UNHCR News Story: Head of DIPS calls for improvements to EU asylum system
The Spanish coastguards intercept a traditional fishing boat laden with migrants off the island of Tenerife in the Canaries.
UNHCR / A. Rodríguez
Head of DIPS calls for improvements to EU asylum system.
STOCKHOLM, Sweden, 5 November – UNHCR’s Director of International Protection has called for improving the European Union’s asylum system by strengthening EU-wide structures, ensuring better protection is available at entry points and helping at the source to solve the problems generating refugees.
Volker Türk, attending a conference organised by the Swedish Red Cross and UNHCR’s Stockholm office on Tuesday, praised EU developments in international asylum law. For instance he noted significant progress in recognizing the existence of non-state agents of persecution, gender-based persecution and codifying temporary protection.
However, he also said it was important to address continuing gaps in EU protection for refugees as the Stockholm Programme, which will determine EU policy from 2010 through 2014, is due to be adopted this December.
Although the EU continues to draw those fleeing persecution, with 119,100 asylum claims in the first half of this year, the decline in numbers has been dramatic. While some 700,000 people sought asylum in the then-15 EU countries in 1992, last year there were only 240,000 asylum applicants in the now 27 countries of the EU.
“Despite this decrease, heated public and at times populist debate continues about asylum, misuse of asylum procedures and so-called ‘illegal’ migrants,” Volker said. “Against this background, what has been achieved, what are the gaps and what more needs to be done?”
The head of UNHCR’s Division of International Protection Services, in his first speech in his new role, proposed to those attending the conference on The Common European Asylum System: Future Challenges and Opportunities three areas for improving the EU’s refugee policy.
“First, the future lies in advancing supranational structures and instruments that guarantee the equitable sharing of burdens and responsibilities within the EU,” said Türk. “In fact, for an EU-wide asylum system to be really effective, it would require giving up some aspects of their sovereign powers.”
Türk noted wide discrepancies between EU states in the outcome of asylum claims now recognized: the percentage of claims recognized from people fleeing specific countries varies from less than one percent to more than 50 percent.
“Second, the future lies in ensuring protection-sensitive entry and border procedures,” he said. He noted the recent controversy over Italy returning people intercepted in the Mediterranean to Libya and concern at the practices seen at the borders of Greece, eastern EU countries and in international airports of various EU states.
“Of course states have a legitimate interest in controlling irregular migration. Yet how do we ensure that adequate safeguards are properly included in whatever measures states take or envisage in the broad area of freedom of movement?” Turk asked.
The director of DIPS, while conceded there is no easy solution, said making it virtually impossible for refugees and asylum-seekers to reach asylum countries stigmatized them as people trying to circumvent the law – and forced them into the hands of smugglers.
“Third, the future lies in improving protection and realizing solutions in regions of origin,” said Türk. “The importance of sharing responsibility with states outside the EU -- who often have significantly less capacity and greater refugee numbers than those in the EU -- needs to be stressed again and again.”
Türk said refugees often move on because their basic needs or a chance to become self-reliant are not met in their host countries. He noted that UNHCR has for the first time prepared a budget based on a comprehensive assessment of the needs of refugees and others of concern to the organization, which – if funded -- could help mitigate some of the reasons behind secondary movement. .
The director of DIPS said the EU has been at the forefront of developing refugee law and the imminent changes provide an opportunity to close existing gaps and explore new ideas. “The next phase of building a Common European Asylum System provides the exciting prospect of advancing the global refugee protection regime, while benefiting from its fundamental orientations and deep human values.”