UNHCR chief meets top EU officials; calls for a "Europe of Asylum"

News Stories, 16 July 2008

© European Community
High Commissioner António Guterres (left) meets EC President José Manuel Barroso.

BRUSSELS, Belgium, July 16 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres stressed the importance of UNHCR's partnership with the European Union (EU) during a visit to Brussels on Wednesday.

After discussions with European Commission (EC) President José Manuel Barroso, Guterres expressed his appreciation for the Commission's continued financial and political support to UNHCR and to refugees around the world.

Guterres also discussed asylum issues in the EU and beyond with EC Vice-President Jacques Barrot, who is responsible for justice, freedom and security. He highlighted the good cooperation between UNHCR and the EC on the ambitious project of building a Common European Asylum System, but reiterated that EU territory and asylum procedures need to remain accessible for people seeking international protection.

"We are concerned that the very strong focus on controlling the EU's external border is making it ever more difficult for people seeking asylum to reach Europe's territory and asylum procedures," Guterres said. "Practical measures need to be taken to make sure that protection remains accessible for those who need it."

He said that he hoped the draft European Pact on Immigration and Asylum presented earlier this month by the French EU Presidency would support the construction of a "Europe of Asylum."

Guterres and Barrot also discussed ways of expanding refugee resettlement in the European Union. The High Commissioner stressed the need for the EU to show its support for non-EU countries, which host the majority of the world's refugees.

"Resettling refugees is a way to show solidarity with countries such as Syria, which currently host around a million refugees from Iraq," he said, adding: "We urge the Commission to continue its efforts to increase resettlement in the EU."

Guterres also met Peter Zangl, the new head of ECHO, the humanitarian aid wing of the EC and a very important UNHCR partner. Last year, the EC was UNHCR's fourth largest donor with contributions totalling 63.1 million euros. Around 80 percent of this came from ECHO, mostly for use in Africa and Asia. "ECHO is not only an important donor, but it is also an engaged one," Guterres said.

Together, the EC and EU member states provide around 45 percent of UNHCR's annual budget. But the refugee agency's relations with the EU go well beyond funding. UNHCR provides advice and expertise to European institutions and member states on asylum policy and practice.

By Gilles van Moortel in Brussels, Belgium