How the EU's asylum policy affects us

21 May 2015

 "The problem the government have got is this. They've said, look, we're opted out. We're not going to be forced into the EU's Common Asylum Policy"

Nigel Farage, 20 May 2015

Although the UK was included in earlier EU moves towards a more consistent approach to granting asylum—basically, allowing people to stay in the UK if deporting them would put them at serious risk—we have opted out of more recent changes to this Common European Asylum System.

The last government said it was worried that the new rules would encourage "unfounded asylum claims", jeopardise fast-tracking of some claims, and cost too much.

The reason this is in the news now is because of new proposals prompted by recent migrant deaths in the Mediterranean. These include the idea of temporarily allocating new arrivals to different EU member countries, rather than them being concentrated in their first country of arrival, as the rules usually demand.

There's little doubt that we have an opt-out on these measures, although that could have consequences for our participation in the existing system for returning asylum-seekers to the country they first arrive in (which the government sees as working in our favour).

But there's no question of the UK having to accept a 'quota' of asylum seekers without the government's consent—the European Commission acknowledges as much in its proposals.

Mr Farage points out an apparent difficulty:

"All that Italy, or any country, has to do is just to give people EU passports and then they're free to move wherever they want within the European Union"

Nigel Farage, 20 May 2015

People granted refugee status in the EU can get the right to move to most other EU countries if they've been living here "legally and continuously" for five years. This takes into account some of the time waiting for their asylum application to be processed. But the UK is an exception: once again, we've chosen not to be covered by this law.

So refugees in an EU country like Italy would need to become citizens of that country in order to benefit from EU law on freedom of movement and come here.

That process normally takes between 5 and 10 years in the EU but may be lower for refugees, who are recognised as a special case.

In Italy, research from 2010 showed that citizenship may be granted to refugees after five years but with language and other conditions attached. And the Italian government, like most others, has discretion to refuse citizenship; it's not automatic. Researchers say that it's quite hard to get citizenship on the ground of residence.

In 2012, 1.4% of foreign nationals living in Italy were granted citizenship—below the EU average of 2%. That's around 65,000 people. Over 90% of these were previously non-EU citizens, but we haven't found any indication of how many arrived as refugees.

It can't have been very many; formal refugee status is granted only to a few thousand people a year in Italy. In 2013, for instance, just over 3,000 people were granted asylum there, whereas over 11,000 were given a different form of humanitarian protection that doesn't come with an accelerated path to citizenship.

Mr. Farage is correct that, in general, anyone who is or becomes a citizen of one EU country can live and work in any other. But newly minted EU citizens having the opportunity to come to the UK in some years' time—they might, or they might not—is obviously very different from being forced to take a binding quota of refugees or asylum seekers straight away.

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