Asylum and Schengen reform top concerns
By Nathalie Vandystadt | Thursday 12 July 2012
In an almost ironic turn of events, Cyprus, criticised for its handling of migration and without being part of the Schengen area, will have to wrap up the two key issues of creation of a common asylum system and reform of the system governing the Schengen area without internal border controls.
With Cyprus, an island that is home to just over a million inhabitants, divided between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, Greece is likely at last to have an ally at the helm of the EU. As Athens grapples with its budget crisis, it has failed to solve migration problems at its border with Turkey, in the Evros region, which has become the hub of illegal immigration into the Schengen area.
“Greece is under pressure from illegal immigration and asylum applications,” explain sources in Cyprus. Migrants make their way to Germany, which has a serious problem. It cannot send them back to Greece under the Dublin system rules on returning immigrants to the country of arrival because the rules have been suspended for Athens (after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that reception conditions in Greece are contrary to human rights). “There is a domino effect.”
STEP FORWARD ON DUBLIN
Cyprus does not have Malta’s problems. This other Mediterranean island, which lies close to the African shores, is a point of entry for illegal migrants into Southern Europe. But Nicosia, which like Valletta is criticised all the same (see box), has called for a reform of the Dublin system, which establishes that ‘second line’ countries like France can send asylum applicants back to the European country of entry.
The Southern EU countries called for the suspension of Dublin if they experienced excessive migratory pressure, but this was refused by the Northern countries. “It won’t be possible to suspend the mechanism, but we have made progress all the same,” said a Cypriot diplomat. He added: “We have an early warning system in the regulation instead of suspensions. It is a mechanism to detect problems before they lead to a crisis. It will help solve problems. If problems are detected, different measures will be adopted, including solidarity measures, to cope with the abnormal situation. We really see this as a step forward. There are also conclusions on solidarity, adopted at the end of March.”
The Dublin procedure may in any event be suspended by legal means, as in the Greek case, if the fundamental rights of asylum seekers are not respected.
Nicosia has committed to wrap up the asylum package, ie the creation of common asylum rules, by the end of its mandate, in December 2012. The Presidency will build on the advances made by its predecessors, the Danes, on the Dublin Regulation.
Nicosia will have to work out agreements on indirect access of national police forces to Eurodac, the European database of fingerprints of asylum applicants and illegal immigrants intercepted at EU gateways, and the draft directive on procedures. This is a highly sensitive text because it entitles asylum applicants to remain on the territory until they receive a response in cases involving legal recourse and because it reinforces the rights of vulnerable groups (unaccompanied minors).
MANAGING SCHENGEN CONFLICT
Cyprus is not part of the Schengen border-free area. Yet it will have to work out a solution to the conflict between the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament over the legal basis of the future Schengen evaluation mechanism. Without going as far as referring the matter to the EU Court of Justice, the EP decided, towards mid-June, to hold up five justice and home affairs texts until the Council of Ministers restores its power of co-decision over this mechanism.
“All the concerns voiced by the European Parliament have been taken into account and Parliament retains its co-decision on reform of the Schengen code,” which sets conditions for restoring border checks, assures a Cypriot diplomatic source, who does not see much difference between what MEPs seek and the text approved by the 27. The problem lies elsewhere, however. The EP’s credibility as co-legislator is at stake, especially on questions like Schengen, which concern citizens closely. “Legally, I don’t think there is any margin to change the legal basis,” says the same Cypriot source, however, explaining that the evaluation mechanism applies first to external borders – data protection, external maritime, air and land borders and police cooperation – “in other words, national issues”. For the Council, a treaty article establishing co-decision cannot serve as a legal basis. This is also the view of the Council’s legal service. “The EP’s reaction was too strong. I was expecting disagreement, but not obstruction. We will be holding high-level meetings,” assures the future Presidency.
Cyprus also expects an agreement on the timetable for the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the Schengen area. Decisions on these dates would be taken in two stages: the opening of air and sea borders to be set in October, and of terrestrial borders by March 2013.
Amnesty International censures Nicosia
In a report published on 19 June, Amnesty International censures the Cypriots’ handling of migration and urges it to bring its legislation into line with international standards. “It is routine in Cyprus to deprive migrants of their freedom for months or years, not because they have committed a crime but simply to effect their deportation,” regrets the NGO. They are often detained “in poor conditions without access to adequate medical care”. In some cases, they are detained even when their deportation is not possible. According to Eurostat, the EU Statistics Office, of the 5,805 asylum applications submitted in 2011, Cyprus accepted only 135.