In the EU, asylum seekers are moved from one country to the other under the Dublin III Regulation under the assumption that all Member States are equally safe. The story of M. reveals a more complex reality, which is likely to remain unchanged.
The story of M. was published in this article with the kind permission of the Italian NGO Pensare Migrante.
“Hello? Giovanna? It’s M. They took me to Denmark, I’m in jail. Help me!”
This is how M., an asylum seeker from Iraq, informed his legal advisor back in September that he had been transferred from Italy to Denmark under the Dublin III Regulation. By “jail”, he meant the Ellebæk Centre for Foreigners, a Danish detention centre often criticised by human rights experts for the ill-treatment of detainees. To date, M. is still waiting at Ellebæk to be deported back to Iraq, where his life would be in serious danger.
M.’s story is emblematic of the human cost of the Dublin system, which assigns responsibility for examining asylum applications primarily to the country through which asylum seekers first entered the EU.
Born as a Convention in 1990, turned into an EU Regulation in 2003, and revised in 2013, the Dublin system has increasingly been at the centre of public debate due to the disproportionate pressure that it puts on frontline countries.
Attempts to overcome the rationale of the Dublin regime have failed due to conflicting state interests. Negotiations over the Commission’s 2016 proposal for a fairer redistribution mechanism stalled in 2018. More recently, Ursula von der Leyen spoke of abolishing the Dublin Regulation and replacing it with “a strong solidarity mechanism,” but the Commission’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum keeps unchanged the core of the system, dashing hopes of reform.
While much public attention has been devoted to the implications of a dysfunctional Dublin system for European solidarity and responsibility-sharing, other two aspects deserve attention. First, under Dublin asylum seekers are treated like packages being moved across Europe with no consideration for emotional and family ties. Second, asylum seekers are treated differently across the EU due to divergences in national laws and practices in the field of asylum.
The latter aspect is an emblematic manifestation of the failure to create a truly common asylum policy. Asylum seekers are transferred from one country to the other under the presumption that all EU Member States guarantee the same minimum safeguards and qualify as safe countries. Such presumption of safety is enshrined in the preamble of the Dublin III Regulation, which states that “Member States, all respecting the principle of non-refoulement, are considered as safe countries for third-country nationals.”
In fact, as the story of M. demonstrates, the lack of a harmonised asylum system can jeopardise the life of asylum seekers subject to transfers under the Dublin rules.
An emblematic case
M. and his brother, who are members of the Sunni minority of Iraq, left their country in 2014 and reached Europe through the Balkan route in 2015. They first sought asylum in Denmark, but they received two negative decisions and became at risk of being forcibly returned to Iraq.
They therefore decided to seek asylum in Italy in 2017. The Dublin procedure started shortly after they lodged their applications, and M. received an order of transfer to Denmark. The order stated that “Denmark has recognised its responsibility […] Denmark is considered to be a safe Member State and Italy has no reason to take responsibility”.
M. appealed in the Court of Rome, which suspended the transfer and allowed him to stay in Italy while awaiting his final decision.
During this period, he resided in a reception centre in central Italy, learnt Italian, and started working as a pizza maker.
Then came the rejection of his appeal in May 2019. Among the motivations, the judge declared that “there are no reasons to believe that in Denmark there are systematic deficiencies in the asylum procedure and reception conditions such as to imply the risk, in case of transfer, of inhuman and degrading treatment.”
At that point, M. found himself in a limbo. He lost the right to stay in Italy and could no longer renew his residence permit nor remain in the reception system or work, but the procedure to determine the state responsible for his asylum application was not over yet. The deadline to transfer him to Denmark was April 2020, but the Dublin Unit extended it to April 2021 with no clear motivation.
Tired of waiting, M. decided to go to the Questura (police station) in September 2020 to resolve his case. The opposite happened: with no consideration for what he had to say in his defence nor for his efforts to integrate in Italy, he was immediately returned to Denmark, where he has been detained at Ellebæk waiting to be returned to Iraq ever since.
Unlike M., his brother was given the right to remain in Italy and, later on, he was even granted international protection.
Not an isolated case
The different treatment accorded to M. and his brother, but also to other “dublined” people, demonstrates that the asylum process in the EU is, in fact, a lottery.
The judge’s decision to deem Denmark a “safe country” in M.’s case fails to acknowledge the dramatic differences in the asylum practices of Denmark and Italy. While in 2017 the former approved only 50 of the 675 asylum applications lodged by Iraqi nationals (8%), the latter granted protection to 1,270 out of 1,410 applicants (90%). In the same year, Denmark returned 75 people to Iraq, whereas Italy returned just 5. Denmark’s policy of deterrence, which aims at discouraging asylum seekers from entering the country by creating a hostile environment, is unfortunately well-documented.
Differences in recognition rates concern not only Iraqi nationals, but also asylum seekers from countries such as Afghanistan (18% in Denmark as opposed to 92% in Italy) and Somalia (10% in Denmark and 97% in Italy), which are in a situation of extreme instability and widespread violence.
With this respect, a group of asylum seekers from Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon wrote a letter asking that differences in recognition rates across EU Member States be taken into account when deciding on Dublin transfers. The refugee-assisting organisation Pensare Migrante, which also followed the case of M., then forwarded their letter to Italian authorities and judges responsible for the Dublin procedure.
Immediately after receiving M.’s call from Denmark, the activists of Pensare Migrante have worked to pressure the Danish not to return M. and the Italian government to take responsibility for his application. They contacted a local activist, who has been visiting M. at Ellebæk on a regular basis and has put him in touch with a trusted lawyer. So far, however, the NGO’s efforts only served to convince Danish authorities to delay M.’s return, but Italy does not seem to be willing to re-examine his case.
The differential treatment of “dublined” asylum seekers is likely to remain a constant feature of the EU’s asylum system in the coming years. In fact, the Commission’s focus on returns in the New Pact suggests that we can expect increasingly more people to find themselves in M.’s same situation.
With what courage will we tell M. and other “dublined” people like him that all EU Member States are safe when a country like Denmark sends them back to those whom they escaped?