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Brussels, 12 September 2001

Asylum : Commission proposes a common definition of refugee and a common standard of refugee rights

The European Commission has today approved a proposal aiming at a common definition of refugee and at a common definition of rights to be enjoyed by refugees. This proposal, coming 50 years after the Geneva Convention, should create a much-needed level playing field on asylum, ending so-called "asylum shopping". Together with the Commission's other proposals on asylum, today's proposals should guarantee a minimum level of protection in all Member States for those who are genuinely in need of international protection, whilst preventing abuses of asylum applications which undermine the credibility of the system. With this proposal the Commission has delivered its commitments made at the Tampere summit to work towards the establishment of a common asylum system in Europe. In view of their opt-outs, this proposal does not apply to Denmark and will apply to the UK and Ireland only if these two member states decide to opt in.

Announcing the proposal, António Vitorino, Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs, said: "This proposal deals with the most fundamental questions in the asylum field : "who is a refugee?", and "who is otherwise in need of international protection?" It completes the Commission's work on a set of "building blocks", for the first step of the Common European Asylum System, called for by the 1999 Tampere European Council". He also stated: "We have respected the timeframe and political mandate agreed upon in Tampere, and laid down the foundations for the negotiations on a common European Union asylum policy. The ball is now in the court of the Member States."

The proposal also deals with the issue of the "agent of persecution", i.e. the inflictor of the harm. Persecution is most clearly evident when it emanates from the state itself. However, the proposal states that persecution can also originate from non-state agents where a state is unable or unwilling to provide effective protection. In such cases refugee status can also be granted. With this approach the Commission follows the practice of the vast majority of Member States and other global actors by affirming that in the assessment of whether or not the fear is well founded, the source of that harm is deemed irrelevant. The proposal also accepts, however, that when part of the State from where the applicant comes from is deemed safe, he or she have no claim for international protection.

The proposal also reflects the specific needs and position of women and children. It contains specific rules on assessing their claims for international protection, and obliges Member States to provide appropriate medical or other assistance to persons who have undergone torture, rape or other serious forms of psychological, physical or sexual violence.

The proposal also includes provisions on the minimum rights and benefits to be enjoyed by the beneficiaries of both refugee and subsidiary protection status. In the main, the rights and benefits attached to both international protection statuses are the same. However, in recognition of the primacy of the Refugee Convention and of the fact that the need for subsidiary protection may in some cases be more temporary, entitlement to some important rights and benefits (such as the access to work and to integration programmes) is incremental for beneficiaries of subsidiary protection.

Background - History of the proposal

Proposal for a Council Directive laying down minimum standards for the qualification and status of third country nationals and stateless persons as refugees, in accordance with the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees and the 1967 protocol, or as persons who otherwise need international protection

According to the Conclusions of the Presidency at the Tampere European Council in October 1999, a Common European Asylum System is to include, in the short term, a clear and workable determination of the State responsible for the examination of an asylum application, common standards for a fair and efficient asylum procedure, common minimum conditions of reception for asylum seekers and the approximation of rules on the recognition and content of refugee status. This is to be supplemented with measures on subsidiary forms of protection offering an appropriate status to any person in need of such protection. In addition, the Conclusions make clear that, in the longer term, Community rules should lead to a common asylum procedure and a uniform status for those who are granted asylum valid throughout the Union. Finally, the European Council, in Tampere, urged the Council to step up its efforts to reach agreement on the issue of temporary protection for displaced persons on the basis of solidarity between Member States.

  • On 28 September 2000, the Council adopted a Decision (2000/596/EC) establishing a European Refugee Fund as a solidarity measure to promote a balance in the efforts made by Member States in receiving and bearing the consequences of receiving refugees and displaced persons.

  • On 11 December 2000, the Council adopted a Regulation (2725/2000/EC) concerning the establishment of 'Eurodac' for the comparison of fingerprints for the effective application of the Dublin Convention on the State responsible for examining applications for asylum lodged in one of the European Union Member States.

  • On 20 July 2001, the Council adopted a Directive on minimum standards for giving temporary protection in the event of a mass influx of displaced persons and on measures promoting a balance of efforts between Member States in receiving such persons and bearing the consequences thereof;

In addition to the Proposals for the above mentioned acts approved by the Council, the Commission has adopted:

  • On 20 September 2000, a Proposal for a Council Directive on minimum standards on procedures in Member States for granting and withdrawing refugee status;

  • On 22 November 2000, a Communication on a common asylum procedure and a uniform status for those who are granted asylum valid throughout the Union.

  • On 3 April 2001, a Proposal for a Council Directive on minimum standards on the reception of applicants for asylum in Member States.

  • On 26 July a Proposal for a Council Regulation establishing the criteria and mechanisms for determining the Member State responsible for examining an asylum application lodged in one of the Member States by a third country national.

As indicated in the scoreboard to review progress on the creation of an area for freedom, security and justice in the European Union, approved by the Council on 27 March 2000, the Commission is today, proposing a Council Directive on minimum standards on the qualification and status of third country nationals and stateless persons as refugees or as persons otherwise in need of international protection. This will complete the Commission's work on a proposed set of "building blocks", which jointly constitute the first step of the Common European Asylum System called for by the Tampere European Council.

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