After years of debate and controversy the European Union is aiming to reform its common European asylum system (CEAS). Here are some reasons, why CEAS is a door opener to more inequality and less protection of human rights.
A False Promise of Equality
The common European asylum system (CEAS) is currently being reformed after a majority of MEPs voted in favor of beginning negotiations on the screening of refugees and migrants at the external borders of the EU. As the CEAS sets the minimum standards for the treatment of people seeking asylum for all EU member states, changing it will have an immense impact on the processes of asylum applications to any EU country. While the Council of the EU presents these changes as a positive, new direction which will eliminate the inequality experienced by people experiencing forced displacement based on which country or region they are originally from, the reality will look very different.
Talks about reforming the CEAS have been on the Council’s agenda since 2016, and it seems that the arrival of approximately 8 million people fleeing the full-scale invasion of Ukraine since 2022 in various EU countries has brought the issue back to the surface with more urgency. As various humanitarian agencies, international organizations, news outlets and EU spokespersons themselves have pointed out, the treatment of refugees moving into the Union from Ukraine stood and still stands in stark contrast to that of people fleeing other regions like Afghanistan, Syria, and Somalia. This has clearly highlighted that the current system easily allows for discriminatory practices and a deeply biased handling of asylum applications. Unfortunately however, reforming the CEAS the way the Council of the EU seeks out to, will likely lead to an exacerbation of this foundational human rights problem.
Faster, More Remote, and More Digitalized… And Less Safe for Asylum Seekers
The primary reason for this is the planned increase in speed in processing asylum applications. According to the Council’s website, one of the changes MEPs hope to achieve is a new screening regulation, with the aim to “ensure fast identification of the correct procedure entering the EU without fulfilling the entry conditions”. In other words, the new screening procedure would be more standardized, and the bias that is inherent to the categorization of a newly arriving person on the move would become accelerated due to the broader and quicker assessment of their individual situation. In short, the faster the screening process, the less insight there can be about a person’s background and specific needs.
Moreover, the current proposal will re-shift the focus to the external borders of the EU, something which has previously proven to bring catastrophic consequences. The renewed centralization of places like the Greek, Italian, and Spanish islands will most likely lead to disasters like that of Lesvos in 2020, when a large fire destroyed the accommodation of several thousand people who had lived in an unsafe and overcrowded camp. While the new camps that are being constructed in the Mediterranean have more robust infrastructures in terms of housing, they are also more remote and heavily securitized. This in turn bears the danger of extreme isolation for its occupants, to an extent that essentially qualifies as detention or imprisonment. Since activist and expert groups have unanimously expressed heavy opposition to the proposal of increasing the speed of the assessment procedures, it seems more than likely that the result will have the opposite effect of re-crowding these points of first arrival, and will leave refugees and migrants with little to no opportunities for movement – concerning both physical movement and rights such as the right to seek legal support – which goes against the obligations of the EU to grant universal rights to displaced persons, as stipulated not least by the Geneva Conventions relating to the Status of Refugees.
Lastly, there are several concerns relating to the violation of personal data, as the principal foundation of sped-up assessments will be the accumulation and evaluation of biometric data. As of now, there is more than enough reason to question whether this extremely sensitive kind of personal data will be stored and used securely and in a way which guarantees privacy. Not least does the plan of the decision processes about a person’s asylum status being held behind “closed doors” cause serious concerns about the lack of transparency and accountability that can be expected should the CEAS be reformed according to the current proposal.
A Lose-Lose Situation
The current plans of reforming the EU standards of asylum application processing will likely have disastrous consequences on multiple levels. Not only will migrants and refugees suffer from isolation, a lack of access to urban centers and necessary support from non-governmental organisations and people in solidarity, data law violations and an increasingly biased and unequal screening process. Countries which form the so-called external borders of the EU will continue to share unequally the EU-wide responsibility of ensuring basic human rights for migrants and refugees, a responsibility which has been disregarded by many governments of Europe’s periphery to an ever-growing extent. Lastly, as regions that form the first point of arrival for displaced people are usually economically weaker in comparison to central European areas, local communities often lack infrastructure themselves. In the past, this has proven to be detrimental to the relationship between newly arriving people and locals, as sentiments of solidarity and care were observantly replaced by hostilities and a rise in anti-immigration attitudes.