Address of UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs, to European Asylum Support Office 10th Anniversary Conference
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
I am delighted to be back in Malta and in this historic and impressive hall. Happy birthday and congratulations to EASO for its tenth anniversary. I am pleased, indeed, honoured, to be sharing the platform with President Vella, whom I had the opportunity to meet last year. Thank you Commissioner Johannsson for your inspiring words this evening and your commitment to the rule of law, and to Vice President Schinas. It is wonderful to see Nina Gregori again as EASO’s Executive Director.
UNHCR has been with EASO since the beginning, creating a Liaison Office in Valletta a month after EASO began operating in June 2011. UNHCR and EASO have distinct but complementary mandates and work closely. Our former High Commissioner for Refugees, now the United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, made clear how important that complementary relationship is when he visited here a few years ago. Ten years on since the start of EASO, cooperation between the UN Refugee Agency and EASO is stronger than ever and is reflected in the Working Arrangements that Nina Gregori and I signed in July this year in Geneva.
The UNHCR Agency is the global refugee protection agency, and we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention this year, the legal instrument that underpins our mandate, and adopts two fundamental principles: the right of everyone to have access to seek asylum, and the absolute prohibition on the return of a person to violence and persecution if they are in need of international protection. These core principles also underpin EASO’s primary international obligations.
There are so many opportunities for us both to work together now that EASO will soon evolve into its new status. These are, of course, exceptional times. The High Commissioner for Refugees reported this year that there are 82.4 million people forcibly displaced around the world. How, then, to echo Commissioner Johannsson’s words, “how do you meet and protect fundamental norms in a time of COVID”? These norms have to a significant degree been complied with by European nations, where borders have remained open to those in need of international protection and where technology has been used creatively, imaginatively, to ensure that claims can be processed.
Ten years ago, the European Union was emerging as a leader in international protection with the Common European Asylum System and the creation of EASO. At that time, UNHCR was considering a gradual scaling down of its operations in this region to focus on other regions of the world that needed our support. But the events of 2014 to 16 changed that. Almost overnight, both the UN Refugee Agency and EASO became operational within the EU, providing assistance and services to asylum- seekers that would normally be provided by States, many of which were overwhelmed by claims. From that point on, our relationship became much closer. While before we were partners in data and policy exchange, after 2014 we became operational partners. And in the years since, EASO has expanded its operations across the EU, recently announcing that it will expand to many other major EU countries of first arrival.
The need for EASO as an operational partner continues to grow, as demonstrated by the events on the borders of EU Member States and Belarus. And while challenges remain in discussions on the EU Pact, it is significant that agreement has been reached on the new European Union Agency for Asylum, EUAA, by the European Union co-legislators. At UNHCR we are happy by EUAA’s new status and by its focus on fundamental human rights.
The transition of EASO to EUAA before the end of this year is significant because it will help to deepen the special relationship between the United Nations Refugee Agency and EASO. The UNHCR is mentioned sixteen times in the draft text of the Regulation creating the EUAA on matters ranging from the development of Country Guidance to coordination in third countries. The EUAA’s new powers will include an enhanced monitoring mechanism, a vital feature of the new Agency. While implementation of the monitoring mechanism has been delayed until the end of 2023, we encourage all Member States to ensure that that the mechanism is in place as soon as possible.
The new EUAA Agency will also have new accountability mechanisms, commensurate with its expanded role and activities. Only ten years ago, EASO’s annual budget was 8 million euros. Today, it is 142 million euros. UNHCR welcomes the proactive approach the Agency is taking to prepare a complaints mechanism, appoint a Fundamental Rights Officer and revivify the Consultative Forum.
With regard to the Consultative Forum, the Agency can build on its extensive experience of direct engagement with those people we serve, asylum-seekers and refugees. We need to hear their voices to ensure proper protection and management. We need to hear their voices at the level of the EASO Management Board.
UNHCR has worked to strengthen communities, especially during the COVID pandemic. We need to work with local groups because they are often the first responders in emergencies. They don’t go away when the money runs out. They include faith-based groups, refugee-led groups, and work in their communities for the long term. We hope that the culture of accountability to affected people will continue and we hope to work with EUAA in building that culture.
