Remarks of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres at the Informal Meeting of EU Ministers of Justice and Home Affairs, Brussels, 15 July 2010

Statements by High Commissioner, 15 July 2010

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to express my deep appreciation to the Belgian Presidency for including asylum among its priorities and to encourage you to move forward in this field. I appreciate very much the leadership of Commissioner Malmstrom in the efforts to build a Common European Asylum System.

A Common European Asylum System is more necessary than ever but we remain a long way from achieving this goal, as a look at some recent figures demonstrates. According to Eurostat data, for instance, the rate of recognition of Somali asylum applicants in EU Member States varied in 2009 between 4% and 93%. The recognition rate for Iraqi asylum-seekers in the two EU countries receiving the largest number of applications was 66% and 27% respectively. Similarly, for the EU country receiving the largest number of Afghan asylum applications, the recognition rate was 44%, while the recognition rate in the country receiving the next largest number of applications was just 1%. Vast differences are also evident in conditions of reception.

As long as such dramatic differences exist, we cannot speak of a common system. These disparities lead to protection gaps and to excessive pressure on many countries doing their best to apply the EU asylum acquis. The disparities are caused both by gaps between law and practice as well as differing interpretations by Member States of their obligations.

This situation calls for a dual approach. It requires both intensified practical co-operation and improvement of the legislative framework.

Practical co-operation is of great importance since good laws are of little use if they are not applied. For this reason, we support the establishment of the European Asylum Support Office. We will be pleased to participate in its Management Board and will assign an experienced staff member to ensure liaison with that Office. We look to the Asylum Support Office to contribute significantly to the improvement of coherence in asylum decision-making and look forward to cooperating with it.

Legislative changes are also needed, to reduce ambiguities and improve standards. It seems that the main concerns of Member States about further legislation relate to two issues: the cost of improved standards and the risk of abuse.

With respect to costs, we believe that many of the proposed amendments entail no additional cost or a very reasonable one which will pay off in terms of the achievement of EU objectives. With respect to the risk of abuse of asylum institutions, we are convinced that the best way to fight this is to have fast and fair processes yielding accurate decisions. Achieving this means systems need high quality first instance decision-making and a reliable appeal on the merits. Many of the Commission's proposals are aimed at curtailing the delay characteristic of the asylum procedures in a number of EU countries at present.

I understand that the Presidency is emphasizing four of the six pending legislative proposals, namely, the Dublin II and Eurodac Regulations, the Qualification Directive and the Directive on the Rights of Long Term Residents.

I would like to comment on one of these the recast of the Dublin II Regulation. UNHCR believes that solidarity and responsibility go hand in hand. A mechanism for the temporary suspension of the Regulation is needed for protection reasons, but such a suspension cannot allow states to divest themselves of responsibilities properly belonging to them. Thus, any suspension mechanism should be accompanied by benchmarks for the state concerned to make progress toward compliance with the acquis. Suspension should be a short-term measure, accompanied by action to make sure the state moves swiftly to full compliance with its responsibilities.

And while it may make sense for the Presidency to focus on these four instruments, we must not lose sight of the other two: the Qualification Directive and the Asylum Procedures Directive. There are important elements in the Commission's recast proposals for these instruments. I will mention just three.

It is problematic that the administrative detention of asylum-seekers is less regulated than the detention of people accused or convicted of criminal acts.

High Commissioner António Guterres

In the Reception Conditions Directive, we believe that the detention of asylum-seekers, which should always be exceptional, needs to be better regulated. It is problematic that the administrative detention of asylum-seekers is less regulated than the detention of people accused or convicted of criminal acts. We are concerned both about the conditions of detention of asylum-seekers and the need for regular, judicial review of their detention. In these aspects, we believe the proposed amendments are consistent with Europe's position as a protector of human rights.

With respect to the recast of the Asylum Procedures Directive, there are two vitally important elements: the need for all asylum-seekers to have access to a personal interview and the need for appeals to have suspensive effect. Given the frequency of our representations on the latter issue, you may believe UNHCR somewhat obsessed by it. One needs to bear in mind, however, that fully 20% of persons granted protection in the EU receive it only on appeal. Suspensive effect the possibility to remain in the country while the appeal is heard is needed to make the appeal meaningful.

On a different but equally important subject, I would like to express my appreciation for the progress made in the area of refugee resettlement. In 2009, resettlement to the EU increased both in percentage terms and in the number of countries engaged in it. Though the EU accounted for just 8% of the refugees resettled worldwide last year, we were very pleased to see so many European countries present last week at our annual tripartite resettlement consultations in Geneva which were extremely ably organized and chaired by Sweden.

In conclusion let me emphasize that asylum is not only a European issue. 80% of the world's refugees are in the developing world. In 2009, for instance, there were approximately 246,000 asylum claims in the EU while there were nearly as many, 220,000, in South Africa alone. There are 260,000 Somali refugees in just one refugee camp in Kenya (Dadaab). Pakistan hosts 1.7 million registered Afghan refugees. Iran recently issued work permits to 300,000 Afghans and hosts more than one million refugees. Syria and Jordan continue to be very flexible with respect to Iraqi refugees, allowing them the freedom of movement needed to ascertain whether repatriation is viable.

These are all important contributions to refugee protection. These countries need to see Europe as a continent of asylum, consistently demonstrating its commitment to protection. If these countries were to reverse their policies, pressures on Europe would inevitably mount. Progress in building the Common European Asylum System will reassure and inspire the countries hosting the majority of the world's refugees.

Finally, next year we will mark the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. We intend to use this occasion to have a meaningful debate on new trends in forced displacement and protection gaps. I invite European Union institutions and Member States actively to take part in this debate.

Thank you very much.