When Mohamed made it to Finland he thought his long journey was over. The 30-year-old had left his wife and two children behind in Iraq when his work in the security service resulted in death threats from local militia and then the Islamic State (IS). He traveled across land for months, journeying through Turkey, Greece and onwards, all the while dreaming of applying for asylum in the Nordic country before sending for his young family.
Early last year he finally made it, but after just a few weeks in Finland his plan fell apart.
As Mohamed's fingerprints were scanned, a standard part of his asylum application, a Europe-wide database whirred into action and his fate was sealed. Almost immediately he was put on a plane and flown to Hungary — a country he barely knew, but the first European Union (EU) destination on his months-long journey where he had been stopped by police and registered.
According to an EU policy known as the "Dublin Regulations," refugees are obliged to seek asylum in the first member state they are registered in — supposedly the first country they enter. But the rules were introduced in 1997 and were not designed for the crisis situation now happening on Europe's shores, with thousands of migrants and refugees arriving into Greece and Italy each week.
"I felt so disappointed, they'd tricked me. I was seeking help, why did they do this to me? They treated me like a fool," said Mohamed. Now he lives in an overcrowded refugee camp 27 miles from Budapest, surviving on $108 a month. "I live in a very bad situation, I don't have money and I eat one meal every two days. I'm far from my family without any news," Mohamed told VICE News, talking over the phone from the camp.
He has been back in Hungary for nearly nine months now, but with the country's systems overrun with the number of new arrivals, it is unlikely that Mohamed's asylum claim will be processed any time soon.
Mohamed is just one of tens of thousands of asylum seekers that have been sent from western Europe back to countries like Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria — countries that are already overwhelmed with the influx of new arrivals, have the worst welfare provisions, and are ill-equipped to deal with new asylum claims properly.
Nearly 71,000 asylum seekers were moved from one EU country to another between 2010 and 2014, according to the most recent Europe-wide data. Meanwhile VICE News' analysis of individual country reports from 2015 show that than 6,300 asylum seekers were expelled from just four countries: the UK, Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland, in the first three quarters of the year.
The UK alone has removed more than 6,100 asylum seekers to other EU countries since the beginning of 2010, including Syrians and Eritreans. At least 510 people were expelled from the country in the first three quarters of last year, more than a third of them sent to Italy. Some of those returned have ended up destitute and living on the streets, according to lawyers. Others later returned to the UK.
More than one million asylum seekers arrived on European shores in 2015, the majority of them entering through Italy and Greece. And yet, despite this great influx in the Mediterranean, governments in the west, including the UK, continue to return people to countries at the forefront of the crisis.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has argued that the rules leave countries like Italy "isolated," while the Greek migration minister Yiannis Mouzalas has complained EU policy is trapping unfeasible amounts of people in Greece.
The European Commission has said the policy has "systemic deficiencies" and needs a major overhaul. "In the second half of this year, probably in spring, we will propose a new Dublin system," said a spokesperson last Friday. "This is a necessity because the current Dublin system clearly doesn't work properly in all respects."
No details have been given of what a new migration policy would look like, but various countries in are pushing for a quota system which shares out new asylum claims among all EU countries.
The UK is lobbying against such changes and has made clear it will use its right to opt out if the Dublin regulations are scrapped. "The government believes that the long-standing principles which are at the heart of the Dublin system are the right ones," a Home Office spokesperson told VICE News. "In particular, we support the principle that asylum should be claimed in the first safe country and believe this should be maintained in the future. Britain has the option to opt-out of any European Home Affairs measure."
The European Commission conceded that the UK would be under no obligation to sign up to the revised system but noted "it's premature to say what the implications might be if [the UK] did or didn't."
Meanwhile, returns continue. But the fear of being sent back to countries with dire prospects for asylum seekers has lead to some of them taking desperate steps to avoid being registered. Many endure harsh conditions including scaling razor-wire fences and sleeping outside in the cold to avoid being picked up by police and fingerprinted in an undesirable transit country.
