REUTERS - The European Union executive made proposals on Wednesday to reform EU asylum rules in response to the chaotic arrival of over a million migrants and refugees last year that has strained the bloc's cohesion.
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Reflecting divisions among member states, the European Commission offered options for amending what is known as the Dublin rules, under which people claim asylum in the first EU state they enter. That system has left Greece and Italy unable and unwilling to offer asylum to all arrivals and seen many trekking north, prompting border closures that threaten the EU's hallmark Schengen system of passport free travel within Europe.
A first option is to create a "corrective fairness mechanism" that would relocate asylum seekers from frontline states to elsewhere in the bloc - a method now being employed on an ad hoc basis. A second is to create a new system that would ignore where people arrived in the EU and send them around the bloc according to a "permanent distribution key".
Longer term, the Commission also proposes centralizing the entire asylum process within EU institutions, rather than basing it on national laws - though this is very unlikely to find much support among member states for the time being.
"The current system is not sustainable," the European Commission's First Vice-President Frans Timmermans said in presenting the proposal.
"We need a sustainable system for the future, based on common rules, a fairer sharing of responsibility, and safe legal channels for those who need protection to get it in the EU."
Germany, which took in a million people last year who mostly arrived initially in Greece, wants to stick to the main Dublin principle of first point of entry but have a permanent relocation scheme in place for asylum-seekers. Italy has pushed for the abolition of the first-country rule altogether.
Britain, which will vote in a referendum in June on whether to quit the bloc, does not take part in most EU asylum policies.
With no compromise yet in sight, the Commission has shied away from presenting concrete legal proposals and instead laid out various options for future changes.
However, the proposals rule out maintaining the status quo, despite some governments not wishing to see any change in a system under which they take in very few refugees.
Different asylum rules in EU states have also encouraged chaotic flows of potential refugees within the EU as they trekked from the frontline countries to Germany, Sweden and other states whose laws, or economic prosperity, offer them the most beneficial conditions.
The Commission outlined legal changes to harmonize asylum rules in EU states to prevent that in the future. It floated an idea to introduce legal punishment for irregular movements by non-Europeans between countries in the bloc and proposed a stronger mandate for the European Asylum Support Office.
In another plan likely to draw mixed response from EU states, the Commission said the bloc needed a long-term resettlement scheme to bring in people into Europe directly from crisis zones to create an alternative to the current chaotic and dangerous routes.
Separately, the Commission also rolled out on Wednesday a number of technical proposals to strengthen the bloc's external borders in an attempt to tackle both the migrant influx and security threats following deadly attacks in Paris and Brussels.