Remarks of Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Ministerial Conference "Building a Europe of Asylum," Paris, 8 & 9 September 2008

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Minister Hortefeux,
Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Allow me to thank the French Presidency of the European Union for convening this important Conference on asylum. It is an honour to address you on this subject not only as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but also as a citizen of the European Union.

"Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution." That is established in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 60th anniversary of which we will celebrate in December. This Conference is an occasion to reaffirm the commitment of the European Union to the protection of people whose lives and freedom are at risk in their own countries.

I welcome the solemn reiteration of this commitment in the proposed "Pact on Immigration and Asylum" put forward by the French Presidency. As High Commissioner, at the head of the UN organization responsible for protecting refugees around the world, I can confirm a sad truth: 60 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration, and 57 years after the adoption of the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees, the institution of asylum remains as necessary as ever.

At the start of this year, there were more than 37 million people who had been forced from their homes around the world by war and persecution. Nearly one third (11.4 million) were refugees, and more than two-thirds (26 million) were displaced within the borders of their own countries. I have just returned from Iran and Pakistan - two countries which alone have hosted millions of Afghan refugees for decades, and which continue to do so despite dwindling international assistance. Three weeks ago, I was in the Russian Federation and in Georgia, where UNHCR is assisting tens of thousands of newly displaced people - a stark reminder that Europe is not spared problems of forced displacement.

It is evident that the European Union of today is situated in a world which is very different from that in which UNHCR was born, in the shadow of the Second World War. Capital and information circulate ever more freely in our globalized world. Goods also circulate, despite the failure of the Doha Round. The same cannot be said of persons. Yet population growth, climate change and scarcity of natural resources are all giving rise to increasingly complex migratory flows. And within these flows, refugees and other people in search of international protection constitute a distinct category.

How will the European Union respond to this reality? Will we react by building walls ever higher? By defining the conditions for entry to Europe ever more restrictively? Or will we succeed - as speakers before me have advocated - in adopting a more coherent approach?

Each country is, of course, entitled to define its own migration policy, but international refugee protection norms must be respected. I am certain that it is possible to build a "Europe of asylum" and to establish well-balanced migration policies. I am convinced that we must invest more in preventing and resolving the armed conflicts, the failures of governance and the human rights violations that force people to flee their homes and seek protection elsewhere.

We have the privilege to live today in a European Union where internal borders have largely disappeared. Clearly, in a Union without internal borders, it does not make sense to have 27 different asylum systems. As High Commissioner I therefore strongly support the effort to create a common asylum space in the European Union. But not at any cost. A common European asylum system must meet three essential challenges.

First, there is the challenge of access. If Europe is to be a 'continent of asylum', it must be accessible for those seeking protection. Yet there are more and more barriers to entry to Europe. This creates a situation in which many people in search of protection have no choice but to put themselves in the hands of people-smugglers and traffickers, and to cross borders in an irregular manner. We need to make sure, in the management of migration and of the external borders of the European Union, that people who are seeking international protection have physical access to a territory where they can request asylum, and where they will be assured a fair treatment of their claims. Border control systems must incorporate measures which make it possible to identify people who are seeking protection.

Second, there is the challenge of ensuring the quality of the Member States' asylum systems, and of correcting the wide discrepancies in practice which we observe at present. The legal framework of the common European asylum system has been established by the adoption of two Regulations and four Directives. These govern the responsibility for examining asylum requests, temporary protection, the reception of asylum-seekers, qualification for protection, and asylum procedures. The Directives establish minimum standards which must always be in accordance with international norms.

However, when we look at how this legal framework is being implemented across the European Union, we see tremendous divergences from one country to another. There are wide differences in the conditions of reception of asylum-seekers, in the quality of asylum procedures and above all, in the decisions reached in these procedures. Protection rates for asylum-seekers - whether Iraqi or Somali or Sri Lankan, to cite only a few examples - can range from zero to near 100%, depending on the country where the claim is examined. Such wide disparities are incompatible with a common system which seeks to guarantee equal protection across the European Union. They contradict the basic premise of the Dublin II Regulation, which presumes that the asylum systems of the Member States are comparable.

