UNHCR welcomes EU asylum plans, warns against burden-shifting
5 November 2004
GENEVA - The UN refugee agency welcomed the adoption today by the European Council of the EU's new multiannual programme in the area of freedom, security and justice, known as the "Hague Programme." However, UNHCR warned there is still a lot of work to do if the EU is to achieve its stated goal of establishing a common system for refugee protection within the EU by 2010, while simultaneously helping developing countries to strengthen their own capacity to protect and assist people fleeing war and persecution.
"UNHCR looks forward to working with the EU to make sure that we provide better protection to refugees," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers. "The first phase of EU harmonization of asylum policy was only a beginning. Much more needs to be done, both within Europe's borders and beyond."
During the first phase, from 1999-2004, a set of directives containing minimum standards was adopted. Member States must now transpose these directives into national legislation. UNHCR is appealing to States not to harmonize their policies at the level of the lowest common denominator allowed by the directives, but to adopt or retain national laws which offer higher levels of refugee protection.
According to the Hague Programme this transposition process will be monitored, with an evaluation of the measures adopted in the first phase of harmonization set for 2007. UNHCR has urged the EU to ensure that this process is a transparent and consultative one that takes into account the views of independent experts, including UNHCR and specialized NGOs.
The EU's leaders agreed in Brussels that a common asylum system is to be in place by 2010. In working toward this goal, the European Commission is to study the legal and practical implications of joint processing of asylum applications within the EU. In UNHCR's view, the objective of joint processing should be to ensure greater consistency and higher quality in decision-making (as Lubbers pointed out earlier in the week, the quality of asylum systems is still highly variable in different EU states). This in turn could lead to a faster and more efficient system for returning properly rejected cases to their home countries. In the meantime, practical cooperation among EU states and between them and UNHCR could help to improve asylum decision-making throughout Europe.
The overwhelming majority of the world's refugees are not in Europe, but in developing countries, especially in Africa and Asia. UNHCR therefore welcomed the emphasis in the Hague Programme on the external dimension of European asylum policy. The EU could contribute a great deal towards building a more accessible, equitable and effective system of refugee protection worldwide, which is the aim of UNHCR's Convention Plus initiative. This could dovetail neatly with the "Regional Protection Plans" contained in the Hague Programme.
"These plans should be directed at a genuine improvement in the protection and welfare of refugees in other parts of the world," said Lubbers. "They must also be coupled with European readiness to share responsibilities with the developing countries where most of the world's refugees are sheltered. If their purpose is simply to shift the burden, then not only will they be doomed to failure, they will also seriously undermine the global refugee system, to the detriment of everyone including the EU itself."