Informal Meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Council; Remarks by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Vilnius, 18 July 2013
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Mr. Chairman, Honourable Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you very much for the opportunity to address you again today. I am also very pleased to see Croatia here as a Member State.
First of all, let me congratulate you on how far the EU has come in its efforts to develop a Common European Asylum System, and on the adoption of the Recast instruments last month.
This is an important step forward, with higher standards and gaps filled in several key areas. To make implementation effective, UNHCR stands ready to work with Member States, offering its practical experience and assistance.
Today, I would like to speak to you about the protection challenges for Syrians in Europe, the ways in which the EU has responded, and what more needs to be done.
The Syria crisis has been going on for far too long already, with unbearable humanitarian consequences. In the six months since I last briefed you in Dublin, the number of registered Syrian refugees has grown to nearly 1.8 million, most of them living in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.
By allowing huge numbers of refugees to find safety on their soil, Syria's neighbors have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. But their generosity comes at an increasingly heavy price. As the exodus continues and prospects for a political solution for Syria remain poor, there are warning signs of destabilization in some neighboring countries. There is a clear danger that the Syria conflict could ignite the whole region if measures are not taken to contain the spill-over which, unfortunately, has already started.
Lebanon continues to keep its borders open, but elsewhere in the region access to safety is becoming more difficult for Syrians trying to flee, mainly as a result of national security concerns. Sectarian clashes have intensified in Iraq, and the country has shut its borders, slowing arrivals to a trickle. In Egypt, a number of flights from Syria were turned back last week, following a decision to impose visa requirements and security clearance for Syrians, which are difficult to obtain prior to travel. In Turkey and Jordan, which together host nearly a million Syrian refugees, authorities are now carefully manning the borders. They are not closed; refugees continue to cross, but many can do so only in a gradual manner.
UNHCR is trying to address these concerns with the respective governments, fully recognizing that the number of refugees which all of them have received and protected is putting them under enormous social and economic strain.
In this increasingly difficult context, a positive example from Europe is now crucial to preserving the asylum space for refugees in Syria's immediate neighborhood. The number of Syrian asylum claims in Europe remains manageable, standing at slightly more than 40,000 since the beginning of the crisis.
This is the first real test to show that the Common European Asylum System can function as it should. My Office has outlined recently its concerns about serious gaps in the protection of Syrians arriving in Europe.
First of all, it is illogical that only two countries - Germany and Sweden - are receiving nearly two-thirds of the Syrians seeking protection in the entire Union. Greater consistency within Europe is needed to ensure that more countries fully assume their protection responsibilities.
Second, recognition rates vary greatly across the EU. Several countries grant protection to nearly all Syrians, while three Member States did not recognize a single Syrian applicant in 2012.
Third, too many States fail to provide swift and fair access to asylum procedures for Syrians, contributing to onward movements. For many of those who are able to claim asylum, there are significant backlogs in decision-making, denying them swift access to protection. Statistics in several countries also show disproportionately high rates of cases "otherwise closed", meaning only a limited number of Syrian claims are adjudicated on the merits.
Fourth, the types of protection and associated rights which Syrians are granted across the Union are inconsistent. UNHCR is strongly of the opinion that people fleeing Syria fall squarely within the framework of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and should be granted protection accordingly.
Fifth, the treatment of Syrian asylum seekers must be improved in several Member States where UNHCR has received reports about sub-standard reception conditions, including the sometimes excessive use of detention. Syrians are fleeing one of the worst conflicts the world has seen in decades, and many of them have been subjected to unspeakable human rights violations and persecution in their home country. Ensuring adequate standards of treatment for them as they seek safety in Europe should be a priority for every EU Member State.
I would also like to highlight the case of Turkey, which by itself has received more than ten times as many Syrians as have claimed asylum in the rest of Europe.
The EU has in the past urged Turkey to keep its borders open to Syrians wishing to seek asylum, while at the same time focusing resources on controlling irregular entry at its own external frontiers.
While the management of borders is a sovereign right and legitimate priority of states, the means must be found to ensure that Syrians seeking protection at the EU's frontiers can gain access to territory, procedures and safety. This is crucial in order to demonstrate concretely the European commitment to responsibility-sharing with Turkey and other host countries.
I am encouraged by the comprehensive EU approach to the Syrian crisis announced several weeks ago, and hope this will lead to stronger engagement, cooperation and more coherent protection responses, within EU borders, to Syrians in need.
Let me summarize a few of the most important further steps we would like the EU to consider taking:
Firstly, ensuring access to territory and swift and fair asylum procedures for those seeking protection, notwithstanding the on-going efforts to improve border control at sensitive external EU frontiers.
Second, a more consistent and generous approach to protection is needed, particularly as concerns the recognition rates and the forms of protection that are being awarded to Syrian claimants. As the conflict is unlikely to end soon, UNHCR hopes to see protection rates increasing across Europe, and in particular the granting of refugee status with its associated rights.
Third, allow me to make a call for more flexibility in the use of existing measures. This includes helping to reunite family members already in Europe by flexibly applying the Dublin Regulation; dispensing with visa requirements; and facilitating the entry of Syrians for work, study, family or humanitarian purposes under national programmes.
Fourth, I strongly encourage Member States to establish strict limits and safeguards on the use of detention, explore alternatives to detention and do more to improve the conditions for asylum seekers who are awaiting decisions on their protection claims.
And finally, the EU must engage in more burden-sharing initiatives so as to help mitigate the crushing impact which the refugee crisis is having on Syria's immediate neighbours. I am very grateful to the Government of Germany for its important gesture of solidarity in offering humanitarian admission to 5,000 Syrian refugees. In addition, several European countries have identified emergency resettlement places for Syrians. I hope to see others come forward with more offers of humanitarian admission or resettlement as the situation evolves. If faced with very extreme events, the international community may even have to explore possible options for a humanitarian evacuation.
Mr. Chairman, Excellencies,
The impact of the refugee crisis on Syria's neighbors is crushing, and the recent restrictions on access sound an alarm bell which must not be ignored. The EU Commission's recent package of 400 million EUR in new financial aid, for Syrian victims and the host communities, was deeply appreciated.
Europe's support is crucial in the international response to this crisis, both financially and in terms of providing protection to Syrians fleeing the bloodshed. We look to you, within your field of competence for asylum in Europe, to help us in addressing this major challenge.