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European Commission - Speech - [Check Against Delivery]

Remarks by Commissioner Avramopoulos to the European Parliament Plenary Session

Strasbourg, 2 February 2016

Honourable Members,

I thank you for giving the Commission the opportunity once again to discuss with you in the Plenary the migration challenge.  

The sooner we deal with the situation on basis of the twin principles of shared responsibility and solidarity the better we as European Union will be.

As long as everyone is waiting for the others to move first – and as long as some continue to act as if it will all go away if they just close their eyes long enough – then things will only get worse.

A consistent and coordinated European approach, put in to practice urgently, is the only way ahead. 

Next week, ahead of the February European Council, the Commission will report on the implementation of the priority actions under the European Agenda on Migration.

We will be frank and objective about the poor progress we see on the ground today and about what needs to be done in the next days and weeks.

And this concerns both the Member States on the frontline and all the others, and both the external and internal policy dimensions. 

On the external policy level:

  • we need to gear up our cooperation with third countries on addressing root causes and on fighting smugglers;
  • to establish safe passage for those in need;
  • and to make sure return and readmission are the reality for those who have no right to stay in Europe.  

On the internal policy dimension, the to-do list is even longer:

  • relocation;
  • resettlement;
  • hotspots;
  • returns;
  • joint operational measures taken by FRONTEX and EASO.

We continue to provide substantial financial and operational support to our frontline Member States to that end.

But the scale of the problem of irregular migrant flows reaching Greece and entering the Western Balkans continues unabated.

The Commission is putting every effort to achieve normalization of the Schengen functioning and in parallel is preparing for all options.  

But let me repeat clearly: this is not about the end of Schengen or cutting off a Member State. 

Today IOM has issued a press release: the numbers are dramatic. 13 times more people have crossed the Mediterranean in January 2016, in comparison to January 2015.

368 people died only during the first month – although many more were saved from our joint operations.

But every life lost is one too many. The European humanitarian tradition of which we should be proud of must be maintained even in times of crisis.

Saving lives and the principle of non-refoulement principle are non-negotiable.

Today the Commission adopted a Schengen Evaluation Report on Greece, after receiving a positive opinion from the Schengen evaluation committee.  

The report – which is a classified document and will be shared with this House according to the usual rules – is based on unannounced site visits conducted in November 2015.

Serious deficiencies were identified in this report in external border management by Greece.

We are however taking note that Greece has already started undertaking efforts to remedy the deficiencies. And the Commission will continue its support for Greece. Greece will not be left alone to address the challenges that are related to the migratory pressure.

In parallel we are working closely with Turkey to bring order into migratory flows and help to stem irregular migration in the Aegean by implementing the EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan. Recently the FVP discussed with our Turkish counterparts how we can step up our cooperation to fight smugglers and address the growing numbers of non-Syrian irregularly crossing to the EU.

Our Turkish counterparts also informed us about opening up segments of the Turkish labour market to allow Syrian refugees to work.  

The Commission is working closely with both the Greek and Turkish authorities to scale up the returns to Turkey under the existing bilateral agreement awaiting the full entry into force of EU-Turkey agreement.

We are exploring with Greece what further support it needs to be able to systematically return those migrants who do not have a right to stay in the EU.  

Let me recall, as Commissioner Hahn will stress, that Turkey is making commendable efforts to host more than 2.75 million refugees with a cost of 7 billion EUR to date.

To support Syrians in Turkey, the EU has committed to provide financial assistance for an amount of 3 billion euros over 2016 and 2017 to provide:

  • humanitarian;
  • development;
  • and other assistance to refugees and host communities.

Further down the stream we have the Western Balkans route. This has been a key priority for the Commission and we are chairing weekly coordination meetings.

Migrants should always be given the opportunity to apply for international protection. But if they choose not to do so or if it emerges that they are not in need of protection they should be returned swiftly to their countries of origin – or to transit countries.

This will be always done subject to a prior non-refoulement and proportionality check in accordance with international law.

Non-refoulement is an essential basic safeguard and a legal obligation that we owe to each and every refugee. However, this principle is not incompatible with our efforts to ensure much more effective return of irregular migrants throughout the EU.

We need to systematically and rapidly return those who are not in need of international protection if we are to build public trust and focus resources on the reception of genuine refugees.

But, we must also do more to promote legal channels of protection for those in need, such as resettlement measures. The more we can provide credible and effective support to those in need of international protection, the less they will feel the need to take the route of irregular migration.

Let me conclude with a brief comment about the surge of racism and xenophobia towards migrants and refugees:It is my main worry. And it did not come as surprise to me.

The Commission condemns, without reservation, what appear to have been mass sexual assaults on women in Cologne on New Year's Eve.

But it is too simplistic to conclude that all refugees and migrants are threats to our public order.

They are not.

And those fleeing from horror and war deserve our respect even more than anyone.

We therefore strongly condemn all forms and manifestations of intolerance, including public incitement to racist or xenophobic violence or hatred.

And it's clear – we will need to step up our efforts here too.

The EU is facing a crisis like no other before. Either we stand firm and find solutions in line with our values, or we will see ourselves and our Europe change beyond recognition, back to a past that no one wants to experience again.

SPEECH/16/215

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