Europe's home affairs ministers agreed yesterday to the final element of a much-awaited package of new rules on how to deal with refugees, creating the first pan-European common asylum policy.
The deal, clinched just two days before a deadline set by EU leaders five years ago, is designed to shore up minimum standards of treatment for refugees but also to stop people "asylum shopping" to exploit different legal systems.
Yesterday's agreement will allow the EU nations to streamline asylum procedures and set up common rules on how rejected asylum-seekers can be sent back. But refugee groups said the legislation did not provide sufficient safeguards for genuine asylum-seekers.
A spokesman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, said: "There is still a danger that essential safeguards for refugees will not be provided. We would have hoped that the EU would have stuck to the spirit of its earlier work when it agreed to strive for the inclusive application of the Geneva Convention."
Yesterday's agreement was clinched after the UK won assurances that there would be no conflict with Britain's asylum and immigration legislation. London had been worried that the law would prevent it designating parts of countries as safe for all refugees or for specific categories. There were also technical concerns about the British right of appeal. Germany also had legal problems with the text which were resolved only after hours of negotiation.
Michael McDowell, the Justice Minister of Ireland which holds the EU presidency, described the deal as "the missing element in finalising the common EU asylum programme". His German counterpart, Otto Schily, said it was "an important step to avoid asylum shopping".
The new agreement will apply to all 15 EU member states, plus the 10 that join on Saturday. Already, the EU has agreed on rules stating that asylum applications should be processed by the first EU country an asylum-seeker enters, on minimum standards of treating those who apply and on a common definition of a refugee.
The European Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs, Antonio Vitorino, said the safeguards written into the deal meant it would stand up in any court. It now assures "a minimum level of protection and procedural safeguards in all member states for those are genuinely in need of international protection," he said, adding that the object was also "preventing abuses of asylum applications which undermine the credibility of the system".
Under the rules, applicants can be sent back to transit countries which are considered safe. But Mr Vitorino said: "We are totally sure it is not in breach of the obligations of member states."
But the UNHCR is worried that asylum-seekers could be deported to a third country without any guarantee of having their claim processed there. They also highlight the possibility that those whose application has failed might not have the right to stay in the country pending the result an appeal.
A British official said: "There is now a full package of measures in place which means we have a fully-fledged system. We have to fight at the national and international level. This will reduce asylum shopping but will mean no change to Britain's current or planned asylum law."
The UK says that, last year, it used EU law to deport 1,600 people to European member states which they had entered before the UK, receiving about 100 under the same provisions.
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