The idea of granting asylum to people fleeing war or persecution is not a new one in Europe. A long list of famous Europeans have sought safety in countries not their own; from Aristotle and Dante, to Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein and Freddie Mercury (who, as a young man, fled to the UK from conflict in his birthplace of Zanzibar).
During the 17th Century, French Protestants seeking asylum in England may have bumped into English Catholics coming the other way. In the 20th Century, over a million Belgians fled the fighting in the First World War to seek asylum in the Netherlands, France and the UK. Not long after, Europe would experience a severe refugee crisis in the wake of the Second World War, with millions of people displaced from their homes. Eventually, a UN convention on refugees was signed, and this became the basis of the current international legal framework governing the status of asylum seekers and refugees (a “refugee”, according to the 1951 convention, is an asylum seeker who has been successful in his or her application for asylum).
Today, the number of displaced persons in the world (including refugees, asylum seekers and Internally Displaced Persons) has reached a 19-year high of an estimated 45 million people, with the vast majority (80%) being hosted in developing countries. More than half of all refugees worldwide (55%) came from just five countries: Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Sudan.
In Europe, requests for asylum are not evenly distributed and the majority of asylum seekers enter the EU through Southern and Eastern Europe. Under the current rules, the responsibility for dealing with an application usually falls on the country where the asylum seeker first entered the EU, so if that person subsequently moves on to other countries they will be transferred back to the country of arrival. Critics argue this puts disproportionate pressure on those countries along the borders of the EU, whose asylum systems often struggle under the burden.
Back in June, the European Parliament voted in favour of new rules laying down common procedures and deadlines for handling asylum applications. These rules set out minimum conditions for detention facilities during the application process, and will end the transfer of asylum seekers to countries unable to cope. Controversially, the new rules also give police access to the biometric data of all asylum applicants, which critics argue amounts to the criminalisation of people fleeing persecution.
Just before the vote, we interviewed Cecilia Malmström, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, and asked her to respond to a video question about whether EU asylum rules were ready for the challenges of globalisation:
We also asked for a reaction from Juan Fernando López Aguilar, an MEP with the Social Democrats group in the European Parliament, and Chair of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs: