A new report accuses EU rules of hindering asylum seekers’ ability to seek asylum in an EU country where they would feel most protected.
The report by Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) is based on interviews with 257 asylum seekers and migrants in nine EU countries.
"In June, the EU will adopt a new Common European Asylum System, and the 'Dublin Regulation' is a centrepiece of this system. But for an asylum seeker, this regulation is a key source of frustration, anxiety and thwarted access to protection," said Philip Amaral of JRS Europe and author of the report.
The report outlines in several ways how the Dublin Regulation impedes an asylum seeker's search for protection in Europe.
Firstly is people's lack of knowledge about how the regulation actually works and what their rights are. About half of the project's interviewees claimed to know little or nothing about Dublin, and nor did they know how to appeal their case before a court.
Secondly, people are frequently transferred to EU countries that do not offer decent housing and basic services, leaving many people homeless and destitute.
Thirdly, asylum seekers are detained in multiple EU countries, seemingly for no other reason than being an asylum seeker.
"On average, the people we interviewed had been removed from three to four EU countries, with much of that time spent in a detention centre. People are split from their families, and are overwhelmed by a rigid system that overlooks their protection needs," said Mr Amaral.
Being shuffled around the EU takes its toll on asylum seekers. The researchers interviewed a 23-year-old Ahmad, from Afghanistan, who came to the EU in 2009 via Greece and travelled through Macedonia and Serbia to get to Hungary.
He made several attempts to travel to Germany, Austria and Switzerland; each time he was sent back to Hungary. Between Ahmad's first arrival to Europe and to the time he was interviewed, he had spent most of his time in a detention centre.
During one of his last times in Switzerland, Ahmad tried to hang himself, but was saved at the last moment by detention centre guards.
The Dublin Regulation was adopted by the EU in 2003 to identify which EU member states would be responsible for examining an asylum application. But problems emerged with its implementation in EU countries. A European Commission evaluation of the system in 2007 revealed several shortcomings, such as people's difficulties with continuing their asylum claim in the responsible EU country, and people being kept apart from their families.
A major problem revealed by the JRS Europe study are the divergent asylum procedures and basic conditions found among EU countries. Asylum seekers in France, for example, must often sleep at train stations or in parks because housing is not provided.
In Belgium, asylum seekers in a Dublin procedure are routinely detained, but in Sweden many are not.
Though Italian law requires that asylum seekers in Dublin procedures are given housing, in practice many are not. In Germany, lawyers are dissuaded from helping asylum seekers because state reimbursement rates are too low.
"In order for the Common European Asylum System to be sustainable, there must actually be a common level of protection guaranteed across all EU countries," said Mr Amaral. "At present this is not the case. People frequently move throughout Europe because they are searching for protection that, to them, is of a dignified and fair standard. An asylum system that leaves people on the street, and ill-equipped to enforce their rights, is not sustainable."
The JRS Europe’s report identified several actions European governments can take to make the system more humane, protective and dignified.
It urged the authorities to provide adequate reception conditions, such as decent housing, medical care and basic subsistence allowances since asylum seekers have little else to rely on because most are barred from working.
It also recommended improving the way people are informed about Dublin procedures. This should be done in languages they can understand, the report said. It stressed the importance of enabling asylum seekers to have greater access to qualified lawyers, since having a lawyer greatly increases the likelihood that one will be better informed and able to enforce one's rights, such as to challenge a case before a judge.
The study found that people feel better protected when they can personally influence the decisions governments take on their asylum cases. Rather than transferring people back to the country where they first entered into the EU, which is how states typically implement the Dublin Regulation, people should have more chances to seek asylum in countries where their family and relatives are, where they share a language and where the protection standards best fit their needs, the report suggested.
"Personal choice for any person is connected to the fulfilment of basic human needs, and a sense of personal dignity and self-determination. These principles should be at the heart of the European asylum system," said Mr Amaral.