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Asylum in the EU

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Since 1990, the EU has increased its role in determining how asylum claims are processed and how refugees are managed. Large numbers of people come to the EU each year. Most people coming to the EU have migrated for work or education. However, people may also come to the EU to claim asylum. How this is managed in the EU has been the subject of recent debate due to the large numbers of refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East.  When asylum claims are not managed correctly and migration is not properly controlled it can become hard to prevent criminal activity, including people trafficking, which threatens law and order.

EU members historically set their own policy on asylum and migration. However, the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997) and the Tampere European Council (1999) gave the EU some responsibility for setting common policies, with the principal aim of making migration safe and legally controlled. Since then, the EU’s jurisdiction in immigration and asylum has steadily increased.


All EU countries are signed up to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and committed to protecting refugees by ensuring that they are not sent back to a country where there is a serious risk that they would be subjected to the death penalty, torture or other inhuman and degrading treatment.

In 1985, the Schengen Agreement removed national border controls between five EU countries. This increased pressure to create a common EU system for managing asylum. In 1990, the Schengen Agreement was adopted into EU law and the first Dublin Convention was signed. The Dublin Convention came into force in 1997 and was replaced in 2003 and 2008 with the Dublin II and Dublin III regulations. They created a set of EU laws that determined who is responsible for processing the asylum claim of a refugee. Usually the country where the refugee first enters the EU is where the asylum claim must be made. These rules are to prevent refugees moving between EU countries unregistered and to prevent multiple applications.

Since the 1999 Tampere meeting, the EU has been working to create a common European asylum system. In 2004, most aspects of asylum and immigration policies were moved from needing unanimity to majority support to approve new laws. The Frontex border agency was launched in 2005 to increase cooperation between EU states and help manage external borders.

Modern EU Asylum

The Lisbon Treaty (2007) strengthened the ability of EU authorities to determine member states’ immigration and asylum policies. Since then, the European Refugee Fund was established and the EU introduced directives for asylum procedures, the reception conditions countries must provide for asylum seekers, determining who can get asylum and determining how information about asylum seekers is shared. Since 2011, the European Asylum Support Office has regulated asylum applications across the EU. The EU Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund for the period 2014-20 replaced earlier asylum and immigration funds, and is a total of 3.137 billion euros for the seven years.

The UK and Ireland have the option to opt out of EU laws on asylum but have adopted some asylum regulations. They are signed up to the Dublin regulations and the UK is an observer member of Frontex, running joint operations with it.

The vast number of refugees fleeing the Syrian war has strained the EU’s asylum systems. The Dublin regulation has not been fully enforced, with EU border countries like Hungary and Greece being overwhelmed. Because of this, over the last year, a number of countries stopped enforcing Dublin regulations and allowed refugees to claim asylum even though they had entered the EU in a different country. In September 2015, EU ministers introduced a temporary quota system to allocate 120,000 refugees across the EU. This proposal was not well enforced and there still remains pressure for the EU to reform the asylum system in a way which would allow the EU to effectively deal with the crisis.