EU member states would in future be obliged to take in asylum seekers from overburdened countries in the bloc or else pay hefty fees, under proposals issued Wednesday to shake up asylum rules following last year's migration surge into Europe.
But the plan, unveiled by the European Commission, ran into immediate opposition from Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic - countries that have been particularly critical of efforts to distribute refugees more fairly across the European Union.
The bloc's so-called Dublin rules, which compel asylum seekers to register their claim in the first EU member state they reach, broke down last year when more than 1 million people reached the continent, with most of them first setting foot in Greece.
Athens was overwhelmed by the arrivals and allowed many of them to continue on towards wealthy, northern European states such as Germany and Sweden. This put pressure on countries along the route and led to the reintroduction of border controls within the passport-free Schengen area.
Wednesday's proposals would reinforce the existing Dublin criteria assigning asylum seekers to their first EU country of arrival, by withdrawing benefits for those who move on within the bloc and introducing more stringent measures to register them.
However, to help frontline EU countries deal with migration surges, a corrective fairness mechanism would be triggered whenever a member state experiences a disproportionate surge in arrivals.
Each EU state would be allocated an asylum threshold, beyond which the redistribution mechanism would kick in automatically. All further asylum applicants would then be allocated to other countries in the bloc.
Any member state can opt to "temporarily not take part in the reallocation," the commission wrote, but must then pay 250,000 euros (288,500 dollars) per asylum seeker it does not take in, with the money benefiting the countries that end up hosting them.
"If, temporarily, a member state does not relocate asylum applicants, they will need to support those who do," said commission Vice President Frans Timmermans, noting that the costs for hosting asylum seekers are "huge."
Last month, the commission had also floated a more ambitious option, scrapping the Dublin system and replacing it with a central mechanism assigning asylum seekers to member states according to their size, wealth and absorption capacity.
But any radical overhaul of the system would be "shot down within five seconds by the member states," Timmermans said. "We play with the hand we are dealt," he added.
Asylum issues are highly sensitive and have triggered a populist backlash in several member states. Some Central European countries have refused attempts to make them take in refugees, while a one-off scheme to redistribute 160,000 asylum seekers within the bloc has barely taken off.
Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski derided Wednesday's proposals, likening them to an "April Fool's joke," during a meeting in Prague, while his Hungarian counterpart Peter Szijjarto said the fees for non-compliance are "quite simply blackmail."
"To present something that divides us helps nobody," added Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek.
Members of the European Parliament, which has to approve the plans along with member states before they can take effect, were also critical.
Socialist EU lawmaker Gianni Pittella welcomed the proposed sanctions for member states that do not take in redistributed asylum seekers, but called for "clear guarantees that these sanctions will be duly imposed."
Green EU lawmaker Ska Keller called the entire proposal a "setback," arguing that it would reinforce the flaws in the Dublin system, leaving frontline member states with a disproportionate share of the migration burden, while curbing asylum seekers' rights.
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