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Brussels is to scrap rules that make the first country a refugee enters responsible for any asylum claim, revolutionising the bloc's migration policy and shifting the burden from its southern flank to its wealthier northern members.
The "first-country" requirement is the linchpin of the EU refugee system. But it has become politically toxic for EU leaders as Germany and other states criticise frontier countries such as Greece and Italy for failing to register and shelter the 1.1m people that have poured into Europe from the Middle East and North Africa.
The policy essentially broke down last year, when Germany waived its right to send hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers back to other EU member states, but exhorted its reluctant partners to shoulder more responsibility.
The European Commission has concluded the rule — which is part of the Dublin regulation — is "outdated" and "unfair", and will be scrapped in a proposal to be unveiled in March, according to officials briefed on its contents.
The move could oblige some EU members such as Britain to take in many more refugees, since it would become harder to send them back to neighbouring countries. It could also increase the pressure on EU members to back a formal quota system and common asylum rights and procedures to spread the burden across the union.
European Council president Donald Tusk on Tuesday warned that the EU had "no more than two months to get things under control" or face "grave consequences".
Changing the rules on who is responsible for refugees when they arrive would mark a victory for Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, who has repeatedly argued that the law is unfair and that other member states should do more to help with the refugee crisis.
Replacing the "first country of entry" principle is likely to prove technically and politically tricky. Countries in northern Europe such as the UK are net beneficiaries from the status quo, able to transfer asylum-seekers back to other EU states quickly. Although the UK has an opt-out on EU migration policy, it has opted into the Dublin rules for this reason.
In practice, the current rules have broken down. Last autumn, German chancellor Angela Merkel controversially waived the country's right to return Syrian refugees to the first country of entry, generating both praise and opprobrium from her peers — before reversing course and triggering months of chaotic border openings and closures across Europe.
Transfers to Greece have been effectively banned since 2011 after the European Court of Human Rights declared that the country's asylum system was unfit for purpose even before the recent influx.
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Although the Dublin rules provide for intra-European deportation, in reality few of these transfers are actually carried out. In 2013, for example, only 16,000 of 76,000 requested transfers were actually completed.
Discussions on what should succeed the current rules will not be finished until at least March, according to officials familiar with the situation.
Potential replacements include a permanent relocation scheme, which would see asylum seekers in the EU divided among member states based on certain criteria, such as GDP and population size.
Relying on relocation is likely to prove difficult to sell to member states, who have been reluctant to implement a much smaller scheme to share out 160,000 people across the EU. So far, only 322 have been moved.