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Commissioner responsible for Home Affairs
The European Asylum Support Office: implementing a more consistent and fair asylum policy
EASO Inaugural Event
Valletta, Malta, 19 June 2011
Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am honoured to be here with you today, in these charming gardens of the historic city of Valletta, for the official inauguration of a new European Union Agency - the European Asylum Support Office.
Today, we also mark the entry into force of the Seat Agreement that regulates the relationship between the Government of Malta and the new Support Office. This is a very important milestone and I would like to thank the Maltese Government for the understanding and flexibility that they have shown during the talks that led to this agreement.
I have no doubt that the positive and mutually beneficial relationship that has developed between the Government of Malta and the Support Office will continue over the years to come.
I would also like to express my personal gratitude to the Executive Director of the Support Office, Robert Visser, for all the efforts he has been investing in the setting up of the agency – with only a skeleton staff and in the shortest time possible, while at the same time delivering concrete results.
Establishing an agency from scratch is no easy task and I would therefore like to convey my most sincere appreciation to all those who have made this possible.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The European Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Respecting and promoting the right to asylum is at the heart of the Union's efforts to build an area of freedom, security and justice.
Tomorrow we also celebrate World Refugee Day, and this year we are marking the 60th anniversary of the signature of the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention. We should not forget that Europe – even in its recent history – has been a source of refugees and not just a recipient. Indeed, the 1951 Convention was adopted to help deal with the large numbers of persons who were uprooted by the Second World War – to give these people a legal status which would guarantee their protection from persecution. Until 1967, the geographic scope of Convention was limited to Europe, but it now has universal coverage, and has been signed by nearly 150 countries the world over.
The European Union also emerged from the ashes of the Second World War, as a means of ensuring the lasting reconciliation of formerly warring nations. It is thus not surprising that the values enshrined in the Refugee Convention are particularly cherished by the European Union, and that it is accorded such a prominent place in the Union Treaties.
Over the years, Europe has offered protection, new hope and freedom to those in need of international protection. Let me give two examples: in the 1970s, many European countries welcomed boat people fleeing the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and of course in the 1990s, EU Member States took in large numbers of refugees from the Balkan wars, and especially from Kosovo. And, as you know, European countries have, in the last few years, been receiving many refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Somalia and other troubled parts of the world.
In recent months, conflict has come close to our borders, and large numbers of people have been displaced from Libya to Tunisia and Egypt, but also in some cases to us in Europe, including to here in Malta.
Here I would like to pay a special tribute to the generosity of the countries receiving these refugees, to those supporting this humanitarian effort, as well as to the all-important work on the ground of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
So Europe has a long humanitarian tradition. Yet the current practice in the implementation of the right of asylum shows that there are still wide divergences in the way Member States deal with applications for international protection. The way asylum seekers and refugees are treated and their chances of obtaining protection can still differ – sometimes quite significantly – from one EU State to another. These disparities should be significantly reduced.
The Tampere European Council of October 1999 reaffirmed the importance the Union and its Member States attach to absolute respect of the right to seek asylum and it agreed to work towards establishing a Common European Asylum System, based on the full and inclusive application of the Geneva Convention. We are actively working to complete this Common European System by 2012, the deadline set by the European Council when adopting the Stockholm Programme in December 2009.
But in order to accomplish this in a complete and effective manner, we need both common laws and common practices. That is why, in the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum, adopted in September 2008, the European Council called for a European Asylum Support Office to be created to support the implementation of the Common European Asylum System. With remarkable speed by EU standards (!), the Regulation was finally adopted by the Council and Parliament just one year ago.
Meaningful practical cooperation and mutual support between the Member States who are actually applying the law and dealing with applications for asylum is central to a well-functioning European asylum system. The European Asylum Support Office, which we are inaugurating today, will help to put that cooperation on a firm and stable footing.
But tribute should also be paid to extensive cooperative efforts that have been undertaken over recent years, most of which have been co-financed by the European Commission through the European Refugee Fund.
These include the European Asylum Curriculum - a common vocational training programme for asylum case workers, EURASIL – a network of government officials dealing with asylum policy, the common country of origin information portal which has just been completed and serve as a tool which the Office can use, the 'European Country of Origin Sponsorship', the 'Temporary Desk on Iraq', the 'GDISC Interpreters’ Pool', and the UNHCR’s 'Quality Initiatives', to name but a few. Some of these projects will now be taken over by the EASO, and others can serve as inspiration for its future work.
The European Asylum Support Office was conceived to play a crucial role in enhancing practical cooperation among asylum authorities in Europe. It supports Member States in their efforts to implement a more consistent and fair asylum policy, in particular by helping to identify best practices, by organising training at the European level and by improving access to accurate information on countries of origin.
It should support, in concrete terms, EU States that find themselves under particular pressures. In this manner, the EU will be able to give more tangible support to asylum seekers who would otherwise not be able to benefit from the standards we wish to set.
The Support Office will contribute to better implementation of the Common European Asylum System by providing essential information and technical assistance for the development of asylum policy and legislation. The Support Office will also provide support for relocation efforts within the Union, as well as for the external dimension of the Common European Asylum System, including resettlement.
The UNHCR has a special role to play in the Support Office, since it also participates in the activities governed by its founding Regulation. this reflects the EU's strong will to develop its Common European Asylum System in a strategic partnership with the UNHCR.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The 2011 Work Programme of the Support Office is ambitious - and rightly so - reflecting the level of expectations that Member States and the Commission have of it. One of the main priorities of the Support Office in 2011 is to coordinate the provision of support to Greece in implementing its National Action Plan on Asylum Reform and Migration Management.
I commend Robert Visser for giving this matter a priority. On 1 April 2011, the Support Office and the Greek Government signed a two-year Operating Plan for the deployment of Asylum Support Teams in Greece. On 12 May 2011, the first Support Office team was deployed in Greece.
I am convinced that the Support Office - together with the Greek government - will be able to make a key contribution to ensuring that clear and tangible improvements are made to the Greek asylum procedure and reception system in the near future.
The Support Office does not exist in a vacuum. To fulfil its objectives adequately, the EASO needs to work hand in hand with key partners, notably including of course the Member States, the European Commission and the European Parliament, but also other EU agencies working in the field, namely Frontex and the Fundamental Rights Agency, and international organisations such as the UNHCR and the wider civil society. Only by working together can we find common solutions to common challenges.
We should endeavour to have a system with common, fair rules; one based on high standards of protection in line with the Geneva Convention.
Asylum seekers must always be received with dignity. They must always be given the opportunity to explain their claim and have their protection needs assessed according to clear and objective criteria.
Asylum procedures must be fast, fair and effective. Member States must also have the necessary tools to deal efficiently with those who do not need international protection, so that the integrity of the asylum systems is preserved.
We must achieve an asylum system worthy of our European humanitarian traditions.
The success of the Support Office will make a substantial contribution to the realisation of this vision.
Let me conclude by wishing Robert Visser and his team every success in launching the office and achieving the challenging tasks that lie ahead of you.
Finally, let me pledge the Commission’s support to help you achieve the ambitious tasks which this Office has been mandated to fulfil.