By the end of 2015, the number of individuals forcibly displaced from their homes exceeded 60 million, the largest number ever recorded by the UN Refugee Agency. In the same year more than a million people - a quarter of them children - risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean to Europe and more than 1.2 million asylum applications were made in EU Member States, mainly in Germany and Sweden. The Commission expects migration to be “one of the defining issues for Europe” for decades to come, with the EU remaining both a place of refuge for individuals fleeing war or persecution and a beacon for those seeking a better life. The common European asylum system provides a framework for managing the refugee crisis but many regard it as broken, or seriously weakened as a result of unilateral action taken by Member States to protect their borders, restrict access to their territories and make it more difficult to obtain protection. The Commission believes that there is too much fragmentation and too little mutual trust in Member States’ asylum systems and that this has created “pull factors” which draw individuals to Member States with higher asylum recognition rates and better reception conditions. It has put forward a package of reforms which is intended to reduce the scope for differential treatment, depending on where an application for international protection is made, deter “asylum shopping” and secondary movements between Member States, and establish effective burden-sharing and solidarity mechanisms to ease the pressure on front-line Member States. The UK participates in some, but not all, of the EU’s asylum laws. All the Commission’s asylum reform proposals are subject to the UK’s justice and home affairs opt-in. Full Parliamentary scrutiny of the Government’s opt-in decisions is important. There can be little doubt that a decision to opt into all of the Commission’s asylum reform proposals would have a substantial impact on the UK’s asylum system. It is also unclear whether the UK could continue to take part in existing EU asylum measures, such as the Dublin III Regulation if it does not opt into the new replacement measure. Even if the Government were to recommend that the UK should not opt into any elements of the asylum reform package, the Commission’s attempt to establish “an integrated, sustainable and holistic migration policy, based on solidarity and fair sharing of responsibilities, which can function effectively in times of calm and crisis” is likely to have an impact on the UK’s own asylum system, both in the period while the UK remains a member of the European Union and after it has left. As the situation in Calais demonstrates, the asylum policies and systems in place in other Member States have an important bearing on the flow of asylum seekers and irregular migrants seeking to enter the UK. This Report concerns the second set of asylum reform proposals published in July. The proposals set out changes to substantive EU asylum laws determining who qualifies for international protection, the procedures applicable to asylum claims and how asylum seekers are to be treated while their claims are being examined. They also include a new EU resettlement framework which is intended to reduce the flow of irregular migrants to the EU and ease the pressure on front-line Member States by providing safe and legal pathways to the EU for individuals in need of international protection. We recommend that there should be a similar opt-in debate on these proposals. Each of our Report chapters identifies questions which we consider to be relevant to the opt-in debates. An overarching concern is whether the reforms proposed achieve the Commission’s objectives of establishing “a more humane, fair and efficient European asylum policy” and ensuring that the EU “takes on its fair share of the global responsibility to provide a safe haven for the world’s refugees”. We also look further ahead, inviting the Government to consider the impact that harmonised EU rules on asylum would have on the UK once the UK has left the EU.
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