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EU should share asylum responsibilities, not shift them

EU should share asylum responsibilities, not shift them

5 November 2004

By Ruud Lubbers

5 November 2004

Asylum is again high on the European agenda. Although the number of asylum seekers arriving in Europe is at its lowest in years, the issue remains explosive, erupting periodically at key EU meetings like today's European Council summit in Brussels.

At this meeting, EU presidents and prime ministers will set Europe's asylum and migration agenda for the coming years. As UN High Commissioner for Refugees, I would like to offer them food for thought as they prepare for this important meeting.

First, we need to step back from the notion that Europe is being flooded with asylum seekers. In 1992, around 680,000 people claimed asylum in the 25 states that now make up the EU. Last year, the number was under 350,000. This is manageable, but still the crisis rhetoric continues - often fuelled by thinly disguised xenophobia and political opportunism. Today's lower numbers should be used as a golden opportunity to increase the speed and efficiency of asylum procedures. Quick decisions allow refugees to get the protection they desperately need. They also make it easier to send back home people without valid protection claims.

Concern over illegal immigration, the poor integration of some immigrant communities, and the fall-out from September 11 are valid issues. But they should not be allowed to undermine Europe's commitment to human rights and refugee protection. I understand the desire for a quick fix to a vexing problem. If there is one thing I have learned during my time with UNHCR, it is that there is no quick fix to such complex global issues.

The EU can provide many of the answers to the migration and asylum problems affecting member states. But it cannot do so as long as individual member states put short-term domestic political interests ahead of the long-term common good.

The EU approach to asylum rests on a key premise: that all EU states have similar asylum systems of equally high quality. The harmonization process, now entering its second five-year phase, is designed to bring the national systems closer together. But there is one glaring omission: there is no system of burden-sharing. Instead, we see a tendency to shift the burden - to other EU states or even to countries outside the EU that are ill-equipped to handle asylum claims.

Then there is the issue of who actually gets recognized as a refugee. The premise is that an applicant will have the same chance of finding protection as a refugee in all EU countries. But this is not the case. In the Slovak Republic, for example, many of the asylum seekers are Chechens - a group that, for good reason, has a recognition rate of well over 50 percent in several EU countries - yet by 30 September only two people had been granted asylum in the Slovak Republic out of 1,081 cases examined this year. In Greece, even when Saddam Hussein was still in power, less than 1 percent of Iraqi applicants were given refugee status, and the overall recognition rate fell last year to 0.6 per cent. It is not surprising that many asylum seekers move to countries where they think they have a better chance of having their claims recognized.

Another problem is the efficiency of asylum procedures. It would be a sound economic investment to front-load national asylum systems, so that a proper decision is reached in the first instance, instead of at the second or third appeal, as is so often the case at present. The remedy must be to make the system more efficient, not just to try and nullify the right to appeal (which has been the tendency at both national and EU levels). I was glad to see that the Austrian Constitutional Court recently restored some balance in this regard.

Everyone pays lip-service to the notion that "genuine refugees need and deserve protection" - this is the raison d'être of the international asylum system. The reality, I'm afraid, is that Europe's asylum systems do not always afford refugees the protection they need or even the chance to state their claim - and I'm not just thinking of recent events involving Italy.

There is also much debate about the need for refugees and immigrants to be better integrated in their new European homes. I fully agree. Yet last year's harmonized EU legislation deprives a significant proportion of refugees - mainly those fleeing war or generalized violence - of real integration chances, by allowing governments to deny them the right to work.

If European governments can work to iron out some of these difficulties and to harmonize not only their laws but also their practice, they will truly have started to manage rather than simply react to the asylum challenge. This is also in the interests of refugees.

I am encouraged that some ministers have also started stressing that Europe needs to do more in the regions from which refugees come - and where the great majority of the world's refugees remain. The millions of refugees in developing countries deserve much more political and financial investment to help them return home once that is possible, and in the meantime to ensure they have a safe and decent existence.

If the EU is serious about stemming irregular migration, it needs to look at providing opportunities for refugees and migrants to come to Europe legally. The proposal currently on the table to establish an EU resettlement scheme for refugees would be an important step in the right direction. We also need a system to manage economic migration sensibly. By legitimizing those we want - instead of secretly profiting from their illicit labour in our orchards, hotels and hospital wards - we can take back control from people-smugglers and traffickers.

A policy built on exclusion is not only morally reprehensible, it is also impractical: it will simply push all forms of migration, including refugees, further underground. As European leaders prepare to set the EU's asylum and migration agenda for the next five years, I urge them to acknowledge these realities and concentrate on creating a good system that is fair and efficient, not simply one that is fast. A reliable system that identifies and then protects refugees is what Europeans want and refugees deserve.

Ruud Lubbers is U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and former Prime Minister of the Netherlands.