UNHCR: EU common strategy on asylum must meet highest standards of refugee protection
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata has urged Member States of the European Union to commit themselves to ensuring that harmonization of their asylum policies meets the highest protection standards.
Mrs. Ogata's appeal comes ahead of the European Union Special Summit on Justice and Home Affairs on 15 and 16 October in Tampere, Finland, where the EU Member States are to discuss a common strategy on asylum and migration.
"The Tampere Summit provides the European Union with a historic opportunity to lay a firm foundation for the development of a coherent asylum policy rooted in the proper and inclusive application of the 1951 Refugee Convention," Ogata said.
UNHCR is concerned that asylum is increasingly at risk of being subordinated to the political, security and socio-economic dimensions of migration policy. "In the minds of both policy makers and the public at large, people fleeing from persecution are often seen as seeking economic opportunities. The distinction between refugees and migrants is thereby blurred," Ogata noted.
"I fully appreciate States' legitimate concerns over irregular immigration," Ogata added. "My plea to the Heads of State and Government attending the Tampere Summit is to ensure that policies and practices designed to control irregular immigration do not jeopardize the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers".
UNHCR believes that the way forward for the European Union and its Member States is to take a strategic approach to the development of a just asylum policy - one aimed at the management of refugee claims in such a way that it guarantees every applicant access to territory and asylum procedures, and ensures speedy and correct decision-making.
There are, in UNHCR's view, seven key issues which should be at the basis of the asylum discussion at Tampere:
Refugee definition: A coherent approach to asylum must stem from a common understanding of who qualifies as a refugee under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Interpretation of the refugee definition contained in the Convention must take due account of all forms and sources of persecution. This includes recognition that persecution may be carried out by agents other than the State and that it may take specific forms, including sexual violence against women. Likewise, the refugee definition does not exclude those whose life or liberty is at risk in a country where governmental authority has collapsed.
Complementary forms of protection: A common European approach is needed in relation to those who need protection but who fall outside the scope of the 1951 Convention.
Temporary protection: The Union should also develop a principled, common approach to temporary protection arrangements in situations of sudden and large-scale influx. Such arrangements should be coupled with a proper sharing of responsibility for the admission of refugees and asylum-seekers. Temporary protection must be seen as a complement to, not a substitute for, the protection provided under the 1951 Convention.
Fair and Expeditious asylum procedures: A future European asylum system should be underpinned by accessible, fair and expeditious asylum procedures, to which access is guaranteed. Such procedures not only identify those in need of protection; they also provide the basis for the return home of those who do not need protection.
Reception of asylum-seekers: An EU-wide agreement is needed on common standards of reception for asylum-seekers. This will ensure equitable treatment of asylum-seekers throughout the EU. It can also lead to a more equal distribution of asylum applications among Member States.
Return of rejected asylum-seekers: UNHCR recognizes that the return home of rejected asylum-seekers is necessary in order to ensure the integrity of the institution of asylum. Return of rejected asylum-seekers must only take place, however, following full and proper evaluation of their need for protection. Return measures should be consistent with basic human rights requirements.
Comprehensive approach to asylum and migration issues: European States need to situate their asylum and migration policy within a broader approach which addresses political, human rights and developmental issues in countries and regions of origin. UNHCR welcomes the steps taken in this field by the EU's High Level Working Group on Asylum and Migration, with which it has co-operated closely. UNHCR hopes that the asylum and protection dimension of the Action Plans will be given due priority in the course of their implementation.
"The decisions Member States take at Tampere will not only be of capital importance for the institution of asylum in the European Union, but will also strongly influence refugee protection policy in the rest of Europe and globally," Ogata said.