UNHCR signs cooperation agreements with European Commission
BRUSSELS, Feb 15 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency and the European Commission today signed two agreements which will strengthen their cooperation on the development of European asylum laws, and on policy and assistance for refugees both within the European Union and beyond its borders.
During a visit to Brussels, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement with the External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner. This agreement is intended to consolidate, develop and better structure existing cooperation between UNHCR and the European Commission (EC) on protection and assistance for refugees and other people of concern to UNHCR outside the borders of the European Union.
Lubbers also signed another agreement, in the form of an exchange of letters, with EC Vice-President Franco Frattini, who is Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security - formerly known as Justice and Home Affairs. This agreement will facilitate greater cooperation on asylum and refugee protection issues, and builds on a previous arrangement geared to the first phase of EU harmonization of asylum which was completed in May last year.
The refined form of cooperation, outlined in the exchange of letters, takes into account the new orientation of European refugee policy laid out in the 2004 Hague Programme - the EU's action plan on asylum issues over the next five years.
UNHCR's key role in the development of EU policy and legislation on refugee matters is firmly established in European Community law. The Amsterdam Treaty (Declaration 17) requires consultation with UNHCR on matters related to asylum policy, and obliges the Member States to adopt laws on asylum which are in accordance with the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees. The new EU Constitutional Treaty (signed in November 2004 but awaiting ratification by all EU states before it enters into force) also guarantees the right to asylum, through the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU.
The two agreements signed today will supplement these legal obligations with practical cooperative arrangements to facilitate and intensify UNHCR's work with the European Commission on policy as well as practice, including in the delivery of aid for refugees.
The Strategic Partnership Agreement commits UNHCR and the European Commission to maintain their dialogue on policy, and continue to exchange information and strategic assessments. In addition both institutions will continue to promote respect for international refugee law, and work to identify durable solutions for refugees in "third countries" (i.e. countries that are neither members of the EU nor the home country of asylum seekers or refugees).
In addition to the technicalities of future cooperation between UNHCR and the EC, a number of "overarching themes" are laid down in the Strategic Partnership Agreement. These include ensuring promotion and implementation of the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, as well as support for policy making and capacity-building for the development of asylum systems in third countries.
The two institutions also agree to cooperate closely on the "assessment of new crisis situations and developments regarding existing crises, including analysis on addressing root causes, needs for assistance, the means of promoting coordinated responses and the exchange of early information about strategic decisions and actions, including strategies for withdrawal from an assisted area ('exit strategies')."
UNHCR and the EC also pledge "to better prioritise and synchronise their action with a view to ensuring an effective transition from emergency assistance towards durable solutions" (including sustainable voluntary return of refugees and other people of concern to the UNHCR, as well as, when appropriate, resettlement and local integration). In this regard, the two institutions agreed to encourage close co-operation with other UN Agencies on various EC and UNHCR concepts - for example 'Linking of Relief, Rehabilitation and Development' and the "4Rs" (Repatriation, Reintegration, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction).
The Strategic Partnership Agreement was signed on the same day as the new exchange of letters between Mr Lubbers and Vice-President Frattini, which deal primarily, though not exclusively, with asylum issues within the European Union itself. These also call for further dialogue on policy issues related to refugee protection between UNHCR and the European Commission, as well as "regular and systematic exchanges of information and analysis on particular issues arising from Member States' national law and practice in relation to the Common European Asylum System and how that affects the situation of refugees, asylum seekers and other persons of concern to UNHCR."
Among other things, this will involve monitoring and analysis of national law and practice on asylum, encouraging greater practical cooperation between national asylum services, and work on developing regional protection programmes as proposed under the Hague Programme in the framework of the Strategic Partnership on refugee protection in third countries.
"These agreements will strengthen the strong working relations and collaborative efforts to address the many refugee challenges facing UNHCR and the EU, both within Europe's borders and beyond," said Judith Kumin, UNHCR's Representative in Brussels, who was closely involved in negotiating both agreements. "Cooperation and coordination between the EC and UNHCR can help both parties achieve more effective results. It is symbolic that, on the very day that they were signed, UNHCR and the European Commission are jointly chairing an important session of strategic consultations on Afghanistan, highlighting the scope and will for further collaboration."