Why asylum seekers are still guaranteed a mixed reception from Europe

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Series Details Vol.7, No.26, 28.6.01, p9
Publication Date 28/06/2001
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Date: 28/06/01

Nearly 400,000 people applied for asylum in the EU last year - the vast majority received by just six member states.

Martin Banks examines the wide differences in treatment they can expect

EU COUNTRIES are still being inundated with applications from asylum seekers - although many can expect wide differences in the treatment they receive on arrival in their new 'home'.

Nearly 400,000 people lodged applications for asylum in the 15 EU countries last year. But the vast majority - just over 320,000 - were received by just six member states: Britain, Germany, France, Netherlands, Belgium and Austria.

Of those seeking asylum, most came from Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran - all countries from which there may, in the eyes of of EU governments, be legitimate reasons to flee.

But only a quarter of applicants were granted asylum status.

For the first time, Britain overtook Germany at the top of the EU 'league table' for the number of applications it received. In the past ten years, the number of asylum seekers in Germany has halved and, by the start of 2001, the backlog of cases pending had been reduced from 80,000 to 40,000.

During 2000, the UK received 97,860 applications, with the largest number, 7,080, coming from Iraq. Next came

Germany with 78,760 applications, with Iraq also accounting for the largest number (11,721). The Netherlands, received 43,890 applications; Belgium, 42,690; France, 38,590 and Austria, 18,280.

Interestingly, despite being one of the smallest members of the EU, Belgium takes 4.2 asylum seekers per 1,000 inhabitants - more than any other member state.

By the start of this year, there were still 200,000 asylum applications pending in EU countries - more than half in the UK.

The kind of treatment asylum seekers can expect to receive on arrival in a new country differs quite dramatically - adding to the misery they suffer in seeking new lives. Differences are particularly marked when it comes to job opportunities.

In the Netherlands, for instance, asylum seekers can work up to 12 weeks a year, while in Britain they can apply for work after six months. But in France, asylum seekers have no access to the labour market at all and, in Germany, they do not have the right to work during the process determining if they can stay.

There are variations, too, in the area of health treatment. In Belgium, asylum seekers at reception centres qualify for free healthcare and in Britain they have access to the free National Health Service. In Germany, asylum seekers receive a medical examination on arrival. Welfare payments given to asylum seekers differ as well.

In Britain, they receive a monthly allowance equivalent to €120 while, in Austria, those in federal care are entitled to an allowance of €348 every four weeks.

It such discrepancies which recently prompted EU justice chief António Vitorino to unveil plans to give extensive employment, healthcare and education rights to asylum seekers from the EU.

The Commissioner says that all applicants and their family should be provided with housing, food, clothing and a daily allowance. He is also proposing that they receive guaranteed access to health and psychological care and their children must start free schooling within 65 days of an asylum request being lodged. Healthcare would be free, unless the applicants can afford to pay for it. On housing, member states could provide reception centres, private accommodation or pay a rent allowance.

The total amount of the living allowance, in cash or vouchers, would have to be enough "to avoid applicants and their accompanying family members falling into poverty".

The Portuguese Commissioner also says that if a request takes more than six months to process then the member state must allow the applicant to take a job.

Vitorino, however, does suggest that EU governments should be allowed to lay down the conditions under which asylum seekers will be allowed to work.

His proposals go furthest in granting education rights to the children of asylum applicants, stating they should "have access to the education system under the same conditions as nationals up to the moment a deportation order against them or their parents can actually be enforced".

However, European Voice has found evidence of significant variations in education provision for children of asylum seekers across the EU.

For example, schooling for such groups is compulsory in the UK and the Netherlands but not in Germany, where it is also rare for children to be taught in their native language.

Despite the current widespread differences in provision across Europe, the planned minimum standards for asylum seekers are likely to prove controversial: many member states are wary of appearing 'soft' on applicants often characterized as a drain on national social protection systems.

A spokesman for the United Nations said differences in treatment available to asylum seekers can influence their choice of destination - and highlights the way EU countries each deal with the issue. "The reasons for going to a particular country are numerous and can range from money to language and cultural links. The time it takes for an application to be processed is sometimes another factor in an asylum seeker's choice of country," said the spokesman.

The Refugee Council in the UK said differences in the kind of reception asylum seekers can expect highlights the need for harmonisation of asylum procedures across the EU.

The group, however, welcomes Commissioner Vitorino's proposals, saying they grant "much-needed" basic rights to asylum seekers. "People, particularly those who are fleeing torture and persecution in their own country, have a right to expect decent levels of housing, employment and education," said a spokesman. "For too many, sub-standard housing and lack of work and education opportunities is the norm, not the exception to the rule."

Major feature. Nearly 400,000 people applied for asylum in the EU in 2000 - the vast majority received by just six Member States. Article examines the wide differences in treatment they can expect.

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