Others have reportedly taken to burning off their fingerprints in an attempt to avoid detection later down the line.
Greg O Ceallaigh, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers in the UK, told VICE News: "The experience of the Dublin system can be extremely traumatizing for refugees, particular those who have experienced appalling conditions in some of the countries on the periphery of the [migration] crisis.
"I have seen several vulnerable clients attempt suicide, some become re-traumatized. They tell me that they would rather return to countries where they feared death than to an EU state where they believe they will be homeless and destitute."
The system is also notoriously inefficient. Between January and September last year the UK government issued more than 2,000 requests to other countries asking them to accept people back. But as lawyers got involved, in legal battles costly to the Home Office, many of those attempted removals were thwarted, and only a quarter of that number were removed.
For those that are returned, some can expect long periods living in overcrowded asylum centers.
In 2014 the Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano described the reception centers used to house migrants in Italy as "the dark side of hell." The newspaper wrote: "just entering them makes your head spin — the air is thick and there are rubbish, rags, and rancid food leftovers everywhere."
Elsewhere, a report written for UK lawyers found vulnerable asylum seekers from Somalia and Afghanistan returned to a Milan airport and left living there for 15 and nine days respectively, using the little money they had to survive on slices of plain pizza, before they were moved on to Venice by train and rehoused.
The Bulgarian, Austrian, and Hungarian systems are also showing serious signs of strain.
Amanda Johnson, a lawyer from Sweden, told VICE News about a family from Kosovo which she watched being removed from Sweden to Hungary.
"There was a family with a very sick child. He was 16 but he was the size of a 10-year-old because he was so underfed. Here in Sweden he had surgery, they removed all of his teeth, they had to because they were so bad, and now he has to be fed through a tube [in his stomach]," said Johnson, sat in a colorful asylum support center in downtown Malmo.
"The family was sent back to Hungary, and in Hungary the reception conditions were so bad that they couldn't stay and follow through on the asylum claim," she continued. "Last time I spoke to the family things were not good. They went to Kosovo and the child's health has worsened a lot."
The number of those removed from Sweden under the Dublin regulations was higher in the first three quarters of 2015 than the last recorded data for all of 2014.
Experts also told VICE News that moving asylum seekers from one EU country to another could seriously damage their chances of being granted asylum.
EU member states do not have a common list of "safe countries" or agreed policies on which countries present real and legitimate risks to those fleeing the territory. Which means, for asylum seekers like Mohamed, different countries bring with them significantly different chances of being granted asylum. As an Iraqi, Mohamed had a 76 percent chance of being granted asylum in Finland, but that dropped to 67 percent average when he was returned to Hungary.
The same is true for other nationalities and country rates. Nearly 90 percent of Syrians applying in the UK get protection status, but the same is true of just 64 percent of those applying in Italy. So Syrians sent back from the UK to Italy are less likely to get some kind of protective status.
What is more, some of those returned under Dublin regulations could be denied access to that country's asylum system on return if they have been out of the system for too long, meaning that they never have a full examination of their asylum claim.
"The system is very dysfunctional," said Minos Mouzourakis, an expert of the regulations from the European Council of Refugees and Exiles.
"Initially the thinking behind Dublin was that all EU states could afford equal protection to asylum seekers, but that was met by a very different reality. In Greece, Bulgaria, and Italy we have seen the conditions can be substandard and that is both living conditions and access to procedures. [The regulations] really have been superseded by events of this year," he added.
UK lawyers are now preparing to bring a series of test cases in the coming months, arguing that removals to Hungary, Bulgaria, and Austria are no longer safe and should be stopped.
Elsewhere, time will tell what new system is proposed by the European Commission and how different countries will react to any new measures.
But none of that helps Mohamed. His long journey has ended in stalemate, stuck in a Hungarian camp dreaming of Finland and unable to send for his distant family, who spend their days hiding in fear of their lives in Iraq. "I feel like a prisoner, I can't move anywhere," he sighs. "I am a victim without hope, without help. I don't have a future."
Fedia Dziri contributed to this report.
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