Asylum decision-making is one of the most difficult judicial or administrative tasks which exist. An erroneous decision can condemn a person to persecution, violence or even death. I invite you to work with us and with other independent experts, to improve the quality of decision-making on asylum claims. I also urge to you to give priority to ensuring that the system is not built around the lowest common denominator, but rather, that it reflects the highest possible standards.

The strategy of the European Commission for the second phase of the asylum harmonization process correctly aims at improving the existing legislative instruments and at developing practical cooperation among Member States. UNHCR endorses the proposal to set up a European Asylum Support Office to promote and lead this cooperation, and we stand ready to play a clear role within that Support Office.

The third challenge is that of solidarity: within our countries, among the Member States of the European Union, as well as with third countries.

Our societies are increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious. This reality requires a societal commitment to combat intolerance and to promote co-existence. I am extremely preoccupied by the spectre of xenophobia, intolerance and racism - ills which we have not succeeded in overcoming.

We also need to demonstrate solidarity at the European level. It is clear that by reason of geography, some European countries are more affected by today's migratory flows than others. The common European asylum system needs to incorporate mechanisms for responsibility-sharing within the EU, not only by financial means.

At the same time, the reality is that most of the world's refugees are not in the European Union. They are in countries of the developing world, especially in Africa and Asia. Europe's solidarity with these countries is evident in your strong support for the work of my organization, and for the work of others on behalf of refugees around the globe. Indeed, nearly 45% of UNHCR's annual budget is provided by voluntary contributions from the European Commission and EU Member States, and I thank you for this support.

Another way of demonstrating solidarity is through refugee resettlement. For more than half a century, UNHCR has been operating programmes for the resettlement of refugees who cannot find a durable solution in their first country of asylum. Such refugees are resettled by other countries which grant them refugee status and the possibility to build a new life. However, resettlement does not replace States' obligations vis-à-vis asylum-seekers who arrive spontaneously at their borders or on their territory.

Over the past two years, to cite one important example, we have been actively seeking enhanced resettlement opportunities for Iraqi refugees. While all of us hope that the majority will one day be able to return home in safety, it is clear that there will remain some refugees for whom resettlement will still be necessary.

I urge you to support us in this effort, and I encourage countries which do not yet operate resettlement programmes to do so. At present, just seven of the 27 EU Member States implement resettlement programmes. The European Union is providing only around 6% of the resettlement places available worldwide, or 5,000 places annually. I am convinced that the EU can - and should - do more.

There is no doubt that the EU is an important political actor. For that reason, your efforts to tackle the causes of forced displacement and to resolve refugee problems are essential. We share your interest in strengthening the capacity of third countries to protect refugees, whether in Africa, Asia, Latin America or in the European neighbourhood. But I wish to state clearly that such efforts cannot replace the European Union's obligations in matters of asylum. The goal is not to transfer Europe's responsibilities to third countries, but rather, to increase and strengthen refugee protection worldwide.

With this in mind - and with support from the European Commission and EU Member States - we have developed projects to strengthen protection capacities in many countries, including in North Africa and Eastern Europe. In the same vein, our Ten-Point Action Plan for protecting refugees in the context of mixed migration is based on principles of solidarity and international cooperation. I invite you to support these initiatives.

To conclude: A common European asylum system is an ambitious and unprecedented venture. Never before have 27 countries with different experiences with asylum and migration, different traditions and different legal systems, agreed to harmonize their approaches in a field as sensitive as asylum. The instruments adopted in the first phase of work toward a common system have advanced international refugee law in some very important ways. The construction of a common European asylum system is a unique opportunity to strengthen refugee protection. As High Commissioner, I pledge my Office's collaboration to build a coherent, effective system which guarantees refugee protection and can serve as example to the entire world.

Thank you for your attention.