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European Commissioner responsible for Home Affairs
Higher standards of protection for refugees and asylum seekers in the EU
UNHCR Ministerial Meeting, Roundtable Discussion on 'Protection Challenges and Opportunities'
Geneva, 7 December 2011
Ladies and gentlemen,
Sixty years after the signature of the Geneva Convention on Refugees, the world remains scarred with suffering generated by conflicts and persecutions all over the globe. Today, the European continent faces great economic instability and uncertainty, but luckily there is no apparent threat to peace between nations. Yet, conflicts are close to us and thus affect us.
The question we will be discussing this afternoon, "Where will we be in ten years' time?" is indeed worth considering. However, as someone once said "It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future". This has proven very true over the past weeks and months. Who would have thought only a year ago that the peoples of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya would rise against the oppression they had lived under for so many years?
Ten years ago, Europe was recovering from the shock of the conflict in the Balkans. Over the next ten years, the EU is likely to expand to include a few more States – notably in the Western Balkans.
These States' accession to the EU will mean that, whereas ten years ago they were major source countries for refugees, in ten years' time they may become part of the EU's single protection area.
Ten years ago, the EU only had fifteen Member States, now it has twenty seven. Ten years ago, the conflict in Afghanistan had only just started and the war in Iraq had not yet begun.
And ten years ago, the EU had barely begun the work to create a Common European Asylum System. We had almost no harmonising legislation in place; very limited agreed standards of protection and very limited solidarity between our Member States.
Ten years ago, we had much higher numbers of asylum seekers than we do today.
So it is indeed very difficult to predict where we will be in ten years' time. But what I can do is give you my vision of where I would like us to be.
In an ideal world, there would not be any conflicts or wars and there would be no reason for people to leave their homes and countries to seek protection elsewhere. Unfortunately this is not very likely to happen. There have been wars and conflicts as long as mankind has existed.
However, this does not mean we should not reinforce our efforts to strive for peace, democracy and human rights. We must work harder to fight climate change and inequalities. And what we certainly can do is strive for the creation of well functioning asylum systems in as many places as possible - where people in need of protection can get access to protection and have the right to an individual assessment of their case, in open and fair systems.
How do we get there? Well, we can only start from home, in my case the European Union.
The Common European Asylum System
Ever since the turn of the last century, the European Union has had the goal of creating a common area of protection in the form of a Common European Asylum System. In recent years, we have given ourselves a deadline for achieving this, and that deadline is 2012.
We still have work to do if we are to reach our goal. But we are getting closer and closer. In ten years' time I hope that we have a stable and well-functioning European Asylum System in place.
We have had a common set of rules in the area of protection for some time now and yet differences still exist between different the Member States' asylum systems. To give you an example, in 2010, there were over 50,000 asylum seekers in France and Germany respectively, but only 35 in Estonia. Some countries have a recognition rate of 60%, while others granted refugee status at first instance to only 1 percent of the applicants. Six of the 27 member states receive 75% of all asylum applications in the EU.
Such disparities are not acceptable in an area where we apply the same rules, have signed the same Geneva Convention and are united in the same union of values.
In order to tackle these discrepancies between Member States, the Commission proposed amendments to the EU's current legislation. The aim is to ensure clearer and more harmonised rules that can be easily implemented by Member States in a convergent manner and in line with fundamental rights.
The new common rules must be balanced, fair and efficient. Of equal importance is to support our legislation with a well developed practical cooperation. A more harmonised legislation and a more developed practical cooperation should ensure that asylum seekers are treated equally wherever they apply in the Union, and that they have the same chances of being granted international protection or having their claim rejected.
In order to make sure that the same dignified standards of living are applied throughout the EU regardless of in what Member State an asylum application was made – we are also harmonising our rules on the reception conditions.
We are modifying our procedures to make sure that they are fair, cost-effective, appropriately timed – neither too hasty nor too lengthy – and that potentially abusive claims are tackled.
We are also modifying our rules on who qualifies for international protection in order to ensure the full and inclusive application of the Geneva Convention on Refugees. I am very pleased that the Qualification Directive has been adopted. The aim is to ensure higher protection standards regarding both the grounds and the content of the protection - in line with international standards, and in particular in order to ensure the full and inclusive application of the Geneva Refugee Convention. The very recent adoption of this Directive is an important deliverable from the EU to this Conference.
Our ambition for the next ten years is to raise the overall standard of protection and to move away from the concept of minimum standards. We want to avoid a race to the bottom, and move towards a concept of common high standards. Above all, we wish to end the current asylum "lottery" that results from deficiencies and discrepancies and causes uncertainty for individual asylum seekers.
The European Asylum Support Office
In accomplishing the Common European Asylum System, further developing practical cooperation will be of great importance. In this respect, the newly established European Asylum Support Office will play an important role. Its task is to coordinate practical cooperation and to assist Member States in implementing EU asylum legislation. The support office will be able to take forward practical ideas such as the European Asylum Curriculum, so that the same training can be rolled out across the Member States so that we can build trust and confidence in the fact that each other's asylum systems really are similar.
It can also assist Member States that have to deal with large numbers of asylum seekers by deploying asylum expert teams, as we have already done in Greece.
Moreover, the support office can play a major part in monitoring Member States' asylum systems to see what is and what is not working well.
It is my hope that the work we do within the European Union will help us to become a more important actor in the area of international protection; for example, in assisting neighbouring countries and partners in building up their capacity with regard to asylum.
If we look outward, beyond the EU's frontiers, we will see that the majority of refugees and asylum seekers are not in Europe. The EU therefore needs to use its capacity to assist these countries and people. It could be done for example through resettlement, capacity building and financial assistance.
To reinforce this objective, the Commission has proposed to give international protection and the external dimension of asylum a more visible and central place in the EU's external migration policy.
We have suggested adding this as a new fourth pillar for our dialogue and cooperation with all non-EU countries in the area of migration. This cooperation would be particularly focused on the strengthening of capacities of non-EU countries to cope with asylum seekers and refugees and to offer effective protection to people in need.
It is too early to tell whether the Arab Spring will turn out to be as revolutionary in the long-term for North Africa as the fall of the Berlin Wall was for Europe. But if it does lead to democratisation and a greater emphasis on the fair rule of law, it will definitely have an impact on the chances for refugees coming to these countries.
In concrete terms, the continuous development of Regional Protection Programmes in cooperation with the UNHCR will be an important tool. The Commission is committed to making more funds available to further expand current Regional Protection Programmes and to establishing new ones. They have proven to have a big impact on long-term capacity building in offering international protection to refugees in countries close to the countries of origin and in the countries of transit.
The Commission also remains committed to further promoting resettlement as one of the durable solutions offered to refugees. That is why the Commission proposed a 'Joint EU Resettlement Programme'. If there is one thing I would hope to see in ten years' time, it would be to see the EU's efforts expanded considerably in this area, as we should be aiming to match the strong action taken by the USA, Canada and Australia. To be frank, the EU has a lot to prove here.
Ladies and gentleman, I think there is often a temptation to down-play progress. Our situation may not be wholly satisfactory, but we are slowly improving our standards. Our responses are better than before, our laws are more aligned, our actions to help others in the world far more effective. But being half-way up a mountain is not the same achievement as reaching its summit. We have a long way to go, but I have every reason to believe that Europe's reaction to asylum and refugee matters will carry on becoming stronger and more unified.
So in ten years' time, when the European crisis hopefully will be over and we can whole-heartedly concentrate on other issues such as the need for solidarity and international cooperation, then we from the European Union will be fully playing our role to solve conflicts, decrease tensions and take full responsibility for refugees seeking protection.
Thank you for your attention.