought this shouldn't be a problem, only to later find out that this was "practically impossible."

Ever since, Polenz, a member of Angela Merkel's German Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has campaigned to allow the more than 40,000 Syrians living in Germany to reunite with family members escaping the war zone.

Need for greater coordination

However, German authorities have denied entry to these refugees on the grounds that they might lack the willingness to return to their countries of origin at a later date, according to Günter Burkhardt, co-founder of Pro Asyl, a human rights organization known for its criticism of the treatment given to war victims.

CDU parliamentarian Ruprecht Polenz. Photo: Karlheinz Schindler

CDU parliamentarian Ruprecht Polenz

Even so, the German government announced a few weeks ago that it was prepared to take in another 5,000 Syrian refugees over the coming months. This would bring the total number of Syrian refugees in Germany since the start of 2012 to 13,000. Germany is the only EU country as yet to have offered such support.

Nevertheless, the declaration adopted 20 years ago at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna calls for the international community to work together to help refugees through a coordinated course of action.

Controversial law

The EU has been working on a joint approach for more than 10 years. It wants to standardize the length of asylum procedures and ensure that every member state applies the same conditions for the admission of refugees. The project, reportedly close to completion, has already been criticized by human right activists.

This is due mainly to the so-called Dublin regulation, which is set to remain at the core of the EU's asylum policy. The law determines that asylum seekers fall under the regulations established by the first EU member state they enter. This explains why refugees are frequently stranded in countries such as Greece, Italy or Bulgaria - the states where they first entered the EU.

A boot full of refugees off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa

Every year hundreds of thousands of refugees seek shelter in Europe

However, the new "Dublin III" agreement will see some changes. For instance, refugees will be able to challenge deportation to a "third country" in a court of law. But, according to Pro Asyl, this is just a small step forward. Managing director Burkhardt said he believes the new convention will remain unfair to peripheral countries within the EU.

Overlooked potential

The Dublin procedure leads in many cases to human rights violations, Burkhardt told DW. "Refugees in border states such as Greece are treated as illegal immigrants and can be held in jail for weeks or even months."

Burkhardt is calling for refugees to be allowed to seek asylum in the country they have the strongest ties to. "Why should a Syrian go through the asylum procedure in Greece, if his whole family is living in northern Germany?"

Burkhardt called for a different approach to the issue: "Refugees are only regarded as people the state has to provide for." Their potential for a country like Germany, which is actively looking for skilled workers, he says, is mostly overlooked. CDU parliamentarian Polenz also believes that the German government should take into account that refugees stay in Germany and that it should therefore focus more heavily on integration.