Migrants who will be returned to Turkey demonstrate inside the Moria registration centre on the Greek island of Lesbos, April 5, 2016. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Commission proposed more unified EU asylum rules on Wednesday, in a bid to stop people waiting for refugee status moving around the bloc and disrupting its passport-free zone.
In an unprecedented wave of migration last year, 1.3 million people reached the EU and most ignored legal restrictions, trekking from the Mediterranean coast to apply for asylum in wealthy Germany, prompting some EU countries to suspend the Schengen Area system that allows free passage between most EU states.
"The changes will create a genuine common asylum procedure," said EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos. "At the same time, we set clear obligations and duties for asylum seekers to prevent secondary movements and abuse of procedures."
The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said it had concerns about the new rules and said the new system must not lower standards of protection and asylum.
The proposal would standardise refugee reception facilities across the bloc and unify the level of state support they can get, setting common rules on residence permits, travel papers, access to jobs, schools, social welfare and healthcare.
It would grant prospective refugees swifter rights to work, but also put more obligations on them, meaning that if they do not cooperate with the authorities or head to an EU state of their choice rather than staying put, their asylum application could be jeopardised.
The five-year waiting period after which refugees are eligible for long-term residence would be restarted if they move from their designated country, the Commission said.
UNHCR spokesman William Spindler said people should be dissuaded from such movements, not punished.
The proposal also spells out more cases in which asylum seekers could be detained, something Jean Lambert, a British Green Party member of the European Parliament, said showed the EU was taking the wrong attitude to people seeking sanctuary.
"The EU has justifiably come under fire for its response to the refugee crisis but today's proposals ... will do nothing to allay this," she said, accusing the Commission of seeking to curb the rights of asylum seekers and "an obsession with punitive measures".
"People are fleeing because their lives are threatened and homes being destroyed, not because the EU's asylum system is gold plated - it's not!"
The plan, which will be reviewed by EU governments and the European Parliament, comes after Brussels proposed in May a system for distributing asylum seekers, an idea opposed by eastern EU states which refuse to accept refugees.
Only 3,056 people have so far been relocated under the scheme that was meant for 160,000 people, the Commission said. Hungary and Slovakia have challenged the system in the courts.
UNHCR wants the EU to drop the first country of arrival principle and distribute asylum seekers among EU member states.
Asked whether Brussels would punish countries, including Poland and the Czech Republic, for not complying, Avramopoulos said: "We're not here to punish, we are here to persuade. But if this persuasion doesn't succeed, then yes, we're thinking of doing that. But we're not there yet."
Last year's record arrivals triggered bitter political disputes in the EU, where the wealthier states which ended up hosting most of the people accused the newer members in the east of showing no solidarity.
A deal with Turkey in March has since cut the arrivals to Greece to a trickle, but has prompted concerns about human rights.
Unlike the Turkey route, however, which mainly brought Syrians and other people with a strong cases for asylum into Europe, the bloc is now worried over a rise in arrivals from Africa through Libya. Most people on that route do not qualify for asylum and, under the EU rules, should be sent back.
The Commission wants to draw up lists of "safe countries" outside the bloc, which would help EU states return people, after Athens' refusal to recognise Turkey as such a place hindered deportations from the Greek islands back to Turkey.
So-called safe countries should only be an option where "precise, impartial, and up-to-date information is available on the safety of a particular country", UNHCR's Spindler said.
"An applicant must have an effective opportunity to rebut the presumption of safety in light of their individual circumstances, and the safe country concepts should not apply to vulnerable applicants."
To discourage chaotic flows by facilitating legal migration, the Commission also proposed an EU-wide system for resettlement directly from refugee camps. It said Brussels would pay 10,000 euros for each person EU states bring in.
But Slovakia, the current holder of the EU's rotating presidency, was sceptical on chances for unified asylum system.
"We can only talk about real burden-sharing when the quality of life is the same in all EU states," said Bernard Priecel, head of Slovakia's migration service. "Otherwise we will always have secondary movements. How can you force them to stay?"
(Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva; editing by Robin Pomeroy and G Crosse)