Enlarged European Union could pose problems for asylum seekers - UN official

22 January 2004

Warning that the European Union's (EU) imminent enlargement could overwhelm the asylum-handling systems of some new member States, the head of the United Nations refugee agency today unveiled proposals on how to address the looming problem.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Ruud Lubbers, told a meeting of EU interior ministers in Dublin that the region's pattern of asylum applications could change dramatically after the enlargement on 1 May.

Mr. Lubbers said that improved identification and registration procedures for asylum-seekers mean it is now easier to send them back to the first EU country they entered - which in practice will usually mean the new member States.

"There are new EU States in Central Europe which currently only have 15 or 20 asylum assessors. A decade ago they had no asylum systems at all," he said. "What is going to happen if thousands of extra asylum seekers are sent back to them from the inner EU countries?"

Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia are about to join the EU.

Mr. Lubbers said the EU's new harmonized laws on the issue could exacerbate the problem, leading to more irregular movement of people between EU member States.

The UNHCR proposals are designed to create a centralized, EU-wide system for processing claims for certain categories of asylum seekers instead of leaving the responsibility to individual States.

Under the proposals, the EU would set up reception centres, staffed by experienced assessors and interpreters, to process asylum claims. Member countries would also share the burden of accepting refugees so they are distributed evenly, rather than mostly in a few States. In addition, an EU-wide asylum agency and review board would be established to manage the overall system.

Mr. Lubbers added the UNHCR remains concerned about a draft EU directive on asylum procedures, saying it strips the right of claim and appeal from too many asylum-seekers.


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