The new EU Agency will have an enhanced role in the external dimension, including through field presence and operations, posting of Liaison Officers outside the EU, and greater support for resettlement and complementary pathways. These are a vital means of establishing regular options for solutions such as labour mobility, education, community sponsorship, and family reunion. These protection solutions are additional to traditional resettlement and voluntary repatriation and show the way for the future for people forcibly displaced both across national frontiers and in their own country.
There are, of course, many challenges that we need to recognize. The future EUAA has an enhanced capacity to play in addressing these challenges, including to improve the quality of asylum procedures. EASO has done a remarkable job in do so but more is needed to resolve the significant differences in refugee recognition rates across the EU. Something is wrong when we have vastly divergent responses to people seeking international protection as asylum-seekers from same conflict or circumstances. We cannot continue to with the current unpredictable refugee status determination outcomes and greater support is needed from all of us, including EU Member States.
We need to have clearer demonstrations of solidarity. EASO has provided significant support to relocation and other initiatives. The UN Refugee Agency encourages EASO to continue these efforts, and to help meet the vision of the Global Compact on Refugees for an equitable sharing of burdens and responsibility. It is a grand vision and a tough one to achieve in the time of COVID, but a vision that Europe has striven to meet.
EASO is also assisting many EU States to strengthen their reception systems. Unfortunately, in many countries, asylum reception conditions are well below international standards. UNHCR encourages EU Member States, the Commission, and others to play their part to ensure that minimum standards are met.
The UN Refugee Agency has repeatedly expressed its concerns about credible evidence of violent and brutal pushbacks at European borders. UNHCR calls for an urgent end to such practices, as in egregious breach of international law. EU States must respect the rule of law, the right to asylum and the absolute prohibition on refoulement. These are prerequisites for EASO and the future EUAA that it will become – to have the right conditions on the ground so they can operate effectively. EU Members, EASO, and the Commission have key roles to play, including in their governing roles as Members of the EASO Management Board. And I’m pleased that UNHCR is included as a non-voting member.
UNHCR is clear that asylum-seekers do not have an unfettered right to choose the place where they seek asylum. They need to meet their obligation to cooperate with national authorities. Trust needs to be rebuilt and progress on the quality of asylum procedures and receptions conditions will greatly assist with that. We commend the work EASO is doing in enabling us all to understand better the push and pull factors stimulating onward movements and how best to address them under the rule of law.
We need to adopt the comprehensive approach that Commissioner Johannsson has talked about. We cannot do this alone, we cannot even do it regionally. We must work globally. And the global phenomenon of forced displacement requires a comprehensive approach. That approach is set out in the Global Compact on Refugees and is at the heart of the EU Commission’s Pact on Asylum and Migration. It follows that a holistic approach is adopted by the EUAA Regulation with a capacity for EUAA in its external role. UNHCR welcomes the support EASO has provided to the work of the Asylum Capacity Support initiative in Niger for example. There are other examples but this one is particularly important in giving effect to a stronger asylum system.
UNHCR looks forward to working with partners, including EASO, to expand resettlement places. As you will be aware, resettlement through UNHCR has declined to its lowest level in the last 20 years. But we remain optimistic that resettlement numbers will improve over the next year or so as national capacity is built. UNHCR urges all countries to increase their resettlement places to ensure that people who are among the most vulnerable can find a durable solution. We also hope that complementary pathways will further increase the capacity to provide solutions, including through family reunification and community sponsorship.
Asylum and protection issues within the EU are fraught. The temptation to focus on the external dimension in EUAA should be moderated by the more pressing need to focus on addressing urgent challenges within Europe itself. Internal management is the core of EUAA’s future work. A focus on the internal dimension will enhance the credibility of the new Agency’s engagements in external affairs and reduce the risk of instrumentalization and externalisation, both grievous threats to the entire global asylum system.
In conclusion, thank you for this opportunity to be with you on this 10th anniversary. International protection needs remain great. At UNHCR we are confident that European Commission and Member States, through EUAA, will rise to the challenges. We wish every good fortune to EUAA and look forward to meeting our common goal of supporting States to deliver international protection to all forcibly displaced people whom we serve.