THE EUROPEAN COUNCIL ON REFUGEES AND EXILES
THE PRESIDENCY CONCLUSIONS
OF THE EUROPEAN COUNCIL MEETING IN LAEKEN, 14 AND 15 DECEMBER 2001
1. The European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), representing 72 refugee assisting NGOs active in 28 European Countries welcomes the description in the Laeken Declaration on the Future of the European Union of Europe as "the continent of humane values…liberty, solidarity and above all diversity". It is also encouraged by the positive commitment of the Declaration with regard to the role of Europe as "a power resolutely doing battle against all violence, all terror and all fanaticism, but which also does not turn a blind eye to the world's heartrending injustices". ECRE believes that this commitment, together with the call by Europe's citizens for "greater and better coordinated action to deal with trouble spots in and around Europe and in the rest of the world" and for "greater EU role in…the reception of asylum seekers and refugees", are crucial for addressing the root causes of refugee movements around the world and creating a protection-oriented, welcoming environment for refugees in Europe.
2. ECRE further welcomes the reaffirmation in the Presidency Conclusions of the European Council's commitment "to the policy guidelines and objectives defined at Tampere". It is important to recall that in relation to asylum, these included "an absolute respect of the right to seek asylum" and the development of a Common European Asylum System that will be based on "a full and inclusive application of the Geneva Convention, thus ensuring that nobody is sent back to persecution".
3. ECRE however regrets that the specific recommendations included in the section on A true common asylum and immigration policy are not in the spirit of the Laeken Declaration and that of the Tampere Conclusions. It is further disappointed that the emphasis placed on measures to ensure more effective control of external borders and fight illegal immigration is not counter-balanced by a firm commitment to guaranteeing access to and provision of international protection to those in need. Regrettably, this exemplifies a trend witnessed in the asylum work of the European Union during the last two years whereby deterrence rather than protection seems to be the key priority of the majority of Member States.
4. The comments below take the order in which they are written in the Conclusions.
IV: Strengthening the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice
5. Para 37: ECRE shares the view put forward by the Conclusions that "there is a need for new impetus and guidelines to make up for delays in some areas". It would like to stress however, that in the search for agreement Member States must refrain from adopting minimal rather than minimum standards of refugee protection. It would further warn against speedy decision-making in Justice and Home Affairs sessions if it risks limiting the role of national parliaments in scrutinising their governments' positions taken in their name in the Council, and hindering the involvement of civil society in the negotiations of different directives. As stated in the Tampere Conclusions, "the area of freedom, security and justice should be based on the principles of transparency and democratic control". Member States must adhere to this commitment.
A true common asylum and immigration policy
6. Para 39: ECRE is particularly concerned by the reference made in this paragraph to a common policy on asylum and immigration that "maintain(s) the necessary balance between protection of refugees…the legitimate aspiration to a better life and the reception capacities of the Union and its Member States". Here, it would firstly like to reiterate that the reason refugees seek access to EU Member States is because they are in need of protection due to a well-founded fear of persecution. It is this need for international protection that forces refugees to leave their country of origin and clearly distinguishes them from other entrants to the European Union.
7. The Refugee Convention unequivocally provides for the protection of persons falling within its scope. While recognising that the grant of asylum may "place unduly heavy burdens on certain countries", the Convention calls for international cooperation to achieve a satisfactory solution to the problem of refugees. ECRE does not consider that the grant of asylum places "unduly heavy burdens" on EU Member States that seriously compromise their capacity to respond to refugee needs. On the contrary, it believes that in the case of the European Union, it is the political will rather than the actual resources of Member States that determine their capacity to receive refugees.
8. ECRE is of the opinion that the Directive on Temporary Protection and the establishment of a permanent European Refugee Fund that entered into force in 2001, represent important steps in Member States' cooperation towards establishing a system for sharing the responsibility of refugee protection across the Union. It believes that Member States must also take steps towards strengthening global responsibility-sharing and cooperation on refugee protection. Future measures on co-operation with third countries should aim at addressing the root causes of involuntary migration through promoting protection of human rights, poverty reduction and the development of democratic institutions.
9. Para 40 ECRE regrets the absence of any reference in this paragraph to integrating refugee protection, human rights and development concerns into the European Union's policy on migratory flows. Instead, the emphasis is on control measures in the form of readmission agreements and illegal migration. In line with the Commission Communication on Illegal Immigration that states that "the fight against illegal immigration has to be conducted sensitively and in a balanced way", ECRE stresses the importance of ensuring that control measures carefully balance Member States' legitimate interests in controlling their borders and their international obligations under the Refugee Convention. This should be clearly reflected in the proposed action plan on illegal immigration which must also include measures for facilitating rapid, legal access to protection for persons in need of international protection.
10. ECRE has often reiterated the importance of establishing common standards on procedures for asylum, reception and family reunification as a way of putting an end to the "protection lottery" currently in place in the European Union. It however would like to stress that in addition to "tak(ing) account of the need to offer help to asylum applicants", these standards should fully reflect and be in compliance with international refugee and human rights standards.
11. Para 41 ECRE welcomes the request to the Council "to expedite its proceedings on other drafts concerning (among others) the definition of the term refugee and other forms of subsidiary protection". It considers that a common understanding of who qualifies for international protection and an EU-wide complementary protection scheme represent the foundation of a common asylum system. Within this context, it regrets that the adoption of a common definition has not been prioritised to precede agreement on common standards for asylum procedures and reception conditions.
European Council on Refugees and Exiles