Reform Dublin asylum system: A chance to unite families and unite Europe

Alan and Gyan Mohammed are siblings, who were both teachers in their hometown of Al Hasakah in North Eastern Syria. They have muscular dystrophy and use wheelchairs. When the so-called Islamic State (IS) group captured their town in summer 2014, they had little choice but to leave.
The siblings faced a torturous journey. Strapped to either side of a horse, they travelled with their mother, sister Shilan and brother Ivan; first to Iraq before crossing the mountains into Turkey. Eventually they reached Turkey’s western coast, where smugglers put them on an inflatable dinghy to Greece. They ended up in a refugee camp in an isolated and abandoned military base 80km from Athens.

Their father and younger sister Rwan had stayed behind in Syria until she finished school, and left when the insecurity became unbearable – they traversed Turkey and travelled up through the Balkans before eventually reaching Germany.

The family members in Greece applied to be reunited with their family in Germany under the EU asylum system, known as the Dublin rules, but it was taking far too long. For months, they languished in the squalid conditions of the refugee camp alongside thousands of other refugees.

In addition, their brother Ivan, an of age sibling, was outside the scope of the Dublin family reunification rules. Despite longing to reunite the family, leaving Ivan, one of Alan and Gyan’s carers, in Greece was unthinkable for their mother. As Amsha told us “Ivan is my right arm. How could I go and leave him behind


Fortunately for the family, in 2015 European leaders agreed an emergency two-year scheme to distribute refugees from Greece and Italy to other EU countries. Through this process the family were eventually reunited in Germany in March 2017, ending a long separation.

With the expiry of the relocation scheme in September 2017, there is now little scope for happy endings like this. Under the current Dublin rules, the family would have waited much longer before being united. Ivan instead would probably have seen his family depart without any prospect of meeting them again.

A broken system

The Dublin system is not fit for purpose. EU countries wave through asylum seekers, push them back across internal or external borders, circumvent family rules, and shirk Search and Rescue (SAR) obligations to avoid asylum caseloads – the latest example being the stand-off between Italy and Malta over the Aquarius rescue vessel. Asylum seekers make their way to another EU destination regardless – to reunite with family, friends, or simply to reach a country that offers them better chances of support.

Fairness, Compassion, Efficiency

The system is inherently dysfunctional – regardless of how many people are seeking asylum. Visa requirements, carrier sanctions and other measures make legal travel to the EU impossible for those seeking protection. Therefore, the main responsibility falls to Europe’s frontier states, whose borders asylum seekers manage to cross or where they are disembarked having been rescued at sea. This uneven distribution of responsibilities is the structural problem with the system, and tinkering with it will not help.

The European Parliament’s (EP) proposed reform fundamentally subverts the status quo. It suggests a mandatory distribution of asylum seekers and rules that prioritise family links. This would be fair, compassionate and efficient.

The ball is now firmly in the court of member states to agree their approach at the June European Council. They will need to display the kind of leadership Spain has shown this week in agreeing to accept the Aquarius vessel.

Some EU countries are reluctant to accept a system based on fair sharing and solidarity. Sure enough, it would mean every state must accept asylum seekers, including countries in the East of Europe which until now have not taken in their relative share. Alongside cooperation incentives, a transition period would have to be granted for these states to develop their reception capacity – something the EP pragmatically suggests.

In time, all EU countries could offer broadly equivalent standards of protection and support, meaning asylum seekers would not need to move within Europe to escape undignified living conditions or simply better their chances of protection and support.

Dublin & Schengen: Two sides of the same coin

This was the intention of EU leaders when they decided to create a common area without internal borders. No internal barriers for goods, capital, services and persons, and a Community where responsibility for asylum seekers would be taken, not shifted.

Over the last 20 years, the responsibility-shifting logic of the Dublin Regulation has undercut the building of a common asylum system based on cooperation, jeopardising the Schengen area in the process. It should be clear by now that Dublin and Schengen are different sides of the same coin. Fixing one, will preserve the other and strengthen Europe in the process.